Smile! (Family Portrait Session)


This is the fourth time I’ve worked with this family in four years, and yet this is the first family portrait I’ve ever taken of them. How is that possible? I first met them when I was hired to document the mom’s military retirement ceremony. The next year, I took the son’s high school senior portraits. The year after that, the daughter’s senior portraits. So I guess it really was time to get the whole family together for a portrait!

We headed out to El Matador Beach in Malibu, which has a dramatic, rocky coastline. It’s a challenge to haul equipment down the side of the cliff, so I was assisted by Desirée. In fact, there was a photographer down there shooting a swimsuit model, and as we passed by he said “wow, that’s quite a production you have there!” I had more lighting and equipment than he did, but hey I don’t like to travel light. We had great weather and great light. And most important, we had tons of fun!

While I have no plans to get one myself, I really dig the son’s “smile” tattoo. It’s just such a positive attitude, and seemed fitting for the day.

Technical notes: This was shot entirely on medium-format Kodak Portra 400 film (the new kind). The seated group portraits were shot using my Koni Omega Rapid 6×7 camera with a 90mm f/3.5 lens (5th image down). I lit these shots with a Metz Mecablitz 60 in a 43″ reflective umbrella (camera right), and a Nikon SB-28 for fill at the camera position. The Koni Omega was on a tripod, and I synced the strobes using CyberSync radio triggers. I metered using a Gossen Luna Pro F, and then quickly checked my lighting with a dSLR (the only time I use a digital camera these days).

The remainder of the images were shot using my Mamiya 645AF and natural light.



5 thoughts on “Smile! (Family Portrait Session)

  1. Excellent shoot – great personalities captured.

    I got few technical questions:

    1) With the natural light shots, do you try to keep the sun – whether diffused by clouds or not – behind your subjects?
    2) On the lit shot, do you think you could have bumped up the shutter speed a bit more to darken the background further? The background luminosity appears in that shot seems the same as the natural light ones. Help me figure out why you decided to light that one vs use natural light.

    Thanks a lot Matt. I really really adore your blog posts.


  2. Thanks Elie. To answer your questions:

    1) Yes mostly I shoot so that my subjects have their backs to the sun. This is true whether I’m lighting them with off-camera strobe or just shooting natural light. Bright blotches of direct sunlight are very unflattering on a portrait, and it makes people squint when they face the sun. Of course if everyone is running around and having fun, I just shoot to capture the moment, rather than worry about such things. But I tend to stay on the right side of my subjects without telling them what I’m doing, so they face me and it works out.

    2) Yes I could have bumped the shutter speed, and in fact I originally metered it so it was one stop down from what you see here. But after viewing the results with a dSLR, I decided it looked too “flashed”. So I increased the ambient to make the overall look more natural.

    Shooting groups of seated people can be tricky with strobes. You end up getting a splash of ugly light in front of them, which then has to be fixed in post. By making the strobe closely balanced with the ambient light, I didn’t have to compensate later.

    Getting that ‘strobist’ look is easier with one person standing than it is with four people sitting, because your light can naturally fall off before it hits the ground. I didn’t think it was appropriate in this particular shoot though.

    Hope that helps!

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