It was my wife Ann’s idea to try and get my family together for a family portrait session. She was particularly keen on making sure we captured images of our daughter together with my parents. Our last professional family portrait was taken around the time I was in middle school which was, well, a long, long time ago.
To be quite honest, we didn’t know if this was really going to happen until it was actually happening.
My father, now in his 70’s, was the big wild card. Several years ago he suffered a mild stroke and he is also going through the early stages of dementia (which runs in his side of the family). He tries his best to stay active but in his current condition, every day is different and until the moment comes, we won’t know if he will have the energy to get up out of bed and perform basic activities. Even if he agreed to do a family portrait session, chances were high that on the morning of, he would decline to follow through with it.
To make it as easy as possible on my dad, we would do it at my parents’ house. I’m not sure he fully understood that concept. On the morning of, my sister contacted me and said he didn’t want to go through with it. I told my sister that I had already taken the time to pack up all my studio lighting gear and that we were going to come over even if it was just to hang out and that I was definitely going to be taking some kind of pictures, even if it was just photos of the dog.
And so on the morning of December 31, 2021, I loaded up all my gear, my wife and our kid into the car and we headed out for my last, and most important, photo session of the year. The strategy became to just set up all the gear, and if he was willing, to throw my dad in at the last minute.
I decided to set up three areas — the main set would be in the living room, on a couch that has been in my family for as long as I can remember, probably since before my sister was born. The second area would be in front of the house — the house my parents have lived in for the last 35 years. Both of these were things I wanted to document for the future.
Finally, I set up a seamless paper backdrop in another corner of the living room. This was the extra bonus. I was pretty sure we could convince my dad to sit in for the first two setups, especially if it was for pictures with his only grandchild, but I wasn’t sure if he would have the energy to sit in for some portraits on his own. If we could get it, we would get it, but if we couldn’t, well, at least we would have the other photos of our family.
After I had set up all the gear in the living room and started taking some test shots, my dad wandered in to see what was going on. I don’t think he understood until that moment that this was all going down inside his own living room. He wasn’t going to have to go to some studio for these photos, it was all taking place in the comfort of his own home. And so we were able to convince him to change into the clothes we had picked out for him and we got it all done, even his solo shots in front of the backdrop.
I’m so glad that we got to do this, and I will be eternally grateful to my wife for convincing us to go through with it, despite all the potential difficulties and pitfalls. To have these photographs that we will be able to look at for years to come, to remember this moment in time that we will never get to go back to, well, that’s just priceless.
The Technical Stuff
This story isn’t about the technical stuff but it’s the Internet so someone is going to ask…
These images were shot on a Canon 6D Mark II, mostly with the 40mm f/2.8 STM pancake lens. (The shots of my sister and the dog on the seamless backdrop which were shot with the classic Canon 85mm f/1.8 USM). For speed and flexibility I initially had my 24-105mm zoom lens mounted but as I was lining up the first shot I noticed my focal length was right at about the 40mm range so why not switch to the pancake lens for its low distortion and high sharpness? Also, I just love the way that lens renders scenes at close human distances. (The STM focusing motor is kind of slow for fast moving scenes but that wouldn’t be an issue here.)
For lighting, I had two Godox AD200 strobes, though I only ever used one at a time. These were all basic one-light setups. I had one AD200 set up with a 120cm octagonal softbox and the other with an 80cm square softbox, both also from Godox. For the living room I used the 120cm softbox to light up the couch and later I just turned it around for the seamless backdrop shots.
For the outdoor shots I had the other AD200 with the 80cm softbox standing by ready to whisk outside right away as soon as the couch scene was done as I didn’t want to keep my dad waiting around. The already-built 120cm would have been too big to fit through the door!
Outdoors, my family was backlit by the sun and I positioned my light 180 degrees opposite of the sun for fill. Technically a two-light setup :).
As it was a lightly/partly cloudy day and the intensity of the sun was constantly changing as the clouds moved in and out, I opted to shoot the outdoor scenes in shutter priority mode (to maintain flash sync speed) and just let the camera pick the aperture as the clouds moved in and out. I kept the strobe on E-TTL mode as well so that it would automatically match intensity with the sun. I know there are some internet photo rangers out there that will yell that you’re not a real photographer if you don’t shoot in all manual mode all the time but I did what I did my so dad wouldn’t have to wait around while I messed around with settings after every shot.
Of course, the initial setup time took some time but once we started shooting it was less than 25 minutes from the first shots on the couch to the shots outside to the last ones of my dad in front of the backdrop. Especially working with my dad and not knowing how much energy he would have or how long he would last, speed really was the name of the game!
To those all-manual internet photo rangers if you’re reading this… I shoot every day on the street with an all-mechanical, manual film camera. I know how to shoot in manual mode. Your clients don’t care if your dial is on M or Tv or Av or whatever. They do care if they’re just standing around out there waiting for you while you constantly fiddle with the camera. Are you shooting in a fully controlled studio situation? A landscape with no people in it? Go ahead and knock yourself out, take all the time you need in manual mode and brag about it all you want. But photographing living humans in constantly changing light in a limited amount of time? Wouldn’t it be better to be engaging with your subjects to draw out a better result from them in front of the camera than to be constantly messing with the camera just so you can say you had the dial on M?