Warning:  This is a pretty tech-y post for photographers.  Please skip when/if you feel yourself glazing over….

I got really brave this Christmas.  This was the first year in a long time that the entire family was in town. With some trepidation, I dared taking a family photo on Christmas day.  This is the biggest group I’ve ever taken a photo of that wasn’t just a snapshot.

Left to right, we have Dan, Liz, Sarah, Lindy, Carl, Libby, me, Eowyn, Teddy (the baby), Jake, Rachel, & Aaron.

Knowing that 12 people on Christmas Day are likely to have some distractions, I figured I’d have no more than 10 minutes to make it happen.  I also decided to challenge myself and use flash to make it stand out from a regular natural light shot.

I forgot to take a setup shot, but I think I can describe it pretty well.  Just out of frame on camera left is a white umbrella with two Nikon SB-800 Speedlights bounced into it at full power.  Just out of frame camera right is a 39″ Elinchrom Octabank with a BX-500Ri flash set at a medium low power.  Both were a little higher than head height and aimed to evenly light the group.  I did some trial and error on the power setting to balance with the speedlights, which I figured would be the limiter.  Of course, my camera is on a tripod in front of us.

Exposure-wise, I exposed for the background, then dialed it down 1-2/3 stops to darken the ambient.  I used my Nikon D810 with a Nikkor 24-70mm lens at 50mm focal length.  Final exposure was 1/200s, ISO200, f/7.1.  Even though I anticipated lining up everybody’s faces pretty closely, I chose f/7.1 to make sure everything was in focus.  I needed to keep the shutter speed under 1/250s to make sure the flashes would sync.


The triggering was kind of tricky given the set of lights and modifiers I have.  If you look closely at my left hand, I’m holding a PocketWizard.  The triggering sequence goes like this:

  • I tell everybody to smile and hit the trigger.
  • My PocketWizard (set to channel 1) triggers another PocketWizard I have connected to the camera’s 10-pin remote terminal, also on channel 1.  This causes the camera to fire.
  • At the same time, that PocketWizard is connected to the PC sync terminal on the camera and setup in what PocketWizard calls “Relay mode”.  It gets a sync signal from the camera, switches to the next higher channel (2) and transmits a trigger pulse
  • A third PocketWizard (also set to channel 2) connected to one of the SB-800 Speedlights sees the pulse and fires the flash.
  • The other SB-800 Speedlight pointing at the umbrella is set to SU-4 mode, which is just a slave mode that tells it to fire whenever it sees another flash go off.  It sees the flash from the first one and also fires.
  • Finally, I have an Elinchrom wireless transmitter plugged into the hotshoe of the camera.  At the same time the sync signal is sent to the PocketWizard on the camera, the Elinchrom remote tells the BX-500Ri to fire.
  • Somehow, all that happened in sync with the 1/200 sec shutter speed of the camera.  High magic!

Fortunately, I spent some time in my cave a few nights earlier working all that out so I could just move the whole setup outside when the time came.


As far as posing, Pinterest to the rescue.  I’m really coming around to why Pinterest is so popular.  In addition to 500px.com, I’m finding Pinterest to be my most productive source of inspiration.  It didn’t take long to find several shots of roughly 12 people that I liked.  The main one I used for inspiration is here.  My daughter Liz had also looked at Pinterest for color ideas, and decided that everybody should shoot for some combination of purple, gray, and black.  In addition to the roughly coordinated color (without looking too matchy-matchy), all my favorite shots used the idea of triangles and mini-groups, rather than the standard “line up in rows” look that I see so much of.


I was pretty happy with the shot right out of camera, but I definitely found some stuff to fix.  Here’s a summary of what I changed:

  • Cropped out the sky.  Blah gray day.  Planned edit.
  • Cloned out an extension cord that was way too visible and I totally should have seen in camera.  Would have taken 30 seconds in the field; took 15 minutes in Photoshop.
  • Changed the color of Jake’s shirt.  It was a lime green which didn’t play well with the color scheme.
  • For the same reason, changed the color of Dan’s shoelaces, which were bright orange.
  • Muted the red in Teddy’s hat.  I didn’t want it to look so much like a Christmas photo.
  • Removed a flash reflection in Carl’s glasses.  Tried to account for that in the field but decided it would be trivial in Photoshop
  • I intentionally took three identical shots to deal with blinkers, etc.  Liz shifted in one of them and liked that better, so I grabbed her and Dan from that one.
  • Cloned out various stray hairs from people’s faces.

Next time

So, what would I do differently next time?

  • Pay more attention to the details.  Like that extension cord.  Of course, that kind of stuff can just make people twitchy and impatient, so it’s a tradeoff.
  • Maybe use a lower f-stop to throw the background more out of focus.  I was really worried that everybody’s faces stay sharp, which they did, but I think I could have gotten that at f/5.6 or maybe even f/4.
  • Figure out a simpler triggering mechanism.  I think I did the right thing with what I had.  This may turn into an excuse to buy more gear!  😉

Well, I hope all that detail wasn’t too boring and that it maybe helps somebody else get as good or better shot of their own.