Documenting the “Not So Good Times” by Wil Cohen

Wdc 3

In this lesson I want to introduce the concept of taking pictures of the not so good times. Everyone thinks to take out the camera to take pictures of birthdays, holidays, and trophy time. However, if you are just capturing the happy times you’re leaving out all the other parts that give a complete view into your pictures. It can be predictable and one dimensional to have everyone just smiling in your images. Some examples might be your child lost a big game, vacation gone bad, car trouble. You’ll need to see what you and the subject are comfortable covering. When in doubt grab the picture while you can but if you can take a couple of minutes and light the way you want, it is even better. It takes a minute to get your brain to think in this new mindset but it will bring a new aspect to your photography. You can get started with self-portraits or start with some family members.

In my example, my son got a black eye and chipped a tooth playing flag football at school. After he checked out ok at the doctors we had him stay home from school the next day to monitor him. I thought that would be a good time to grab a picture of him and he was up for it. As you can see in the video below it was a very casual quick shoot. If I didn’t take a picture it could easily be an incident forgotten years from now. Think of this example as a documentary portrait.

In this setup I wanted something quick and easy. The whole thing took under 6 minutes and used minimal gear. You’ll want to move fast in these situations. No one likes taking a long time when they are happy let alone when they are not. For lighting children I recommend them sitting so they are not moving on you.

I wanted nice soft lighting so I am working with the umbrella in very close to my subject. I also wanted dramatic lighting with shadows so the lighting is almost completely to his (camera left) side. When using just one light I need the light to work for both the subject and the background. Umbrellas are great for feathering on the subject and background with one light.They are also quick to setup and universally work with all brands and types of flash & strobes. In this case I used a grey collapsible instead of a wall because I wanted that particular color with his shirt.You could easily use a plain wall as well and save a bit of time to boot.

The Setup

A simple pop up background with a children’s wooden chair

Picture with natural room light (no flash)
This is what you would get if you let your camera drive itself

Too pedestrian for my taste so lets kick it up a notch below:

This is much more dramatic while still showing his emotion and mood

Shot with one hot shoe flash in an umbrella in very close to subject

Image lightly tweaked in Lightroom and Photoshop

Another image in vertical

I’m positioned below him shooting up for a different perspective. I do not like shooting down on subjects particularly children

Image has been lightly tweaked in Lightroom and Photoshop


  • Fuji X100F w/50mm equivalent
  • Yongnuo Flash YN560 III
  • Yongnuo Trigger YN560-TX
  • White Umbrella

Leave Your Comment