Seven in the Park (Family Portraits)

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Here’s a family portrait I did just before Christmas. The client called me the day after I’d marked as my cut-off point for Christmas card portrait sessions. But she was willing to shoot immediately, and desperately needed images for her holiday cards. So I agreed. We picked a day that fit everyone’s schedule, but our start time would be only 45 minutes before sunset. And since this was a park in Thousand Oaks, CA, there are mountains and trees to contend with. I had only shot at this park once, long ago, and so wasn’t really familiar with the way the light falls there. But there simply wasn’t time to scout the location ahead of time.

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(As always, if you leave a comment, I donate a food item to FoodShare, the local food bank.)

I hired an assistant since I knew this was going to be high pressure: seven people, tricky location and do-or-die requirement to get the shot. I wouldn’t have time to fumble with light stands…I needed someone to hold the lights while I ran around in a barely-disguised panic!

Heading over there to the shoot, I began to worry. There was an accident on the freeway, so I was running late. I had planned to be there 15 minutes early to look for locations, but I ended up getting there right at our start time. And then it was cloudy, the sun dipping in and out. I was worried about the light being cruddy. By the time I got there, I was a stress ball.

And where were my clients? Not there! So I tore off around the park, sizing up locations as fast as I could. I headed back to the parking lot ten minutes later, still no sign of them. But my assistant had arrived by this point, and we chatted for a little while. Then, off in the distance, I see someone waiving: it’s my client. They’d been there the entire time, but on the other end of the parking lot. No matter, I had needed the time to pick the spot, and we quickly set up.

This was definitely a place for using a tripod. With a large group, I always used a tripod in case I have to do “head replacement surgery”. Having the camera set to a consistent focal length, with the frame locked down, makes head-swapping much easier. However in this case that proved unnecessary! The tripod also allowed me to shoot a lot longer as the sun set, without having to choose noisy, high ISOs or worry about camera shake.

And we nailed it! We were able to get the full family, the husband and wife, and shots of each child as well. The sun peaked through for the first shots in a lovely warm light on the background, while I lit the family subtly using strobe. I didn’t do my beach-style backs-to-the-sun lighting, since the sun was pretty weak. Instead I placed my clients so the sun was over my right shoulder, and they were shaded by a tree. I set the camera for normal exposure, instead of a more typical underexposure, and then gently lit them with my Metz Mecablitz 60 from camera left, through a shoot-through umbrella. My assistant was perched on a rock on the same side of the stream as I, with the family on the other side. The cross-stream shooting did however make communication difficult, as they couldn’t hear me very well over the running water. So I just yelled and monkeyed about and they mostly got the point.

And the result? Well I’m very happy with it! Gorgeous setting, great light, nice family…can’t beat it. Amazing that we were able to pull this all off in 45 minutes. And I had the honor of making a 24×30″ canvas print for the family as well, which really came out beautifully.

P.S. The irony of this location is that a) it’s usually pretty crowded, b) that stream is man-made and c) you have to carefully line up your shot to avoid swingsets, benches and other park equipment. Such is the magic of photography!

Do you need wonderful, evocative portraits for your family? Contact me here.

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