Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Waiting For Morpheus

final image

This image was shot on location in Edgerton, Wisconsin, which I mentioned before is very close to the edge of the Earth (pun intended) or at least that is how it seems.  The fourth floor of this old building had an interesting attic as well as a few pieces of furniture that had been lovingly abused and left to die next to an old freight elevator. This image is a few years old, and like much of my older work I really don't care for it much these days.  I had also written about this image in the past, but took more time to explain myself this go-around.  Some great lighting and posing lessons can be learned from it, so here we go.

I found this old couch that had some amazingly ugly pattern adorning its aged form.  It squatted in the corner of the room and I decided it would really complete the image that was slowly taking shape in my head.
One of the places I dream I could someday shoot is in the hotel from The Matrix where Neo goes to meet Morpheus for the first time.  The grunge and textures of that place were simply amazing, and a wall in this room, combined with this decrepit Davenport really brought that place to the forefront of my mind.  Yes, I actually just used the word "Davenport" and I am not over 50.  Do I get points for that?

Posing The Model
I asked Victoria to relax and sit as if waiting for her visitor to arrive.  The cigarette was added to give the image a bit more interest than just making this a shot of a pretty woman in a grungy space.  I didn't have her look at the camera, as this image assumes she is alone and engaging the viewer would ruin the mood.  When you are posing your model, consider if you feel the image would be stronger with a direct connection to the viewer, or more of a voyeuristic feel if they are not looking at the camera.  I do have one major regret with this image, and that is the whites of her eyes are owning me here.  I should have had her look more to her right, but oh well.  This is an image long since past, and some lessons can still be learned from it.

Lighting The Scene
image straight out of the camera
I wanted to focus the light on the model of course so we need a key that can show off her lovely form, but not illuminate the entire ugly space.  The wall behind this couch is perfect, but the rest of the room is far from ideal, so we really want some aggressive falloff which mean the lights need to be close to the subject.  The further your light is from the subject the longer it will take for the light to fall off (inverse square law).

To achieve this I used a 22" beauty dish with a 30 degree grid.  It was just above the model and just out of the frame.  The grid restricted the beam of light perfectly so the entire sofa was lit, but not much beyond that.  This single light looked pretty good on its own, but I felt we could really pop the texture on the wall with another light.  Unfortunately all of the lights were to large to fit into the small space, so I grabbed one of my trusty Nikon SB-800 speedlights and placed it behind the couch pointing up at the wall.  I did have to grid this strobe as well, otherwise it would have illuminated the entire wall, and I was wanting more of a "halo" type of lighting just behind Victoria.  After fiddling with the speedlight I decided to add a blue gel to work in a bit of color and interest to the wall that could juxtapose her skin color.  In the end we ended up with these two lights for the scene, and I was very happy with the image right out of the camera.

Post Production In Photoshop
Photoshop didn't break much of a sweat with this image.  Her skin is already looking great, and aside from the removal of a few shiny spots on her cheek and nose, I didn't have much correction on her to do.  To remove the shine, I used the clone stamp tool set to "darken" and just sampled from another area that was not shiny.  I did this on another layer, and lowered the opacity until it was believable and didn't appear to be retouched, yet accomplished the intended goal of glare removal.  Note that you don't have to sample from the same area of the body.  I use her chest as the sample as there was a lot more skin available for sampling there and the blending mode with eventual fade won't make this detectable.  Don't get caught in the trap of thinking you must always sample from around the area needing help.  However, be aware that pores in different areas are unique, and forehead is not the same as cheek, so due check for texture issues if you do collection the sample from an alien location.

The cigarette in the shot was interesting for sure, but was not really making the scene happen as intended.  I spliced in a photo of a burnt cigarette to the business end of the carcinogen-stick and then added some smoke.  I set the layer of smoke to "screen" and lowered the opacity a bit.  I didn't really intend for the smoke to be super realistic as much as I wanted it to help set a mood.  I am quite happy with the end product even if some consider it very fake looking.  Sure, I could have had the cigarette lit when I took the shot, but I can't stand the smell, and it would also have been another variable to add to the complexity of lighting the scene.  If I didn't like the smoke shape, but loved everything else, I would have to do a lot more work.  This way I can do whatever I want with the image I selected.

After my small adjustments to the composition and a bit of dodging and burning the wall behind her to bring out the texture, I played with the black point and added a curve to help contrast.  I also desaturated the image quite a bit, as again color in this scene would look odd to me.

Total time in Photoshop was around 20 minutes.

Camera Settings
As requested by one of the readers the camera settings are as follows:
Shutter was 250th (Nikon Max sync speed), and ƒ5.6.  ISO was 200 which is the Nikon default. 
You will find these settings are fairly common with my work.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Keeping It Simple

Final Image - Keeping it simple
I forgot how long it had been since I had written new articles (aside from my recent spurt), wow, it has been a while, and WOW my old images suck!

Staring at the blog and trying to think of which images to cover next made me realize my style/taste has changed a TON in just a year.  Many of my older images (and those covered by earlier articles), are just awful to me now.  Sure, I learned some valuable lessons from those that hopefully I have passed along, but many of them I no longer have a fondness for.  Be that as it may, I will leave them up as the lessons are still worthy, even if I now hate the resulting composition.

In any event, as I look at my library, there are a few time-worn images that offer-up a worthy lesson (and also don't suck as much).  This one is a solid example from 2011 with less suck, and less... everything.

Today is a lesson in simplicity.  Keeping images simple yet interesting is a balance I often try and achieve when shooting certain styles, and in this case, a focus on fashion.  Now, I have shot fashion on location and some awesome places add a lot to the image, but when you want the focus on the dress, it often works out better in a more generic environment than in a busy one.  If you are constructing art, then the opposite may be true, but it all depends on your style as well as what the picky ass client might want (right or wrong). In this case we are striving for simple yet artistic, and I want to find that fine line between the two.  A blank wall is unacceptable as well as not a differentiator (more on that later), so we want to find the middle ground between interesting art and a blank wall.

Posing The Model

I prefer poses for fashion where the model isn't looking at the camera.  You also want to find the aspects of the outfit that are the "star of the show", and feature those.  In this case, I like the shoulder details as well as the bun-hugging abilities offered by this fabric.  It was then a simple matter of finding a pose featuring those aspects as well as her not looking at the camera.  Now, those are not rules, just my preference.  I have shot fashion where the model is engaged with the viewer, but it isn't often my preference.  Keep in mind when you do shoots to have the model look at the camera as well as away from it, so you have options later.  I used to regret not getting a specific shot, but learning the hard way sucked and now I get a variety.  Look at me, look down your body-line (especially when shooting lingerie), look at that light stand, look at the floor, etc.  Keep it in a rotation so you get some of each from the unique poses.  When you do this, also keep an eye on the catchlights (pun intended) so the eyes get some sparkle if they will be seen in the final image.

Lighting The Scene

Thrilling Lighting Diagram
In this thrilling lighting diagram we see we have three total lights with which to fiddle.  In reality, this is a simplistic way to light most scenes and is a great default when you are in doubt and in a panic state in front of a client.  In a spectacular fail in labeling my lights here, I would like to start with C, our Key Light.  It is the workhorse for the majority of the photons we are throwing at the model and is gridded for no particular reason.  I think I had it on there from a previous session, and there was no reason to remove it.  Normally we would have a grid on here to prevent the background from getting hit, but because of the angle here, the light would hit it regardless of the grid.

Both A and B play the same role, but from different sides of the scene.  Their goal is to "sculpt" the model with light and help all of the 2 dimensional mediums (print, screen, whatever) appear to be more 3D.  Without these lights, the scene is pretty flat and boring, boring, boring.  Adding rim lights is a great way to add some zing.  If you don't have rim lights consider using a reflector to bounce some light back in, or use the sun!  I rarely use the sun as a key light, as it makes some wickedly sharp shadow unless you diffuse it with something.  But as a rim light, it is ready to go, but you might need to increase your shutter speed to get it to a reasonable level of brightness.

Post Production In Photoshop

There is very little in the way of post production here, which I guess is the point of the article.  However, what we do add takes it to a different level of image.  

As a photographer, it is what makes your work unique that helps you get noticed and hopefully hired.  Had I left her on the gray background, I think I would be in the same ballpark with hundreds of other people who have a white wall.  But, by making a mask and adding in this hand-painted texture, as well as a minor tone adjustment, I have taken this image to another level.  The question is, how many other photographers would have even bothered?

When tackling some of these images in post production, think of what you can do to make your work stand-out from the crowd, and not take the lazy road.  However, also keep in mind you also have to make yourself equal before you make yourself unique.  If your lighting is awful, no amount of Photoshop will save you.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Demonic Dagger

You know all those rules of posing you are supposed to follow?  Like, don't shoot women with their hips straight at the camera, keep all the weight on one leg, and don't talk to strangers with demon like eyes?  Well you can feel free to break those once you understand why they are in place, (have an abundance of holy water at hand for the last one).

Posing The Model

In this case, I wanted a strong and confrontational pose and with the hips to the side (normally done to reduce the width across the pelvis), the photo loses a lot of its might.  So I just skipped over that guideline and went for the punch rather than concerns about child bearing hip width.  Sure, some models might shed a tear or two, but Jane here can handle it.

A term you should get to know is "canoeing", where the bottom white of the eye is showing (makes a canoe shape connecting both sides of the sclera). Originally I didn't much care for this image, as the eyes bothered me for the aforementioned reason, and it only recently dawned on me that I could just paint over the eyes and rescue this photo from the unloved lifetime of my messed-up photo archive.

Lighting the Photo

thrilling lighting diagram
Lighting this image is simple enough with one large softbox, camera left.  It is almost directly to the side of the model, and you can tell this by looking at the lighting on the face.  The far side of her cheek is getting just a tiny kiss of light, where the rest is dark, so this is pretty much a split light.

The "glow" evident on her far shoulder is from the glare off of the white wall.  No reflector was used here as it would have bounced to much light back onto her side, and I wanted the drama.  Note that this softbox is gridded to prevent a ton of light from hitting the wall.  Controlling the spill from light modifiers is something I find myself doing on every image, as I don't want the background to distract from my subject.  If I want to light the background, I will typically do this with another strobe or two rather than use the spill from the key light.

Post Production In Photoshop

Much of the creepiness of this image is derived from the modified eyes.  To create this effect I simply used the pen tool and outlined her eyes, and then filled that selection with black.  I then took a white hard-ish brush and painted in where the catchlights ought to be.  I just used what was in her real eye as a point of departure here.  Also, if this effect is to sharp you will find that using a gaussian blur on that layer will help with the believability.  I kept the catchlights on a different layer from the black sclera until I had the eyes the way I wanted them.  I then merged them down to a single layer so I could work with the whole image.

I did end up using Liquify a bit to square her hips a slight amount, but otherwise she is pretty much untouched.  Once I had her shape finalized I used the quick selection tool to separate her from the background so I could add a texture and the glyph.  I played with the blending mode and transparency until I was happy with the result.  There are two textures applied here as well as the glyph, for a total of three additional layers.  Each has a different blending mode to augment what the previous layer brings to the table.

To help with the punch of the image, I created a 50% gray layer set to the Overlay blending mode.  On this I used a 2% white soft brush to add more highlights to parts of her body.  This increased the drama of the image, and I then used a black brush to do the opposite in the shadows.  Some of you may recognize this as the old method of doing a Dodge & Burn, as the original image layer is unmodified and I can just paint in 50% gray to fix any mistakes.  I do this step on all of my images to some degree.  This method was needed prior to Photoshop CS3, when the dodge and burn tools in Photoshop should have been named "make more brown", as they sucked at the only job they had.  I still prefer the Overlay method because it is non-destructive and quite simple to fix mistakes, not that I make any of course. :-)

One final touch to this image was a solid color "light blue-green" adjustment layer added over the entire photo.  I reduced this to around 2%, and it helps bring the blackest parts of the image into gamut and adds a "softness" to the feeling of the shot.  I find this effect pleasing and use it on a lot of my low-key images, and it amazes me what this subtle little step can do for the work.  This also helps a ton when you get work printed, as the blackest parts of the image are no longer pure black.  Another fun alternative to this is to use images of "light leaks" from older cameras.  These are all over the web and make some interesting effects vs the solid color I used here.

Any questions on things I might have missed?  Thanks a ton of the feedback on the last image gang, was nice to know people are listening!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Waiting to Prey

Final Image
Well it has been over a year, I finally decided to write a few more articles and see how this goes.  I was getting a lot of readers (I think), but very few comments, so I gave up.  If you are one of those readers and like this blog, take 30 seconds and leave a comment, as I spend hours on each article and need to know it is worth it.  So, don't just be a drive-by reader, show me a bit of love. :-)

Green Bay Fear

Each autumn I get a chance to travel to Green Bay, Wisconsin to a large car-show/haunted house event.  This annual photographers smorgasbord is put on by Green Bay Fear, who show us all a great time and put on a wonderful event.  Most of the time I avoid the automobiles, as they are parked right-on-top of each other and the event is packed with people who have a knack for photo bombing.  I find it hard to get a decent shot without some elderly guy strolling through my shot eating a brat, so I tend to work in the haunted house, which is more my style anyway.

Lighting The Image

When I am in Green Bay I always tend to use my Nikon speedlights rather than shlep all of my Einstein strobes along with me.  Aside from being lazy I often don't have the space to setup large strobes with their even larger stands.  Tiny speedlights on small stands tend to work better in confined spaces, who knew?

Normally I tend to avoid the exterior places around the haunted house, as it is typically cold outside this time of year, and I don't much care for the sun wrecking my lighting plans.  However, this past year we have some surprise time limits for each interior space, and that put a significant cramp in my style and mood.  On my first shoot for the day, I had just finished setting up my lights when I was told that it was time for me to move on to the next room. as the space was scheduled for a different shooter every 30 minutes (would have been nice to know ahead of time).  I decided at that point the sun and I would have to come to an agreement for the day.  I was not going to get along with this arrangement where I only had 30 minutes to be an artist in each interior space.

The model and I then wandered around the creepy sets they have planned outside of the building.  I would like to point out that I get to see this place during the day, and I am sure it is quite gripping at night, especially once you add all those actors that jump out and scare the patrons.

This little outbuilding we finally found nestled in the rear of the property had some great character and a lovely bench for us to use.  The sun was on the other side of the building, so it was providing some ambient, and that was about it.  I didn't want my poor speedlight to have to complete with that bad-boy.

On the speedlight I had a 12"x8" Lumiquest III softbox.  I have discussed these in the past, and they are great little modifiers, as they are small and collapse easily to fit into my tiny speedlight bag.  I placed this on a small light stand and put it camera left (A in the diagram), just out of the frame.  I wanted to keep this light as close to the model as possible so the fall-off is significant.  Remember, the closer the light is to the subject, the faster the light will fall-off in intensity.  Moreover, the closer the light, the softer the shadows will be, simply because the apparent size of the source will be larger because it is closer.  Now, she is young so her skin can take a harsher light source, so this diminutive softbox won't be her enemy.  I won't be shooting a grandma with this tiny modifier unless I want to really show off all those wrinkles (probably not good for repeat business).

Camera Settings & Lens Choice

  • Shutter Speed: 125th
  • Focal Length: 36mm at ƒ4
  • ISO 100
For this shot, I used my 24-70mm ƒ2.8 lens which normally lives in the bottom of my bag and seldom sees the light of day.  I don't prefer this lens because of the distortion, but in this case the look lends itself to a more dramatic image.  I normally don't like to shoot portraits with anything less than 85mm, but then again you have to be open minded when you are looking for something out-of-the-ordinary.  Try shooting a few portraits of the same person using a shorter focal length, and then with a longer one, and see what the differences are and what you prefer.  Note that you will have to move much closer to the subject with a wider lens, but that is why this starts to become problematic.  But hey, go ahead and give this a try, you might find your preference is different from mine (though I doubt it :-).

Posing The Model

This young woman is an accomplished model, so no real direction was needed.  I just worked with her and  got her into an ominous mood (call it a gift).  Giving the model a character to play makes posing much easier, and because her make-up lends itself to a specific genera, the rest was quite easy.  Note that getting low to the ground (laying on it actually), was critical to making this shot interesting.  We have some great texture on the ground, and the wide angle lens will really make the perspective pop.  Yes, I got dirty, but I lived.

Post Production in Lightroom 4 & Photoshop CS6

The image straight out of the camera
The image straight out of the camera wasn't a bad one.  It had good lighting (critical, 'cause you can't fix this later), and I liked the pose with the legs all akimbo.  The problems I had with the image were that the textures on the building were not as obvious as I would have liked them. There was also WAY to much red in this image for me, and specifically in her skin tone.  With her solid tan, and the make-up people loving their flake blood supply, I needed to desaturate things a bit. If you follow my work at all, you will notice that I tend to prefer muted colors, so get used to me saying things like "there is way to much color in this image".

In Lightroom I took a moment to bring up the lighting in the shadows just a bit, as I wanted to be sure I had no clipping there.  I wanted to have data in the darkest places if possible, as I want to be sure all of the textures will print well later on. I also removed a bit of the Vibrance from the image, but left the Saturation as it was.  The Saturation control in Lightroom is much more of a hammer than I needed for this specific job.  Vibrance tends to remove colors based on how prevalent they are in the image, so brighter colors are the first to die, which is exactly what I wanted here.

In Photoshop I added some Curve adjustment layers and created the brighter and more contrasty spots on the building.  I masked this effect so that it was only in the areas I preferred, and didn't brighten the entire image.  I don't tend to add a lens vignette to images but that same method of focusing the viewers attention can be done by manipulating elements in the image, such as this.  I did this by creating some curve adjustment layers and made things a LOT more contrasty and pushed this effect into the sides and corners of the image.  Again, I prefer this to be a more organic feeling vignette than the typical oval which I find over used by most photographers.  I have a strong opinion here, but then again you could probably guess that by now.  To add a bit more drama to this image, I took a very small round brush and added some additional wisps of hair to her bangs.  There were some already blowing in the light breeze that day, but I really wanted this to add more to the image than was originally present.

After I was finished with things like retouching skin and any other little things I couldn't do in Lightroom, I headed back to application for some final touches.  I added a bit of a split tone, as I like a bit of blue in my shadows and I wanted to remove a bit more of that color in her skin.  I also added a bit of clarity to the building and foreground.  A word of caution here; don't apply clarity to female skin, it looks awful, and also don't use the negative clarity, that sucks even more and has a very obvious look one can spot from a mile away.  I have seen attempts at skin smoothing using this sorry method, and I would tell you to avoid it as there are much better methods that don't suck.  Again, my strong opinion showing here where I see a lot of new photographers getting sucked into the ease of use and not the awful things it does to their images.

I don't sharpen my images, as I leave that for Lightroom to do based on the target medium.

Want to see more articles?  Tell me that this was worth my time, and don't just be someone that reads and never comments. ;-)

-sed