by Sean Setters
Full disclosure: my extended family already celebrated Christmas this past weekend. We generally all make the long drive to my aunt’s house to get together a week or two before Christmas so that actual Christmas day can be spent at home with immediate family.
As such, I thought I’d share my “Christmas Day Presents Opening” kit because, after photographing my family’s event over the past few years, I’ve finally settled on a small kit that seems to work very well for the festive day.
Camera: Canon EOS 5D Mark III (or EOS 5Ds / 5Ds R / 6D)
The Canon EOS 5D Mark III is an extremely versatile body that works well in just about any situation. The AF system is great, the full-frame camera offers a wider angle of view compared to using the same lens with a crop-sensor camera, and its high-ISO image quality allows me to grab ambient only shots when desired. As I’ll explain later, a full-frame camera body isn’t necessarily required, but it is certainly my preferred choice. I also like that the 5D III (and 5Ds/5Ds R) feature dual memory card slots. While capturing the fleeting moments of bliss and unbridled happiness that the day brings, having a backup set of images means that you’re less likely to lose your precious memories because of a memory card malfunction or accidental deletion from the primary card.
Lens: Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art (or Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II / EF 35mm f/2 IS USM)
A lot of people prefer a general purpose zoom for these types of celebrations and events, and there are certainly advantages to having a versatile focal range available for use. However, I find a 35mm f/1.4 lens to provide an excellent balance between focal length and maximum aperture. The 35mm focal length is wide enough to you create a story with relatively loose framing, yet it’s rarely too wide. It’s also not too long so that photographing in smaller spaces/rooms becomes an issue.
The wide f/1.4 aperture allows you to separate your subject from the background while [in most cases] still getting a sense of what’s actually taking place in the background. The wide aperture also allows you to utilize the ambient light while helping to freeze action (certainly a benefit when arms and hands are busy opening presents) without having to use your maximum ISO.
But just because you can shoot at f/1.4 doesn’t mean that’s going to be optimal for your needs (especially with the depth-of-field needs associated with keeping multiple subjects in focus). The next part of my kit allows me much more flexibility in choosing the right aperture/shutter speed/ISO those kinds of shots.
Flash: Canon Speedlite 580EX (or 600EX-RT / 430EX III-RT) with CTO Gel & Flashbender 2 (Small)
No matter how much ambient light there is, I always like to be able to push a little bit more light into the room in order to allow for the use of lower ISOs and/or faster shutter speeds or to simply change the quality of light in the scene.
In a presents-opening situation, I’m typically using a camera-mounted flash with its head pointed straight up toward the ceiling to create flattering, room-filling bounce flash. Attached to the flash I use either a full CTO or a 1/2 CTO gel so that the color of the flash more closely matches that of the room’s ambient light (generally created by tungsten lamps and even the glow of Christmas lights).
Another tool I find helpful is the use of a Rogue Flashbender 2 (Small). I like the Flashbender 2 (Small) because it isn’t unwieldy when attached to the flash and it pushes just enough light forward to mitigate dark eye shadows that can sometimes be caused by the primary light source coming from overhead.
And while the flash works great with a wide aperture prime lens and a full-frame camera, a flash can also enable the use of narrower aperture zooms (or primes) and/or cameras with pixel-dense sensors (i.e., crop-sensor cameras). In these cases, the flash will likely shift from augmenting the existing ambient light to being the predominate light source in the scene.
So that’s the kit I used this past weekend and it worked very well for capturing a wide variety of shots throughout the day. Do you have any other suggestions or recommendations? Let us know in the comments.
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