Getting Great Holiday Portraits

It’s holiday portrait season again!

Originally published December 2010. Updated Dec. 9, 2016

‘Tis the season for family portraits.  If you’re like me, you’ve got friends and family who say “you’re a photographer, will you shoot portraits for me?”  Unfortunately, these people don’t always understand that photographing landscapes and wildlife is completely different from photographing people.  I mean, the camera is the same, but that’s about it.

So what should you do when asked to shoot portraits?  Here are some tips and gear recommendations that should get you started.

Step 1: Invest in at least one shoe-mount flash, like a Nikon SB-700 or SB-5000.  If you are using your camera’s pop-up flash for portraits, you’re going to be in trouble.

Step 2: Learn to use your flash off-camera.  If you use the Nikon system, you can check to see if you can use your camera’s pop-up flash as a wireless commander.  If not, or if you have a camera without a pop-up flash, consider springing for the Nikon SU-800 commander unit.  You’ll be thankful you did.  Pretty soon, you’ll probably want to add a softbox or umbrella to your kit to get nice soft lighting.

A shoot-through umbrella produces very nice light.

Step 3: Start working with your camera and flash in full manual mode.  Yes, I know that “M” sends shivers of fear down your spine!  But here’s what so great about Manual Exposure with flash– you set your metering to the background (I usually set the exposure to be 2-stops underexposed), and then use your off-camera flash as fill-light for your subject.  Don’t be afraid about using Manual Flash settings, either.  Just check your camera’s histogram and dial the flash power up or down as needed.

Step 4: Be careful with your aperture settings.  Keep in mind that flash output (range) drops by half with every aperture you stop down.  Most of the time, you won’t want to shoot above f/5.6.   With this in mind, you’ll need to be wary of depth of field, especially with group shots.  Learn to position your subjects so that their heads are more or less in the same plane of focus.  Otherwise, you’ll have soft people in the frame. If you’re shooting outdoors in bright conditions, you can still use a wide aperture by enabling the high speed FP-Sync mode on your camera & flash. Doing so cuts flash output dramatically, so it only works when you are close to your subject.

Step 5: If you get really good at this, consider investing in a fast prime lens (f/2.8 or faster) and a second shoe-mount flash unit.  A fast lens, like the Nikon 50mm f/1.4 AFS or 85mm f/1.4 AFS, will let you get more creative with shallow depth of field shots, while a second SB-5000 will allow you to create accent lighting in backgrounds.  I like to use the orange (tungsten/CTO) gel on my background flash to get a nice warm effect.  If you’re interested in setting up a home studio, here’s some equipment choices that you might be interested in.

A second SB-800 with CTO (orange) gel helped make the background more interesting.

Step 6: Now that you’re a pro, don’t be tempted to give away your work for free, unless it’s a really good cause or for immediate family.  You’ll probably be spending some time retouching portraits and making prints– consider that your time is worth something!

6 thoughts on “Getting Great Holiday Portraits”

  1. Thanks Jason,
    I’m actually shooting Christmas portraits today for some friends. Good things to think about. I’m still learning the pros and cons between shooting on “M” and “P” when it comes to flash photography. Either way the camera and flash seem smart enough to make up for me.

  2. Excellent points. Just shot the family next for their Christmas card and our family as well (love that remote). SB-900 & 600. One thing I know very well is that I need to spend more time with my flash units:)

  3. Well done, as usual.

    In step 2, some Canon popup flashes will act as a trigger for a remote flash. It’s not limited to Nikons.

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