How To: Take great family portraits at home (for less)

Shot with Nikon D600 and Off-camera Flash
First attempt – shot with an Off-camera Flash

Last week, the WSJ reported that Sears and Wal-mart Portrait Studios abruptly shut down. Is this the end of an era as DSLR cameras become more mainstream? A few months ago, my wife bought an online deal for a local portrait studio. The studio is well known, quick to draw nods of acknowledgment when friends ask.  Our experience however was anything but impressive.  Our photos were taken by a teenage girl, bleary-eyed from too many strobe shots and working hard to maintain the attention of our two boys.  Hundreds of dollars later, we got the pictures and I was disappointed with the quality.  There had to be a better way.  There is.

If you have a Digital SLR, for about the price of a photo shoot and pictures, you can create your own family portraits at home anytime you want.  After investing just a little time in understanding the basics of lighting and off-camera flash (OCF), a 20 minute session with family yielded some amazing results that far outpaced the work of the so-called, “experts”. I highly recommend The Strobist blog, a great free resource and 101 series to get the basics down.  If you already have a flash (I use a Nikon Speedlite SB700), you can build a basic kit for under $200 that can be used over and over again, and you own the originals:

For the backdrop framing, I just bought some PVC from Home Depot and strung it up between two curtain holders with a few clamps. This, “Good enough and go” approach enabled me to experiment without concern, and upgrading equipment over time (e.g. wireless trigger, second flash) is easy.
If you’re even modestly into photography, I highly recommend this approach, or find a friend who is.  They just might be willing to quick photo shoot for you.

2 responses to “How To: Take great family portraits at home (for less)”

  1. And the fact that the kids didn’t have to get dressed up, stay neat and clean while we waited meant they had much more patience for the actual photos. And if they got fidgety, so what? Take a break and come back to it later.