ThinkPad W700 Makes This Year’s Christmas Photo Easier

One of my favorite times of the year is Christmas Eve starting about 8 p.m. It's the time after dinner when everyone is relaxed, doesn't have much to do, and is off doing their own thing. That means I can do the same. This year, we hadn't yet taken our annual Christmas portrait in front of the tree. While the wife was off watching It's a Wonderful Life (for the 80th time) on TV, I had some time to set up ours. And, in what most of you all would call a "duh moment," I realized that using the ThinkPad W700 could be a real help this year. Christmas portraits have always been a challenge for me. In order to get the lit tree to show up properly, a long exposure is necessary. Even with a long exposure to properly expose for the tree, people's faces are shrouded in darkness and look awful. (That is, if they show up at all from the shadows.) If you use a flash to light the people, suddenly the whole room is unnaturally lit, and the flash overpowers the lights on the tree. Add digital noise, and let's just say I've not yet taken a Christmas portrait that I've been happy with. I was determined that this year would be different. Here's the setup I used.

I moved around the room and played around with different angles and focal lengths on the camera until I got a composition I liked. Any project is ten times more interesting when you get to move furniture, so that's the first thing I did in order to get as much room as possible to move around. After setting up the tripod, I killed all of the room lights and determined the basic ambient exposure in order to get the tree properly exposed. (1 sec @ f/5.6 @ ISO400 if I remember correctly) The star on the top of the tree was blowing out the highlights, picking up horrible color reflecting from the wall behind it, and overpowering the rest of the picture, so I cheated and unplugged it. Having determined the basic exposure, I needed a primary front light, so I used what's known as a shoot-through umbrella in which the flash gets diffused by the umbrella and makes a wide, soft light source which is much more flattering for people's faces. I was having some problem with the light crawling up the walls and the ceiling, so I tried to minimize that by zooming in the flash plus using a rubber band + paper around the flash head in order to make a "gobo" which blocked most (but not all) of the light spilling upward. I then needed a fill light from the other side, so I set up a second flash on the coffee table which again had some paper affixed by a rubber band to make a snoot in order to keep the light from spilling up. Having gotten the basic setup in place, I had to determine the best flash exposure. I believe in histograms, but nothing beats seeing your image on screen so that you can see if you like what you've shot. However, I've learned that what looks okay on the small screen on my camera is very often not okay once I look at it on anything bigger. So I attached a USB cable to my camera (shown with an arrow above) and attached it directly to the W700. This way, as soon as I took the shot, I could look at it on a color-calibrated, big, bright display and make adjustments accordingly. I was a little dismayed that Windows would not read my EXIF data on my vertical picture in order to properly rotate my image onscreen (Are you listening Microsoft? Windows should know how to do this!), so I compensated by turning the laptop on its side. I then took a series of pictures in which I would use myself as a subject, set the flashes, and then look at the resulting picture on my W700. I repeated this until I was happy with the flash exposure. Now it was time to bring the wife down and start taking photos. She's very picky about how she looks, and for this reason, the big screen was both a blessing and a curse. Now she could instantly see whether she liked the shot or not. She didn't like most of them, saying things like "my hands look big in that one" (?!) or, "you weren't smiling right." Finally she got the bright idea that if we could look at ourselves in a mirror (lower right of the setup picture), we could get instant feedback. Brilliant! I'll make a photo assistant out of her yet. My last problem to solve was how to get the autofocus to work in the dim light. I solved that with a little LED flashlight which gave just enough light to let the camera do its thing. It also solved the "I blinked" problem by constricting eye pupils before the shot. I did make sure to turn the W700 away from us in between each exposure so that its bright display (J) would not affect the exposure. The result is as you see here. Is it perfect? No. I don't like the shadows behind the stockings on the mantel, and I need to crop a bit more off the bottom in order to get the carpet corner out of the picture. I would have liked to change the lighting ratio between the flashes a bit, but after 70 exposures of "my hair doesn't look right," she and I were both ready to call it a year as far as Christmas pictures go. That said, I'm very happy with it.

Whatever holiday you celebrate at this time of year, I hope that it was a joyful one for you and your families and that you have a great new year. As a present to my faithful readers, I've taken the liberty of pre populating the first comment below this blog post with popular canned responses. For your comment posting pleasure, please feel free to respond with A, B, C, or D.