A Quick Family Portrait

by William Lulow

I can’t recall how many times I’ve been asked to make a portrait of someone and they’ve said something like, “Oh don’t worry about lights, this is just a quick shot. You don’t really need to fuss.” If I had taken that statement seriously and not brought my lights, I would have wound up with a dark picture or I would have had to bump up the ISO in order to get an acceptable portrait. I’m not interested in “acceptable” and never have been! When it comes to making pictures, if it’s worth taking a picture, it’s worth doing it right!

Here’s an example:


This was a portrait I had to make in an old stone church and the family wanted the church represented in some way because the shot was actually to be used in the church’s bulletin. So, we decided to shoot it in front of one of the church’s old stone walls and have a couple of the chairs in the picture as well.

The camera’s built-in flash would not have been sufficient, plus it would have created some harsh shadows. A portable strobe (speedlight) would also not have been sufficient. I was considering using two speedlights, but I needed a softer effect on the family itself. Remember, built-in camera flashes and speedlights really only go as far as the subject. Most units, especially if used in their AUTO modes, just measure the lamp-to-subject distance in order to calculate the proper exposure. Backgrounds will usually be black, receiving no light at all! Therefore, if you want the background to show, you need to light it separately.

I wound up bringing two of my studio strobe units with light stands, umbrellas and one of my studio power packs. Since the church was old, its wiring was old as well. I had to run a couple of extensions cords from the kitchen to the power pack just to make sure I wouldn’t blow a fuse and ruin the service (which was to take place right after the portrait). I used one umbrella as a main light and another “head” aimed to the back to light up the stone wall and register the “feel” of the old church. Exposure was f/6.3 @ 1/100th of a second at ISO200 with the power pack set on half-power (500w/s). I then had to pack up all the equipment and get out of there before the service started. This shot required the following equipment: camera, tripod, light stands, umbrellas, and extra extension cords. This also included a plug adapter because I figured that the old church would not have updated electrical outlets!

The moral of this “quick portrait” is that doing a portrait, even if it is on location, is never a quick thing. I arrived about one half hour before the family did and was able to test the lighting so that when they arrived, everything would be all set up. The only really quick thing about this shoot was how fast we packed up the equipment and left!