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How-to's Accessories Reviews

How to Shoot Large Groups with Nikon CLS

Russ MacDonald (Arkayem)

Keywords: nikon, speedlights, lighting, flash, cls

Shooting a large group, say 40 people or more, using only two Nikon SB-800s in umbrellas is a challenge, however, you can get decent results if you do it right. SB-800s are fairly low power flashes for this type of work, so placement of the equipment is crucial. Here is an example of a recent group shot I took with just this equipment:

Notice that this image is far from perfect, but it is acceptable. It clearly shows some of the standard problems you usually run into with a large group and small flashes.

I used my camera in Manual mode and the flashes in TTL mode. I used the pop-up flash as the Commander with a Nikon SG-3IR filter in front of it. The SB-800 only responds to IR light that enters through the small round red window, and since the pop-up Commander puts out both visible and IR light, the SG-3IR filter is useful to suppress the visible portion of the light to help keep people from blinking.

In a large room like this, where there are no walls or ceiling from which the pre-flash pulses can reflect, the SB-800 flashes in umbrellas must have their round red IR windows facing the Commander, or the pre-flash pulses from the Commander will not control or fire them.

As you may be able to tell, the ambient light was strong, and it was some weird mercury vapor color so there was no way to match the flash light to it. Therefore, there is a slight color shift between the front row and the back row indicating that the front row was lit mainly by the flash, but the farther away from the flash you get the more the ambient had an effect.

Holding focus from the front row to the back row is always a challenge. You address this by creating as much depth of field as possible by using as small an f/ stop as possible. However, the smaller the f/ stop you use, the more power is needed from the flashes to provide enough light.

You also want to have the rows stand as close together as possible. Notice how closely the rows are standing to each other in this image.

I used f/5.6 on this shot, because that was the smallest aperture I could use and still get adequate lighting from my flashes. I set the camera in Continuous Servo AF with the switch on the front of the camera, CSM a1 to FPS Rate (i.e., Release Priority), and CSM a6 AF-ON Only (i.e. to focus only when the AF-ON button is pressed). This allows me to aim at the second row, push the AF-ON button to focus (or use manual focus if I want to), and then recompose to place the group in the frame as I want it, and then push the shutter button to take the shot, and the green focus light doesn't have to be on for the shutter to release. This shifts the focus toward the middle of the group so depth of field is optimum for getting everyone sharp. f/5.6 is barely adequate for holding focus across a group this large. f/8 would have been more desirable if I were using say three or four SB-800's.


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Ian Jackson (Beemer2) on January 6, 2018

Russ, This was a great article and I wish I had read it a few years ago when I was taking a similar group in a similar situation with the same equipment. Well same except I used my two SB-800 with commander but without any brollies. Have you ever taken the shot using one SB-800 with brolly and one SB-800 without? Ian

EJ Wright (got2getitwright) on September 3, 2013

I just recently read about the back focus option. Seems to me this would have been a good time to use that option as it relates to getting the focus perfect and combining that with zooming in on one spot and back out.

Dave Hutchinson (Radiohutch) on August 3, 2013

Thanks Russ, This is just what I needed for a Reunion shoot that I am doing in Indiana the end of September.

Marcin Gramza (temper) on July 31, 2013

Hi Russ, Great article, thanks for taking the time for writing it. @Guy Ackermans: when looking at the mathematical formula, you are of course right. But I think that Russ wanted to maximize the amount of light coming from the SB-800 flashes. Which means that they had to be placed as close as possible to the group.

Stan Jacox (km6xz) on July 27, 2013

Awarded for his in-depth knowledge in various areas, including Portraits and Urban Photography

Guy, I think Russ meant the high position, angled down reduced the falloff due to the inverse square law.

User on July 25, 2013

Hi Russ, you wrote: "you must place the umbrellas as close as possible to the group to minimize the Inverse Square Law light fall-off." But that is just the other way around. The farther away you place the flashes. The lesser the influence of the Inverse Square Law Light fall-off.

Chris Runfola (OMMBoy) on July 24, 2013

Thank you for this very informative article! I once shot a large group of people (also about 40) for a baptism and happened to get lucky with the lighting inside the church and only used an SB-800 to fill in some of the shadows. A suggestion that might make focusing easier: I like to zoom in as close as possible on a subject somewhere in the center of the group, press the AF-ON button to focus, then zoom out and recompose. I find that this technique results in much more properly focused and sharper images.

Owen Richards (racepics) on July 24, 2013

Hello Russ, I did not think the SB800's could handle this size group. Thank you for showing me they will. Very good article. I will give it a go one day.

John Ellis (JohnE Nikon) on July 24, 2013

Thanks Russ for explaining this so thoroughly and communicating effectively.

Rick Spehn (PSAGuy) on July 24, 2013

Nice article....very well written and organized. Thanks !

Tom Mills (af4nc) on July 24, 2013

Great article, I am shooting a family reunion this weekend. Thanks

robert Beeson (rbeeson) on July 24, 2013

Russ, Thanks for your great article!! You are a constant resource for us fellow Nikonians! Keep up your Great articles, you have my Fan support!! Bob