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How to cope when you can’t wait for the “right light”

As a professional photographer, you have to be able to deliver a solid product no matter the conditions. When a client tells you they want a photograph of over 60 people at 12:30 in the afternoon you need to produce.

The challenge

Precision Nutrition called for a photoshoot at the Enchantment Resort in Sedona, AZ. I was tasked with making a group photo in 90-degree heat with the sun driving straight down.

High contrast and lack of detail in the shadows without fill light. Nasty!

I knew I could tame the harsh shadows with fill light. But, upon arriving I was also confronted with strings of lights over the scene. That was a problem. The client wanted a red rock background and sky in the photo. And, not only would the strings of lights blight the background, they would also rain down shadows on my subjects. I didn’t freak I knew I had Adobe Photoshop in my pocket. As the sales manager at Enchantment put it, “You can use your magic eraser.”

The plan and gear

I added a large couch and two chairs to help break up the posing utilizing the arms as well as the seats. I set two powerful Paul C. Buff White Lightning X3200 flashes on thirteen foot stands camera left and camera right. The lights were tilted toward the sky to feather the light so it was not blasting the foreground. Power was adjusted, measuring with a light meter across the entire scene to match the light intensity from the sun. I normally would like to bounce light into umbrellas to soften the light a bit. Wind gusts made this untenable so only seven-inch reflectors were used.

Final image with retouching including replacement of some faces and removal of light strings and their shadows.
Make sure the lights are set very tall on the light stands in order that the shadows will not fall on the people behind. Also, feather the lights up to not flood the foreground with brightness.

A tip here: make sure your lights are placed high enough so shadows fall behind the next row of people. If the lights are too low those shadows cast can get ugly fast on the people behind. Use sandbag on the stands if the wind is blowing.

The camera was a Lumix G9 mounted on a Sirui 20X Ball Head.

I placed myself in each part of the scene to learn what it would take to get people into position. Remember, it is hot and the sun is beating down. People cooking longer than five minutes in the Arizona sun start to look toasted.


The group was gathered in the shade until everyone was assembled. Nothing worse than people sweating in the sun waiting when the call goes, “Hey! Where’s so and so??” I made a game out of getting everyone into position as quickly as possible. Some laughing, joking and the repositioning of a few folks was followed by moving the camera position for final tweaks to ensure all faces are visible.

Another image retouched for a bit of fun.

About eight frames were made. As I made each image I tried to ensure that at least everyone had one good expression with open eyes. Then a few extra frames were made showing some excitement. Then the group was turned loose. Total time from moving into sun, posing and image capture was about five minutes. Three minutes to pose and two minutes to make images.

Post production

With a group this size I always plan for a few head swaps. The camera needs to be on a tripod and locked down tight. Making changes becomes a case of picking the image with the least amount of negative expressions, closed eyes etc. Then placing an image with the better expression over top and filling a mask with black. Painting white in the mask reveals the better expression. As they say on the shampoo bottles, lather, rinse, repeat until complete.

The last bit of post was to work with Photoshop’s Patch, Stamp and Spot Healing tools to remove the strings of lights. The shadows cast by the lights needed to be attended to as well.

Yours in Creative Photography,    Bob

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