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Minimal Lighting for Funeral Portraits

Funerals are a good time to make family pictures because people who haven’t seen one another in decades are together. You should take advantage of the opportunity. I attended a funeral yesterday, and amidst the memory sharing I took a few minutes to make portraits.  Let me show you how I made the most of a difficult situation with minimal gear. This setup will work well in many event situations.

Levi Sim Funeral Portraits-1
We haven’t had most of the cousins together for many years.

 

The Backdrop: Put It Farther Back

There was a luncheon for the family held in the multipurpose room of a church, which happens to be a full-size basketball court. However, the walls were simple cinderblocks with some wood panels to break it up. Neither the panels nor the white walls were large enough to be a background on their own. Also, when people came to be in a picture, they automatically lined up right in front of the wall. The problem with that is there’s not enough distance from the wall to allow depth of field to make it blurry and remove detail.

Levi Sim Funeral Portraits-1-2
This lighting setup will yield soft light that’s flattering for everyone. These are my parents and brothers.

 

The first thing to do is to get everyone far from the wall. I asked everybody to meet me at center court. I shot from the edge of the court with people standing in the middle so there would be plenty of distance between them and the background. This makes the background slightly out of focus and less distracting. But if I wanted to it would be very simple to remove that background in Photoshop or On1 because it’s out of focus.

IMG_6098Next, I used a telephoto lens, a 42.5mm (85mm equivalent)for two reasons. First, it reduces how much of the world is visible in the background. If I used a wider lens, like a 50mm equivalent, I’d probably have the whole wall in the photo. That’s a problem because there are still kids running around and food being served. A telephoto lens reduces the size of the backdrop. It also reduces foreshortening so that heads on the front row are proportional to heads on the back row. (It drives me nuts when the two-year-old on the front row appears larger than Big Jim on the back row, and it’s because a wide lens was used.)

The Light: A Different Kind of Bounce

I had a long drive to the funeral, and two cities to fly to afterward, so I was traveling light. I left my studio strobes at home and brought only my speedlights. Not only did I not want to bring the big lights, but I didn’t want to bring the light stands, either. There are dozens of kids running around at funerals to trip over stands, and I didn’t want to be that cousin. So, I put a speedlight on the camera and got ready to shoot.

You probably know that pointing a flash on camera towards your subjects is probably the least flattering light you could make. You’ve probably also heard of bouncing the light off the ceiling to make it softer. That can work well, but the ceiling here was thirty feet up, which means my light would go up thirty feet then down thirty feet to reach my subjects, and that because the light spears out as it travels, it becomes less concentrated and needs more power to light over a great distance like that. Plus, it’s tough to get a big catchlight in the eyes, and that’s essential.

Instead of bouncing off the ceiling, I turned the flash 180 degrees to point upward at the wall behind me. This way, it bounces off the wall and becomes a larger light, which is softer and more flattering and placed a nice catchlight in the eyes. The light only had to travel about 20 feet total to reach my subjects.

Since I had three speedlights, I set the other two to slave mode (SU4 mode on Nikon models) and gave them to my nephews to point up at the wall, too. (These are the V.A.L.’s in the diagram–Voice Activated Light stands) The slave mode makes these two lights fire whenever they sense a bright flash, so they fire when the on-camera light fires. The biggest reason to use three lights instead of one is that each light reduces the strain on the others. With one light at full power, the batteries drain quickly and the light takes much longer to recharge between shots. And it sounds like a phaser cannon going off when it’s at full power. Each of these lights was set to about 1/4 power.

These lights bouncing off the wall make the wall into a large light source that is soft. Pointing them upward in the wall helps ensure the catchlights in the eyes are in the top half; if they come from the camera height it’s not as natural and flattering. Lastly, I used a fast shutter speed to reduce the impact of the lights in the room because they were a different color than my flashes.

Levi Sim Funeral Portraits-1-4
The camera is turned 90 degrees to the left so the light is now coming from the side. Good for small groups, not great for big ones.

 

Alternatively, you can turn the camera 90 degrees so that now the lights are bouncing off the wall to the side. The result is still very soft light but with more direction and depth. This is great for small groups and individuals, but for large groups, you’ll do better the other way. With the light coming from the side, the people nearer the light have more light falling on them and appear brighter. When the light comes from behind the camera, the whole group is the same distance from the light.

Conclusion

Levi Sim Funeral Portraits-1-5With the lights making a nice exposure and the camera on a tripod, you can simply move different groups into the light and shoot away. When the camera and light don’t have to be adjusted between shots, you’re free to focus on getting great expressions. Bouncing the lights off the wall behind you is a terrific way to make your light big and soft and it will save your bacon in many situations. Practice this technique so you’re ready to go next time you find yourself with limited options and a great opportunity for making portraits. Remember to practice your skills for emoting great expressions from kids, too.

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