Controlling your light

They say that shooing portraits in broad daylight such as high noon is nuts, that it cant be done and that anyone with sense will avoid it like the plague. Most times these experts are correct but one of the things that a professional photographer has to learn is to adapt and make things work out the way they need to. So with that in mind, let me tell you about my weekend of shooting Santa Claus.

I got an email from a acquaintance asking if I would possibly be able to shoot a session involving Santa Claus, families and a public park with four days notice. I had to juggle things but I replied yes, for a small fee and the list of names of the families with their email addresses. Now shooting this event was going to be a royal b**ch since it was going to be a  public park and starting at 11AM then running till 1PM. No tent, no cover of any kind. The last four years showed snapshots taken with on camera flash blasting the families to overpower the sun. Last years was pretty underexposed since it had been a grey day and the camera didnt get the settings right.

I decided to raise the bar and execute this event better than anyone there had seen before. I have a very cool Christmas themed muslin backdrop that is pretty decent quality and I have several 20lb sand bags. I also have reflectors but no portable strobes yet. I was bummed but I could not find a battery pack to run my Photogenics or get a small generator on such short notice. So I ended up using my SB800s instead.

I put up the backdrop, doubled it over to keep light from leaking through the back and had the back facing the sun directly to get the most shade I could. I put 25lbs of sand on each leg (ended up with 50lbs before the shoot was over) plus two 10 lb bags clipped to the bottom of the shortened backdrop to keep it from flapping around. I did not care about lighting it separately as there was so much ambient light, I didnt need to. On the SB800, I used a 1/2 cut CTO gell to squash the bluewhite “daylight” look of the flash. I prepped two more flashes with batteries ready to go. I had a spare body prepped and ready to go.

I put Santa in his chair and metered him using my older but reliable Minolta meter, the camera meter gets very confused with this type of shooting so I dont trust the brains of the camera. I then put everything on manual, dialed it in and shot off several images with my 17-55mmF2.8. I ended up going with my 1.4 50mm at F10 and ISO 200. The shadow was just long enough to keep me in shade without too much flare in the lens. The images did need their black points pushed way up as they were flat. I knew that from the first few pictures. I used a gold reflector to throw a dash of golden light on Santa Claus and the clients. The SB800 was dialed down -1/2 exposure compensation to avoid blowing out skin tones knowing that by shooting raw, I can easily dial it in.

You can see here the extreme differences between the sun and shade of the backdrop. I took this with my iPhone to avoid screwing with my numbering sequence on my shooting body.

Park shooting set up

Park shooting set up

So I ended up shooting about 40 families over three hours. Everyone had a lot of fun and everyone was blown away by the backdrop. But when I showed off the images, jaw dropped. The images really looked good and nobody believed that they were shot at noon and in a park. The grass was not a problem because 99% of the shots were “head shots” style.

Santa Claus with vintage treatment

Santa Claus with vintage treatment

Final Santa Claus image in park

Final Santa Claus image in park

Now that we had the shots, I used BayPhoto’s ROES software to make up the Christmas cards. My client was giving away a free Christmas card and we settled on the 4×8 photo card. I used Bay’s templates and treatments to make a simple card with a place for my friend to sign his name.

Christmas Card from Belmont shoot

Christmas Card from Belmont shoot

So in the end, with about 400 dollars in studio stuff that I already had from past shoots and 30 minutes of set up time, I was able to produce killer event shots of Santa Claus in a public park at high noon. I did this by using quality parts, by knowing how my equipment works and most importantly, how to work around problems on the fly. Were the images perfect out of the camera? No, they were not. They were flat and washed out even though they were correctly exposed based on the histogram. Thats partial due to the 50mm lens I shot with it. Partial from having to be very careful shooting into the light even though I had shade, there was still some spillover from the top of the background. But with shooting RAW, a few simple adjustments applied to each image and they all snapped into place.

So dont take the common wisdom as gospel like “you cannot shoot portraits at noon” or you can not use onboard flash effectively and so on. When you know your equipment and you know how light works, you can do amazing things when others say you can’t.  I have a happy client and 50 new possible clients who saw me shoot under difficult circumstances and still nail the shots.

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