THE FAMILY - Titusville, PA, USA
At every family reunion, in spite of the fact that many, if not most people, aren't particularly fond of getting their photo taken, at some point, everyone will agree to pose for a group photo. We do this because we know, deep down inside, there is value in it.
At the time this was taken, our beloved matriarch Margie could not be present because of her health, and the newest member of our family tree was yet to be born, and because of this, for a while I thought I wouldn't bother with putting in the effort to edit and share it, but now I understand that it's important, because any particular photo of your family will inevitably only capture that particular moment, and not only is it totally okay that people are missing from it, but it's right and proper. A family's line is forever being altered: Branches fall away and and grow again in other parts of the tree, and this is the way it should be. The point is that the tree keeps growing.
This is one of the reasons I believe that no matter how prevalent video becomes, still photography will never die. If there's one thing that humans have been unable to truly change, it's that time marches on. Moments are fleeting. Still photos do something better than no other medium can: freeze one particular moment for as long as someone should care to look at it. While the real world moves onward relentlessly, a photo can always take you back to one particular point in time and space, and remind you both of everything that built up to that moment, as well as carry all of the kinetic energy of what would come to pass. A photo does something that human eyes can't: stop time.
At this particular time, I was the photographer, and later, I learned something very, VERY important about photographing groups from shooting this: TAKE LOTS OF FRAMES. THEN SHOOT MORE. And then take a couple more, just in case:) I thought I had already learned this lesson before, but I really had it drilled home this time, and ended up paying for it in post-production, because after going over the shots later, I realized I didn't have ONE SINGLE SHOT that met the following criteria:
1) everybody's eyes are open
2) nobody was making a stupid face that I knew they would hate
3) all of the lights popped
As a result, I ended up spending a shockingly massive amount of time combining two different photos to create the shot you see above.
Did it work? I think so. I doubt that anyone looking at this shot would be able to tell that of the 27 people pictured here, 18 are entirely from one photo, 7 are entirely from another, and two have heads from one and bodies from another. And I am willing to bet that NOBODY could accurately tell me who's who. If you think you know, send me a message or add a comment. I'll even show you the original, full-size shot, upon request, if that will help. For the first person who can tell me correctly (who DOESN'T have access to the original files), I promise to either buy you a reasonably nice dinner (if we can arrange it), or photoshop something for you, or write on your Facebook wall these exact words: "You are clever and awesome and attractive and I worship the ground you walk on."
Was it worth the effort? Well... yes. Because it's family. However, that doesn't mean I would not have vastly preferred taking one shot that worked on its own instead of spending hours painstakingly molding two shots together. So how could I have made things easier for myself?
Sure, everything seemed fine and dandy when I was looking at the little 2.5 inch screen on my camera at the time, and the hard truth for a photographer is that you rarely have the luxury of asking all of your subjects to wait around while you scrutinize each and every shot, zooming in on each and every face to make sure everything's okay. And even if you could, the chances of you getting nice, natural smiles after everyone has started to wonder what's taking so long isn't very good.
So what's the solution?
Take as many frames as you can, while keeping the recycle time of your lights in mind, and save your best, smile-inducing, photographer jokes until after you've already popped off some frames, so that just when the energy is starting to fall a bit, you can drop some witty remarks and squeeze out a few more great smiles.
Depending on all sorts of factors (the light you have available, the gear you've got handy, the juice level of your batteries, how high you're willing to go with ISO) your recycle time can vary wildly. And while it's likely that you won't have as much control over it on any particular shoot as you would like, you should still be aware of it, so that you can compensate. If you're recycle time is 1.5 seconds, then keep that in mind and when you're in the thick of things, use an average joke that you already know will only net you mediocre smiles, snap the shutter, and then time everything so that you can go for the gold with your winner comment and be ready to click 1.5 seconds after your last shot.
Ideally, I'd love to shoot in a studio with outlet powered lights, so I can set my ISO at 100, choose any aperture I desire and still shoot at 1/200 shutter speed or faster, any time I want. Unfortunately, the reality is that this often doesn't happen, and you have to pick the best compromise for your particular situation. In this case, I was lucky because it was an overcast day.
Wait a minute, you say, isn't it better for photos if it's a beautiful sunny day?
Well, the thing is, that's not as easy a question to answer as you might think. If you're shooting a group of people, and you're shooting outdoors, and you don't have the option of getting everyone in the shade, then an overcast day is DEFINITELY better. A sky filled with clouds creates a natural softbox, far better than any every made by humans, sending beautifully soft light all over your subjects. There are no harsh shadows, nobody is squinting from direct sun, and everything fits within the dynamic range of your sensor without any clipping.
However, this can also flatten the contrast of your shot, which means you might want to add some additional light to create more shape and depth for your subjects. That's what I was trying to do here. I had one speedlite activated on-camera, to provide some fill for eyes that would otherwise be shaded within their sockets, a speedlite in an umbrella to add some pop and depth ("feathered" toward the the farthest people from the light), and one sitting inside the building on a chair to light up the interior and provide some separation light as well as a bit of atmosphere. It may have been in the thick of summer, but in photos it often helps to add some warmth to your interiors, regardless of the outside temperature. Without that light inside, the interior of the building wouldn't factor as much into the picture. With that inside light, I like to think that the viewer will subconsciously imagine everyone being welcomed back indoors after the photo is done for a coffee or a hot cocoa.
Even if I really think about it, I can't remember what happened right after we shot this. I can't recall if we went in for coffee and cocoa or if we went home. However, I do remember the overall feeling of the occasion, which was warm and fuzzy and soft and welcoming and happy and precious, and that's what I wanted to get across here. It was the feeling of something special happening, of people connected by blood who had gathered from various parts of the world to be in one particular place at one particular time, to revel in the life-affirming event of marriage.
Those feelings of holding hands, of hugs all around, of embracing our past and our future, are all worth capturing. And you know what? Even during those family occasions where everyone is tired and irritated and debating different politics and clashing on generational issues, those are worth capturing too. It's all part of the journey. Just as we've all stared in wonder at old photos of our ancestors, we owe it to our descendants to do the same for them, if for no other reason than to give them something to remember us by other than those embarrassing videos of us that will forever be on available on YouTube.