Every November my wife, Amanda, asks me to take some family pictures for the Christmas card. Actually, for several years now she’s been wanting to hire a photographer to capture our annual holiday portraits. But, you know, I’m a photographer, and I’m also stubborn and cheap, so I usually tell her that I’ll take care of it, no need to hire anyone. I know that it’s a big challenge to be both in front of the camera and behind it at the same time, but I’ve done it before, so no big deal, right?
Amanda likes to pick the location and our clothes. Actually, location scouting is a joint venture; Amanda has an idea in her mind of what she wants, then I help her find it. Last year I photographed our family at Antelope Island State Park. The year before we went to downtown Ogden. This year she wanted a tree-lined road, and we found a good location not terribly far from our house. You wouldn’t know from the pictures that we were actually in the city, right behind a restaurant.
Everything was set, we were all dressed and ready to go, but I had already encountered a problem: one of my tripods was missing. I discovered in past photo sessions that I get the best results when using two cameras. I have a primary camera that I shoot using a remote, and I have a secondary camera offset to the side, which has the interval timer set to snap a random picture every five seconds. The primary camera captures the staged portraits, while the secondary camera captures the natural moments in-between. This setup has worked well for me, but without the second tripod it wasn’t going to happen. After much searching without success, I found some step-stools and books to stack onto each other to form a makeshift tripod, which was far from ideal but better than nothing.
Upon arriving at the photo-shoot location, I encountered another issue. The plan was for our family to be far away from the camera to make us smaller in the frame, but I discovered that the camera remote range was not large enough. I was too far away from the camera to remotely activate the shutter. After trying a few different things, and after much frustration, I settled on ditching the remote and using the camera’s interval timer, set to snap an exposure every three seconds. This is like spray-and-pray to the extreme. The wheels were beginning to come off, but we put on a smile and pressed forward.
I’m not a family portrait photographer. I’ve done it before a few times, but it’s really not my cup of tea. Trying to get everyone to look good simultaneously is nearly impossible. There’s inevitably always someone with a goofy look on their face. And even if you think an exposure looks good, one of the adults (usually but not always the wife) will find something insignificant to nitpick about. It seems like, as the photographer, you just can’t win. Maybe some of you have better experiences than me, but I just don’t find much joy in family portrait photography. Still, doing it myself is better than paying someone, I told myself.
In my family, the two youngest children, ages five and two, are the goofballs, and they also don’t follow instructions well, sometimes defiantly so. If you’re behind the camera, you can observe their behavior, and offer some words or bribes (candy works well) to get them to pose appropriately. When you are in front of the camera and not behind, it’s much more difficult to catch them in the act, and so you’ll get a bunch of shots where they don’t look good. The ten-year-old tries much too hard to smile, and often looks as unnatural and uncomfortable as possible. Only by telling funny jokes can you get him to loosen up. The 12-year-old thinks that she’s the boss of the other three, which sometimes causes unnecessary conflicts. The challenge is somehow getting all of this under control at just the right moment when the shutter clicks. And it’s clicking every three seconds on one camera and every five seconds on the other.
It’s actually a tiny miracle that any of the pictures turned out decent. The light was rapidly changing. At one point the sun found a place between the clouds and the trees, and put a bright hazy flare right through the middle of the frame (and not the good kind, either), and during this time someone walked through the scene. I couldn’t see this because I wasn’t behind the camera. As the sun got lower the temperature rapidly dropped, as did the spirits of those being photographed. It was all a mess, beginning to end. We did it anyway, determined to have a nice picture on the Christmas card. Afterwards we had some hot cocoa to warm us up.
The primary camera was a Fujifilm X-T30 with a Fujinon 90mm f/2 lens attached to it, set on a tripod. The secondary camera was a Fujifilm X-T20 with a Fujinon 35mm f/2 lens attached to it, which was set on top of a stack of stools and books. I used the Provia film simulation, DR400, Grain Weak, Highlight 0, Shadow +1, AWB +1R & -2B, Color +2, Sharpening +2 and -4 NR on both cameras. This is a new recipe that I created for these pictures.
This article would not be complete if I didn’t share with you the outtakes. Below are the pictures that were failures, where things didn’t go as planned, and the pictures are far from the “good” photos that we had hoped to capture. These are the “bad” and “ugly” images that show what really happened during our family holiday portrait session; not what we wanted, but certainly real life.