Friday, April 16, 2010

Nothing Is Ever Under The Stairs

When it comes to scary places, the stairs to a basement is often near the top of the list for most people.  However, after recently watching "Paranormal Activity", I would put the  bedroom a bit higher on the list, especially around 3:00am.

To celebrate the previous winner for the scary place award, I decided to shoot a creepy scene with the model Alice, whom you might recognize from a previous post showing some Photoshop texture techniques.  The concept here was pretty simple; try and create a scene with the model coming down some creepy stairs and stick someone under there really get the neck-hairs on end.  Alice wore this "Alice in Wonderland" outfit for another photographer, but I decided this would be good for the stairs shot as well.  The guy under the stairs was all bloody from another concept someone else was shooting, but it would work well enough for me.

The staircase here is not very wide, and even shorter given the landing.  It is very old, and not very stable, so I don't want to be playing on it for long.  Because of the depth and fact my back is against a wall, there is no way to get a light in here on a stand.  So, I have my friend Michael holding a Norman studio strobe with a small soft strip modifier and a 40 degree cloth grid on it.  The light was camera left and as high up as he could hold it.  I was only able to get off about 4 shots before the light was just too heavy to keep up there.  So, I worked with what I had and was able to make something of them.

The post production of this has some major work involved.

The first thing we do it work on the model.  Fix anything that isn't quite right before we get onto the rest of the image.  I have worked with Alice plenty of times, and I know she has some awesome skin and isn't really much of a concern.  However, this step needs to be early in the process, so just get used to doing it first. Mike's make-up was fine, but the lack of light in his eyes bothered me.  In the end I really ramped up this area with a curve adjustment and a mask.  I took it WAY over the top here, but I don't think anyone is looking for realism from him, so we can bend a rule or two here.

Now that we have the models fixed up we have to darken the image, especially the under-stairs area that was lit by a slaved SB-800 speedlight just in front of the bloody dude under the stairs.  This speedlight was just too bright for the mood, and not angled as I would have liked, so we need to work on that.  In truth the light stand tipped to the side as Mike shifted during shooting and no one could put down the gear to fix it.    So, to resolve this I first made a curve adjustment layer and worked with that until I was happy (looking only at the under stair fellow at this time).  I then added a mask to that layer so as to not effect the rest of the image.  The goal here is to even out the light on Mike's face and chest, or to even swap them so the face is lighter than the shirt.  This isn't very hard because we don't need to brighten him up (try and avoid that), just dim the right spots.  The exposure on his face is adequate for our needs here.  Trying to add exposure to underexposed images will make a lot of noise.  Always try and shoot to the right side of the histogram to avoid this problem.

Next we need to widen the angle of the image, and this will suck.  Because this space is so tight, the image appears to suffer from a poor cropping job, but it isn't cropped at all, there just was no room in the stairs for a wider angle.  In order to fix this we need to increase the canvas size and then copy/stretch/clone in parts of the staircase as well as the wall to the right.  The ceiling rafters also need to be copied.  While I am working on making it larger I need to clone out that extension cord that runs to the light we are using for the shoot.  Just borrow bits of board from here and there and blend them together by overlapping them and erasing bits and pieces.  Once you are happy, make sure you flatten that work, as you don't need to keep 8000 layers of boards hanging around.  Also, this causes me to mentally "commit" to the change and makes it something I mentally know I can't change later.  I like this feeling and if I did make a mistake it is akin to making a smudge on a painting, you chalk it up to "art" and leave it alone :-)  Remember that we are going to darken this in a bit, so anything you find isn't perfect probably isn't going to be noticeable anyway.

Finally the overall image needs some darkening and the creepy factory needs to be improved.  This is mostly an exercise in blending modes based on copies of the entire image.  However, I find old wood and concrete really react quite well to the burn tool.  Make sure you use the "protect tones" option in CS4 and later, so you don't introduce weird colors into the image.  If you have CS3 or earlier, you can approximate this by using a 50% gray layer set to overlay and painting with a brush that is darker than 50% gray.

Note that I did not add a vignette to the image.  I am not really a fan of a fake vignette, so I don't tend to put them into my works (and I think they are way overused anyway).  You could probably save some time on parts of the image by using this popular technique, but I wanted a clear diagonal of light from the upper left to the wall on the right, and a vignette would have eliminated that.  Why did I want this light path?  Well, pay attention to how your eye is moving over the image.  You immediately find the model, the stairs and the wall help to frame her.  The dude under the stairs might be completely missed if you don't look for him because he isn't in this light "path".  I like the fact that one can get a creepy feeling from the image and not really know why.  Call it subliminal or whatever, but it works.

As always comments are appreciated but seldom left. :-(

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Succubus Isn't Just For Breakfast

Back during Halloween I had an idea for a female demon called a Succubus.  One of the models (Faith), asked to work on the concept with me after I showed some sketches and design ideas.  She acquired the outfit and my job was to pull off the rest of the trick.  Originally I was going to put some large leathery wings on her, but after working on it for quite a while, I decided it was a bit over-the-top for my liking.  This was shot in the basement of a studio where I am part owner and it used to be an old malted like factory, so it has a lot of wild textures to explore.

So, here are the before and after images.  I will walk you through the setup of the lighting and then onto the post processing.

The lights were setup in a way as to minize specularity, not my typical direction.  Normally I am a big fan of an obvious rim-light on the side of the model.  However, in this case I was looking for something a bit "darker", and really wanted to have a shadow on the wall behind her.

The primary (key) light is a Norman monoblock that was laying around in the studio.  It has a very large strip modifier on it with a cloth 40 degree grid.  I think this is a 40, it might be smaller, I am not really sure as the light is pretty old (or at least looks that way).

To really pop the texture of the wall there is a Nikon SB-800 skimming the wall from the left to the right.  I am not sure this turned out exactly as I wanted, but it did help the texture from the shots I have where the light didn't fire.  I put another SB-800 far to the right of the model with a Lumiquest Softbox III on it and a red gel as I wanted to really warm up the side a bit opposite the key.  This effect is also subtle like the other speedlight, but they help to round out the feeling of the image.  Again, I notice from the other test shots when this puppy didn't keep up with my shooting.  Guess I should change my batteries more often. 

Post processing is comprised of a lot of layers and blending modes.  So, lets start with some of the more obvious ones and work backwards. 

After correcting the complexion and any little distractions on the model I white balance and prepare for the battle.  The first thing I want to do it add some additional grit onto the walls.  Now, rather than add some alien texture, there is plenty to play with on them already.  So, I duplicated the layer and played with the blending modes while looking only at the walls.  I decided on "multiply" and added a mask to block out other areas of the image.  I also lowered the opacity as it was just a bit too dark.  Moreover I added some additional variation with the dodge and burn tools on this layer.  This really worked well on the wall behind the model, and I was careful to not go overboard on the floor, as we have plans for that space yet (insert evil laugh here).

The hair for the model was awesome.  I think she said it took her almost 3 hours to comb out the rats-next the stylist created.  I owed her a brownie for this effort, and I think I got the best part of the deal there for sure.  To really pop her hair in the image, I added another copy and it set to "screen" (I am not sure this was the final mode, but it is probably close).  Adding a mask and playing with the opacity I was able to give it some variation without it being obvious something had been altered.  I also played with other blending modes here, as I tend to do once the mask it solid.  Note that the mask here is NOT very detailed.  You really don't need to go to extremes, just use a soft brush and stay away from the edges and it will look quite natural.  You can also work on just part of the hair, like adding highlights and so on.

The last step was the summoning circle.  This was in the sketch of the concept I showed the model before the shoot and it was a major part of the demon theme.  In fact, without it the photo is a bit weird as far as poses and outfits are concerned.  I drew the circle on a new layer and made it as large as would fit on the screen.  Because we are going to use the perspective warp, we can be as detailed as we want and not worry about it looking natural.  Once I was pleased with the arcane design, I warped it until I felt it looked good with the environment.  For the final steps I masked out the model from the design and changed the blending mode to "hard light".  This really picked up some of the red on the floor, but it wasn't as strong as I wanted.  So, you do what everyone does when you want more, you just duplicate the layer again!  That doubled the effect of the blending mode, and there you have it!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Making The Kitty A Bit Gritty


A few months ago I shot some models that were part of a portfolio building event for local body painters and I want to discuss two images from that shoot.  We have events of this type about every month or so.  If you are able to travel to Milwaukee for a solid day of photography, keep an eye here for upcoming workshops and portfolio building events.

The model I want to talk about today was Alice, and she went with a Cheetah themed paint job adorned with a playful bow and some costume ears to help round-out the outfit.  Both of the images I am showing from this day have been altered with textures, and that is that type of  image treatment I want to discuss in this article.

I add textures to most of my images, often it is subtle and restricted to a specific part of the photo with a masked layer.  I highly recommend the Flypaper Textures series as a great collection of textures you can add to your image.  There is often at least one blending mode involved as a texture is rarely added directly to the image without at least an opacity change.  I also shoot textures whenever I see something that has potential.  So, keep your eyes open!

I took this photo from a very low angle with a wide angle lens, which will distort her hand and perspective.  I really wanted the hand to look large and as threatening as I could, so the use of a wide angle here was key.

Before we get into the Photoshop aspects, lets talk about lighting for a bit. Lighting this is fairly simple as I needed to light the front of the model, but also make sure the back does not fall into shadow.  I wanted to really add some specuality to her rump to help balance the shot with interest.  Obviously the face is a focus area, and the black wig will be a nice contrast for the image.

There are three lights involved here: 
  • SB-800 camera left (behind model) at 1/8 power with 20 degree grid
  • AB-800 with 2' softstrip camera left (in front of model)
  • AB-800 with huge octabank camera right at 1/8 power for fill. 
The octabank is a HUGE light modifier and allows us a nice even fill across the entire image. Also, because it is so large we can back it up a bit so we have some room to move.  Often I find there are so many lights in tight on the subject that it becomes a chore to step over cables and not accidentally catch one of the lights in a shot.

Before I added the texture, I needed to Photoshop out the thong from the model.  It just looked a bit odd with the outfit, and I wanted to remove it.  The patch tool and clone-stamp made this easy and quick work.  Remember you can always use the patch tool to "borrow" spots from other areas of the image.  This keeps the paint looking interesting and realistic over the patched areas.

When looking at an image for texture treatment you need to have a goal.  The goal may not be what you end up with, but you need to know what type of look you desire.  For this photo I wanted a desaturated look and a rough treatment to work with the dynamics of the shot.  I also dislike the brown background tone that was the paper that was handy, so the textures I am going to try must be lighter than this tone if the blending modes I have in mind are going to work.

Often when a texture is applied you will find yourself using a mask so you don't completely obscure important pieces of the image, like the face, eyes, and so on.  However I decided to forgo a mask for this image and just let it be a systemic image treatment.  After the first texture was in place and set to "screen" as the blending mode, I added an additional texture and masked it out of most of the photo except for parts of the background.  This was done to add a little variation to the photo.

The same model approched me later in the day with a slight modification to her costume.  I was in the process of packing up things and she was disappointed when I said I was leaving.  She said, "but I am adorable!".  So, I unpacked things and took this shot.

This outfit was a bit on the creepy side being that it was a "little girl" look but with the body paint.  So, I took her words to heart and added the word "adorable" in blood across the floor in front of her.  The texture treatment is the same as I did above, but this time I masked her out so the texture didn't cross her at all.

As you can see from the untreated photo I also had to extend the background and remove my damn shoe from the picture.  There are probably 50 ways to extend the background ranging from just a copy/paste to the "content aware scale" tool.  I choose the latter in this case because it is quick and was not really going to show up well after the texture application.  My ruddy shoe as removed with the exact same treatment I used to restore the background to the top of the image.

The blood is a simple font and some ink spatter brushes (I used a dark red color for both).  The color of the blood is made more realistic because there is a blending mode on them (multiply) and it is working nicely with the texture treatment.  Since blood is really dark red, this seemed a bit too dark to me initially but after failed attempts to lighten it, I seemed to revert to this color as my favorite.

I hope you enjoyed the article today and have a Happy Easter!  Please leave me a comment or any questions you might have.

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 (pu...