On Assignment: Two-Speedlight Group Shot

I am spending this beautiful spring day flat on my butt, stapled to the bed and trying to kick a bug that I very much hope will not keep me from shooting the Preakness race in two days. So today's OA will be a simple one, to spare the three brain cells I apparently have left at this point.

Any time I talk about group shots, I get a lot of feedback from you folks. Which tells me that many of you have to shoot these things. I'm sorry to hear that. Unless of course you are getting paid by the person, in which case I am jealous.

The group shot above was hastily pulled together as a request from Sunday's seminar students in London. The idea was to do it with a little edge, and to make use of two speedlights and our environment. (It was a typical ~20x35 classroom with a 10-foot ceiling.)

Before getting in the specifics of this shot, let's talk about some of the ways we could have done it.

First things first, we kill the fluorescents. Always, if possible. They are not helping us, so why leave them on? We could correct for them, but that would cost 2/3 of a stop of light from our flashes due to the light loss from the correcting gels.

Option number one, and the most likely should you need to extract maximum power from your flashes, would be to simply fire them directly from forty-five-degree angles in the front. This is what I would do if the shot was outside during the day, for instance, and I just needed to fill shadows from the sun.

I would also use this method if the group was very large, and I had to cover a big area.

(Tip: Ask your people to position themselves so they can each see both ot the lights, and the photographer. That way, they are all lit by both sources, and can be seen.)

I would back the lights up, to smoothly light the whole area. Then by adjusting the beam of the flashes (aiming them up a little) I could place the nearer people on the edge of the light beam and get an even exposure from front to back.

Another option might be to do the same, dual-45-angle thing and bounce the strobes off of the ceiling. This would create a two-soft-light zone that would probably be the most flattering method.

But in this case I wanted to create a little separation between the group and the dark grey background, (which was a room divider.) So I wanted to light all 34 people with one light and use light #2 to add some punch.

The front light was easy to do. I stuck a flash on a stand just out of the frame at camera right, set it to half-power and fired it into the ceiling. Why half power? Good mix of power and recycle time. If I need more aperture, I could go to full power. But I would rather have that quick, second-shot capability if I can get it.

Here is the result (note that I am doing this before all of the people into position to save time.)

Not too bad, actually. And if I only had one flash, I could live with this. In any case, I know my front light will do the job. It's giving me f/3.5 at 400 ASA, which should hold focus reasonably well if I focus on the person in the center of the second row. (That'd be the orange sweatshirt guy in the final photo, which includes the front row people.)

That done, let's go for a little separation.

My first thought was to stick a flash outside of the room in the hall and fire it through the door at back left.

This works fine, really, and creates separation between the back-left folks and the background. I had a CTO (tungsten) gel on it to create some color separation, too. A perfectly good option, actually. But I'd still like a bit more punch.

So I brought the flash inside and stuck it directly behind Ant Upton, who is the center person in the back. You should know the light is behind him, because the separation light wraps all the way around his head. If not, back to Lighting 101 with you.

I now have separation out the wazoo. But with the flash set on ultrawide (to backlight the group from close range) I am getting a lot of spill. This is bouncing off of the ceiling and screwing up the color balance more than I want.

Easy fix: Stick a gobo on top of the flash to keep the light from reaching the ceiling. Problem solved. I still have some excessive warmth to the color balance. But I am okay with that for a group shot with a little edge.

As you can see by this no-flash version, we had a little window light creeping in. It helps some, but I was actually trying to do this with flash (on principle) so I did the shot at my max sync speed of 1/250th.

So, as you can see, the flashes are doing all of the heavy lifting. If I were balancing the light, I would simply put the front flash in the left side and open up my shutter speed to exploit the window light. But not this time. Actually, I could probably do a rather nice one-light shot this way.

Looking at the final again, I think we have something with a little edge and three-dimensionality for a shot set up with two small lights in just a few minutes' time.

If you happen to be in this picture, and haven't done so yet, I hope you will go to the photo's Flickr page to box and label your head. (If you are relying on my memory to remember your name, you are screwed.)

Besides, I had an absolutely wonderful time and London, I and would like to be able to better remember all of the great people I met there.

Ditto for the Saturday folks, who's ad-hoc group shot is here. Mind you, this was grabbed from an exercise in which we were trying to create a zone of decent light for most off the room with just two small flashes. So this one really is not a very good group shot.

And another request to the Sunday attendees: If you happened to shoot the setup of the clamshell light with blow-away white background, I'd love it if you could upload it to Flickr and post the link in the post London thread. I'd like to do an OA on that shot, and a setup pic would be most helpful.

But as for now, it's time to go back to sleep and get well.

Next: Steve at Google


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't read the whole post yet (I have work to finish before I can enjoy myself) but wanted to wish David a speedy recovery so he can go shoot the horses. (Wait... that didn't come out right... that's not what it means... No, officer really, David has a camera...)

Well, gotta go!

Kick that bug, and get well soon, David!

May 17, 2007 2:49 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Ferguson said...

Thanks for the breakdown of this shot! I've been examining it in your Flickr account for a few days now.

Hope you get better in time for the Preakness! I totally understand the excitement for that event. Well, the stress of working towards it at least. My dayjob is at an online sportsbook and all three of the triple crown races are Big Days for all of us.

May 17, 2007 3:52 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Very simple and very effective, I like it a lot.

When's the next seminar David and how can I get my name down?

May 17, 2007 5:50 PM  
Anonymous Peter S said...

Hi David,

Love your blog but this group shot was a bit disappointing to me. It's a bit flat and boring and the separation is uneven, not at all like the stuff you usually post.

Actually, the other group looks a lot better even if the right side is hot because you have a lot more threedimensionality (is that a word?) going on there.

I don't know if the result would have been better but I would have tried bouncing the flashes off the ceiling or maybe the wall to get some directional lighting. With all the light bouncing around that would probably been enough to fill the shadows. Just an idea.

May 17, 2007 6:55 PM  
Blogger David said...


Sorry you were disappointed. As I said, this is one of several ways I could have gone about it.

And yes, two lights bouncing off of the ceiling would have been more even, but that was not the effect we were going for.

If I were going for "even" I probably would have bounced one flash off of the left wall, bounced a second off of the front/right ceiling and used the shutter speed to build some window light on the right.

That would have certainly been safer, but we were not going for safe.

Again, the four or five lighting methods mentioned are all reasonably subjective choices available to the photographer, depending on the nature of the photo - and the group.

On a personal note, I have spent many, many years in the past going for "safe," and my tendancy these days is to avoid it. Sometimes I fail, but I am overall much happier and produce more interesting photos.

May 17, 2007 7:17 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...

Nice post. I've always struggled to light group shots. During a recient wedding I turned a Better-Bounce-Card backwards and shot, my on camera flash (I know, I know, get it off the camera), straight into the ceiling. So there was soft fill light coming through the card and most of the light was coming from the ceiling.
Any chance you'd want an assistant for the Race? I'd love to spend a day with you and help set up if necessary. I know it's kind of a long shot but I would love to give you a hand and learn something (hopefully) if you have any interest.

May 17, 2007 7:39 PM  
Blogger David said...


I'd love that, actually. I could just lie in the dirt in the fetal position and tell you everything to do. Then I would be free to enjoy my fever and coughing!

Unfortunately, all of the Preakness credentials are long-since allocated, so the race's organizers might have a problem with you doing all of my work in my stead.

And then there is the problem of your age. I do not know if you are over 18. And on the off-off chance you might see a topless female racegoer (or 20) I would hate to be the source of your corruption.

May 17, 2007 7:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,
I would just like to applaud you for all your work on this site! I enjoy reading it regularly for the learning experience as well as your sense of humor. I took a portrait photography class a few years ago but didn't enjoy the idea of lugging around large light systems. Your site has helped me realize most shots can be done with strobes and lots of imagination!

May 18, 2007 5:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi David,
I would like to take this time to thank you for widening my knowledge of flash photography and
giving me new challenges in my photographic education. I have learned alot in reading your articles and by trying your techniques. I liked the outcome of the group shot given the parameters
of the shot. The one thing that I noticed is a focus problem on camera right all the people from front to back are out of focus yet thoughs on camera left are in focus. Could you comment on probable cause for this ,be it camera,lens or shooter related. Thank you for your dedication to this site!
Regards Tony

June 18, 2007 1:03 PM  
Blogger Serial said...

i would advice you to leave a link to lighting 102 since i was a little lost as this is the last of the "on assignment" series

thank you A LOT

August 21, 2007 10:19 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Hi David,

I have enjoyed reading through your lighting 101 & 102 series' as I have gained interest in flash photography. I've just bought two SB-28's as I saw them at a great price on ebay, coupled them up with two 2-in-1 umbrellas, stands and gel's and I'm ready to release my off camera flashing on the world!

While I wanted to have a play in the privacy of my own home and make mistakes as I go, I have just been asked by a University society to photograph one of their social balls. This will involve some group shots of maybe 10-12 people indoors. It's in a month.

Reading this post gave me some great ideas about how I could use my flashes to give separation (I don't have a backdrop, so will be looking for something interesting in the room). I'm taking an assistant with me, but more to direct the people than do any photography. To get a nice even light over 12 people, potentially two rows of 6, would you advise going with umbrellas, maybe a ratio of 1:2 to give some depth, or should I keep them even?

Also, I am making the assumption my SB-28's will be powerful enough for such an assignment? I appreciate any comments you have on setup.

Thanks in advance,


January 29, 2010 5:44 AM  
Blogger Corky said...

I would like to know if you used any light modifiers on your speedlites for this shoot.

December 09, 2011 8:54 PM  
Blogger David Hobby said...

Front light was bare, bounced off of the ceiling. Backlight was gobo'd on top to kill the light hitting the ceiling in the frame in back.

December 09, 2011 11:47 PM  

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