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. :-(


  1. Found your blog via your comment on a DPS post ... I don't do model photography but I appreciate the generous spirit in which you offer details on your technique. There's a wealth of info here! I really like this shot--it's creepy, slightly campy and stylish. I immediately saw the "dude under the stairs" because the lines of the girl's legs lead right to his face. My eye starts at the brightest part of the image (the girl's face and knee) then travels down her body to the "punch line" of the guy's face. Excellent work on this, and the other shots in your blog.

  2. Could not agree more, if this were eBay I would give you A++++++!

    Stairway lighting


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...