The 2-minute Photo Shoot

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I think for most of us, being a photographer is a double-edged sword – especially when it comes to family.  They love your shots, but they don’t want to endure the time it takes.

So, I’ve learned to be content with better-than-average family snapshots – in return, I’m “fully present” and participating, instead of being in “photographer mode” and positioning for the next great shot.  (Side story: I was once asked to vote on MVP for a football game.  My response… “I can’t.  I wasn’t watching the game; I was taking pictures of it.”  That was an epiphany for me.)

Anyway, back to the story – this was a classic last-minute deal: my son and his date for the homecoming dance.  At T-minus-30 minutes, it quickly evolved from “Do we have to take pictures?” to “Please bring your camera” to “We want to go shoot in a park”.  I knew what was in store; it had to be a quick shoot.  My solution: handle them like an executive headshot or a team photo.  Be prepared before they arrive, shoot fast, get them out of there.

I figured I’d share the anatomy of this shoot and my logic behind some of the decisions involved.  Other ideas are welcomed, so please feel free to comment below.

The Plan

Although it was last-minute, I had an idea of the result I wanted and how I’d shoot it.  I wanted color in the background (which isn’t always handy in the Arizona desert) – a nearby school had decently green fields.  I needed to shoot slightly elevated to cut out the background clutter in the schoolyard; if there hadn’t been a small hill, I would have brought a short stepladder.


I’d want a longer lens – around 70mm on a crop body, which gives flattering proportions for full-length shots.  (Not because of the lens, but because of how far back you have to stand when using it.)  A wider lens would have put me closer to the subject, which starts to distort body parts closer to the camera, and a wider angle of view would have shown more of the background (which would have made for more post-processing cleanup).  Tradeoff for a longer lens is that it put me 15-20 feet away from the couple – had I wanted to use an on-camera flash (I rarely do), this would have really cut the light reaching the subject.


I wanted a wide aperture to throw the background out of focus and make the couple stand out.  And I knew I’d want to underexpose the ambient lighting by ~1 stop and fill with flash to make them pop off the background.  I’d need a lot of flash power to have an effect during daylight, so I grabbed 2 speedlights, set them for a wide beam, and strapped them to a 30″ umbrella to provide a softer light source.


Next, the lighting needed to be off-camera and elevated, to give the subjects “depth” with shadows that also didn’t look like an odd light source.  (On-camera flash eliminates nearly all shadows on the subject, making them look “flat”.)  So, the umbrella was mounted to a couple brackets and attached to a painter’s pole.  (I use an adapter from Kacey, but the Pole Pixie is a popular alternative.  The 3/8″ thread version allows an adjustable head or even a tripod head to be attached with a camera.)

A radio trigger was added, and I had someone hold the pole about 10 feet away from the couple, with the lights about 9 feet up.  (Placing the light back a bit allows you to position it more to the side without a large difference in brightness on the person closer to it.  Practical application of the inverse square law.)  You can tell the angle from their shadow on the ground.  Admittedly, the rim lighting on her right arm/leg was a happy accident, thanks to reflection off a random cloud.

Ambient vs. Flash

Finally, a check of the ambient light metering at f/2.8 – I was fortunate that the sun was already low and the field was in shadow, so the reading was between 1/60 and 1/125 at ISO200.  I manually set the camera to 1/200@f/2.8 and shot a test for exposure; tweaked the flash power to 1/4, and was ready to go.  (A benefit of using 2 speedlights is that you can run them at lower power and they recycle faster, which can be important to catch candid shots.  And while the camera can sync to 1/250, radio triggers add some delay and 1/200 is a safer setting.)

Had the sun been out, it would have been a different story.  The couple would have been positioned so the sun was slightly behind them, to give them a rim light and let me control the foreground lighting with the flash.  Then the challenge would have been cutting the ambient light, maintaining f/2.8, and keeping the shutter speed low enough to sync with the flash.  That probably would have required a neutral-density filter on the lens, which would translate to needing every bit of flash power I had.  No doubt, finding a shady setting makes a big difference.

Clearly, the prep and setup took more than 2 minutes – probably more like 20.  But that’s why the shoot itself was under 2 minutes.  Even non-models can play along for just 2 minutes.

The Results

I parked the couple in position, prompted them to put on their flowers, and grabbed a few candids:

Homecoming DDD_1561-600pxPosed them for a basic shot (and forgot to check for “ghost fingers” – hand on the middle of the back looks better than fingers wrapping around the waist):

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Prompted them to be a little silly, to grab some natural expressions and draw out personalities:

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And challenged them to be spontaneously dramatic:

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Final tally: 1 minute and 54 seconds from the first shot to the last; 13 shots, 4 keepers.  Before they could even break a sweat, they were off to dinner.


Not much to do in post-processing except crop, fine-tune the exposure by 1/4 stop, cleanup some items in the background (twigs, brown patches of grass), and boost the shadows to bring out some detail in her black dress.  (OK, I admit… I had to remove a tree that was “growing” out of his head in the candid shot.)  Color balance was set to flash for proper skin tones (since it was the primary light source on them); this had the side-effect of making the background a little warmer (more orange, less blue).

Finally, I got Facebook-sized photos into their e-mail before they reached the dance.  (Quite a feat for me, to which my family and friends can attest.)  Fait accompli!


Being realistic, this pace is a compromise – the results are much better than a shapshot in the living room, but not nearly the quality that a lengthy shoot could produce.  However, everybody walked away happy and pain-free.

If you did this pace frequently, your eye could become trained to spot the little details faster – the hand placement, the foot position, which leg is bearing the weight, a cellphone in the pocket, etc.  In fact, I use nearly this pace when I shoot corporate directory headshots, but there are many fewer elements to watch for; clearly I’m not as practiced with a fast pace for full-length shots.

A Misfire

In a sort of behind-the-scenes peek, here’s an unedited shot where the radio trigger didn’t fire.  You can see what a difference the flash makes in the result.  Plus, you can see the original composition and the elements I needed to cleanup in the background.  This shot’s probably salvageable in Photoshop (I actually like the poses and expressions better), but the lighting will have a very different look, even if their exposure is corrected.  The composition’s a little tight on the left side, owing to the spot-focus point I was placing on her face; I should have zoomed out / stepped back just a little for more flexibility when cropping.

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And that’s it!  I hope you enjoyed the read.




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