Thursday, July 17, 2014

On-Assignment: Full-Sun Group Shot



If you have never done it before, lighting a group shot outdoors in full sun can be daunting. After all, sun is pretty bright. And your subject is pretty big and thus harder to light at a high level.

But with a leaf-shutter camera and a couple of battery powered monoblocs, you can easily own the sun and just about anything you can put under it.
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I have been using the Howard County Conservancy, well, let's just say a lot as a location. So I not only suggested some things I might be able to shoot for them as a thank you, but asked if they had any ideas themselves.

Turns out, what they really needed was a staff group shot. Not the first thing I would have gone with, but from their perspective it was important. And since my overall goal is to elevate their visual footprint, swapping out something as pedestrian as a group shot is pretty low-hanging fruit—and a lot more obvious to me in retrospect.

Oh, and can we get head shots of everyone while we are at it?

Sure we can. No prob.
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Follow the Bouncing Ball

It's been awhile since a full walk-thru OA. So what the heck, let's break this one down.

First thing is scheduling. With a flock of busy adults, the best time to schedule a group shot is when everyone is already together for another reason. So that, rather than light, is usually gonna drive the timing. In this case it was a staff meeting. They'd be done about 9:30am, and some people would have to leave quickly after that.

Not ideal—a mid-morning shoot without the benefit of early-morning golden light. I suppose I could do a sunlit group, but the light is already a little high at 9:30am in the summer. And who needs all that squinting? So let's nuke the sun and use flash.

My next stop is at Google Maps, to orient myself with the summer morning sun (really, I do not shoot very often in the morning…) and make sure we have somewhere that can be in full shade with a good sunny backdrop.


Our Spot and Our Gear



Here it is: the same Montjoy Barn that was our portrait backdrop in OA165. This morning, we'll be making use of its size and opacity. In the morning it throws a pretty good spot of shade.

You can see my gear loosely splayed out: A couple of Einstein e640s with Vagabond Mini Lithium batteries to power them. Light mods are a Paul Buff medium PLM (silver, with white diffuser) up top, and my go-to Photek Softlighter on the ground as fill. I put the PLM up top on the key because it is more efficient, and that is where I will need my power.

The camera: a (relatively dinky looking) Fuji X100s, on sticks. The latter being to keep it still just in case I need to swap faces in the group shot in post. Which I am not above doing.

The x100s is very important, as it has a leaf shutter which will allow me to sync flash at any speed that is below the t.1 time of the flash itself. I have posted in detail about the x100s and its near magical qualities in sun-nuking. We have also used this same gear pack for another OA if you want another look at how this stuff works together so well.


Grab a Baseline Exposure



From the camera position, let's grab a quick shot of the full-sun background. And this is a very specific shot, exposure-wise. I am going to shoot it at 1/1000th at f/8 at ISO 200.

Why 1/1000th? Because I can safely hit that sync speed with an Einstein e640 on half power. Which is a pretty good whop of light at 320ws. And I love, love, love that the e640 shows me my t.1 time at any setting, right on the display.

There it is:



Why half power? Recycle time. That's plenty of light to do what I need. So why go up a stop and double my recycle times? After all I am using batteries here. Common sense.

Why ISO 200? Best quality. Got plenty of light; no need to stretch the ISO.

Why f/8? Because that will easily hold focus through the group (and then some) on an 23mm lens/APS chip. And I am pretty sure I can hit f/8 at my working distance with an e640 on half power.

And if you notice, my scene is significantly underexposed. I don't want the ambient to be that dark in the final photo. But setting myself up with too-dark ambient means I create wiggle room to be able to alter my flash exposure and ambient exposure just by twiddling the camera's knobs. More on that in a minute.

Now let's make sure I can light this group at f/8 before they even get here—and without a flash meter.



Yep, just fine. That's a shot (at f/8 ISO 200) of the barn from approximately the same working distance from my light as my light will be to the group. As long as the laws of physics behave, I'm good to go.

Also notice that the barn is pretty warmed up. I am going with a ¼ CTO warming gel (how to gel a big mod, here) on the key light to make them pop against the blue sky.


Season to Taste

Since my ambient exposure for the background/ambient shot is too dark and I can still hit this aperture with my flash, I can do anything I want to the flash/ambient exposure right from the camera when I actually start to shoot these folks. If I want the sky lighter, I open up the shutter. If I want it darker (which I won't—it's plenty dark) I could still drop down to a 1/2000th and be safely inside my t.1 time.

Also, note that I am using a sync cord connected to the fill light and slaving the key off of that. This means I will not waste any critical microseconds in the process of close-shaving that sync time. Every little bit matters, and a radio remote can be your limiting factor in this situation at very high shutter speeds.

If I want my subjects lighter I can open the aperture and close the shutter to reclaim the background exposure. Or vice versa if I want them darker. Easy manual control of everything, all by starting with an exposure that is a little too dark. (And having a leaf shutter, of course.)


Here's the Scene, Ambient-Light Only



This pic, courtesy an HCC tweeter, shows the scene as it exists before the exposure shift and without flash.

It's pretty remarkable what the ability to drop the ambient and bring the subject back up with flash can do to a photo. And they have absolutely no idea what this looks like from their perspective. They pretty much just see this:



After they get in place, I will want to tweak my background/sky ambient for the final shot. In the end I lightened the sky a bit by opening the shutter up ⅔ stop to 1/640th of a second. And that's my final tweak.

Then I grab a couple of shots, loosen them up a little and show them a flashed pic on the back of the camera before we really get going. Because when they see it, they look kinda epic:



And that's usually what will get a small group over the hurdle and help them bring a little confidence (attitude, even?) to a group shot. Which a group shot really needs if you ask me.

A few minutes later and we are done. In fact total for the group (wrangling, etc.) we were about 15 minutes, even grabbing an impromptu second group (camp counselors) in the same light. It was a pretty easy swap-out.
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Next Up, Head Shots

If you have a group shot and head shots to do, always try to do the group first. If you're gonna be herding cats, you wanna do it while everyone is fresh and not bored. Then you can zero in on your head shot victims one at a time.

Plus, this way is more respectful of people's time. Do the group, then hit the head shots in order of who has to leave first. (Or who is most important, yada yada.) That gets everyone out as soon as possible.



For head shots we took about 30 minutes to quickly reset the lights and set up a full head shot studio inside the barn. With two big lights and soft modifiers on hand, we would have everything we needed as long as the batteries held out.

Nope. Not even. That barn door is in open shade, which the door also allows you to shape and control. So at that point all we needed was a clean backdrop. Paging Mr. Foamcore…



Doorways in open shade and a piece of foamcore: head shots don't get much easier than this.

You can get a lot fancier, to be sure. But for their needs it sufficed just fine. And it worked great to get people on their way, too, as we were literally knocking these off in about 30 seconds each.

No flash, so you can motor right through micro expressions. Just have your repertoire of corny jokes at the ready.
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So, easy morning—both for me and my leaf shutter/battery flash combo. The Conservancy is a tremendous resource for Howard County and I am quite pleased to be able to do anything I can to elevate their visuals and increase their exposure.

There are lots of other orgs like this; maybe even one in your county. Do yourself—and them—a favor by getting better acquainted.

Discussion, via Twitter: use hashtag #StrOA167, and add "@Strobist" at the end of the tweet if is important that I see it.


NEXT: Actor Ben Lurye


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