A Visit from The Man

For as long as my kids can remember (and longer than that, in my case) Santa has been paying a visit to our house every Christmas Eve. The evidence is as plain as the nose on your face -- the living room is littered with presents in his wake.

But in 2006, that circumstantial evidence was not good enough for Ben, my (then) six-year-old chief investgator. He wanted hard proof. So he devised a scheme to get a photo of Santa Clause...


The Plan

Santa would not last five minutes on CSI. He's too sloppy. The man has been a veritable evidence factory in our house. We almost always can find a tiny tuft of red coat fuzz on the fireplace screen. And one year he trampled ashes all over the kitchen and living room. Which is not the way to earn yourself a slot on the Missus' top ten list. Or maybe it is, but not exactly the top ten list you would want to be on.

Ben (and his sister Emily) are pretty good at ferreting out the clues each year. My eyes are too old and tired to pick them up, but they see them right away. After viewing all of the tangential evidence, a couple of years ago Ben came up with what I thought was a pretty ingenious forensics solution: Leave my wife's digital point-and-shoot out next to the cookies (Santa always finds those) with a note asking him to do a self portrait. Hey, it never hurts to ask, right?

I would not have had the nerve, myself. But Ben is a risk taker. Last year he pared the Christmas list down to just one item in hopes of concentrating his chances. It worked.

This year, he is asking Santa for a laptop. How do you tell an 8-year-old he must be smoking crack if he thinks that is gonna happen? I tried, but it is still on the list. At least there are backup ideas this time. (A laptop? Criminy...)

So Ben leaves the camera out on Christmas Eve in 2006, and I'll be danged if the Santa didn't come through with a photo -- a single, blurry snapshot. Not of his face mind you, but of his left hand grabbing one of my wife's chocolate chip cookies. The camera's EXIF info puts the time of the cookie theft at 1:14 a.m. on Christmas morning.

It ain't pretty, but it appears for all intents and purposes to be a shot of The Man himself. Which is far better than I ever pulled off as a kid. If we do it again, I am gonna fill up the dining room with SB-800's and PW's to the point of f/16 everywhere. Not gonna screw this opportunity up a second time, even if it scares the old man and all of the reindeer off before they get a chance to drop off the loot.

EDITOR'S NOTE: I have just been informed by Ben in no uncertain terms that there will be no reindeer-scaring SB-800's going off in our living room this Christmas Eve. There might be a laptop at stake. (Yeah, and Detroit might be in the Super Bowl this year, too...)

Okay, so no follow-up Santa photo in 2008. But Christmas came a little early for me this year (with a little help from yours truly) so I had nothing to lose.

Merry Christmas to Me

After agonizing over which "big light" brand to go with, I finally have made the decision to stick with my old White Lightnings for the time being and build up a set of AB monoblocs and light mods that can handle whatever I might throw at them. I am still figuring out the specifics, so more on that later.

Right now, I am patching a couple of obvious lighting holes in my big lights for the end of year tax-spending season. I will be expanding the set more fully soon enough, though. I would love to have the D3x I played with at last week's NPS clean and check. (Thanks, Mark!) But there are about 8,000 reasons I can't right now.

For my EOY purchase I bought an ABR800 ring light, which means I officially have more ring lights than anyone should be allowed. That said, I will soon be comparing the Ray Flash, Orbis and ABR800 (in its multiple differently modified iterations) and posting the results.

But the more immediate need was for a large, controllable light source. So I also picked up a foldable large Octabox. Or, as I call it, my "Annie Light." I got the grid for it, too -- what the heck.

For the money ($169) it is a no-brainer, fantastic deal. The light is gorgeous, and it is built like a tank. Apparently, this is the second design version. Whatever they had wrong with the first one, I am pleased as punch with the current version.

I got it a little early to make a Christmas photo of Ben and Em. (For the grandparents, natch, and not for any reasons of impatience whatsoever.)

Earlier this week we had an overcast day, which made it easy to get a nebulous, background-friendly aperture for a portrait of the curtain climbers. I took the camera to 1/250th and dropped the ISO to get the most wide-open aperture possible. It worked -- at ISO 100, I could underexpose the trees in the background and get a nice, out-of-focus look with my 70-200 wide open at f/2.8.

I was working fast (the kids were freezing their butts off) so I did not think to grab a setup shot. But here is a shot where the flash had not recycled, so it is easy to see the ambient component of the photo. The ambient light level was moving around, and I think this one was at ~f/4, but you still get the idea. Always be aware of that ambient component -- it sets the mood of the photo before you add your first strobe light, and affects everything the flash doesn't light.

The key light was my old White LIghtning Ultra 600, dialed down to about 1/8 power, in the Octabox. (The Octabox is a 47" octagonal soft box.) It is a couple of feet out of the frame at camera right, about five feet away from the kids and up at about 30 degrees or so. Not that the exact angle matters -- that thing just floods the area with beautiful, forgiving light. In fact, someone could make an entire career out of shooting famous people with a light like this. Ahem.

The light is so forgiving, in fact, that the photo really does not have very much edge, for lack of a better word. I did stick an SU-4'd SB-800 with a spaghetti snoot at 1/16th power at back camera left as a separation light. And in the end I added a little high-pass filter on this one to add some crispness to the look of the main light.

I am still working on that technique, and trying to get it away from the Dave Hill look and more toward the natural-looking end of the spectrum. As with most things, less is more IMO. I'll be writing more about that when I get it a little more honed down. But I like it a lot, and am at least looking at it with every portrait.

I don't always end up going with it, but a little high-pass usually adds a nice layer. No pun intended. Kinda like MSG for photos -- works in moderation, but too much will give you a headache.


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