Every year, on the 2nd Sunday in June, my wife and I go up to Crawford, Texas to attend her family’s reunion. This is the Wiethorn family reunion, which is Barb’s father’s family. At last year’s reunion (2012), during the “business meeting” that occurs after everyone has been through the desert line, it came up that it had been more than 25 years since anyone had taken group photos at the reunion, and thought that it was long overdue to do that again.
After the business meeting, Barb and her sister thought that I should volunteer to do the group photos. I have done several group photos, but not with lots of people in the groups, so I told them that only if they couldn’t find someone else to do it, and if they came and asked me to, that I would consider it. Of course within 5 minutes of that short conversation with Barb and her sister, one of the senior family members was paying me a visit and said that he “had heard” that I had a strong interest in photography, and asked me if I would please be so kind as to take some group photos at the next year’s (2013) reunion. So, how could I say “No”?
(If you are a Wiethorn family member, this blog post will probably not interest you. I’m not going to discuss who is in these photos. Instead, I am going to discuss how I took these photos. If you want to see the little web gallery that I put together for you, just go to the very end of this blog post, where I give the simple instructions to view it.)
I had this assignment hanging over me for an entire year…. This wasn’t going to be simple. This reunion is held indoors at the Crawford Community Center, which is nice for everyone mainly because it is air conditioned, and there are plenty of tables and chairs. But I have brought my camera to this event in the past, and I knew that the only lights were fluorescent lights. These fluorescent lights create photos with a weird, sickly, green color cast that I later had to correct in my photos. Crawford is nearly 100 miles from our home in Austin, and I wasn’t going to able to go on a scouting trip up there just to determine the color of the current fluorescent bulbs that they were using. (The photographer who took the photo on their web page had wisely chosen to turn off all of the fluorescent lights.)
Also, it seemed to be in everyone’s expectations to group the people according to which of the “original” family members they were a descendant of. I had no idea how large or small these groups would be. The largest group of people that I have ever photographed before, using lighting equipment that I brought, was only 12 people. I was told that there might be up to 25 people at a time in one of these groups.
While I have read several books, and watched many on-line videos about lighting, I don’t ever remember seeing any advice on how to properly light a large group of people when photographing them. The only advice that I ever remember seeing (and I do not remember where I saw or read this) was to put the people into a “large uniform field of light”. That’s all I had for instructions, so I started thinking about how to go about doing just that.
I gave serious consideration to bringing my 4 Einstein studio strobes, with two large 86-inch Parabolic Umbrellas in front of the group, and possibly one or two Einsteins to light the background and/or the group from behind. In the end decided against this approach mainly for only one reason: these flash strobes run off of AC electricity, and I didn’t want to have electrical cords running everywhere across the floor. Children, and I mean a dozen or more pre-school kids, would be running free while the parents visited before, during, and after lunch. (And really, they should be able to do that at a family reunion!) So, even though I have two of the Vagabond Mini Battery Packs that could power all 4 lights simultaneously, (each battery pack can power two lights), there would still be long extension cords for people to trip over. I suppose I could have used 50 feet of gaffer tape to tape the cords to the floor, but people can still trip over that hump in the floor.
As an alternative, I had 5 Canon 580EX II speedlites, and a ST-E2 wireless transmitter to trigger them, and thought that I might be able to light a large group using them. After a lot of thinking about how I could do that, I decided that if I used 3 of them, bounced back from umbrellas, in front of the group could give me a large, uniform “wall of light” on the front of the subjects, while 2 of them placed behind the group and shot through white translucent umbrellas might help separate the people from the background (and what was that background?). In case the 5 speedlites were not powerful enough to completely overcome the fluorescent lights, I would have to “color balance” my speedlites to produce the same color spectrum of light as the fluorescent lights. I ordered both the “plus green” and “half plus green” sheets of Rosco gels and cut them to the same size as my ExpoImaging Rogue Gels.
I drew out my lighting diagram, and that is what you saw up at the beginning of this post.
For the three “bounce umbrellas” in front of the group, I would use my somewhat unusual 46″ Bowens Silver and White umbrellas. The two “shoot-through umbrellas” that I would use behind the group came with an inexpensive lighting kit that I bought from B&H back in May 2008.
I wanted to set the power level of the middle umbrella in front of the group independently from the others, so I put that speedlite into its own group, Group C. I thought that I would have that center front umbrella close to my tripod, but as high as I could get it (all three umbrellas in front were on 13 foot light stands).
What I couldn’t figure out was how to get the little ST-E2 wireless transmitter mounted on top of the camera to be “seen” by all 5 of the 580EX II speedlites simultaneously. These units communicate with each other using infrared beams of light, and therefore require all 5 of the slave units to in a “line of sight” with the ST-E2 transmitter unit. The ST-E2 shoots its signals straight ahead, and there was a very real possibility that with that lighting arrangement, that not a single one of the other speedlites would have a direct line of sight to the transmitter.
Maybe I should just scrap this whole speedlite approach and go back to using the Einstein studio strobes and use a roll of gaffer tape to prevent the people (pre-schoolers) from tripping on the extension cords…. Maybe my whole “wall of light” idea would result in horribly flat light…
After weeks of decision and indecision, I decided to bite the financial bullet and to upgrade my Speedlites to the new Canon 600EX-RT Speedlites and the ST-E3-RT transmitter. These new devices use radio signals to communicate with each other (and they still retain the infrared method, too). I was able to get right at 50% of my initial cost of the old units back when I sold them, and the price on the newer units had fallen substantially, but it was still one heck of a price to pay for a lighting system that I wasn’t completely sure would produce enough light that I would need to completely light-up a large group of people. (I sold my old units, and purchased the new units from Adorama.)
I completely read the manuals for my new speedlites and transmitter. I was very glad that a couple of years ago I had read Syl Arena’s excellent book twice – even though the new radio controlled units came out after Syl’s book, it made it very easy to understand the new Canon flash system, too.
I set up everything in my living room just like I had planned to set up in the Crawford Community Center (only on a much smaller scale). I practiced. I set everything up and took it back down twice. I made sure that I knew how to control all 5 of the speedlites remotely from the ST-E3-RT transmitter. I also made a very nice discovery!
With the new 600EX-RT speedlites set to “manual mode” (not E-TTL mode), and using the radio signals to communicate (instead of the infrared beams of light), I could use my Sekonic L-358 light meter to measure the amount of light falling onto my subject. It would even tell me the percentage of flash-to-ambient light that was used for the exposure! Now, this was simply not possible using my older 580EX II speedlites, as when the master would send out the signals to the slaves (before the actual flash occurred), the Sekonic meter would mistakenly measure that “pre-flash” of light.
This was a HUGE advantage, and one that I had not seen mentioned by anyone, anywhere. Not even Syl Arena has mentioned this in his on-line instructions covering these new radio controlled units! (Part 1 and Part 2) This allowed me to meter the flash power outputs just like you normally would with studio strobes, such as my Einstein lights. (Again, to do this, the flash system must be operating using radio signals, and the flash units must all be in manual mode, not E-TTL mode.)
On the morning of Sunday June 9th, we arrived at the Crawford Community Center about 9:40 AM, and made 4 or 5 trips each to carry all of my equipment in. The ambient fluorescent lighting looked bright and even pretty much everywhere… Maybe I would not need any lighting equipment after all!
I pulled out my Sekonic light meter and walked around taking some simple ambient light meter readings. At ISO 100, f/8, I would have to leave the shutter open for 1/4 to 1/3 of a second. That was way too long. People move around a lot in that much time – even when they think they are being still. No, I was going to have to use my lights.
I had a couple of options in my head as to where we could set up, and expect the groups to just walk into. (See this photo of the Crawford Community Center.) If I set up in a corner, I could block the area off from the kids. But I didn’t know how big the groups would be. The chairs and tables are along two sides of the facility, with a rather large, open “dance floor” area between them. At the end of this dance floor is a slightly raised “stage” area. It is raised only about one foot (0.3m) above the dance floor, and it is a favorite play area for the young kids. At the back of this raised area is a white trellis.
After thinking about the situation, and discussing with the other family members who had arrive early to get things set up, it seemed like that raised stage, with the white trellis background would be the most “picturesque” of my three options. If we could just come up with a way to keep the kids away from everything…
It then occurred to me that we could get everything set up, get my lights adjusted, and put gaffer tape markers on the floor where everything belonged. We could then turn everything off and drag it into a corner of the building so that the kids could play on the stage. Then, after lunch and the business meeting we could drag everything back into place, turn it all on, and quickly be ready to take the group photos. It was a great solution, as long as everything came back up without any problems. I knew that there was some risk to this plan.
I started by designating a specific area that I thought I could get 24 people into rather comfortably. It was an area wide enough for 6 chairs. 6 kids could sit in front of the chairs. 6 adults could stand right behind the chairs, and 6 more adults could stand right behind them on the slightly elevated stage.
I quickly determined that if I was going to get the shutter speed to 1/100th of a second, I was going to have my lights putting out about 5 stops of light above the level of the ambient fluorescent lights. That means that my speedlites (if they were capable) would be providing virtually all of the light for the exposure, and I could ignore trying to balance their color temperature with the fluorescent lights. I did not need to use the “plus green” or the “half plus green” gels that I had made.
It took Barb and I right about one hour to get everything set up. I do have equipment and liability insurance, but have not, and do not plan to use it. For safety, I had two 13 pound (5.9 kg) sandbags on the base of the two light stands behind the group. For the three heavy duty light stands in front of the group, I had them weighted down with 18 (8.2 kg) pound bright orange colored sandbags. Lastly, somewhat for safety, but mainly for stability, I had another 13 pound sandbag hanging from the hook on the center column of my Gitzo G1327 tripod.
I wanted, and needed, a depth of field of 8 feet or more. With my lens zoomed to 75mm, an aperture of f/8 would provide that depth of field, as long as I had at least 17 feet (5.2 m) between my camera and the nearest person. With a shutter at 1/100th of a second and an aperture of f/8, I grudgingly had to raise the ISO to 200 on my Canon 5D Mark II camera. Why? This was all that the 5 speedlites were capable of. I had Group A at full power, Group B and Group C at 1/2 power.
I had Barb walk back and forth within my designated area while I triggered the flashes and she took flash meter readings with my Sekonic meter. I found that I could get a consistent, uniform field of light that allowed me to change the aperture to f/9, which gave me an additional foot or so of depth of field.
The camera and the flash were both in manual mode. I didn’t want any exposure changes that E-TTL can produce as people with different brightness of clothing moved in and out of the picture. And I sure didn’t want that white trellis behind everyone to have anything to do with determining what the camera and flash combination thought a proper exposure should be!
As a final set of tasks with my lighting set up, I made sure that the exposure was correct by photographing the “gray card” side of my Lastolite LR1250 12-Inch Ezybalance Card.
I also took a photo of Barb holding up the opposite side of that Lastolite Ezybalance card, to make sure that I could achieve the proper white balance setting later in Lightroom.
I also took the camera off of the tripod and walked right up in front of Barb, got down on one knee and took another photo of the white balance target and then set the custom white balance in the camera itself.
Lastly, I handed my ColorChecker Passport to Barb and took a photo of it. (Using that photo and the software that came with the ColorChecker Passport I could create a profile of my Canon 5D Mark II camera under this exact lighting situation.)
It was approaching 11:00 AM, and I felt pretty good about the situation. I got out my roll of gray gaffer tape and marked where each leg of all 5 light stands and my tripod were. We then turned everything off and I drug it all over to a corner of the building, where I built a wall of chairs around everything.
About 12:15 we had another excellent Texas BBQ feast, catered by Curtis Wiethorn. There were just over 100 people there, and the organizers thought that there would be 5 groups to photograph. Hey, I was all set for 5 groups of 20 people!
Then came the business meeting, where at the end it was announced that the photographer would be ready for the first group after about 10 minutes or so of getting set up. I immediately went to work on getting set up. One of Barb’s nephews helped drag the stands back out for me. It didn’t take very long to get everything turned on and into position.
As a final check, I once again had Barb walk back and forth in my designated area that I thought could hold 24 people. As she took each reading, I actually took a picture, just to trigger the lights. Although Barb hates this next photo, I think it is pretty funny, and I want to show it here to demonstrate just how even my “wall of light” was across that area.
Reminder: You can always view any photo at a larger size by just clicking on it. You will then need to use your browser’s “Back Button” to return to my story.
That photo above is a simple Photoshop composite of three individual photos. Yes, Barb can stand the same way more than once – especially when 100+ of her relatives are all sitting around watching her help me out!
As a side note: If you zoom into that photo, you will see that Barb is slightly out of focus in the two photos where she is not in the center. That’s because in those two photos, the camera was auto focusing on the white trellis in the center of the frame. Likewise, in the center of the photo the white trellis is out of focus.
OK, so the call goes out that Gregg is now ready for the first group to come up to the stage to get their photo taken.
People started walking through my forest of light stands and tripod, and I was glad that everything was heavily sandbagged. Everyone was careful, and nobody bumped anything. When they stopped coming, there was an army of people standing around everywhere! 24 people? No way! And they were all talking to each other. And no one was paying much, if any, attention to me.
I knew that I had to quickly get ahead of this and take charge. I had to raise my voice a couple of times to get anyone’s attention, and I just started pointing and telling people where I wanted them to sit or stand. Everyone cooperated just fine! I put the most senior people in the chairs, and built the rest of the group around them.
OK, so after a couple of minutes I had everyone where I told them to be, making sure that no one was blocking anyone else out. I then walked back to my camera and looked through the viewfinder.
Uhh oh… I had arranged them to the left of the centerline, and this group of 32 people was much larger than I had planned and prepared for. I had to move my camera closer, just so I wouldn’t have two of my light stands blocking some of the people’s feet in the front row. That also made me zoom the lens out to only 55mm, which was OK, but not near the 75mm I had set things up at.
What a mess! I had light stands, umbrellas, and unused chairs all in the frame. I found myself saying something I never thought I would say in such a situation: “I’ll just have to fix it later in Photoshop”.
OK, so it took me over an hour to remove all of that unwanted stuff in Photoshop, but it still wasn’t what I wanted the family to see. I just needed to crop off some of the extra space on the left side to balance it out a bit.
OK, so I tell that group that they are free to go. At that point I am told that that should be the largest of the 5 groups. I’m thinking “thank God for that”!
The call goes out for the next group. There were only 9 people who came forward this time. Again, I had the senior members have a seat in the chairs, and the others fell into the positions that they wanted to be in. I probably should have had a shorter adult stand behind the child in the chair on the right, but the way that the heights of the tops of everybody’s heads created a strange “upward zig-zag” was kind of interesting.
With this smaller group, I now had something new to deal with. Stuff became visible in the background that was hidden by the previous, larger group. There was a wall socket to the left of the guy in the blue shirt, and the wireless PA (public adress) system that had been brought onto the stage after I had set up and adjusted my lighting set up. This required another trip from Lightroom into Photoshop.
It’s very noticeable that I didn’t get the “shadow” of the PA system completely removed, but that was OK, as I knew that I was going to crop off both sides of this photo. (How much white trellis is too much white trellis?)
OK, let’s get the 3rd group up here for their photo! What? 30 people? OK…
I must have been rattled by another large group. The way that I arranged them is OK, until you look at how scrunched together everyone in the back on the left side is. It doesn’t seem balanced with what is going on in the back on the right side. I apologize for that! Let me get those unsightly light stands out of the picture.
Let’s crop that off some of that empty space on both sides, too.
OK, with just over 100 people total in the room, and with 70 of them in the first three groups, I’m hoping that the next two are close to 15 people each.
What’s that? I’m in this 4th group? OK, 18 people, including myself. Let me get everyone arranged, and then I’ll have someone else push the button on the remote shutter release.
Note to self: when you look through the viewfinder, and everyone is arranged just how you like them, don’t push your niece behind someone else as you push yourself into a good position….
This photo didn’t require any Photoshop work, just a simple crop in Lightroom.
Let’s get the 5th group up here. What? Only 5 people? (That didn’t add up to 100…)
Five people leaves a lot of room, but that’s easy to crop. Cropping this one to a perfect square seemed to look the best.
OK, so that’s all 5 of the groups that were planned, but I have saved the best for last!
Someone suggested that we get a group photo of all of the family members who are 90 years old, or at least close to 90 years old.
All 8 of these people made it to their chair under their own power, although the two women sitting at the right had to be helped from their walkers into their chairs.
That power cord for the PA system was really distracting, so I took the time to Photoshop it out. I didn’t attempt to remove the entire PA system, though.
I think that it is something very special to have a group photo of such senior family members together. I also think that those of us that would like to make it to 90 years old should look closely at the people in this photo. People who are overweight do not make it to their 90th birthday… Think about that – often!
OK, so that is my way-too-long rambling story about how I “got volunteered” to photograph groups of people at this year’s family reunion, how I did it, and the mistakes that I made when I did it. I always learn a lot by doing stuff like this. At least the mistakes I made were correctable. Lastly, I realize that my efforts are very “amateurish” as compared to any experienced and talented professional.
If you would like to see the on-line web gallery that I put together for the family members to view, you can. Just be aware that it was created in Lightroom and it uses Flash, so you will not be able to view it on your iPhone or your iPad. If you are using Internet Explorer for your web browser, you will get a pop-up warning about “Active X controls” – just click on the button for “OK” or “Allow”.
Also, be sure to have your web browser window maximized, so as to fill your monitor (and see the photos as large as possible).
Click on this link: http://greggmack.com/gm-galleries/Wiethorn_Family_Reunion_2013/
Thank you for reading my blog post this week, and I promise that the next one will be almost entirely photographs, with very little reading!