Christmas Game Plan: Results

Just for kicks, I took a few moments to set up a couple of SB-800's according to the Christmas game plan I outlined on Sunday. This is a technique I use a lot for family events (birthdays, Christmas, etc.) when I know where things are going to happen and I just want to light a room.

This is a good, low-pressure, no-risk way to experiment and practice. So the next time you have to light a room for fluid situations and every photo counts, you'll be ready. Or at least slightly less petrified.

Hit the jump for the easy-peasy lighting setup and some results from different areas of the room.

Okay, so here is the living room layout and lighting setup. I have annotated it with a grid for easy reference. For instance, the two PW'd SB-800 speedlights (on light stands) are at E-2 and A-10, respectively. They are set to 1/8 power + 1/3 stop, and pointed toward the ceiling with a 24mm beam spread.

(Click here to pull up a 1000-pixel jpeg of the lighting diagram for easy reference during the rest of the post.)

This diagonal, soft cross-light is an easy, go-to technique for evenly lighting a room with a couple of small strobes. This is a great way to shoot meeting shots, group shots, candids -- whatever.

It is not as sophisticated as David Tejada's corporate group shot lighting scheme, but it is way cheaper. Also quicker and easier to set up, too.

We have talked about similar ceiling bounce techniques before, notably as a quick way to show people how to strobe a large room in the Saturday session of the London seminar and as an On Assignment for a 33-person group shot in the Sunday London session.

Using the grid on the diagram as a reference point for both camera and subject, let's walk through a few shots in different parts of the room and see how it looks.

Pictured at the top of this post is my daughter Emily, opening a present near the middle of the room. The camera position is at A-4 and Em is at D-6. As you can see, the strobe at right is the main light, and the left/back strobe becomes a rim/fill light. They both combine to light the rest of the room.

The cool thing about this setup is that I can shoot from just about anywhere in the room. The only thing I have to do is to keep my strobes out of the frame.

In the photo at left, Ben and Em are entering the room after being help upstairs until the ridiculously late present-opening start time of 7:30 a.m. They are at about A-3 and B-4, respectively, and the camera is at A-8.

The flash at E-2 is now the main light, with the flash at A-10 becoming fill. We are also getting fill from the continuous light, a CFL, located high at about A-4. Shooting at a 1/50th of a sec at f/3.5 at ASA 400 picks up this warmish fill a little.

Again, as in the earlier photo, the light is not calling attention to itself, but rather is just making everything crisp and well defined. It's not dramatic, it is simply designed to work nearly everywhere in the room.

Next is Ben, 7, a certified Lego-a-holic, with his new Lego motorized, R/C bulldozer. The thing has over a thousand parts, and he is almost done with assembling it for the first of many times.

Ben took the high-risk route of penning a one-item Santa wish list this year. I do not know if I would have had the guts to do that, but Ben was resolute. That's the 7-year-old equivalent of putting a thousand bucks on 36-red at the Roulette table. It paid off. And, I have to say, that thing is awesome.

Ben is at D-8, and the camera is at B-5. But he is turned away from the closer A-10 flash, so it becomes a bright rim light while the E-2 flash becomes the flash that lights his face. It is hard to hide from this lighting scheme.

Last but not least is Ginger, our affectionate-but-dimwitted cat, stoned out of her gourd on catnip (in red package at left) late on Christmas Eve. She looked the way Susan and I felt. Mind you, our condition was fatigue-induced and not at all drug-aided. Unless you count Christmas cookies.

Cheech Ginger is on the ground (or well above it, depending on what we are talking about) at about E-8, and I am about a foot away at D-8 wishing like heck that catnip worked for me, too. (Hey, that stuff is cheap and grows like a weed really fast.)

Again, the lights just work. Nothing flashy or attention getting. Just even, crisp lighting that does the job.

One more important thing to note was that I invited the other adults to feel free to pick up and camera the camera and shoot whenever they wanted. Once the light was set up, it was pretty hard for them to miss. So, why not?

So, there you are. Make better Christmas/birthday pix while you bone up on light to juice up your next meeting/interview photos. It's a win/win and you makes some brownie points with the Significant Other at the same time.

Related posts:

:: 'Twas The Light Before Christmas ::
:: David Tejada: Lighting a Conference Room ::
:: On Assignment: London Group Shot ::
:: Strobist Flickr Threads: What did you get for Christmas? ::


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Anonymous Steve said...

I'm a total newb, but I've got some equipment and need a few more things to put it all together. I wanted a bracket for Christmas day but my local stores were closed on Xmas eve.

So my dad and I went in the garage and made a FREE ($0.00) bracket with three mounting angle options.
And I use the cheap eBay RF trigger.

I'd be thrilled if this makes your site.

December 26, 2007 3:27 PM  
Blogger ckrieg said...

haha, that was pretty funny. Good information too! That diagram helped alot! Thank you! :)

- Colin

December 26, 2007 3:36 PM  
Blogger Taylor said...

This is great! I did something very similar this Christmas. I put two 580ex flashes on light stands facing up in two corners of the living room and a 580exII on my camera facing up with the white card pulled out. They were the best photos I have ever taken at Christmas. I used the 580exII on my camera as the master, so the two slave flashes did all the metering for me automatically. The other nice thing about this setup is easy family portraits. I set up a back drop and at one pint I just pulled the two flashes over and set them up. One was pointed at my white living room door for a bounce, and the other one was pointed at a white deflector that my wife held. Once again, the Canon ETTL-II system worked great and was very fast to set up and then move back to the corners to continue shooting the evening. All in all a great way to do things!


December 26, 2007 4:54 PM  
Anonymous jasonwallis said...

So funny that you post this, a buddy asked if I had ever lit a wedding reception this way. I think it would work really well in that situation provided there isn't alot of cool light that the designer has placed. This really gives those shots a little something extra like if they were going to be printed in a catalog or some kind of publication. nicely done, and taught.

December 26, 2007 5:12 PM  
Anonymous theoleksandr said...

Do you have to adjust the aperture while you move around?

December 26, 2007 5:27 PM  
Blogger larrylacom said...

I, too, without having had the benefit of reading your post on how to set this up in advance, set up a very similar lighting scheme in my parents' living room for Christmas. That, dear sir, is a testimony to how well you've taught us strobists - more than one of us has learned to figure out how to light a room based on what we've learned from your site. You've taught us how to think these things through for ourselves.

My setup was a little different, though, because the ceiing in my parents' house is very high, and is not white. So in one corner I placed an SB800 pointed at the white wall for bounce, and in the opposite corner I placed another SB800 pointed directly towards the center of the room. During daylight hours I had the added benefit of very large picture windows bringing in the north light. After the sun went down and the incandescent lights came on, I gelled the strobes with CTO gel and changed the WB to tungsten. I kept the lights in the same positions all day.

I've only chimped my shots on my little screen, as I got home too late and was too tired to download my pictures, but what I saw on the little screen made me happy with the results. Thanks, DH, for what you do - and I hope you had a very Merry Christmas!!

December 26, 2007 5:43 PM  
Blogger larrylacom said...

I, too, without the benefit of having read your how-to post in advance, came up with a very similar lighting scheme for the Christmas mayhem. That is a testimony to your teaching. You've taught many of us how to figure these things out by ourselves, and now we're self-starters.

My situation was a little different, as my parents' ceiling is too high and too far off white to bounce off of, so I chose a high white wall to bounce one SB800 off of in one corner, and in the opposite corner placed a second SB800 pointed directly at the center of the room, with the head set on the widest zoom setting.

I haven't looked at the results on my computer yet, as I got home too late and was too tired, but what I saw while chimping the results looked very promising.

Thank you, DH, and I hope you had a very Merry Christmas!

December 26, 2007 5:51 PM  
Anonymous LeChuck said...

Did something similar (but half of it) for Thanksgiving just to shoot a few photos at the table. Just propped up an SB28 on top of the hutch near the dining table, pointed at the white ceiling, which was relatively low, and shot away using the Cactus remote stuff. Didn't give me magazine level shots but worked very well to have properly lit, non-blurred family photos.

December 26, 2007 6:12 PM  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

I second the comment about how well you've taught your minions....
I also set up my Christmas morning in a very similar fashion, using a tall floor standing lamp in one corner as a light stand. My SB-800 lived there pretty much all day, and I used the 600 on camera (don't smite me, I had to trigger it somehow) pointed straight up. Both flashes in manual at 1/4 power gave me a clean f/5.6 at ISO 400 anywhere in the room, and I could shoot as fast as I wanted given the quick recycle time.
A couple of the shots, including a setup shot (sort of) are in the pool under cycle61.
I wish I'd read your game plan in advance, but it certainly was a great affirmation that I've learned something in the last few months!

December 26, 2007 6:43 PM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

I used this almost exact same setup except the tree was more around E7 or E8. My 580s were at 1/8 but my results didn't turn out well. I kept getting the top half of the scene lit and the bottom half dark in most of my photos. I was too tired too figure out what was wrong since I was awake until 5am putting a train set together.

December 26, 2007 7:12 PM  
Anonymous Jeff Geerling said...

At my family's party this year, I didn't quite have the liberty to put lightstands and flashes where I pleased (we were in another family member's house, and space was tight).

I decided to bring one Vivitar 285 with an eBay trigger, and I just set it up on top of a 6-pack of soda cans so it was about 5 ft. off the ground on a counter, pointed at the middle of the ceiling, zoomed in to the medium setting. I flashed a couple of test pictures, and I kept my shutter speed low so I could get some of the warm ambient light in for fill (there were two lamps on the other side of the room).

The pictures turned out nicely, and with the low (1/30 sec.) shutter speed and rear-curtain flash sync, the kids' motion (one with a new wagon, the other with some sort of star wars Lego toys, and the others causing general chaos) was captured perfectly, with a little bit of a trail behind them.

Thanks for the suggestion; I just brought camera, flash, and triggers, and had a good time not worrying about the pictures; as long as I shot with the flash behind me, I had good, even lighting in most of the room; I just had to open the aperture a little the farther back I went.

December 26, 2007 7:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a coincident!
I actually pulled off a similar set up for Christmas shots with two SB-26's at 1/4 power as optical slaves on opposite sides of the room away from the camera.
I used my little G9 with a SB-28 mounted on it set to 1/4+ power to bounce of the ceiling and set other two strobes off.

Unfortunately one of the SB-26's had weak batteries and threw off the balance of lights, but it was way better than last years...!

Of course thanks to Strobist, I'll always get well lit pictures!

Thanks David!

December 26, 2007 8:11 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

What a great idea! I'm almost ashamed to say that I was totally non-strobist with my Christmas shots--just bounced off the ceiling with flash mounted on camera. Next year, though, I'll give this a shot.

December 26, 2007 9:16 PM  
Blogger Leonard said...

I did a similar setup with 3 speedlights. It was overkill for the size of the room, but it worked! ;-)

You can see shots here:

December 26, 2007 9:37 PM  
Blogger tangcla said...

Must get my cat some catnip. She's begging to be high as a kite. :)

Great write-up. I like the grid referencing so that everything can be traced back to the game plan!

December 26, 2007 9:57 PM  
Anonymous Ben said...

I also went with this set-up for the Christmas morning shots. Two Canon 430EX's 1/4 power, up on light stands in the corners. Everything was triggered with the Cactus remotes.

The one nice thing that we had going is that my father is a photographer as well. So we both set our triggers/remotes to the same channel and "shared" the strobes. At 1/4 power the recycle time was very fast, so we didn't run into any problems with both of us shooting at the exact same moment.

It was a nice way to have two different viewpoints all the time, but also to both have the benefits of the strobes.

December 26, 2007 10:26 PM  
Blogger Deer Old Dad said...

I like the set up. Besides keeping the strobes out of the picture, watch out, too, for TV screens reflecting the flash!

Happy new year!

December 27, 2007 12:32 AM  
Blogger Michael Carney said...

Alas, catnip, our Dweezel and Philbert were nuts all day with their Christmas presents. To the subject of my post, I wish I had read the update before Christmas, as I was forced to shoot on camera do to things happening all over the room. Great plan though, and I look forward to using it in the future.

December 27, 2007 12:44 AM  
Blogger J. Beckley said...

Ok you don't have to post this...I realized my shutter speed was too fast that's why the top half of the pictures were lit while the bottom half wasn't so I retook some photos today since everything was still setup somewhat. Thanks DH.

December 27, 2007 1:26 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I know I'm treading on sacred ground here, but I've got to be honest and say that I wasn't that happy with this technique. I set up per the instructions, and got shots similar to those posted in this thread, but to me they look flat and a bit odd - kind of like the weird light during an solar eclipse.

Now, I'm a complete amateur here, with limited strobe experience, but it would seem like a directional light of some kind - dare I say on-camera, or maybe close-to-camera? - would provide a better main light while the bounced strobes provide the fill. Unfortunately I didn't have enough equipment to try this (though it's now on order :) ) but it seems like it would fill in the details that the bounced top-lighting obscures.

Am I off-base or am I trying to turn a simple technique into a more difficult one? I've learned a lot from this site, and I really appreciate everyone's contributions.


December 27, 2007 1:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was just wondering how high up you put the lights towards the ceiling.. looks like you have very light coloured walls, which may have helped some of the side lighting.

I tried it, but I put the strobes quite high, and didn't get the nice effect like you got. My lighting was kind of top down, fair amount of shadows in the eyes.

December 27, 2007 1:54 AM  
Anonymous ncwalker1 said...

David, Sounds like you managed to have fun with the kids opening their presents and captured some wonderful moments without having to adjust the lighting set up and missing all the action. I will try it for sure as I was struggling to light our living room on Christmas morning with only one SB800 off camera flash. Just curious to note that you had 2 SB800's on Pocket Wizards with a further one on camera to trigger them. Presumably, if you had a third SB800 you could have used such in commander mode to get the same results (with help of Nikon's CLS in TTL as a belt and braces). The reason I ask is that my better half has bought me my second SB800 for Christmas and as I dont have any pocket wizards I'm weighing up the options of getting a third SB800 as opoosed to buying three Pocket Wizards. It's either another $330 for a third SB800 or $600 for three PW's which sounds like a no brainer - what would you recommend? Thanks for all your hard work in 2007 and wish you and yours a memorable 2008.

December 27, 2007 2:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is identical to the "DRUNKEN PARTY SET UP" I sometimes use. Putting a pair speedlights on a book case or other out-of-the-way place works fine and then I can wander around, camera in one hand beer in the other, and act like a fool with a P&S. I get a high percentage of "keepers" without blinding anybody or having to contend with subjects prone to blinking.

December 27, 2007 6:59 AM  
Blogger alan said...

Hi Dave,

You didn't mention how high the strobes were set or, perhaps more accurately, how far away from the ceiling. I've still got a bunch of political shoots to do up here in Cow Hampshire, and I'm going to try this the next time the opportunity presents itself. Happy New Year!


December 27, 2007 7:55 AM  
Blogger Bruce Elliott said...

Probably a really dense question but...... about how far from the ceiling are your strobes for best effect?

December 27, 2007 8:27 AM  
Anonymous Seshu said...

I am photographing a baby shower on Sunday and this is EXACTLY what I wanted to do! Terrific post David ... and thanks for the inspiration! I am learning oodles here and looking forward to those DVDs that you say are coming - when?? Cheers!

December 27, 2007 9:15 AM  
Blogger Leonard said...

To answer a question about height of flashes, my flashes were about 2-3 feet from the ceiling. You could adjust the beam of your flash to control the light source size though.

December 27, 2007 9:40 AM  
Anonymous Shaun Krisher said...

Man, legos take me way back. Great lighting diagram. As with everything you post, I try and squeeze it into my new assignments and what not.

Check out my blog, where I just posted a 3-part series on getting maximum bang for your buck shooting weddings. You don't need the most expensive stuff to get great shots, right?

December 27, 2007 9:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for one more excellent post. I just wondered: F3,5 but no bokeh... How come?

December 27, 2007 11:34 AM  
Blogger Derek said...

I hate to pile on, but I did a similar setup without reading your post, but only a single SB-24 lying on a shelf pointed at the ceiling. I even did some location scouting firing a few test frames the night prior to make sure exposure was right for where I, ahem, Santa would be leaving presents.

I have to also give you a big thanks. I would have never had the idea in the first place if it weren't for you. This is the second year I've done this and I've got great results both years.

Thank you so much for all the great information. I can't wait to buy your DVD.

BTW - I'm totally jealous of your son. That bulldozer looks awesome.

December 27, 2007 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Of course, now all of the gifts are a tax write-off. Thank you Santa.

December 27, 2007 3:47 PM  
Anonymous Stuart said...


Just put together a set of my family's Christmas get-together. Nothing special, just set up a 285HV in the corner of the room and moved around as need be. Take a look (a few added to the strobist pool too) if you'd like. Nothing too fancy, but certainly functional and better than on-camera disfigurement.

December 27, 2007 9:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unlike most everyone here, I'm the dummy in the crowd. It never crossed my mind to do this. *sigh*

Now I have to wait a whole year to try this ;)

December 27, 2007 10:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This'll die at the bottom of this huge comments list, but to promote the whole IR canon thing again.

If you do this with a G9+ST-E2 and say 2x430EX Speedlights, well, then you can go ahead and set the manual power of the flashes right from the screen on your camera, in 1/3 stop increments too. Shoot manual and have control over all 3 of your exposure variables right from your sofa!

Kind regards,

December 28, 2007 5:47 AM  
Blogger shutterthink said...

I actually just used this lighting technique this past Saturday. see photo here I had just looked at your images and thought "Wow. Those look so clear and amazing. How did he get those results." I then read your description and realized I had just lit the reception the exact same way. Praise God for Pocket Wizards.

Also, thanks for being such a strong presence in the photo community.

December 28, 2007 11:24 PM  
Anonymous scott said...

I just think it's a good thing that Ginger can't type. I can't help thinking she'd have some nasty words for you, defaming her character and all. (grin)

December 28, 2007 11:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This'll die at the bottom of this huge comments list, but to promote the whole IR canon thing again.

If you do this with a G9+ST-E2 and say 2x430EX Speedlights, well, then you can go ahead and set the manual power of the flashes right from the screen on your camera, in 1/3 stop increments too. Shoot manual and have control over all 3 of your exposure variables right from your sofa!

Kind regards,

Thanks for this I am on my way out today and I have one 580 EXII and my ST-E2 with my 40D. I will give this a shot. I never thought of controlling the speedlight like this from the camera.


December 29, 2007 2:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mean adjusting the f/stop at the camera by 1/3 increments, thereby adjusting the speedlights from your camera? I'm not understanding this.

December 31, 2007 10:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DW, I dug out my 580 manual and there it is on page 32. I didn't understand what it did until your posting! Thank you so so much!
Happy New Year

December 31, 2007 3:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DW Bell said

"G9+ST-E2 and say 2x430EX Speedlights, well, then you can go ahead and set the manual power of the flashes right from the screen on your camera, in 1/3 stop increments too"

For the life of me I can't figure out how to do this. I have the 40D which has the external flash controls built in. When I hook up the the ST-E2 I can't control any of the advanced wireless flash functions.

What am I missing?

December 31, 2007 4:57 PM  
Blogger Giles said...

Such a simple but effective approach, David - We should all remember to try this approach at Christmas.

And, depending on the size of the room, I expect CLS/Ebay triggers would work just as well for those who don't have PWs. However, the technique is not so seamless if you rely on sync cables I would imagine...!

April 04, 2008 3:37 PM  
Blogger John said...

I love this technique and the results you got. About how far were the flashes from the ceiling? It seems like that would be something to factor too.


November 26, 2008 6:38 PM  
Blogger Aaron Koolen said...

Nice post as usual David. I was wondering what one could do if they had only one strobe...Open the curtains I'm thinking?

December 20, 2008 2:52 PM  
Anonymous whoCareSz said...

thank you for sharing this idea with us. i've just tried it out with a setting i'll probably use on christmas. i've mounted a sb28 and a ef 500 super on light stands pointing at the ceiling and fired them by classy cactus v2 ebay triggers in our living room - and it worked perfectly for me!! i'm very happy and can't await christmas to shoot nice looking photos for the first time =) keep on blogging, i really love your work and your posts! greetings from germany and happy christmas =))

December 20, 2008 2:52 PM  
Blogger storbist_wanna_be said...

HI guys i got a sample of what david teaches us. sorry if this is a year later, i just started to do photography. I just used two flashes for this (sb 800 and sb 600)and i just bounce them off the ceiling. i just shoot wherever i want though its not dramatic but fair enough because i also have to enjoy the party. []
. hope this will help some of you. and if this got posted thanks david, i really owe you a lot!

December 20, 2008 4:39 PM  
Anonymous Eileen said...

Thanks so much for this David. I have two events coming up this week where I plan to take lots of pictures and will try out this set up. Very helpful.

December 21, 2008 6:50 PM  
Anonymous Gordon said...

Thanks for the great advice for room lighting. I just did a similar setup for a family shot in front of a Christmas tree using two Canon Speedlights and ST-E2 transmitter. They turned out really good, but I was concerned about the temperature of a few room lamps and turned them off, leaving the family almost in the dark as I took the shots. Should I be so concerned, or is there advice on shooting with room lights on and correcting color with gels? If so, what kind of gels should I get at what temperatures?

December 22, 2008 1:45 PM  
Blogger terryross said...

Would this setup not work better with a couple of better bounce cards or a Demb flash bounce attached to the strobe?

December 28, 2008 2:41 PM  
Blogger Daniel Easton said...

Thanks for this, have my room set up ready for the morning now!

December 24, 2009 2:34 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

Worked like a charm... I was ready to just put my flash on the camera and fire it straight up but this was may better and more interested. I used the setup and 3 different christmas gatherings today.


December 25, 2009 8:57 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Thanks for this great technique - tried it out on Christmas to great effect. Will definitely use it for many more mobile situations to come. I was able to trigger an SB-900 & SB-600 with manual power dialed in via Nikon CLS on my Nikon D300s with built in flash in an interior room with a 100% success rate.

December 27, 2009 2:10 AM  
Blogger Obi-Wan said...

Our sons must think alike. My name is Ben, and my son Micah is the same age as yours. He also gave us a one-item Christmas list this year (now 9 yrs old): a LEGO Mindstorm NXT2. And yes, it's awesome. His list was particularly annoying to my wife, who usually tries to buy gifts for his January birthday during the Christmas sales. Alas, he refused to give us any other items for fear that his Mindstorm wouldn't appear. Hopefully his faith in Christmas has been confirmed and he'll go easy on us next year.

Oh, and your opposing-corner lighting technique worked beautifully in the squarish room.

December 28, 2009 4:43 PM  
Blogger tws said...

what a great tutorial on flash. here are my efforts...

this picture was shot after dark and towards one of the speedlights you can see it in the back of the image. got some green flare going on.

here are a couple more with descriptions...

January 01, 2010 3:30 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I'm re-reading in preparation for Christmas 2010.. I can't help but notice that the camera position seemed to always be on or near the couch.

Merry Christmas, David. Thanks for another great year of Strobist.

Rhode Island

December 22, 2010 1:55 PM  
Blogger S/V Laura Ellen said...

This photo was taken with the lighting plan as suggested by David Hobby. The lighting plan seems to work well.

December 24, 2010 11:47 AM  
Blogger Plumchutney said...

just wanted to say thanks for this post - I now have better Christmas pics than ever before, you are like Santa spreading Christmas cheer around the world :)

December 25, 2010 2:42 PM  
Blogger David said...

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you! I've learnt so much from this blog and have had a great Christmas taking so many shots that I could never have pulled off before reading this and your other wonderful posts.

December 28, 2010 8:12 AM  

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