I like buying local when I can, and I like buying hand-made. So when my friend Sabyn of Simplysabyn crocheted an adorable little Santa holiday hat for a baby, I asked her if she made them for big people, too. Yes, she did. So I ordered one. After receiving it, I thought it would make for a great Facebook profile pic to get a portrait of me modeling the hat in front of my Christmas tree (yes, it’s not even Thanksgiving yet and I have the tree up, lights, ornaments and all).
My goal was to try and get a relatively well-lit shot of me but with all the color and brightness of the lit tree in a darkened room behind me.
Easier said than done.
My first experiment was a shot of me and the tree using only the ambient light given off by the tree. My Canon 5D Mk III was set up with my Canon 85mm f1.2L lens on a tripod. The ISO was set at 1600 with an f-stop of 5 and a shutter speed of 1/10 second. I used my $20 Pixel-brand wireless remote shutter release to get clear images of myself. Oh, and I used myself as the model because I not only like the way I look but I was also the only one around at the time. I wanted to do this experiment right then and there, and I don’t mind doing this over and over until I get it the way I want. I figure other models would get a little bored after awhile. Plus, I wanted to send the final result to my friend Sabyn so she could use them on her FB site if she wanted.
After many takes, here is the resulting image using only the ambient light. The entire image was cast in a golden-red hue which was further emphasized by my red hat and red fleece top. Interesting, but not quite what I was aiming for.
So I brought out a single light stand and screwed in a 500 watt bulb in front of which I put a 24” white umbrella for diffusion since 500 watts at close range is pretty intense – particularly since I was still trying to get the color and glow of the tree lights behind me. The camera was set at ISO 320 with a f-stop of 4.5 and a shutter speed of 1/30.
As you can see, the light was great on me, but it totally eliminated the ambience of the tree lights and ornaments.
I’d been working on this for over an hour, was hot and sweaty and more or less done for the day. It wasn’t until the next day that I considered using my flash off-camera. The only problem with that was my focus issue. I couldn’t have my Canon dedicated flash remote trigger on the camera *and* a wireless shutter release (I probably could if I had a different setup). In the end, I relied on manual focus. That was tricky because the only light in the room was provided by the Christmas tree. So I had to set up one of my camera backpacks in the chair in front of the tree, then shine a flashlight on the backpack to help me get the focus correct. Eye roll. But it worked.
This little photo session took forever, because I just couldn’t get the whole lighting thing right. I set the flash to one side of the camera, then I set the flash to practically in front of me, then I set the flash directly behind the camera and raised the stand about a foot above the camera. Finally, just as I was about to give up, I decided to try something. Leaving the flash on the stand behind and above the camera, I deliberately set the camera shutter speed slower than the flash, so that the flash would trigger but the camera shutter would be open for just a bit longer after the flash went off. ISO was 160, the f-stop was 7.1, the shutter speed was ½ second, and the flash intensity was set to between 1/128 and 1/64 (with it being closer to the 1/64 mark).
Ultimately, I had to brighten my face up post-process, but by golly, I got what I was working for: a nicely-lit view of my face and the colorful, glowing ambience of the tree behind me.
Photography is all about practice, experiment, and climbing that learning curve.
5 responses to “The Trickiness of Christmas Lights and Portraiture”
Becky this is wonderfully written as well as being very educational for those of us who want to learn more about portraiture and lighting! THank you so much. I do not yet have a flash at all other than one built in on the Rebel t2i . I do however have a couple diffusion umbrellas and lightstands that I need to play with and learn how to use. I see that in a situation like this with the tree that the flash worked much better. I am assuming you used the flash without the 500 watt bulb and umbrella? did you use the umbrella with the flash also?
Thanks, Darlisa. No, I didn’t use the umbrella with the flash because I knew I could control the flash intensity and output and I really only wanted the flash on my face. And I definitely did not use the flash with the 500 watt bulb. That would have been too much light for my purposes. That being said, you know, it might be interesting to try the same timing situation as what I used with the flash alone, but try it with the umbrella attached too. That might “soften” the spread of light on my face and allow me to put the flash much closer to me. Once the flash is triggered and flashes on my face, then I’d leave the camera shutter open a little longer to capture the glow and color of the lights on the tree. Hmmm. I’ll have to try that.
That last idea has some real merit I think… just from messing around with flashes on people during a long exposure twilight landscape shot! thanks Becky
The Solution There are a number of possible solutions to this problem but one of the easiest is to override the camera and force it to shoot with a flash – a technique often called ‘fill flash’. Fill Flash is used to supplement existing light in a scene – it’s generally not the primary light source (as a flash often is at night) but fills in light where natural light doesn’t go.
Humberto, I know what fill flash is. I get it. I understand the solutions.