The "You Have 20 Minutes" Photo Session
Despite the advancements in gear with better DSLRs, lenses, and even the software we use, we still get thrown into bad situations for our shoots. If you’re a wedding or portrait photographer, that’s about 97% of the time, whether it be weather related, time of day, or just the time we have with our clients. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a great day with an ideal lighting situation, and your client, despite your best efforts, will not give you the time you need to do your job. But there’s no excuse for bad photography! I’ve worked hard over the years to be ready for any situation, with as little gear as possible to make it work.
The Scenario: You have 20 minutes, dude…
This article will feature the, “You have 20 minutes, dude, because I wanna go drinking with my buddies, and I don’t want to take pictures” type of shoot. Yep, we’ve secured a great location at the hotel pool, and he doesn’t want to take pictures. Oh, and to top it off, they’re two hours late, and we went from 10 a.m. sun to directly overhead noon light. Sigh. My studio manager, who always finds a way to keep a smile on her face, kicks me in the shin and says, “Hey, grumpy, get over it. I’ll grab the reflectors, and we’ll get some cocktails after.” Off we go.
Doing my best to put the sun behind them, I find this spot. Here are a few things I’ve found that make for great available-only lighting quickly: Find the light that will allow for the fastest setup. Once you’ve found the light, keep shooting in that direction. When you position yourself, look around to see where you could move to next, allowing for multiple backgrounds in the quickest amount of time. Look for distractions in your background or anything that may slow you down. In other words, will people be walking by?
The fastest, easiest way to get a dramatic background is to get on the ground and shoot into the sky. Longer lenses are more forgiving because they allow you to blow out the background. Here’s where we started, and this is my establishing exposure.
You’ll notice in the image that the sun isn’t directly behind them, but off to the side a bit. I wanted some of the cabanas in the background, and I liked the way the sun was coming across them.
My first go-to in any available light situation is the reflector. I always have two different kinds: one with translucent fabric to allow light to come through it, and the other with a gold/silver fabric to reflect back onto the subject. Here, I used a reflector with the translucent fabric. Using it this way makes the sun a nice softbox of light.
I love how the soft light gets rid of any raccoon eyes, and it’s really easy light to work with. My only issue is the warmth of the light. Given a little more time, and employing one of the pool boys, I added the other reflector with the gold/silver fabric on the right side. This adds some warmth and a little kick.
The white stone deck is doing a pretty good job reflecting light on them
We quickly moved to a spot overlooking the water. Once again, I placed them with the sun almost behind them, allowing some light to come across their faces, which makes for a dynamic image. It’s a matter of positioning them just right. Here, with no reflector, the white stone deck is doing a pretty good job reflecting light on them. Adding to that effect, we try a reflector underneath.
Chimping it out on the back of the camera, I’m not loving the reflector underneath, so I ask Karen to bring the reflector overhead. Taller assistants definitely work better in these situations, as I like to point out to her. As you can see, by adding reflected light from above, and taking advantage of the light being reflected from below, we get a nice, soft light. You’ll also notice that because of their positioning, we get an added kick from the sunlight behind them. Exposure is key here! If you blow out that highlight, you’ll lose the effect.
Once we got these shots, our impatient friends huffed, and said, “How we doing? We going to wrap things up soon?” Thinking to myself, “OMG, we’re only 15 minutes in and into our second shot,” I replied, “Sure! Why don’t we find another location.” Sigh.
Switching to Indoors
As we walked through the pool area, I looked around at all the other pretty spots we could have worked, but they’re the clients, right? Just as we approached the elevator banks, I found a spot that was kind of neat and would make for a quick shot. Shooting in a casino can be fun, but you never know when a grumpy security guard will force you out. Here, we had some funky chairs and artwork, as well as some cool lighting fixtures. As you can see in the first shot, the light is also very warm. Adding just a touch of off-camera flash can clean this up lickety-split!
By adding one off-camera flash, we can clean up the light. The only problem is we want it to be nice and soft. We could add a softbox, or even bounce the light into our reflector, but that takes more time, right? So we use what we have, and bounce it directly into the wall, which makes for a great softbox.
The key to this shot is using the off-camera flash sparingly. Overfilling with flash will destroy the ambience of the shot. I have the flash dialed down, almost to its lowest setting.
We’re almost done, right?
One more, please!
As we finish up, the client says, “Hey, we’d really like something with the Golden Nugget in the background of our shot. We were thinking of using it for our save-the-date cards. We can work that in, right?” Followed by, “We’re almost done, right?” I replied, “Sure, let’s go get that shot, and we’ll be done!”
I knew there was a big sign out front, but I also knew the sun was almost directly overhead, and not a great place for a shot. They’re running the show—off we go. Here’s where we wind up (above). Double sigh.
With the sun right in their faces, and no place in the shade to shoot, it’s time to work our magic with the reflectors again. Taking the translucent reflector, we place it directly on top of them, giving us a nice, clean image with the Golden Nugget in the background. That would have been fine for the rest of the shot,but I always like to add a little more snap whenever possible. We added the gold/silver reflector from behind and off to the right for added kick. It’s subtle, but really makes them stand out.
Know Your Gear
There you have it, a portrait shoot in 20 minutes with great results! The key for any successful shoot in the hurry is preparation. Knowing what to do with the gear you have on-the-fly is the key. Practice in these worst-case scenarios always helps, and when it becomes second nature, you’ll never fail.
DISCLAIMER: Our models are actually Rob Adams and Vanessa Joy (thanks, guys!), and this shoot is a dramatization of what has happened to most of us. I purposely asked them to be difficult and give us exactly 20 minutes to do our shoot. I’ll admit, the results were not award-winning images, but I think it shows a great example of a worst-case scenario.