Sunday, December 18, 2016

Santa Pays A Visit

Every year, we close the Winter Semester with an all-school holiday sing-along, followed by a raffle. The winner gets a gift AND a chance to have a photo made with Santa. The images are posted on-line, and hard copies on display in our office.

There are some quick things you can do if you every find yourself in this situation.
  • Key Lighting: A flash with a fast recycle time is a must, since raffle prizes are awarded at three minute intervals, which isn't a lot of time fumble with lighting. This means you have a very short time to get the shot. If you only have small battery-powered units, get several and trigger them together. The Selens Hotshoe Mount (or the equivalent) is cheap and would work well . If you use two flashes on a Selens, you can cut the recycle time roughly in half, or you can double the effective output if the recycled time isn't an issue. One important reminder: You can use older, high-voltage flashes if you trigger the Selens with an optical trigger/slave. Do NOT risk damaging your camera by using a flash cable to your hot shoe!
  • Fill From The Floor: As an experiment, I decided to add some "floor fill" to lighten the shadows (the proper roll of a fill light!) and to minimize the chance of stray reflections. I used a sheet of mylar-covered foam insulation and clamped an extra flash to a light stand using a modified Justin Clamp, aiming the flash straight down onto the shiny surface.You can see that the "size" of the fill is quite large (above left), and that it feathers nicely off the edges. It does produce a second catch light (above right) which I usually retouch out, but in this case, left in.
  • Background: Any plain background will do, but it would be nice if you can get something with a pattern, or something with a holiday theme. Some camera stores sell inexpensive vinyl backgrounds just for the purpose. You could use a bedsheet if can find a pleasing color or seasonal theme. I used my standard 10' wide fabric background suspended by a background hanger. Make sure to remove as many wrinkles as possible. I tighten up the background using A-Clamps attached to the supports.
  • Distance To Background: The rule is the greater the distance between your subject and the background the better. Unfortunately, if you increase the distance, you may need to add some light to the background or it will be noticeably underexposed.
  • Light Modifiers: You'll get better results if you can use an umbrella or softbox to soften the shadow edges. It should be remembered that Ed Pierce of Photo Vision recommends that the subject to light distance be equal to the diagonal of the diffusion surface.  If you are doing only tight head shots, you can probably use an 3-foot umbrella at a 4-foot working distance. You'll need to keep it fairly close to the lens axis, since the short distance will make the difference in lighting between the left and right side subjects more noticeable. If power is an issue, you can up the ASA, if you must. Don't open the aperture, as you'll need some depth of field to keep everything sharp.
Managing The Shot: Sometimes people just naturally fall into a pleasing pose. The important that all four hands are visible in this photo is. The gift became an important prop, along with the bell in Santa's hand.

I put the subject at camera right because my key light is coming from camera left. This gives the best lighting on the the subject, which will be Short Lighting or Butterfly, depending on where the nose points. I have both subjects face slightly inward. When my subject hugs Santa, it falls together naturally.

Watch The Hands: I try to keep all four hands visible. In Santa's case, I have him "offer" the gift to his new friend, while s/he takes it with one, or two hands. It seems everybody loves Santa, and nearly all of my subjects instinctively hug him. This is fine, so long as the hand can be recognized as a hand and not a lump of something growing off of Santa's shoulder. I would have preferred that there was more hand showing, but it may be a long reach for a petite subject.  As a final touch, turn the gift so that the largest surface faces the camera.

Hair And Eyes: With the first shot, I noticed that my subject's hair partially covered her right eye. I gestured that she should move the hair to the side, which she did, while naturally putting her right hand on Santa's shoulder. Those two adjustments improved the image significantly, so make the time!

Cultural Norms: Certain customs forbid any physical contact between unrelated men and women. If there is any reluctance on the part of your subject,  be prepared with an alternate approach. As long as Santa is clearly NOT overtly touching, you'll probably be all right. You may wish to show the image to your subject, just in case.

Because many of these subjects are not native speakers of English, you can't always make your wishes understood. Be patient, because kindness with a smile is something everybody understands.

In the interest of full disclosure, I used a Nikon D600 with a 70-200 2.8 Nikkor at ISO 100, F 16, 1/160 of a second. I chose a longer lens (most shots were made at 70mm) to minimize the effects of  foreshortening. The flash was a 800 Watt-Second Norman 800D bounced off a Westcott 7' silver umbrella, triggered optically by the radio-triggers speedlight used as floor fill. Click here for some suggestions on how to mount this monster brolly.