HIGTS – Fall Family Portrait

In Master Photography Roundtable by Jeff Harmon6 Comments

Shooting Family Portraits

We have a studio space in our house where we can do some portrait shooting, but our clients far and away prefer to be outdoors for their family portraits.  Not sure that is true everywhere, and maybe it has to do with the beautiful mountains and canyons available to us within a very short time here in Utah, but 95% of our family portraits are shot outdoors.

46mm +1.6x crop factor, f/3.2, 1/250, ISO 100, 2 lights

We recently did a family portrait session for a repeat client out in close to the peak of the fall colors here in Utah. I have had a lot of questions on how I did the lighting for these shots, so here is the detail of the equipment I used and how I setup the lighting.

Family Portrait Shoot Preparation

I have already done an episode on the 5 things that should be on every photographer’s pre-shoot checklist, which I used and we had all of the gear we needed on the shoot.  So let’s start there and talk about the gear I chose to use.

The shoot was for a family of 5.  Over the years I have invested in a few different lighting options I had to choose from.  Let’s start with the flashes and then we’ll get into the modifiers.

Flash For Family Portraits

For some time now there has really only been one option for me as a hobbyist photographer for adding flash to portrait shoots – Godox.  Several years ago I recommended flashes and a controller from Yongnuo.  It was a pretty solid option at the time for much less cost than what is offered by your camera manufacturer.  I have tried a lot of inexpensive flash equipment over the years and Godox is no question the best option out there.

I have talked about flash equipment many times here on Master Photography and on my other Podcast, Photo Taco.  In fact, you should check out this Photo Taco episode called Inexpensive Flash and my Budget Gear Flash Kit page.  You may also want to check out this Master Photography episode (was the Improve Photography podcast at the time) called Beginner’s Guide to Flash.

You can go to the Budget Gear Flash Kit for more details, but here is the Godox equipment I used with these family portrait images we created.

For this shoot I used two Godox AD200 lights and the Godox XPro-C controller for my Canon 80D camera.

Flash Modifiers For Family Portraits

33mm +1.6x crop factor, f/4.0, 1/60, ISO 100, 2 lights

The Godox flashes are seriously such a no-brainer for photographers, the discussion of light modifiers for this shoot will be far more interesting.  I have been adding flash to portraits for many years now and over that time I have invested in a few different lighting modifiers.  Here are the options I have available and then I’ll tell you which I chose to use here and why.

  • Fotodiox: I started into flash photography with a Fotodiox F60 Quick-Collapse Softbox ($70).  It is a 24” inch (60cm) Hexagon softbox that met two of the needs I had as I got started.  First, it is pretty inexpensive for a softbox.  Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is very portable.  The quick collapse part of the product name is very accurate.  This softbox collapses and expands really easily.  I love this modifier as an entry into flash photography.

    I also own two of the Fotodiox EZ-Pro Deep Parabolic Softbox ($120).  At 36” it is bigger than the F60 but a little less portable and nearly twice as expensive.  It expands and collapses without having to take out metal rods like has to happen with so many softboxes, but I find expanding it to be a little bit difficult and I have had it collapse in the middle of a shoot several times.

    Note: To make the Fotodiox EZ-Pro softbox work I had to invest in a few of these S-type Bracket Bowens Mount ($25) holders so that I could mount the AD200 flashes inside.  There is a newer Godox S2 Speedlight Bracket ($25) available now that I would buy if I were getting them today.
  • MagMod:  I have MagMod gear I could use as well.  The MagSphere ($50), a couple of MagBounces ($50), and a MagBox ($300).  You will also need a MagGrip ($25) for every flash you want to use with the gear. 

    I really like MagMod gear.  It is a little overpriced in my opinion, but not so much to prevent a hobbyist like me from investing in the gear.  The ease of use is the biggest appeal.  It is super portable and the magnets make it some of the most flexible lighting gear available, encouraging you to try creative things.  Like maybe using some of the MagMod Gels ($30) which you need a MagGel Holder ($25) to use.
  • Godox: Yep, Godox makes a softbox as well.  I have the Godox Octagon 47” Bowens Mount ($45) softbox.  At 47” it is a pretty large softbox, but it is NOT portable.  This is a softbox designed to be setup once, inside a studio, and left setup forever.  The softbox has a number of metal rods that you have to put in place and bend individually to create the frame.  I found it hard enough to setup I actually looked for videos on how to make it work because I couldn’t figure out what to do.

    Note: Again, need that S-type bracket I mentioned above to mount the Godox lights in this softbox.

For this shoot I chose the Fotodiox EZ-Pro softboxes.  I did bring the MaxBox in case I wanted to use it, but I ended up only using the EZ-Pros.  The reason I chose those as the softboxes to start out with on the shoot was I had two of them and I only have one MagBox (due to cost).  You can light a family of 5 with the MagBox for sure, but one side of the family is going to be brighter than the other.  Much better to have softboxes on both sides of the family to get soft, even lighting.

Plus, the EZ-Pro are also 12” larger which would also make the light a little softer.

Light Stand For Family Portraits

I have bought a lot of cheap light stands over the years.  Notice I didn’t say inexpensive, I said cheap.  Light stands that don’t cost a lot also don’t last.  They have to hold up some pretty heavy lights, especially when you add the modifiers to them.  They need to hold steady in the wind, and even if the day seems pretty nice there is always wind to catch that big softbox and tip the whole thing over.

I hate to directly call out any particular manufacturer as being something to avoid, but in this case the light stands I have used were so bad I really feel like I have to.  I discourage anyone from investing in Neewer brand light stands.  I like other photography equipment from Neewer, but their light stands are not durable.

After buying so many of the inexpensive light stands, the manufacturer I like the best is Impact.  I specifically like the Impact Air-Cushioned Heavy Duty Light Stand ($55).  This Impact light stand is heavier than many I have tried, though still plenty portable.  Especially because we use our Mac Sports Collapsible Wagon ($85) to tote around the equipment.  I know from tough experience that heavier in a light stand is a good thing.  It means they are going to hold your flash and modifier really well.  

This Impact light stand also goes up to 9’ high, which is really helpful to make sure you have the flexibility to place the flash wherever you want.

Oh, and even though these light stands are heavier than many, I have still had the wind blow them over.  I use the Neewer Sand Bags ($28 for 6) filled with pea gravel rather than sand (no matter the container the sand gets out and gets everywhere).

29mm + 1.6x crop factor, f/4.0, 1/100, ISO 100, 2 lights

Shooting Family Portraits With Flash

Now that we have gone through the flash equipment I used in this shoot, let’s talk about how I set it up and used it to create these family portrait images.

Positioning the Lights

Normally my goal when setting up the lighting is to get it as close as I possibly can to the models without having the modifier or stand in the frame.  It is counter-intuitive, but this is how you get soft lighting.

I will use a single light for one or two models.  In a pinch I could go up to four or five models with a single light if absolutely necessary, but I prefer to use two lights if there are more than two models.  This was a family of five, and I have two light setups, so that is what I used.

If I was in a studio I would set the lights up camera right and left, mirroring one another.  What I do in positioning one light I do to the other.  I would put them about 2 feet in front of the family, raised up above the head and pointing down at about a 45 degree angle.  I would point the softboxes so that the edge nearest the models is pointing to the model furthest away from the softbox.

For example, if I am setting up the softbox that is camera left, I imagine water shooting out of the softbox under very high pressure and make sure the right edge of that softbox (the edge closest to the models) is pointed to the model at the far right so that the water would reach them.  This helps me get even lighting over the group with only two flashes.

I have found that if I position the softboxes so that they edge away from the models is pointed at the model closest to the softbox the models on the end get more light than the models in the middle.  That same softbox camera left would have the left edge of the softbox pointed at the model furthest left in the group.

You can solve this by adding a flash near the camera pointed toward the middle of the group, which also adds more catch light to the eyes of the models, but that means a third light.  I want to use the fewest number of flashes possible.

All of that is my goal, something fairly easy to accomplish in a studio setting after some practice.  This shoot was outdoors and involved a lot of uneven ground.  Ground that felt like it was at 45 degrees but probably was more like 25 or 30 degrees.  It was tough to get the light stands to stay upright, there was no possibility of having them mirror each other.

I did the best I could to make them the same height, which meant one light stand was collapsed down a lot and the other was extended to full height.  I tried to get them the same distance from the family, but trees and bushes meant that was also impossible.  So it was the power of the flashes that allowed me to get even lighting.

Setting Flash Power

My usual process for getting to the flash power for a good exposure is this:

  1. Set ISO to the lowest it goes on your camera.  I only increase it as a last resort to get the exposure I want.  ISO affects both the ambient and artificial light coming from the flash.
  2. Set the aperture so that all of the models will be in focus.  I would do f/2.8 for a single model, or two models that are even with each other as far as distance from the camera.  When there are more than two models, even if they are standing in a line, the models are usually stacked enough that I need to stop down a little to f/4.0 or f/5.6.  Aperture also affects both the ambient and the artificial light coming from your flash.
  3. Use spot metering and set the shutter speed so that the brightest thing in the background is ⅔ stops underexposed.  Yep, underexposed.  I want the background to be pretty but not eye catching and our eyes move towards the brightest thing in the photo first.  The models should be the brightest thing in the photo if at all possible.

    I try to only use shutter to control this because the shutter speed does not affect the power of your flash.  Seems crazy right, shutter doesn’t affect how bright/dark your flash is in the photos unless you take the shutter above the max sync speed and have to use a flash feature called high speed sync (HSS).  Check out the Flash Shutter Sync episode for more information on that.

    This is why I arrange to shoot about 90 minutes before blue hour with my clients when they want to shoot outdoors.  I can control the ambient light the way I want it with fairly slow shutter speeds like 1/250 on the Canon 80D.
  4. I start out with the flash at 1/16 power.  Room to go up and down from there and you have to start somewhere.  When I first start a shoot at that 90 minutes before blue hour I usually need at least 1/16 if not 1/8 or 1/4.  Then I have to watch that flash power as the ambient light continues to go down throughout the shoot.
  5. Take a test shot and adjust the flash power using the controller accordingly.
  6. Look for and fix shadows.

I can’t tell you for each shot what the flash power was set to.  I don’t remember what I ended up with for the first few shots and obviously had to adjust the power throughout the shoot.

Avoiding Shadows

49mm +1.6x crop factor, f/3.5, 1/125, ISO 100, 1 light camera left

Shadows can be tricky to deal with.  You can have one model cast a shadow on another model, and the more flashes you add to the mix the more chance you have of getting shadows on models.  It is technically possible to fix that in Photoshop.  I have done it, but it is NOT easy and I highly recommend you avoid that work if at all possible.  I always recommend you do everything you can to get things right in camera.

There are two things that help you not have shadows.  First, is getting the flashes above the heads of the models and pointing them down.  This helps the shadows to be very small and more likely behind the models where the camera doesn’t see them.  When the flashes are more eye level with the models and pointed about 90 degrees towards them the shadows will still be behind each model but now they are much longer and you have more possibilities of them being on another model.

Little shadows aren’t a big deal, in fact that can add depth to the photo.  But you don’t want the shadow from the head of on model to cast a shadow halfway across the face of the model next to them or behind them.  I look at the shadows and then either have the models move around a little or move the lights until I don’t have big shadows on the models.



  1. Great podcast and article. Just an observation. You said:

    > Set ISO to the lowest it goes on your camera.

    I know you know this, but for folks new to cameras, I’d suggest the lowest “base” ISO. Many (most?) cameras can push ISO beyond the base ISO. E.g. my Sony cameras go down to 50 ISO, but the lowest base ISO is actually 100. Other cameras have a base base ISO of 64. It may vary.

    Sony calls these ISOs below their base 100 ISO (e.g., ISOs of 50, 64, and 80) “extended” ISOs (sometimes others disparaging called “fake” or “pushed” ISOs), and offer no benefit over the base ISO of 100). These ISOs below the base ISO often feature some visual indicator in camera to show that they’re not native ISOs (asterisks, underlining and over lining, etc.).

    So I might rephrase this as

    > Set ISO to the lowest base/native value that it goes on your camera.

    1. Author

      Totally agree that extended ISO on either side is not useful. Our audience has a lot of photographers who are new enough I don’t think they will understand what base ISO is, but I do understand your point. I think I will keep saying it the way I am as I think it is most easily understood by the broadest audience. Thanks for the input and for listening!

  2. Jeff,
    What may be helpful for this may be a photo of you taking the images with you lighting setup in frame. In other words, a photo from the other sides so we can see what your lighting setup looks like. Just a thought and love the podcast!
    Thanks for all the help!

    1. Author

      I agree. A behind the scene shot. The problem with that is when I am shooting for my clients I put 100% of my attention in creating the best shots for them that I can. I am not thinking about making the shoot into a podcast episode

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