The inspiration for this portrait came when my wife Julie and I, along with a group of friends, took a vacation together to the UK. Because most of us had not been to Scotland and some of the members of our group lived in nearby countries, we all chose to experience living in a castle for a week— something none of us had ever done. Then came the amazing idea to do a group portrait while staying at the Duns Castle, a stunning 14th century castle that has been in the Duns family since 1696. My vision for the group portrait was to create a Vanity Fair shot similar to what Annie Leibovitz created for the 2003 and 2014 Hollywood issues. So before leaving for the trip, I sent ideas out to my friends regarding attire, posing and the overall concept of the shoot.


On November 6, we set out to the UK. I travelled with a backpack loaded with my AlienBee 800, 2 Yongnuo Speedlites, my laptop, and a USB tether cable in preparation for the shoot. My first stop was to the University of Huddersfield in the UK to give a lecture called “Doing Business in New Town America.” While I was there, a friend, Steve Gibbs, asked me to take a portrait of him, and I obliged. This is when I realized that the AlienBee I carried would not work because of the voltage difference. Fortunately, I carried the Speedlites as a backup option or as secondary lighting. They worked out great as a plan B.

I had initially planned to use the AlienBee to execute the Duns Castle portrait after reading Clay Cook’s blog post called “Quite the Composite” where Clay describes how he mixes ambient light with strobes and how he lit and captured each individual, and then combined and blended everything in Photoshop. You can also read his article on Fstoppers


After arriving and surveying the castle, I found two options for the setting of the shoot: in the drawing room or on the steps leading to the castle. The large drawing room had a piano and some awesome antique furniture. But we nixed it based on the recommendation of Lord Alex Hay, the owner of the castle. The photo would have looked like it was taken in a large living room and we would have had to move around quite a bit of furniture. We decided that the steps outside the castle would best portray the castle in all its grandeur. So on the third night of our stay, we all prepared to do the shoot at 9 a.m. the next day.


The next morning, my wife, Julie, and Sarah, a longtime friend who has assisted me on many photo shoots, figured out lighting, posing and staging of people. Then we did some lighting tests. The only light that came into that area was ambient light from a giant window one story above. The AB800 was out of the lighting mix, so my Speedlites had to do the heavy lifting. I brought with me an adapter that allows me to place two to three Speedlites together to act as one. I placed them inside a 40-inch Westcott bounce umbrella and used two diffusion cloths that Julie had made from no-rip cloth from Jo-Ann Fabrics. My 60-inch Softlighter was going to be too big for what I wanted, so I used my Pocket Wizards to trigger the flashes.

The first shot with the lighting setup was all we needed. We knew from that shot that it was going to be great. There was the right amount of soft light on the subjects and there was enough ambient light in the space. After the test, we started bringing people into the scene. Julie, Sarah and I had to figure out where we would be in the shot so that we could composite ourselves into the shot after. We moved people around trying different poses and expressions. The camera was stationary and locked down. That was a must for this to work. Julie went around lighting subjects in the foreground and worked her way to the back. When the subjects in the foreground had been photographed, they were allowed to leave the scene. Once everyone was photographed, I decided to create a background plate. I lit the scene how I envisioned it, lighting different parts of the background and using a color checker passport to white balance the scene. I also used a Canon 5D Mark II tethered to a MacBook Air, which was running Capture One Pro.

To bring the photo together, I first created a multilayered Photoshop file of the background plate. I created the background in a separate file so that it wouldn’t be too large and unmanageable. I set the layer blend mode to lighten and painted on the mask with a white soft brush to reveal the areas that needed more light on each of the layers in the file.
Next, I went through the catalogue and selected the photos that had the right lighting and expressions. Then I exported the files from Capture One and imported them into Photoshop. I named each layer with a different person’s name and expression. I created a black layer mask on each layer and then painted on the layer mask with a white brush to reveal the subject’s face. I repeated that on each layer until the composite was just right. On some areas, I added a gradient and changed the layer to multiply to prevent the light from spilling over the person. If I had flagged the lights, I could have done that on location.

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