Twos Company, Threes A Crowd

Taken backstage at the Union Square Fire Dancing Expo in April. To learn more about this series go to

joseph fanvu san francisco photography family portraitWhy was this group shot more difficult to make than individual portraits?

First the technical: I was shooting a single speedlight in a medium softbox with a black foamcore background. With a single person you can stick that softbox right next to their face off to one side and you have this gorgeous directional light with nice beautiful falloff into the shadows. From there you can work with the pose and tweak the light to get the portrait that works for that person. I brought just one light because I’m still learning about off camera flash and really want to explore the possibilities of using just one light. With two or more people, things start to get more complicated. If your one light is off to one side, the light will hit a group of people unevenly. The person closer to the light will be more lit than the person farther away. There are multiple solutions to this of course. If you move the light farther away, the people become more evenly lit but the light becomes harder. If you swing that light closer to in front of them, the people become more evenly lit but you lose your directional light and the shot looks flatter. You can also have the person who is farther away take just a step closer toward the camera to try to even out the distance. I chose a combination of these three things.

Another thing I’m working on is posing people together. Trying to convey a relationship between two people when you only have a a couple seconds after you’ve met them to make an image is difficult! Stick a family in front of me and I’m good to go. If it’s a family session, I can use the relationship of the parents together and with their kids to try to make beautiful images that convey a sense of who they are and how they belong to each other. In a situation like these backstage portraits, I just had a couple of seconds to gauge their relationship to each other and work their pose from there. With more experience, I’m hoping to get better and faster at this.

In the before photo below, you can see examples of what I’m talking about. These guys were really tall and didn’t fit inside the backdrop. Nothing I could do there as I was backed up as far as I could. Although I guess I could have moved them away from the backdrop completely. My flash power was set too low so that is why it is a bit dim. (whoops) The light didn’t quite reach to the left and so I had to adjust in post. When they first stood in front of the camera they stood in a straight line. To give them some interest and a more dynamic feel I had them vary the angle of their bodies. Looking back at this photo I wish I had them change up their hand and arm positions as well so they weren’t all the same.
san francisco joseph fanvu portrait family photography
I had a fantastic time shooting these performers! With this experience under my belt, I have lots of ideas for the next time I get an opportunity. I have a lot to learn but I am getting better quickly! I look forward to trying out these ideas soon!