***** DRAFT *****
Our neighbor had asked me to take a photo of their family, so they would have one to send out with Christmas cards. I started brainstorming to come up with a cute photo composition for this family of five, and the idea that jumped in my head was a photo of them sitting on the curb in front of their house at night, with their house lights, and their extensive Christmas lights, glowing in the background. To capture this, I would use my new Nikon D850 DSLR camera for the first time, and in the process, see what of its new capabilities I could leverage.
We finally got a chance to take these photos on December 17, 2017, the night of the neighborhood Christmas open-house at another neighbor’s house down the street. The family broke away from the open house for our brief photo shoot, and they made it a lot of fun.
Photo Shoot Setup
For these shots, I was going to try to create a soft, flattering light on my subjects’ faces, to contrast with a dark background, filled with lots of colorful point lights, and all blurred with creamy bokeh. To do that, I would need to create the shallowest depth of field that I could by using one of my widest aperture lenses. Because I would be shooting the family from the street, I wanted to minimize how far into the street I had to set up my equipment, but I didn’t want to use a wide angle lens, because the only one I own has a much smaller aperture. So, I went with my NIKKOR 28 mm f/1.4E ED prime lens. The short 28 mm focal length would get me close enough to my subjects, and the wide f/1.4 aperture would give me the best available bokeh for the background.
But with this shallow depth of field, it would be critical for me to get all of their eyeballs nearly equidistant from the plane of the camera’s imaging sensor, so they would be in focus. The curb in front of their house provided a nice straight-edge for positioning them, and the kids were super-cooperative in trying to get in line the best they could. Unfortunately, as it turns out, I still didn’t quite achieve the equal focus I was looking for (LL #1).
I wanted to use a large diffused main light in front and above their faces, and a sharp accent light behind them, and to one side, to create hair and shoulder highlights that would help separate them from the background. Unfortunately, my only two softboxes I owned for the main light were hexagonal and octagonal-shaped, so either one of them would have made the light roll off on the subjects at on the far left and far right, and also provide more illumination than I wanted on the background and the foreground at the subjects in the middle. Both of these I wanted to be dark. So for this photo, I obviously needed a rectangular softbox. Luckily, they had the Westcott RapidBox 10″ x 24″ Strip at District Camera, in Burke, VA. This softbox is a versatile device that I had planned to get at some point anyway to use as a softer accent light. I mounted it to one of my Avenger C-stands with a Nikon SB-5000 speedlight with diffusion dome. For the accent light, I mounted another Nikon SB-5000 speedlight on a LumoPro 605s light stand with a MagMod grid modifier. For continuous light to help me focus, I also mounted my Savage ring light to the C-stand.
I mounted the Nikon D850 DSLR to my Manfrotto tripod, to make the camera as stable as I could, and I deployed the LCD screen so I could use it to 1) make camera and flash setting changes, 2) provide zoomed-in feedback during manual focusing, and 3) review the photos as I took them.
In order to optimize the focusing process, to get the most out of the 45.7 MP sensor in my new D850, I decided to manually focus the lens using the video feed that comes straight from the camera’s imaging sensor, displayed on the rear LCD, as my feedback. This would allow me to electronically zoom in to a small area of the video image before I manually focused, and it would also eliminate dependence on the D850 autofocus system, which I had not yet had the opportunity to calibrate relative to the imaging sensor.
I shot in Manual exposure mode, with the lens aperture set at f/1.4, the shutter speed set at 1/20 seconds, and the ISO set at 200. The main flash was set to Manual flash control at 10 mm zoom and 1/64 power -0.7 EV. The accent flash was set to Manual flash control at 135 mm zoom and 1/4 power -0.7 EV. I must not have had the accent flash positioned correctly, because in the photos you don’t see the corresponding highlights in the subjects’ hair. I wish I would have noticed this sooner (LL #2).
In post processing, I used Camerabits Photo Mechanic 5 to ingest the TBD photos onto my desktop computer. Then I did some portrait touch-ups using Portrait Pro 17. Finally, I cropped and tweaked the overall exposure using Corel PaintShop Pro. I didn’t even notice until late in the process that I had mistakenly set my D850 DSLR to store JPEG files on both the XQD card and the SD card, so I didn’t end up with any 45.7 MP RAW files from this shoot (LL #3).
Here are the best photos, in the order in which I took them. In some of them, the focus is a little soft on some of the subjects, owing to the very shallow lens depth of field at f/1.4. This condition would have been a lot more obvious to me if I had set up the camera to automatically download the photos to my iPad for review (LL #4). If I had done a little better job in positioning the subjects relative to the house lights, then the lights at the front door would have sent a welcoming message. I wanted to shoot the family out at their curb so that there would be good distance between the camera’s focus plane and the lights in the background, to create a nice bokeh around the Christmas lights. The 28 mm f/1.4 lens did pretty well here, but I’m curious as to whether one of my longer focal length primes would have made them look even better. Overall exposure was pretty good, and the I like the balance between the exposure of the subjects relative to the background.
This may be the best one, with all of them close to in-focus.
During the shoot, something strange started to come over the family. It started with youngest one, but it quickly spread to the others as well.
All of a sudden each of them just burst into what appeared to be some alien ritual of facial contortions.
It was almost as if they were sending some strange but common greeting out to others such as themselves.
And then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone – except for the youngest one, whose expression continued to speak volumes.
At that point, I thought it best that I call it a wrap, and I quickly packed up my equipment and returned home. You know, my neighbors never did tell me where they would be sending these Christmas cards. I’m guessing that they might be heading to a galaxy far, far away. 😉
1. When shooting a group, use an aperture smaller than f/1.4
At f/1.4, and TBD distance, the depth of field is only TBD.
2. Inspect all aspects of your early photos
The accent light wasn’t pointed correctly.
3. Dry run everything
All I got were JPEGs.
4. For the best focusing, you need camera stability
5. Focusing using the zoomed in video feed works pretty well for stationary subjects
6. The Nikon D850 doesn’t the trigger flash in Live View mode
After I got set up, I tried taking a few photos, and I quickly realized that my speedlights weren’t flashing. With it being dark, this was not the best time to find this out.
A likely related observable was that the top LCD display on the camera showed the lightning bolt symbol usually used to represent flash in a circle with a line diagonally across it. That symbol usually means that the flash has been disabled. Thinking that it could be because with the current camera settings it may not think that flash is necessary. So, I adjusted the exposure settings, but the symbol persisted.
The I decided to try going back to using the viewfinder instead of Live View.
7. Use the D850 mask to compose the photo, then remove it to shoot
Although I had not had the opportunity to check the composition of my shots much before shooting them, I assumed that my neighbors would want 8″ x 10″ aspect ratio shots.
As it turns out,
8. For night shots, keep a continuous light on the subjects
I had brought out my TBD just to provide some light when I was manually focusing.
9. The RapidBox 10″ x 24″ Strip Softbox is barely large enough for a group of this size
10. Get iPad working