Family photos, pocket wizards, and how I suck with Flash.

Yes, it is that time of year during the holidays, where families get together to celebrate health, and happiness, and to be merry and festive . Usually when families get together, they take a lot of pictures to commemorate the moment. And what generally occurs is the ‘family picture’. To which I kindly stepped up and offered my services. (In truth, my mom said, “Ohhh Nghia will do it”). So technically, it’s not like I had a choice to begin with! But that’s fine, I really wanted to give it a shot. I generally deal with families or groups of people during wedding photography all the time. What makes this one unique is, I have to actually be in the picture. Since the camera will be on a timer and I won’t be able to see anything, I have no control over who is actually looking at the camera or not, so it’s a whole different ball game.

Now when taking large groups of people, I think of it as a cookbook recipe. The variables are ‘how many people are we talking about, and what the environment will be).
I know my family size, roughly 12-13 people. Take into the account that some people won’t show up, I estimated around 10-11 people in a small living space full of clutter. (yes, my parents like to have clutter, so I won’t be nit picky about what junk gets into the picture, as it will be out of my control). Given those parameters, I got my check list:

1) 5D camera for the full frame effect
2) A 24-70 lens. One of the widest I have without major distortion.
3) tripod (no tripod means I can’t be in the picture)
4) Two flashes (not sure if one can get the entire group of people
5) My stupid pocket wizards which I purchased but never really had a chance to use

Now before I begin, let me put a disclaimer. Pocket Wizards are a great company that puts out great products. It is due to my inexperience that I call them sucky. =) I’m sure given time when I master how to use them properly, I’ll change my statement.

Ok, so let me back up. This whole post was originally intended to describe my experience trying to take a group photo for Christmas. A little background about flash photography. There are two ways you can use a flash: The automatic way, whether it be Nikon’s i-TTL or Canon’s E-TTL technology, or the manual way. Up to this point, I’ve been babied and have used the automatic way. Which is to say, when you aim the camera, and shoot the picture. Really smart little math wizard gnomes in the your camera use special binoculars to determine how far the distance to subject is. They do the calculations and make a phone call to the light/intensity adjusting elves that live in your flash, and tell them to properly change the output of the flash to get a proper exposure. Granted, sometimes the gnomes have been drinking or they get confused, so you have to manually tell them to adjust plus or minus the output given any situation (called flash exposure compensation). But other than that, these genius gnomes run the show when it comes to flash photography.

Switching it to manual mode, would be the equivalent of telling those gnomes and elves to bug off. They’re all fired, and Christmas is canceled for them! Keep in mind, these gnomes and elves were born and bred for one sole purpose….and that is to adjust the light output based on gazillions of algorithms, and you just told them they’re fired. You can see where this story is going.

I thought I was somewhat experienced in all things photography, and in my hubris, I told those gnomes to pick up their pink slips and head to the unemployment line. In employing Pocket wizards, I essentially did just that. They are radio triggers, that tell the flash to just fire. The one advantage of this would be that I can tell a flash to fire in the next room if need be. If you are using multiple flashes, the way flash systems work is they either use pre-programed pulses that tell the other flashes to fire. Or they use a semi line of site laser-ish line of site trigger. The one problem with this is if it’s blocked for any reason, the other flashes won’t trigger (yes this has happened to me in the field before, and it’s very frustrating). The disadvantage is you lose the smart gnomes. I told myself I’d invest in these pocket wizards one of these days. Whelp! That day has arrived!

When the gnomes were fired, the moment you tell the camera to fire off the flash, it does so at full blast. Let me tell you, it isn’t a pleasant sight. It’s as if the sun exploded right in your living room (For a fraction of a second, the room lit up so bright, I think all the camera literally took was white). I immediately barked orders to my little gnomes to lower their output, via the camera. Then I realized…Oh wait… I fired them all! So I literally had to walk up to each of my flashes and dialed down their intensity, and take multiple test shots. Positioning the flashes in dark corners makes this feat a bit tiresome. I had the bright idea of adding a catch light by placing the flash behind the couch. But this meant that any adjustments I needed to make would require me to reach down there to change it (so there goes that idea). I ended up placing the flashes directly beside me. One to the left, and one to the right. Both I think firing at 1/128 capacity and one firing at 1/64th capacity. But with flash photography, nothing is a fixed variable. The moment people move, or get added or subtracted, the moment you move the camera back further or change the shutter speed or aperture. All those variables had to be calculated and adjusted. Even when the gnomes were employed, it still required some human input in adjusting the output. But in full manual, boy did I feel really inadequate.

So the long and short of the story is, I backed out and re-hired my automatic E-TTL gnomes for the shot. I didn’t feel comfortable in my experience or abilities to do a full manual shoot, especially when it came to an important family photo. And as with all photos that require group dynamics, you only have a ‘small’ window of opportunity before they get restless. So I un-cancelled Christmas for them and went for TTL shot of the flashes. The resulting picture is below. Unfortunately the flash I placed to my left made a shadow on the wall, this could of been mitigated if I angled it differently, or if I used a third flash in the rear to offset the shadows. However, like I said in my previous statement. When a group of people are together, their patience in starring and smiling at the camera is very limited, so rule #3 of photography. “It is what it is, and sometimes you just have to live with what you shot”.

I set the camera at F5.6, there were only two rows of people so I figured it would give me enough deph of field at that distance to get a sharp group shot. Generally with a group of people, a common question I get is…What do I aim at? Well if your aperture is set enough where it will cover the entire group, it doesn’t matter if you aim it at the person in front center, or the person in the rear center. They both should come out sharp. If I set it at lower apertures, say 2.8 or so, and the camera was closer, if I aimed it at the front main person, the rear row will be slightly blurry, and vice versa. So with that said, I calculated F5.6 would be sufficient, however humans are very error prone. Instead of losing more light and going to F8.0, I played it safe and aimed the focus point directly at my dad. He was the most important person in the shot, and if anything I want him coming out sharp.

The end result is below:
Don’t ask me why I didn’t move that stupid table in the middle of the room. Don’t ask me why there’s a huge shadow from the lamp to the left. Next time, I’ll try to do better.


As another disclaimer…you can purchase pocket wizards with gnomes. But they cost a heck of a lot more than the $500 I’ve already spent. So I couldn’t afford them =(


About greenbeanfx

Photography is what I do =) If you wish to contact for a photoshoot, send me an email or comment on a blog with your info and I'll get back

Posted on December 26, 2009, in Aperature and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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