Monday, January 2, 2012

A Family Portrait with Uncooperative Children

Also in this issue:
  • Flash Exposure Accuracy with the A77 and A65
  • A Pitch for a Cable Show
  • Seminars for 2012 
  • Other Stuff
A Family Portrait with Uncooperative Children

The above shot was probably the most difficult family portrait I've ever had to shoot.  Part of the problem is I'm in the shot, but the significantly bigger problem is that there are three grandchildren in the picture, two of whom don't know anything about sitting still or posing, and the third absolutely, positively refuses to pose or even smile for the camera.  And there was no photographer on hand to provide a distraction and shoot at the decisive moment when everyone's looking.  What to do?

Mind you, all three have grown up in front of the camera, are used to it and really enjoy seeing themselves immediately.  But despite that, it's next to impossible to get a portrait of the oldest one.  Take the classic shot below, for example.  I had set up my wireless flash (with softbox) on the right, set my ambient exposure so it would be about two stops underexposed (gives a very classic look to dramatic light without it being pure black), and put the stool right where the good light was.  Well, to him everything's a game.  He might sit on the stool but the minute I pick up the camera he'll run away.  He'll sit anywhere but where the good light was.  He'd give anything but a natural smile.  (Click on the thumbnails for some outtakes. :-) )  He's a challenge indeed.  I took about 30 shots before I got this "good" one. 

And getting a shot of all three of them together?  Forget about it!  I've tried.  I've tried in the studio.  I've tried out in the backyard.  I could never get more than one to look good (or even face the camera) at any given time.  I've tried flashing lights, an occasional whistle, and a parent standing behind the camera with distractions.  I could show you a book full of bad shots.  

Then last week a miracle happened: I managed to get ONE great shot of all three of them looking natural, happy, facing the camera, and with decent fill light using the A65's pop-up flash!

So here I was, everyone was together and available for a family portrait.  The kids had all had their naps and were in a good mood (for the time being), we were all dressed to match, I had scouted out a good shady place to shoot and I only had about a 15 minute window to get the shot before someone got too fussy or the fog started to roll in.  It might be months before everyone would be together again.  Oh, and the oldest grandchild was in a poor mood and wanted nothing to do with it.  No stress, right?

So I set everything up: A900, Aperture Priority mode at f/7.1, Minolta 80-200 f/2.8 G lens, Exposure Compensation -0.3, 58 flash, tripod, wired cable release, ISO 200, RAW + JPG mode.  My strategy was to run to the cable release (which wasn't long enough to reach the group), press the button (initiating a 10-second self-timer), run back in place, and do this about 10 times to give myself something to work with.  (An infrared wireless remote would not have worked in this bright environment.)  I took one shot which came out decent but the young 'uns faces were pointed in random, non-camera directions.

Then my wife had a brilliant idea: "Why don't you just use the remote and put the camera into continuous shooting mode?"  She had seen me do this countless times when trying to photograph lightning.  Not a bad idea, although I don't think I've ever did it with a flash before.  The 58 might overheat if I run it full blast for too long.  

Turns out it was a GREAT idea, since the kids started to stare intently at the flash that kept going off in machine-gun mode.  Then they thought it was funny and started to smile.  And their heads actually stayed relatively still for most of of these shots, which would make things easier later on.  119 pictures later I figured we had enough to work with and stopped it.  Neither the 58 nor the A900 overheated. :-)

Three hours and a sushi dinner later (hey, we don't get together all that often!) I was back at my computer and had a close look at the results.  It turns out I had one good face for everybody, but not all in one shot.  (This won't be a straight-from-the-camera portrait as I had done back in 2009!)  So I used the time-honored face replacement technique which I demonstrated in an earlier blog. and ended up replacing five of the 9 faces.  Voila!  Click on the image below to see an animated .gif of the faces before and after.

Click to see before and after faces that were replaced.
Flash Exposure Accuracy with the A77 and A65

"A900?  Why didn't you take that family portrait with the A77?", I hear you ask.

The official reason was I was using my 80-200 f/2.8 Minolta G lens for this shot, and in order to take that shot with the A77 I'd have to have the camera further away because of the 1.5x crop factor.  That would mean the flash would be working harder and/or be less effective, and I wanted to get the best light I could.

But there's another, less official reason.  I'm still not comfortable with the A77's flash exposure algorithms.  (The A65 too.)  Both cameras tend to overexpose the subject by about one stop compared to all previous cameras, regardless of the flash being used.  It happens weather I'm using the pop-up flash, the 58, or 56 flashes.  It happens indoors and outdoors, bounced or not, with the electronic first curtain shutter feature enabled or disabled, ADI or TTL.  Firmware version 1.03 AND 1.04.  (It's frustrating, I tell you!)

Here are some controlled studio test shots using the pop-up flash, the 58 flash mounted on the hot shoe, and the 56 flash set off wirelessly.  The first row is the A77, the second row is the A65, and the third row is the A55 (but the last row could have been any other Sony or Minolta camera I own).  See the difference?
The problem doesn't always happen.  One of the first tests I did was to shoot a grey card with multiple cameras (and with multiple white balances, to test for a possible different issue that turned out to not be an issue):

Here I'm comparing an A700, A900, A55, A65, and A77 - all had perfectly consistent flash exposures.  (The only surprise there was the A55, 65, and 77 exposed the ambient (left column) and flash (right three columns) differently.  But the flash shots were all consistent!)

Wait, it gets worse.  Out of the box the flash exposure accuracy can be all over the map.  (See more examples below.)  The variation amongst these shots (all with the same settings, all taken seconds apart) is much wider than what should be acceptable.  

Since it happens across cameras and across flashes I'm tempted to say it's a firmware problem, but a quick check with the Sony DSLR Forum on dpreview revealed that while some people shared this problem in a big way, others had perfectly exposed and consistent flash exposures at all times.  (Scholarly comment: "Hmmmph!")  

So while I'm not sure what the root of the problem could be, I have found a solution.  (Mostly.)  When I set the Flash Exposure Compensation to -1.0 or -1.3, the flash exposures match what the previous cameras produce (hence it behaves the way I expect it to), plus the large deviations in flash exposures goes away almost completely.  I can now shoot important events with confidence.  But on the day of the family portrait, my comfort level wasn't as high, and I didn't want to take any risks on such an important shot.

I remember when the Minolta 7D first came out and they had a similar problem with flash accuracy.  It had something to do with the fixed amount of output for the pre-flash not being calibrated with enough precision for digital.  The solution was to send the camera and flash back to the factory to have them calibrated to each other.  And as soon as my book for the A65 and A77 is finished (and I'm on track to be done by the end of January - let me know if you'd like to be notified) I'll be contacting Sony repair in Laredo, Texas and seeing if they'll even acknowledge the problem.

If any of you ever thought I was a Fanboy / Paid Mouthpiece / Shill for Sony, and/or I had inside contacts within the organization, this post should dispell that notion (and will probably also prevent any future Sony relationships from forming! :-) )


A Pitch for a Cable Show

Does anyone know of a production company looking for killer content?  I have a great, low-budget yet highly entertaining idea for a TV/Cable/New Media outlet.

Tony Phillips ( and I have aspirations for doing a cable show on travel photography, but with a twist.  In addition to the usual travel locations and adventures, we each have to take great images using the crappiest cameras we can find.  Disposable cameras, Lomography, Holgas, you name it.  This means (here comes the theme) we have to rely on great light and composition, which are far more important than expensive cameras.  Adventure, intrigue, and education (with a little "Top Gear" attitude thrown in) all in 30 minutes!

Can't pull this off on my own, but the two of us have great on-camera chemistry and the show would be highly entertaining indeed.  Let me know if you have any industry contacts that can help develop this idea properly.

Seminars for 2012

As mentioned last month, we're cutting back to doing only four seminars this year.  Here's what the schedule looks like:

Currently Scheduled Seminars:

Copenhagen Seminar April 21-22, 2012
(There will also be a Field Workshop and a separate lecture on my days as a NASA engineer)
Learn more about Day 1

Learn more about Day 2

Learn more about the Refresher Course

Learn more about the Field Workshop

Learn more about the NASA lecture

Santa Monica, California Sometime in June, 2012 Click here to register interest
Durango, Colorado Lecture Thursday night, July 12th
Seminar July 14-15

Field Workshop July 21-22
Click here to register interest
London September, 2012 - University of Sussex Click here to register interest
Other Stuff
  • I recently pushed out updates to the NEX 3/C3/5/5N ebook.  You should have been notified of the free update.  Those of you who purchased the printed version of that book and registered your purchase with me are entitled to a free .pdf file as well.  If you didn't get the notifications, please forward your purchase receipt to me and I'll provide the updated .pdf file to you, too.
  • Updates to the Spanish version of the Alpha 33 / 35 / 55 ebook were pushed out as well.  Same rules as above - let me know if you didn't get the updated version.
  • The Alpha 65 and 77 ebook will be out by the end of January.  If you send me an email I'll let you know the very day it's released.
  • Next month's blog post will be highly unusual. :-)

Until then...
Yours truly, Gary Friedman


  1. I'm using an HVL-F58AM flash with my A65 and Sigma 500/4.5 APO EX DG outdoors in S mode with auto iso. As I am shooting at 1/1600s the flash and camera are in HSS mode. The Camera refuses to go to iso1600 even when the picture is obviously under exposed. Here is a link to a discussion of this...


  2. Hey, Dennis.

    Yes, I can confirm your findings with several camera bodies. (And I just said as much on the dpreview thread).


  3. Hi Gary,

    I too have had difficulties with family group pictures, as I usually get many grimaces...

    My trick is to use an intervalometer (Phottix, affordable) and set 20+ pictures at 5 seconds intervals (this allows the flash to recycle if needed).

    After the 10th picture, people start to relax and I usually get a couple of keepers afterwards.

    I may not be on the first picture (depending on the initial delay), but I appear on all subsequent ones.

    Hope this may help.

    Amitiés - Frédéric

  4. Happy New Year Gary!
    Your so fortunate to have such lovely family to photograph. Even with all issues setting it up you still make it look effortless.

    Best of Luck in 2012 and hopefuly we'll see you on TV soon :)

    -Brandon and Sara Cruz

  5. Cheers for the London seminar ;)

  6. Since publishing this post I received a LOT of email about the cable show idea, essentially saying, "Why not contact [insert cable channel name here]; they'd surely be interested!"

    It turns out that's not how shows are pitched. You don't go to the outlet, you go to a production company which then develops the idea (budget, schedule, sometimes a pilot) and it is THEY who approach one of many media outlets. Mere mortals can't contact the Outdoor channel (or the Travel Channel or National Geographic channel) directly.

    (Yes, I've been learning about the process over the last year. That's why I asked if anyone knew of a production company that might be interested.) -GF

  7. Your solution to the trials with the family portrait are brilliant.... it's just the problem of finding the one of 149 images that worries me.... how do you do that?
    Lightroom is good at managing files, and most programmes will print out contact sheets, but that can get expensive!
    I really would appreciate some insight into your workflow for this.
    I have a similar problem, but it's usually with wildlife, where there are 30 pics of the same animal grazing, or just simply watching me back (with some variations on composition, exposure etc).

    Your idea of a TV programme sounds really good, but why not do a "pilot" programme yourself and publish on your website / Youtube to see the response?

  8. Hi, Alain.

    For tips on fast image selection, please see my previous blog post on this very subject:

    When going through the 100+ pictures I'd just write down the image number of the one where each child looked the best. (And where the smiles on the adults were fresh.) It took about 3 passes before I narrowed it down. Not long.

    What's preventing me from making my own pilot? Well, Tony Philips lives in Australia and I'm here in California, and so at the very least I need help with a transportation budget. Plus, I can't afford a 3-person video crew (2 cameras + sound). (You can't just put a camcorder in a family member's hand - the results will not be professional because they don't think in terms of shots, storytelling, continuity, or post-production.) (Otherwise, a great idea! :-) ) GF

  9. Gary, one fellow in the flash exposure thread said that he turned his DRO off and the problem went away. You never commented on that one. Have you tried that?

    Gary Eickmeier

  10. I don't remember reading that. Just tried 2 exposures with DRO set to AUTO and then OFF. They both looked identical. Will experiment more. GF

  11. Man, can I relate to the problem of getting young grandchildren to cooperate in a photo shoot! And at age 7, it's still getting worse. Love the idea of continuous shooting. Thanks!

  12. Hi Gary
    A problem we all must share is that software changes faster than we want to change our cameras. I have a copy of Photoshop CS4 bought when I had an Alpha 350. CS4 could do Alpha 350 raw files. I subsequently traded in for a Alpha 55 (when I bought your book) and find that CS4 can't do Alpha 55 Raws, but CS5 can. I don't want to spend another £170 getting minor improvements on Photoshop (even if it can process my A55 Raw. Is there any chance that Sony will do a CS4 Alpha 55 Raw file reader?
    Dave Heath

  13. Dave,

    Sony feels that they have done their part by giving you the Image Data Converter software with your camera, which can read A55 RAW files and convert them to 16-bit TIFFS which CS4 can read. And lots of people share your frustration with Adobe, feeling they are forced to upgrade just to read modern RAW files. (Have you checked for an update to Adobe Camera RAW, which is the part of Photoshop that reads RAW files?)


  14. It's a small world. Just browsed your blog after getting a notice that you have released your new A77 book (which I will certainly buy when the printed version is ready).
    I then saw your seminar schedule and was delighted to see that you have upcoming seminars here in Denmark in "Holte" - just 30 minutes from where I live.
    So I now look forward to both the new book and to participate in the April seminar.


  15. I just bought my first book from you on the A77. What a great book!! I've learned quite a bit about the A77. Seems I have the same erratic flash problem with my camera. Please keep us advised if Sony acknowledges the problem.

  16. Dear Gary,
    thankfully my A77 has a more consistent flash exposure for some reasons, but I have seen a case of severe overexposure using flash. In this case the exif data showed that no flash was used/fired (which was obviously not true) and SS was quite slow, while aperture was open. It looked like the camera did not recognise the flash properly and just trigged it with full power. Could you please check the exif data of last two images with the kid on the bike, to see what it says about the use of flash?

    Thanks a mil!

    1. Hi, Micha. I looked at the EXIF of both the last two blown-out images. "Flash fired; compulsory flash mode, return light not detected". But wait... ALL 9 of those sample pictures (including the underexposed ones) say exactly the same thing! What conclusions to draw?

    2. Hi Gary,
      I am not really sure what conclusions to draw from that..., but I did some testing.
      Usually "Flash fired; compulsory flash mode, return light not detected" appears when using the flash mounted on the camera and shooting a scene that does not reflect the (pre)flash (e.g. shooting into the sky, strong back-light or very bright scene, large shooting distance, manual flash).
      When shooting a "normal subject" within the reach of the flash with no back-light, etc. it says "Flash fired; compulsory flash mode, return light detected".
      In WL mode it always seems to say "Flash fired; compulsory flash mode, return light detected", no matter what you are shooting, which I find a bit strange...
      These are the findings from my test with A77 + HVL43 in both, ADI and TTL mode.
      If, or to which extend, "return light not detected" has an influence on flash exposure metering and performance in practice, I have no idea. But there are a lot of perfectly exposed pictures, even though the exif data says "return light not detected".
      There are also some discussions about that from Nikon users on Flickr and other Forums.

      Maybe it is worth checking the exif data of the images from your controlled studio test with the grey card or the teddy bear to see, if they also say "return light not detected". When I shoot a grey card with A77 + HVL43 on camera, I get "return light detected" and I guess it should be the same with HVL58.

      Well, that is all I can think of at the moment...
      I wish you all the best for your book and your TV show idea - I really like it!


  17. I can only imagine how hard it is as a photographer to get decent pictures of a group of energetic kids! I bet that's the main problem that generates a lot of the unfair Glamour Shots complaints. I'm excited to take my family and get some pictures of our own done. Thanks for sharing your lovely work!


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