Happy Birthday Velia

I spent Sunday “playing” for a change.

Just because I’m a photographer, doesn’t mean I can’t still have fun.

It’s actually great not to think about what the client might want.

When I shoot for myself, I get to experiment and see what works and what doesn’t.


It was a surprise 89th birthday party for Velia, my wife’s grandmother.

Birthday Girl–Velia with her boyfriend Bill in great spirits. They are a reminder to me to laugh at lot and to laugh often. Life’s too short. 2 light setup. Main light a 800 Watt/sec White Lightning into a silvered umbrella. Full size reflector on the right as fill. Backlight is another White Lightning head with blue gel into a grey muslin backdrop.

Since it’s not often that side of the family gets together, I dragged out my lighting gear.

Place: El Monte Moose Lodge.


Small banquet room with dance floor, 8 tables of 10 persons to a table doesn’t leave much room for anything else.floor_daigram


In the banquet room, it was mostly florescent and some tungsten lights.

The tungsten was confined to where the band was playing on stage.

Black & White–One of my favorites from the evening was this one of Rachel and Frank. Again, using 2 lights. Main light into a silver umbrella on the left. Reflector on the right and one light for the background. See the diagram for the lighting setup.

No windows (thank goodness!)

It’s always preferable to have one type of light source, that way when you set your white balance on your camera, you won’t get weird skin tones.

garcia_babyIf I were shooting the party, I would set my camera to Florescent and then gel my flash with a florescent green gel making the white balance match.

Give it a try, you’ll see that it makes your post production a cinch.

I wasn’t doing any “live” photo coverage, just some family portraits, so I kept mine set  to the lightning icon for flash.

Cousin Nash, a photographer himself,  took care of all the candids and dancing pictures.


I brought way too much gear but that’s pretty typical of how I work.

I rather have it in the car on location than be without what I need.

It’s probably a force of habit as a former newspaper photographer.

If you looked into my trunk when I was working at the newspaper, I’m sure you would wonder what some of the stuff was and why I had it–think Kitchen Sink.

  • Canon 40D with 50 mm and 17-35 mm zoom
  • 3-800 Watt/sec White Lightning heads. Used 2 except for large group shot.
  • at least 4 light stands
  • grey muslin backdrop
  • 2 umbrellas (silvered with ability to shoot through when black backing is removed)
  • radio slaves (very crucial)
  • reflector (crucial in this instance)

doloresMost of the gear is quite self-explanatory.

In the case of the last 3 items, they were absolutely crucial.

When you’re doing portraits where there are others with cameras, radio slaves prevent others from triggering your lights when you need them.

Not being tethered to wires is also a good thing because that’s one less thing to trip over.

I always have hard wire as a backup because the radio slaves are not infallible.

When assessing the space you have to work with, always remember that after setting up your backdrop you still need to allow another 3 feet on the left and right of the backdrop.

Remember you still need to set up your lights? The way things worked out, I had room for only one light, so the full-size reflector was my salvation.

When I did the large group shot with the ladies who are all 1st cousins, I had no choice but to drag out a second light.

One flash head into an umbrella can’t possibly light everyone evenly, that’s why.


When setting up to do portraits, in this type of party type setting,

  1. Get as far as you can away from the “live band”
  2. Always ask those behind you with their cameras to wait until you’re done
  3. Shoot a lot more than you think you need especially with big groups
  4. If I had more room, I would increase the distance between backdrop and subjects

#1. No offense to the band, they were up front and I was all the way to the back and I still couldn’t hear myself think. When your music is good, you probably don’t need to crank the volume up.

#2. I suppose that’s what wedding photographers have to deal with every weekend.

Some might think they’re being very territorial, bossy, rude and unreasonable.

They make their living from this. If the picture doesn’t work out to the liking of their clients, they assume all the blame.

When you’re a wedding guest, be a good sport, don’t take it personally when the “pro” asks that you not to take pictures especially when they’re doing formal portraits.

During the other portions of a wedding when it’s not crucial, by all means go nuts and shoot to your hearts delight.

It’s distracting to those being photographed. They need to make eye contact with the official photographer otherwise, what you’ll get is a picture like the one below.

Who Do I Look At?–When the band is too loud and your subjects can’t hear you, this is what you get. Only goes to show no matter how good your equipment and how fancy your setup, if you can’t communicate with your subjects, you’ll end up with a picture like this.

When I took this picture there must have been at least 10 cameras behind me.

Compare that to the picture I made of the young ladies where I somehow got everyone’s attention. By the way, just so you know, some of them were the ones behind the very cameras!.

#3. The bigger the group, the more sets of eyes, increasing the odds that someone will blink when your flash goes off.

Shooting  more frames from the same spot with the same framing ensures you can salvage a picture in post production with photoshop.

#4. The greater the distance between your subjects and the backdrop, the less depth-of-field, so that the creases in the muslin won’t be as noticeable. Since I was working in a confined space, I had to live with it.

Finally notice how everyone is looking at the camera in the final picture below?  There wasn’t anyone else shooting behind me. Most of them are in the picture, that’s why. 😉


Out of backdrop–I should have turned the backdrop on its long side but Murphy’s Law is such that no matter how big a backdrop you have, the group will always grow to exceed it. I had to use another light on the right once the group became big. I had to fudge the background in photoshop on the ends.

9 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Velia”

  1. Hi Peter,
    I wanted to thank you for taking all the beautiful images of grandma’s b-day party. They are a special moment in time captured forever.

    I read your blog and the techniques you’ve shared. It makes me want to take a photography class. “someday”

    The blog class looks fun too, I would sign up for that class but I start classes this fall and would have a scheduling conflict.

    Is the blogging program on a Mac?

    Take care and keep in touch. Give my love to Yvette and the family.
    Gina Famiglietti

  2. Hi Pete!!! Thanks for the beautiful pictures of my family. I didnt get to attend the beautiful celebration. Unfortunately!!! I missed a great celebration. By the way Im Franks daughter.
    Again, thanks for all your efforts and great memories you have passed on to our huge family!!! It means alot.. Muah!!!! xoxoxo!!! Dolores Vasquez Barrera

  3. Hi Darlene,
    What can I say? I was instantly accepted into the clan even though I have slanted eyes. 😥 Cousin Nash will be doing the photography next time!

  4. Hi Peter, Thanks for all the time you spend taking photos. You have taken so many great pictures of the family over the years. What would we do without you? Luv Ya!

  5. Thanks for your time behind the camera!!
    I will have the e-mail addresses to you soon…almost done..
    Love Cousin Linda Ramos

  6. Hernan,
    No need to whip out the steamer if you keep your subject far away from the backdrop. Don’t sweat the creases if you’re not shooting a big group.

    With one or two people, you can place them further away from the backdrop and let the depth-of-field falloff take care of it.

    In this banquet hall situation, I was hard pressed for room. I had to set up next to the bar of all places!

    A little “suffering” is good for the soul, as they say.

  7. Thanks for the info, I have always been using my seamless backdrops when shooting. I own a grey muslin backdrop, but rarely use it. I am going to have to experiment using my gels and the grey backdrop this weekend. I guess I will also be whipping out the steamer to remove those wrinkles though.

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