This year, I wanted to do the same thing, but I wanted to take better photos than I had the year before. I wanted to take my first step into portrait photography using off-camera flash. I had bought one Nikon AF SB-5000 Speedlight when I bought my Nikon D500 DSLR last spring, and when I realized that most portraits utilize at least two light sources, a fill light to illuminate the face, and a key light to provide highlights around the head and shoulders to separate the subject from the background, I bought a second one. This fall, I figured out how to get these speedlights wirelessly “hooked” to my camera, and I also bought a softbox to create a larger effective light source to provide softer fill light. I also bought light stands, some backdrop material, and I made a custom Backdrop Rack to mount on a stand.
So, on December 22nd, I set up a backdrop at the Annandale Methodist Community Center, and prepared to take photos. The following week, we distributed 38 photos to the families.
1. The Backdrop Stand Worked Out Well
In preparation for this shoot (and for portrait work in general), I wanted to have a backdrop stand that was 1) self-standing, 2) sturdy, 3) easy to set up, 4) required a minimal footprint, 5) flexible enough to hang a variety of media that could be used for portrait work, and 6) made of components that could serve other purposes as well. Extreme portability was a lesser criterion. It just needed to fit reasonably in my car.
Early on, I eliminated most backdrop stands that consist of a horizontal rod supported by a three-legged stand at each end. These stands are very inexpensive, and they are somewhat scalable in the fact that you can use a longer horizontal bar to hang longer rolls of media. But, 1) I wasn’t convinced that they would be what I would consider sturdy, 2) they typically require both stands to be at exactly the same height (making single-person setup more challenging), 3) they require a large footprint (due to three-legged stands at each end), and 4) if I used the stands individually, I was not convinced they would be sturdy enough to trust them to hold an expensive speedlight, possibly with a light modifier. I do admit that this type of backdrop stand is what you typically see for sale on the internet.
What I came up with instead is shown below:
I had been looking at the Manfrotto C-stands (even though they are quite a bit more expensive), mainly because they seemed like they were the choice of professionals in both the photography and video fields. They are very sturdy, somewhat heavy (which makes them harder to tip over), and reasonably portable (The legs deploy and stow into detents in a jiffy.). I chose the Avenger 9.8′ chrome plated version instead of the black painted ones, mainly because I was more concerned about the long term integrity of the surface finish than I was about specular reflections.
Luckily, Manfrotto sells an adapter that will connect just about anything to the top of their C-stands using a single bolt (Avenger E390 TVMP Yoke to Stand Adapter). I chose a pine 2×2 (which is really 1.5″ x 1.5″), because it was easy to cut and drill, and found that I could buy a piece that was very straight. I cut it to 68.5″ long, because with the other components, this would allow me to hang a roll of backdrop paper that is up to 60″ wide, and I could also clamp anything up to about 68″ wide on the back of the wooden piece itself (It was only portability concerns that kept me from making it even longer.). To the ends, I mounted brackets that are sold to hang backdrops right on a wall.
The roller was chosen to 1) provide adequate stiffness at that length, 2) fit the Superior 53″ paper rolls that have no cardboard tube core, and 3) fit the Savage ones that do. 1″ Schedule 40 PVC pipe did the trick. I also had to come up with end fittings that would fit the backdrop brackets. I made these from 1″ PVC pipe end caps, which I had to drill to accommodate a 3/8-16UNC bolt with a matching nylon sleeve, flat washers, and a nylon-insert lock nut. The backdrop paper itself was a 53″ wide roll of Superior “Flame”. It is rather stiff, so to help it hang straight, I created a sleeve at the end by folding back the bottom 1.5″ of paper and taping it with 2″ Gorilla tape, then I inserted a 1″ x 1/8″ x 53″ steel bar to provide some weight. I’ve done the same thing with three additional rolls of 53″ paper that I’ve bought, except that I only have two bars, because I can swap them between rolls pretty easily.
Overall, I’m very happy with the stand. I thought it worked great for this shoot, and now I have something that should also be useful for other purposes, such as headshots, LinkedIn portraits, etc.
2. Fill and Key Lights Provide Interest and Balance
I think my placement and power setting for the key light was pretty good. I ended up using a Rogue grid on the light, in order to concentrate it on Santa’s hat and shoulders. The fill light had an 18″ softbox on it to diffuse its source. It was placed opposite from the key light. That combination seemed pretty effective and balanced.
3. Catchlights Make the Eyes Sparkle
From this shoot, I realized how important it is to generate catchlights in your subject’s eyes. It really makes the eyes sparkle, but it requires careful placement of the fill light, so that neither subject is shadowed.