Two hours on location: anatomy of a family photo shoot

Two hours on location: anatomy of a family photo shoot

In Okinawa, I just don’t know why anyone would want to shoot in a studio, given how awesome the scenery is.  There are some great indoor locations, mind you, but there’s nothing like putting a gorgeous family between my lens and a beautiful sunset, especially when we’re one one of the island’s picturesque beaches. 

I love shooting scenery and when I shoot human subjects, I tend to think like a landscape photographer. I want the background to be so beautiful that the finished image can stand on its own as a photograph even if there were no people in it. That isn’t always possible in literal terms, but it’s a rule of thumb I think has served me well. 

As an example, I point to the image at the top if this page. Try to imagine this photo without the people in it. Does it work as a photo of a stone path and a gazebo? I think so. It may not win an award for gazebo photography, but it’s not too hard to imagine it on a post card or in a travel brochure. 

The one difference between an image that would make a perfect landscape photo and a great family portrait is the exposure. Note that in the photo above, the background is a bit underexposed. Not much, maybe half a stop or even a third, but enough to be considered “too dark” if there were no people in the foreground.  But with the family in the foreground, properly exposed thanks to a single strobe, undiffused, to camera right. 

Not using diffusion made for some fairly hard shadows, but I felt this made for a nice contrast with the softer light from the sun, coming from behind the family through the clouds. The thing to remember when shooting a subject under undiffused light is that you have to watch the angle and length of the nose shadows. I tend to get the subjects to face their noses between the camera and the flash, but train their eyes on the lens. This makes for a nice “Rembrandt” shadow beneath the nose. I don’t beat myself up if this doesn’t come out perfectly, though, because when you’re dealing with four adults and a baby, the chances that one of them will take a less than perfect pose are quite high. 

There is a lot to love about this photo, besides the family which gave me great poses and gleaming smiles (especially the baby, who was a super star). The colors are soft yet rich, the sky is dramatic without being threatening and the ocean is a gentle, placid blue. The prevalence of saturated primary colors helps a bit too. 

Like the photo at the top, this photo was taken on a 24-70mm lens at f/11, 1/160 sec exposure at ISO 100. The flash was a single Yonguo speedlight. 

When possible, I like to shoot with subtle angles in the frame. While the presence of the water lapping at the feet of the subjects doesn’t make or break this shot, it adds an element of texture and color. In processing, I altered the color temperature of the beach using a brush tool in Lightroom, then slightly boosted the saturation. This brought out the natural colors in what the camera tends to reproduce as gray in a raw file. 

The one “trick” I did have to perform in this shot was to remove all the people from the beach. There weren’t too many other people in this shot, but the few who showed up spoiled the serenity of the water. It wasn’t hard to remove them. Content-aware fill works wonders, and when it won’t give me what I want, I use a clone stamp tool. As long as there is enough clean background, it isn’t too hard to take a graft from one place to the other. You just have to make sure that this doesn’t create an obvious repeating pattern. 

As far as shooting this image went, the key factor, besides overall framing, was to position the flash to make the mother look her best. That means attempting to produce another Rembrant shadow under her nose, or, if you can, even a little butterfly. Since I only had one flash and there were two women in the shot, I chose to give the mother the butterfly and the grandmother (who does not look old enough to be a grandmother), a Rembrandt. The flash was positioned to camera left just inside the frame in order to get it closer to the subjects. I used a small diffuser out of necessity. Having no assistant, I couldn’t afford to use a large octobox or something like that because it almost certainly would have been caught by the wind and sent my flash swimming in the ocean.  All the “pros” on YouTube seem to have several assistants running around moving stands and holding diffusers in the wind, but in the real world, in which photographer’s fees rarely allow for such luxuries, I was on my own.

Last but not least, it was time for the closeup. I shot closeups with each family member holding the baby and they all turned out great, but this one in particular is my favorite. I’m not sure if it’s the little guy’s gleaming smile, the proud father’s excitement or the amazing clouds in the background, but this photo is a real prizewinner in my books. 

This was shot with flash on camera left, zoomed in to 35mm, f/8. I wanted to make sure I got the baby in the best possible light, since he is truly who this photo shoot was all about. The trick was getting him to look in the right direction and to accomplished that, the family stood directly behind me. This let me get both baby and dad in the light, with the baby subtly broad lit. If I were to criticise  this shot, I would say that the flash should have been higher in order to get the baby’s nose shadow in the “right” place. But that’s kind of nitpicking. When there’s a baby in the shot, if he’s not outright crying you’re winning. 

Other than the basics called for by any raw image, the only processing this image needed (besides erasing a person in the background) was a bit of glare control on the father’s face. The baby just needed a bit of lightening on the shadow side of his face, since the flash didn’t quite make it all the way around.

I love shooting photos of families and I love writing about all my adventures and creative decisions on location. It’s all to easy for me to get an ego over the amazing images I produce, but when I do I have to remind myself how small my contribution really was. Canon made the camera and lenses, Yonguo made the flash and Neewer made the stands and diffusion. The parents made the baby and nature made the ocean and the sunset. All I did was press the shutter button. Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but humility is a virtue, isn’t it? 

Paul Sean Grieve

I am a professional designer, photographer and author living and working in Okinawa, Japan.

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