Challenging Portrait Shoot

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon10 Comments

Software Updates Status

Just last week I gave my Photo Taco Seal of Approval on all of the latest updates from Adobe, Microsoft, and Apple.  Here in early February 2020 Adobe released an update to Lightroom Classic as part of their February 2020 updates with version 9.2.  Nothing I think most of you listening will think is a really big deal is included in that release.

  • You can specify some settings on how you want raw files imported without having to create and remember to apply an import preset
  • You can see your PSB “Large Document” Photoshop files now, but with some limitations.
  • A few new cameras and lenses supported
  • Better ways to configure how Lightroom will use a second (or third) display.
  • GPU acceleration for Lens Correction and Transform – I’ll test this at some point and report on Photo Taco
  • Enhance Details now uses GPU in MacOS Catalina

You can check out the Lightroom Classic 9.2 Release Notes Adobe provided for more information. Also, remember, I have my Photo Taco software updates status page where you can quickly see all of my recommendations on the latest updates from Adobe, Apple, and Microsoft.

Show Notes

Had some questions this week in the Facebook group about where to find the show notes.  Listeners said they hear me talk about them all the time but they don’t know where to find them, which is a real shame because we spend a ton of time producing them!

What I think has happened is listeners go to the website and look for a menu or link that says “Show Notes”.  There isn’t one. The show notes have always been there just under the monster graphic we have on the first page you come to. If you scroll down you see the episode titles, an summary of what the episode is about, and for some of them an image that has to do with that episode.  

I get that it wasn’t very intuitive to find, so I just added a Show Notes menu!  When you go to you will now see a menu option at the top that says Show Notes.  When you go there you will get a very simple page with names, dates, and the first few lines of the show notes for the most recent 100 episodes.

You can also get to the show notes more directly from most podcast apps.  The Podcast app from Apple, Castbox, Overcast, Google Podcasts, whatever app you are using there is usually a screen that has some information about the episode that includes a link at the end of it.  

For example on Apple’s Podcast app, you open up the app and choose Master Photography.  That shows a list of the episodes you can or have downloaded. If you click the Details link just under the episode, it shows you a screen that has Episode Notes and towards the bottom it says “The post Challenging Portrait Shoot appeared first on Master Photography Podcast” with “Challenging Portrait Shoot” being a hyperlink that you can click on to see the web page that has all of the show notes.  It is a little hard on this because everyone uses different apps to listen on their phone and every app shows this differently. The best way is just to go to and now there is a Show Notes menu option to get to them really easily.

We really do spend a lot of time making sure we have really good show notes.  Not only active links that you can use to find the things we talk about on the show, but also readable text that you can use to find out what we talked about in each episode with a lot of detail if you don’t have time to listen.  

If there is an episode you really like, we would love to have you share the show notes link and recommend that photographers subscribe to the show.  Besides supporting the sponsors we occasionally agree to partner with on the show, the best way to support the show and help us continue to produce episodes is to subscribe yourself and get other photographers to subscribe.

Challenging Portrait Shoot

With those topics out of the way, let’s finally get to what I wanted to talk about in this episode.  I just finished one of the most challenging portrait shoots I have had in awhile. I posted some of the photos that came out of the shoot to the Facebook group and asked if listeners were interested in my going through the details of the shoot, what made it hard, and what my thought process was for dealing with those challenges.  Enough people responded to that post in the Facebook group I decided to make that the episode this week.

Shoot Detail

The shoot was a group of nine couples going to the high school Sweetheart’s dance.  One of them was my son, so this one was a free shoot because we kind of love the kid and have told him we are always willing to do that for him.

It’s early February, the forecasted high temperature that day was 40 degrees fahrenheit, but rather than coming to our house to use our DIY studio in the basement and be warm the kids decided they wanted to take photos at the mouth of a canyon very nearby.

Thanks to the Photopills app I knew that sunset would be at 5:53pm, blue hour end at 6:21pm, and be entirely out of any light by 6:54pm. The plan was to start the shoot of these nine couples at about 5pm, the earliest they thought they could be there.  The temperature was forecasted to be about 34 degrees fahrenheit at 5pm and to get colder, down into the 20s very soon after that. So we knew it was going to be cold and we told the boys they all had to bring a blanket for those poor ladies who would be in dresses so they could be wrapped up until the very last moment.

Shooting Plan

Before going over the challenges we faced in this shoot, let me tell you about the shoot plan my wife and I came up with.  After arranging with the client the date, time, and location for the shoot that we negotiate based on the sunset times from the Photo Pills app, we always talk about the plan we are going to use to make sure we help the client to have a great experience.  We also talk about what gear we will need.

For this shoot we talked about the obvious issues we knew we were going to have with the cold.  These kids were going to be absolutely freezing. The boys may be a little warmer with most of them most likely wearing a suit coat, a long sleeved shirt and tie, and pants.  Still not appropriate clothing for the temperature, but they would have a few minutes before they would be really cold. The girls on the other hand would be in dresses that would offer nearly no protection from the cold and they would be cold almost instantly.  

We had to make sure we could get these shots done VERY quickly.  We thought of things we could do to make it go as fast as possible and so we thought we may shoot without flash because that always adds some time.  Ambient light only. The photos may not be as good as we would like that way, I always prefer to use flash in my portraits, but given the situation that might be good.

We also thought we should have the two of us shooting.  Usually my wife takes the role of working with the models, getting them in the right position with the right poses, while I do the shooting.  This time, to make things go faster, we thought we would have both of us shoot. In fact, we thought we should invite a third shooter to come and join us so that we could go three times as fast and just get this done.  We asked a friend of ours and they were excited to come shoot with us.

We would do the individual couple shoots first, with three of us and nine couples that means we each would shoot three couples.  Then we would shoot the girls together, the boys together, and finally the entire group. Those were the shots I would take on a bridge we knew of at the location as we had shot there before.  

If we took three poses per couple, assuming about 1 minute per pose, that would be about 3 minutes shooting per couple.  Then we would have the couples not being shot waiting in heated cars, so we would have some time spent switching the couples out.  We thought we could be through the individual couples in about 15 minutes. Then we would take three of the girls together, three of the boys together, and three of the group.  Another 15 minutes or so.  

Beginning to end 30 minutes.  About the fastest we thought we could do it.  If we started at 5pm like they thought, we could be done about 5:30pm and there should have been plenty of that golden hour light for the photos.  We would get to the location about 30 minutes early to make sure we were there and ready as soon as the kids showed up and kind of reserve our spot since it is a location that likely was going to have a lot of others doing the same thing that night.

Before I get into the challenges, as 4:30 was approaching that day I made a decision that saved the shoot.  Our plan was to not use any flash because it would add time and take too long in the cold, but I just couldn’t bring myself to not have flash available at the shoot.  I had this feeling that I was going to need it.  

I loaded up the flash equipment I thought would be most helpful, do the job but let me shoot the fastest I possibly could.  When we got on location at 4:30 I set up the lighting for the group shots thinking there was a good chance that we would be late and doing those shots with less light.


Here’s the equipment we brought for the shoot.  We brought our Canon 7DM2 and Canon 80D cameras.  We had our Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 G2 lens on the 80D and our Tamron 70-200 f/2.8 G2 lens on the 7DM2.  Our friend had a Canon T6 and we let her borrow our Tamron 24-70 f/2.8 G1 lens. We were expecting to shoot with plenty of light and the demands on a camera for this kind of shooting are pretty low, so I didn’t have any real concerns there.

For the “just in case” lighting I brought (check out my flash gear page for inexpensive equipment to get started) :

  • Godox XPro C flash controller
  • Three Godox AD200 flash strobes
  • Two MagGrips and MagBounce modifiers
  • Fotodiox Pro 60” softbox
  • Three 9 foot Impact Air-Cushioned Heavy Duty Light Stands.
An overhead view of how it was these shots were setup on location

My thoughts on the lighting was that for the group shots with the girls, boys, and couples I would use the MagBounce modifiers on light stands to the left and right of the couples with the MagBounce pointed at each other.  Normally I would use silver umbrellas for group shots like that, but I was afraid that the wind would be way too big for umbrellas and I didn’t want to have to deal with them falling over or possibly breaking in the wind.  

I would also set the softbox next to me and point it towards the group to add a little fill light in the middle of the group and provide a nice big catch light in their eyes.  I knew I couldn’t be very close to the group while they were on the bridge so it would be about 30 feet away from them so I would have to turn the power up a lot compared with the power on the lights to the sides of the group.  Plus, if it was needed I could use the softbox for individual couples.

First Four Couples Arrive

As so often happens with plans, it just didn’t turn out that way.  First off, none of the kids showed up until 5:30pm, the time we thought we would be done.  One car of kids with four couples showed up then, we had the third shooter (who hadn’t really done a shoot like this) take those photos.  I metered things using my camera and helped that third shooter get her settings where they needed to be, so let me walk you through how we got to the settings.

Not having nine couples waiting to be shot, and having the softbox setup and ready to go, we decided on the spot to use the softbox and flash for these individual couples.  I just couldn’t bring myself to not do that with it sitting right there ready to go. I always start getting my exposure by getting the aperture first, though sometimes I have to go back and reconsider that number.  We are using the Tamron 24-70 G1 lens that has a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and with these being portraits being shot on a crop sensor Rebel T6 camera we wanted to get the shallowest depth of field we could so it was obvious we would start at f/2.8 and shoot at the 24mm end of the lens so that we are closer to the couple.

Next then was to work out the shutter speed.  I didn’t want to go any faster than the max sync speed of the camera.  Even though the Godox equipment I was using supports high speed sync, doing that wears out the batteries much faster and in the cold that was already going to be something I was worried about.  The max sync speed on the Rebel T6 is 1/200th of a second, I know because the Godox XPro C controller when not set in HSS mode limits the shutter speed to the max sync speed for you.

The third variable is ISO, and of course we want ISO to be as low as we can possibly get it to have the highest possible dynamic range in our shots.  Aperture f/2.8, shutter speed 1/200, ISO 100. Those were the settings I was starting with based on what I wanted the shots to look like, now I had to look at what the exposure was at with those settings and make a decision about changing them.  It was time to consult the metering the camera provides and see if I had to adjust anything.

I use spot metering to inform these decisions.  I find the brightest thing there is in the background, and put the center spot of the camera over it.  That’s a really important detail in my process when I am shooting a Canon camera because spot metering does NOT follow the focus point of the camera.  No matter where the focus point is set to, metering always happens around the center focus point of a Canon camera (except for the 1D series). Because I am going to use flash to light the couple, I purposely want to underexpose the background of the photo by at least ⅓ stop.  

I found the brightest patch of snow in the background and with the settings I guessed at the metering was just about perfect there with the snow metering at about ⅓ of a stop underexposed.  Now to add the flash and get it set at a power level that will have the skin of the couple just a little brighter than the background. Unless it is the middle of the day and the sun is insanely bright, I start off with the flash at ⅛ power.  With the Godox AD200 at ⅛ power the recycle time is nearly instantaneous and you can pop the flash pretty much as quickly as you want.  

The softbox was camera right, set with the bottom of the modifier at about eye level of the girl and pointed down so that the light would reach their feet.  We positioned it as close to the couple as we could get it and not have it in the frame. With the flash at ⅛ power we took a test shot and then checked the histogram.  There was at least ¼ of the histogram to the right not filled in, meaning nothing in the scene was bright enough to come close to the right side of that histogram, so I decided to increase the flash power to ¼.  Took another test shot, checked the histogram. Still some room on the right, but quite a bit closer. Kids are freezing, so I decide this is going to work and we are ready to pose them and shoot.

All of what I just described I went through in less than a minute. In fact, I bet if I timed it that all happened in less than 30 seconds.  I have talked a lot about learning everything there is to know about your camera being so important to helping you create the images you want, and I think this is a pretty good example of why that is so important.  The shots looked really beautiful on the back of the camera, making me excited to see what we could do with them on the computer that night, and we shot four couples in 16 minutes!  

I checked metering as the couples were changing out with one coming out of the heated car and the other retreating back to the heated car, and at this point it wasn’t changing very quickly so the settings were good for all of these shots.

First Couple
Second Couple
Third Couple
Fourth Couple
Second Set of Couples

The second set of couples, five of them, didn’t arrive on location until nearly 15 minutes at about 6pm.  Leaving us 21 minutes before we would be completely out of light. To make things worse, the ambient light was fading really quickly.  This is when things got far more challenging. We had five more couples to shoot individually, plus the group shots, and we had to finish all of that in 21 minutes.

There were two primary challenges.  The first was the ambient light was far enough gone we would need to increase the exposure.  I had a little room with the shutter speed, we could lower the shutter speed and get more light to that digital sensor.  We are shooting at 24mm and if the couples were going to stand still in their pose and smile I knew if I was shooting we could go down as slow as 1/60 on the shutter and still get sharp photos.  However, one of the poses we were doing was having the couples spin each other. It produces really good smiles and the girls love it when they spin the guy. So, I really needed to keep the shutter at the max sync speed.

You may be thinking you would want to increase the power of the flash to help with the exposure, but actually the opposite is true – at least if you want to have the ambient light and the background show up.  If I raised the power of the flash we may end up with good exposure of the skin with the couple but the ambient light in the background will be much darker and we would soon be at a place where the background would be black, which means you may as well be in the studio and not freezing out at the mouth of a canyon in Utah.

So we have to increase the ISO in order to get the ambient light to show some of the background.  That first shot at with the fifth couple at 6pm needed ISO increased from 100 to 250. Not bad at all, that would be great.  Going from 100 to 250 takes four clicks of the wheel, which means 1 and ⅓ stop of light. I had to turn the flash power down 1 and ⅓ stop of light so that I get the same flash look with this couple as I got with the four couples that we shot earlier.  It is cold and I am struggling to change the settings with my gloves on, so I decide to only turn it down one stop and I go back to ⅛ power from ¼ power. Take a test shot, check the histogram. Beautiful.

We get to the next couple just three minutes later, but the light has already changed enough I have to decide again what settings I want to change to compensate for the ambient light having gone down more.  I decide this time I want to decrease the shutter speed so that I don’t have to change the flash power (shutter speed under the max sync speed does not affect light from the flash), and I think I will risk that twirling shot not freezing motion entirely by going down to 1/125 of a second on the shutter.  Test shot, check the histogram, shoot that sixth couple. Even the spinning pose looks like it still freezes the motion pretty well.

Bring on the seventh couple just three minutes later, and the ambient light has retreated enough I need to change my settings again.  I really don’t want to go down on the shutter speed any more, so I increase the ISO. Spot metering of the background using the center focus point of the camera tells me we have to go to ISO 400 now.  That is only two clicks, so ⅔ of a stop, so I take the flash power down to 1/16 + 0.3. Take a test shot, check the histogram, shoot the couple.

I continue doing this, changing the settings between each couple and increasing the ISO until we are through the ninth couple.  We went through those five couples in 12 minutes and I ended up at ISO 1,000 and flash power at 1/32. Yep, those shots at ISO 1,000 aren’t going to be as clean as the shots at ISO 100 for sure, but within the range of my camera where I know I can create good photos for sure and there really wasn’t anything I could do about it because the ambient light was just gone.  If the kids had been on time it would have all worked out great.

Fifth Couple
Sixth Couple
Seventh Couple
Eigth Couple
Ninth Couple

Some of you at this point may be thinking that TTL would have really saved me here, that is exactly what TTL is supposed to do.  TTL changes the flash power for you based on the metering from the camera and the exposure compensation settings. The idea there would be to set the exposure compensation to ⅓ stop under exposed, since that was what I was doing manually, and then as I take the shots I would only have to increase my ISO as I was doing the metering and the camera would tell the flash what power to use.  Sounds perfect for this situation where we are trying to go really fast and the light is changing enough I have to change settings every 3 minutes.

Maybe it would have worked out better than I thought, but I don’t trust TTL to do this the way I want it.  I want consistency between the photos as much as I can and I just don’t trust that the flash will be consistent with things set in TTL.  You heard how I went through counting the clicks as I changed the ISO settings so that I could use the same number of clicks on the flash controller and lower the flash power the same amount.  I am fast enough with my manual controls on both the camera and the flash that I felt more confident doing it that way than using TTL. If you prefer using TTL and it helps you to produce the images you want, then that’s great, but there was no way I was leaving this up to the camera to decide on.

Group Shots

We shot five couples in under 15 minutes, and now it was time to do the group shots.  My wife started to get the couples out of the cars with the girls all being wrapped in a blanket, while I moved the softbox over to the location where I would be shooting the bridge and we would have the couples all standing on the bridge.

I am in position at 6:15pm, my wife is working with the couples to get them into position and posed, so I have a minute to re-evaluate my settings.  The flashes are going to be used differently and the ambient light has decreased more so I have to decide what I am going to do with all of that. I know the ISO is going to have to be higher than I want still, but with no spinning photos here I could lower the shutter speed more.  I am going to shoot at 70mm now instead of the 24mm, so ideally I should actually be at 1/140 of a second to give me the very best chance at having sharp photos. I was already below that at 1/125 with the shots I did just a couple of minutes ago and I don’t dare go down too much more from there so I decide to go to 1/100.

I take a test shot, and zoom in on the image to check sharpness.  Looks good there. Now for the flash. I have two flashes to the left and right of the couples, just in front of them.  These are the two flashes with MagBounce modifiers with the bounce part of the modifiers pointing toward each other. They are probably about 2 feet in front of the group with the top of the MagBounce modifiers at the top of the heads of the couples.  

Not having a clue what the settings should be I start at ⅛ power for the MagBounce modified flashes near the couples on the bridge and I have the softbox right next to me pointed straight at them to try and add a little more light to the middle of the group.  I set it at full power given the distance it is from the group. Take a test shot. Actually looks really good, but the couples are too far to one side on the bridge making those couples much closer to that flash and much brighter. I have my wife move them all more towards the middle of the bridge, take another test shot.  Bingo. Ready to go.

Aren’t you glad you weren’t there? It was COLD!

We have the girls take the blankets off so that we can get the entire group, and I notice as I am getting ready to shoot that the ambient light is so dark now the focus on the Canon 80D is struggling.  Plus, it is so cold, I am having a hard time pressing the buttons on the camera. I know then that what I have to do is make sure I get focus on every shot and take a lot more than I think I need so that if one shot has the focus missed I have another few shots where I hope I got it.

We get through the group, the girls together, and the boys together just 7 minutes later at 6:22pm.  The couples run to their cars and are off to get some food as the next part of their fun high school dance date night.  I take down the flash equipment with my fingers so cold I am having a hard time doing that but feeling like I got some pretty fun photos.


Jeff: I have mentioned enough equipment in this episode I am not going to do a doodad of the week this week. 



  1. As always, a good session, I learned a lot and to me its really important to understand your thought process behind the photo session, both in approach and with technical settings selection. I’ve got some additional things to now think about and try…

    1. Author

      @Karl, I agree that the thought process is the important thing and something every photographer should work to improve. I learn so much every time I shoot.

  2. I got so much from this podcast! Listening to the step by step description of how you tackled this shoot and the thought process that got you to the camera/flash settings was invaluable. Your explanation on adjusting the settings, as the ambient light disappeared, was especially helpful. I downloaded this podcast for future reference, thank you!

    1. Author

      @Delisa, thanks so much for listening and letting me know! I will count this as a vote for more episodes like it in the future

  3. I’ve been following both Master Photography and Photo Taco podcasts for the last 6 months and have found them to be interesting and educational. I love your enthusiasm. Your presentations on Flash have tweaked my interest so I’ve signed up for a course presented by our local camera club (CCC Coastal Camera Club in Sussex County Delaware) in two weeks. The presenter or teacher is David Hobby from As you have said on a number of occasions training is one of the best investments you can make to improving.

    On a final note, to keep you hands warm on a shoot like this you might try this photo glove company that I came across.

    Stay warm.

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for listening!!! Best of luck on the flash workshop. I do need to check out some gloves made more specific to photo

  4. To me, the flash makes these look like studio shots with against a snowy backdrop. I guess I prefer available light.

  5. Great episode Jeff! My favorites are ones where you walk us through your thought process of a photo session and include the photographs in the Show Notes. I learn so much from the episodes. My vote is for more episodes like this. Keep up the good work!

    1. Author

      @Linda, thanks so much for letting me know!! I like doing them too. I am sure there will be many more to come as I stumble my way through future shoots.

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