My first “professional” photoshoot: Part I, Setup

I have had my Nikon D90 for almost two years now. I shoot birds, churches and urban scenes. I always wanted to go into portraiture but found the subject to be a tough one to master.

For Christmas, my spouse suggested that I bring my portable studio to the family reunions in order for me to practice. This gave me the opportunity to shoot and learn some.

It also allowed meeting a great family of five.

A month after, I received an email from Louise, the mother, asking me to take studio pics of her spouse and their three ones. Not big money, not the intent actually, but enough to justify buying a muslin backdrop to enhance my studio kit.
Two weeks prior to the shoot, I did a dry run. My two subjects: my dogs and my teddy bear I received from my daughter for my 40th birthday. Although it did help me identify potential errors, it was not a guarantee that I would not repeat them in the heat of the action as you will see.

Pratique Studio Mars 2011- 120.jpg
Flash lighting background too much

Here’s the setup (and I wish that I had taken a picture of it – duh):

  • My home studio is located in the kitchen / dinning area – note that from the dinning area we can exit to the yard in the back through patio doors;
  • In order to make room, I leaned the dinning table over on its side and moved it to the side of the room;
  • I setup two light stands with white umbrellas, one with 2 x 150w bulbs, the other with 2 x 100w;
  • 2 off-camera flash (Nikon SB 900 and Sigma EF 530 DG);
  • I erected my background with a black muslin backdrop (thanks to my spouse for “strongly suggesting” ironing it) – by the way, black is beautiful;
  • I gathered 3 stools from around the house: one tall (bar height), two small ones (kids’ size). All were useful because I had 2 adults, 2 pre-teenagers and 1 young one;
  • Last but not least, a (dinning) chair for the photographer to, not only to sit, but mostly to take shots from above.

All in all, I was quite happy about the setup. However, I wished that I had more depth. I felt too close to my subjects at times and I wish that I could have detached my subjects further from the backdrop.

As the family were friends, well friends of friends actually, I decided that I would first welcome them in the living room first. Welcoming, friendlier, more cozy that way. The purpose was to first give them a few directives, especially to kids: “this is going to be fun at first, but it will be long too”. As the parents are good parents, the kids were just awesome and never did bother me – and I love kids anyways.

The real purpose of meeting in the living room was to exchange our thoughts on what we wanted to do, what shots we wanted to take. We had exchanged emails about ideas in the days prior to the shooting. So I knew that they would be ready with ideas. I think that they appreciated the fact that I had also a plan laid out for them.

So, we compared “notes”, added their ideas to the master list, and on we went for the shots.

Well, almost. They needed to get prepped. Make-up, white shirts, hair gel, and anything else that was needed to make them all pretty.

As my first (and only prior) experience with a photoshoot was a “making of”, I took a couple of pics which turned out well actually.

Photoshoot Louise Jean-Pierre Mars 2011- (22).jpg
Making Of: Jean-Pierre and son

Setting up is a required prerequisite. But the real fun is all about shooting pics. So off I went.

As I mentioned before, from where I was, in the dinning area with the patio doors in my back and with two pairs of high watts light bulb, I had plenty of light. For light geeks, the time was 1:30pm DST in the afternoon right at the spring equinox on the 45th parallel (in Montreal, Quebec, if you ask).

However, as the sun was coming down later in the afternoon, the sun was shining in too strongly and we eventually had to close the curtains. More on that later.

Another issue I had was that I poorly oriented my two off-camera flashes. Actually, I was recreating the exact situation shown at the dry run: too much flash on the curtain. I should have known better…

Photoshoot Louise Jean-Pierre Mars 2011- (147).jpg
Flash error

Another “issue” I had was that I had to shoot at ISO 1000 in order to get speeds of 1/60 to 1/120. Again, non optimized use of the flash and light combo is to blame here. Lack of experience too.

I am not too worried about the high ISO as the D90 does an awesome job, even at higher levels. Nevertheless, I wish that I could have done without this.

Note to self: the next dry run I do, I will test the light / flash combo and will act as if I was only under flash conditions, meaning that I will go manual, set my aperture at f/5.6 or f/6.3 and play with the speed not really taking into account my light meter. I know that I will have enough light, thanks to my two flash units.

One thing that worked almost perfectly was my ShutterSnitch setup. ShutterSnitch is an iPad application that, combined with the Eye-Fi Pro X2 SD/WiFi card, allows you to receive proofs in real-time of the shots you take. It allows you to use the iPad as a 9″ large screen display to check for focus, composition, and even histogram. Remember that at heart, I am a computer geek and that photography was, at the beginning, just another geeky gadget.

The cool thing about ShutterSnitch / iPad combo:  it impresses your clients :-).

Although I had configured ShutterSnitch to receive JPGs only and I was using my D90 in RAW+JPG Basic, it still took some time to receive each pic. It is more like a number of JPGs were received at once, then nothing for a while, then some more again. I will have to investigate this “burst effect” further.

Another thing that turned out great was the muslin backdrop. As I mentioned previously, the results proved that ironing it was well worth it. And if you want to know, at home I am the one who does the ironing anyways 🙂 – and my spouse pretty much everything else :-(.

Once in a while however we forgot to turn off the lights in the kitchen behind the backdrop. They show through muslin cloth. More learning by experience.

Photoshoot Louise Jean-Pierre Mars 2011- (248).jpg
Oups, we forgot the lights on in the kitchen behind the backdrop

Next post: the pictures from the shoot!

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10 Responses to My first “professional” photoshoot: Part I, Setup

  1. Good learning experience. You’re well on your way.

  2. Kris says:

    Max I learned that when shooting with studio setup it’s good to go fully manual and here’s how I do it. I try to kill the ambient light 99% of the time so I use lowet ISO (200) f/5.6 and shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/160 This allows me to focus on flashes rather then messing with ambient light. I too shoot in my living room and somethimes I have to face the lights in the background but with little practice I have no problem “killing” those with fast shutter speed. Also When shooting with black backdrop it’s good to use thicker fabric like velvet although it’s quite expensive it eats up a lot of light and stays pretty black. Standard muslin will also work but you need to move your subjects away 5 – 6 feet so there is no light hitting it.
    All in all nice set up and nice experience for you.

    • maximegousse says:

      Kris, indeed it was an awesome experience. Lots of mistake, some will not be repeated, others will be made. But so much fun 🙂

  3. Pingback: My first “professional” shoot: Part II, The pictures « Max's Photo Blog

  4. Nice share about photography 😀 very funny and inspire me much to held another experiment

  5. Pingback: First official-ish shoot, need tips

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