" A fun way to photograph school children with a Christmas cheer!
The Project Premise
I thought it would be fun to offer a unique gift to the students attending the Sainte-Catherine Labouré elementary school in the Montreal borough of Lasalle. A free headshot photo session, a 4x6 print, and a Christmas card they can offer to their family.
Shooting: When, Where and for How Long?
The photo shoot took place at the school two weeks prior to the students leaving for their Christmas vacation. The shoot was on two days during the mornings. It was fast-paced for the most part. In all, I photographed four hundred and forty one students, a dozen teachers, the school principal and a few of the school’s supporting staff.
Shoot, edit, retouch, print, glue photos to the cards, and finally deliver the finished product to school. Straightforward, right?
The Background Setup
After the shoot date was determined, I needed to assemble my set and do some testing. So simplicity is the key here: a black background, and in front of it, an arrangement of lights conveying the Christmas cheer to each headshot. The background was a collapsible 5-in-1 – 42" x 72" oval reflector by Impact, draped with its black cover. The Christmas lights needed a little more consideration. The first set I tested ran directly on 120VAC at 60Hz. For your information, the meaning of AC in VAC is alternating current, and the Hz (Hertz) is the frequency it alternates too. So if the current alternates, the flow of the electrons reverse direction 60 times every second (60Hz = 1/60 seconds). The electrons whiz back and forth through the lights so that they constantly go from +120VAC to 0VAC to -120VAC, back up to 0VAC, then up to +120VAC, and so on… Essentially, the power is switching on and off at a rate of 120 times a second. Lights operating off of AC power flicker at that rate. Why is this important to know? (keep reading)
How Exposure Works: Controling the Ambient Light and Strobes
The camera’s shutter speed and f/stop both control exposure. Shutter is a time-based control, and the f/stop controls the diameter of the lens opening. The light coming from your flash is instantaneous therefore you control the exposure on the subject with the aperture or f/stop. The exposure on the background comes from the ambient light and is controlled by on how long the shutter stays open. In all, you need to control two exposures, the ambient light and the light from the strobes. For this photo shoot, the background wasn't lite by the strobes, so to get it as black as possible I set the shutter speed on my camera to 1/250th of a second. This is the maximum sync speed I can use between my camera and my Paul C Buff Einstein strobes.
Testing the AC powered Set of Lights
Since the lights flickered at 120 clicks per second, in comparison, the shutter speed set at 1/250sec, I captured some frames when the lights were off or in the process of switching off (or coming back on). It was totally random:
First frame, some lights on (or off)
Second frame, no lights on (almost)
Third frame, almost all the lights are on (brightest at least)
Forth frame, a few lights on
And so on, in no particular order …You get the picture.
So I had a problem, I wanted my light curtain to be on all the time with no intensity or illumination fluctuation. Back to the store and pick out something else.
Finding the Right Christmas Lights
My quest for the proper lights focused on finding some that were powered by a DC power supply. Direct current implied that the electrons flow constantly in one direction. No power cycles, always on. So I went shopping and finally found some at IKEA. My testing revealed that my flickering lights issue was resolved and these were relatively bright.
Strobes (no speedlights please)
I worked with two Paul C Buff Einstein studio strobes. The main light was set at camera left, and behind the posing stool at camera right, a rim light for subject separation from the black background. They were both set to low power and fitted with lightshapers.
Lightshapers: A Straightforward Approach
My main light was fitted with a 24′′ Lastolite EzyBox. I geled the main light by fitting it with a large ½ cut CTO (amber gel) sheet (held on with a succession of clips). It was set just about subject eye level, and the CTO gave it a bit of an evening glow. An overall excellent quality of light. My rim light was fitted with a Paul C. Buff 24”x36” stripbox with a fabric grid to kill light spill. Both of the light shapers are good, collapsible rigs you can tote with you to any location including outdoors if need be. Not too much weight either.
Here's a picture of the whole setup at school.
Light Setup, How to Take Elementary School Portraits for Christmas in Montreal[/caption]
I Want Some Bokeh (or the visual quality of the out-of-focus areas of a photographic image)
The Christmas ambience emanating from the student portraits depended on the quality of the out-of–focus curtain of lights behind the students so I set out to shoot with a wide open lens. The subjects were to be seated about eight feet in front of the curtain. Shooting with a 70-200mm set at 200mm and focusing on the subject blurred the lights and produced some fuzzy Christmas background bulbs.
Shooting and the Camera Setup
My mother volunteered to be my subject for the initial testing. As above, my camera was initially set to f/2.8, ISO200 with a focal length of 200mm. With my still subject I was able to focus on the eye closest to the camera and shoot, spot-on, no issues. Thanks Mom.
In anticipation to the student photo session, I opted to close the aperture one stop down from wide open (now f/4) knowing that some kids wouldn’t be patient or take directions to well. By doing so, I give myself a little more dept of field (not that much but I’ll take it) thus giving me a better chance of getting accurate focus on the nearest eye. A trade off, a little less bokeh on my background lights but that wasn’t by any means a show stopper.
Get a Good Assistant
For this type of shoot, I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get a good assistant when working with children; especially if you want to photograph a large number of them in a short time span. For this shoot I needed a person with solid "little people" skills.
" The modus operandi: be quick and efficient.
My assistant set a fast pace to the shoot, and she conveyed her Christmas spirit to the children, all the while posing and instructing then. Cheerfulness and genuine big smiles were captured throughout.
An all important factor. If your having a good time, it will reflect on others. Now go out and catch some smiles! Here are some of my favorite images from this photo shoot.
For the technically minded, the camera of choice was the Nikon D3s, Nikkor 70-200mm f2.8 lens, 16GB Lexar 1000x CF memory cards. As for the equipment set up, background, and lighting, all was done by yours truly. ++ Cheers! — All photographs and photoshop retouching done by Montreal South Shore photographer Melvyn Kouri