Silly, but Simple, Composites

By Roger (18 October 2015)

My kids and grandkids have been photographed since birth. I have thousands of photos of these people. Our family loves having photos of them growing and changing, but, eventually,  the kids all go through a stage in which they're reluctant models.

They ignore me when I'm shooting candids, but getting them to pose for "nice" photos becomes more difficult as they get older. There are times I need to cajole and bribe them to sit for yet another photo. What do you do? You need to come up with some new ideas that they think are fun to keep them engaged.

Luckily, they've seen me working in Photoshop, so they've seen me changing pixels. Why does this matter? Well, now they can think up ideas for goofy photos that they'll enjoy being part of. That's the method I used to get them into these demonstration photos.

Long intro, I know, but let's get into the very basic steps of making some very simple composites, using two or more merged photos.

If you look online, you can find many great examples of composite photography. The information is in all the usual place: online and some good books. The latest book I've been reading is from Glyn Dewis - http://amzn.to/1NPpqvm  Glyn's book, The Photoshop Workbook, is comprehensive and highly recommended, but we're not talking about that high-end stuff today. I'm going to keep this very simple.

That fall looks bad.

You need to do a little prior planning before you start your session. Think about what you want the final photo to look like. Find your background and point of view before you begin. You want to keep the lighting and lens' focal length consistent for the best results. You'll need to align your photos in post-processing, so I strongly recommend a tripod.

I started with the background photo of the steps leading up from our basement. When we had that photo in the can, we threw in a chair; a grandkid who knew how to fake a frightened look; and pushed the self-timer on the camera. We did it in only three takes.

Behind the scenes

Now, we get to the computer for a little (very little) magic in Photoshop. Open the two photos, as separate layers. Although the camera was on a tripod and didn't move, I aligned the layers (Edit > Auto Align Layers) to be sure.

You have to hide all those unnecessary objects in the stairway. If you're never going to use the model's in any other photos, put the empty stairs as the bottom layer; add a black mask to the top photo with your model; and, with a white brush on the black layer mask, reveal the falling girl. Simple.

You don't want to overdo these kinds of photos, but, if you ever intend to make several others, I'd use a better method to isolate your model. You would extract the model from the background, and save it for another day, another scene. The next time you want to put the model into another composite, you won't have to redo all that work. You never know when it might come in handy.

All you need to do to make this happen is take a single photo. For this one, let's use a Darth Vader look-alike, holding balloons that will carry him away.

Standing on a stool to keep the cape straight

Duplicate the background layer. Use your selection and masking techniques to conceal the background. When you have the mask complete, right-click on the layer mask and choose Apply Layer Mask. The mask will disappear and leave only the part of the photo you wanted. Turn off the bottom background layer, and you'll see an image with transparency, like this:

Now, you have the ability to put your model into any photo you wish, even if it makes no sense. In fact, it's probably more fun for them if it is just plain silly. We're just goofing off here.

What a strange bird

The kids can have fun, thinking up poses and looking for just the right background in your photo database. You get to have fun making photos and learning new Photoshop techniques. And, the next time you ask them to pose for a regular photo, they'll be much more cooperative.

Fairy Tale Huntress

Should You Avoid Group Shoots?

By Roger (16 November 2014)

Shooting a single subject with a group of photographers can be less than ideal. At times, it can seem like you're in in a photography mosh pit. Sometimes, you're shoulder to shoulder with other photogs, everyone trying to get a decent photo (you already know it isn't going to be unique). But there are times where the advantages outweigh the disadvantages, and the group shoot may be worth a try.

Combat photography?

Combat photography?

If you find yourself in this situation, you're probably at some sort of organized event. And, although you may wish there weren't so many folks crowding your space, keeping an open mind may still result in a nice photo.

WWII Japanese Zero

WWII Japanese Zero

So, why would you ever subject yourself to this kind of scenario? Well, going to an organized event can give you access to subjects more easily than you could get otherwise. The Zero, above, was taken out of the Commemorative Air Force hanger, in Atlanta, for our workshop. Moose Peterson (link), a highly-acclaimed warbird (and nature) photographer led the workshop and was there to help with technical solutions and ideas. We spent the entire day with several World War II aircraft. The planes were moved out of their hangar and put in several different positions, so we could get better photographs. We, also, had access to the pilots who flew the planes. A reasonable trade-off, in my opinion, for a crowded shoot.

Contrast that with my recent trip to the Military Air Museum (link), in Virginia Beach. It only cost me the ticket price, but I had to shoot this B25J Mitchell bomber in the hangar, with other aircraft too close for me to get a clear photo of much more than the nose art. The docents were very helpful and gave me unfettered access to the aircraft. They even let me bring in a tripod! For some reason, however, they wouldn't move the planes around for me. ;-)

Organized model shoots, like the one below, sponsored by Westcott Lighting (link), are another example where you may want to join a group shoot. When you are just starting out, you may have a hard time coming up with all the ideas and resources they use. They show you what is possible with their great lighting products and a staff of set designers, stylists, and make-up artists. Even if you have some experience using lighting and sets, these group shoots can be fun to walk up to; snap a few shots; and take away a nice photograph and lots of ideas and inspiration.

Westcott Photoshoot Clown

Westcott Photoshoot Clown

Different Sets from a Westscott Model Shoot

Different Sets from a Westscott Model Shoot

These group shoots are also great for variety or trying new types of photography.

I am not, and never will be, a bird or nature photographer, but, in a group shoot with The Raptor Conservancy of Virginia (link), I got the opportunity to give it a try. The RCV rehabilitates and releases injured raptors back into the wild when possible and cares for the birds that can't be released.

These birds are put onto a branch, near a stand of trees for a natural background. I tried to frame the photoss so that viewers couldn't see the tethers that keep the birds close to the handler. Where that isn't possible, I'll have to take a trip into Photoshop to make them look more natural. Ideally, I would like to photograph them in the wild, but – let's be real – I am not going to spend hours hiking out into the woods to find these birds in their natural habitat. And, with the birds so close to my camera, I could use my 70-200mm, rather than renting or buying a long, expensive lens. For a small donation to the RCV, there were eight raptors easily accessible for our small group of photographers. We had plenty of time to try different angles, and the handlers were very helpful and informative. It was certainly worth an hour of my time to give it a try.

Saker Falcon

Saker Falcon

Barn Owl

Barn Owl

I would much rather make more unique photos, in a setting of my own choice, but, from my point of view, there are times where group shoots are worth the inherent disadvantages they present. Your mileage may vary, so you need to make your own choice of which group shoots, if any, you want to join. They can be fun for variety and ideas, and that is the guiding principal for my photography.

Lighting on the Road

By Roger (14 Sep 2014)

When you’re photographing people outside, without any lighting equipment, you need to pay attention to what the light from the sun is doing to your subjects. OK, actually, you always need to do that, regardless of the subject, but, go with me on the sun and people thing.

This week, I’m goofing off in Canada for a few days, visiting family and friends and learning the proper time to add an “Eh?” at the end of my sentences. All of the sudden, this cute baby (I know, that’s redundant) comes into my viewfinder, and I don’t have any lighting equipment with me. There’s a nice, late afternoon sun outside, so we decide to put that to some good use to light this cherub. This may happen to you, some day, so how do you handle it? Let’s demonstrate some courses of action and figure out what I think works best. As always, there are exceptions to what my favorite “rules” are in this situation. You decide what will work best for your model.

For some reason, most beginning photographers put the sun behind themselves. This is rarely the right thing to do. It lights up the faces and gets rid of shadows, but that leads to a flat, frontal light and anguished, squinty faces. Ryann – she’s the short one in this family – gives me the appropriate face for this kind of lighting. Yeah, she can’t talk, yet, but her expression says, “This yokel is doing it all wrong.”

Don't put the sun in your models' faces

Don't put the sun in your models' faces

If we change their position so the sun is coming from the side, we get better light. The models’ eyes are no longer squinting into the sun. Go between this photo and the first, and you can see their body language is much more relaxed. Dad has a hot spot on his face that I don’t like, but the highlights are not blown out. I can correct that in post-processing, but the goal is always to get it right in camera.

Light from side is better

Light from side is better

For me, the best solution is to put the models between my camera and the sun. This keeps the sun out of their eyes and puts a nice rim light around their hair. If I was carrying one of my reflectors on this trip, I could use that to bounce some fill light back at them. Even without the reflector, you can see how much better this lighting solution turned out.

I like this lighting the most

I like this lighting the most

For your own safety, always include a photo with Nona

For your own safety, always include a photo with Nona

These are not the only solutions, of course. You have probably heard of people looking for some open shade to block out the bright sun.  This is another option that can work well, especially for these types of “capture-the-moment” shots. However, open shade usually gives you another version of flat (uninteresting?) light. Reflectors are useful here, as well, to put in some shadowing and give more interest to your photo.

In the next two shots, I got some fill light from below, from the patio, and from the side, bouncing off the house. Remember, you don’t need an official photographer’s reflector to put fill light into a scene. You can use towels, shirts, or anything handy to bounce some light into the scene.

Open shade, with light bouncing into the scene

Open shade, with light bouncing into the scene

Unless you are doing a planned photo session, you want to keep things quick, especially with little ones. We knocked out these photos in less than 10 minutes. Most people are happy to cooperate with you when you keep it short.

This is on the road editing (my travel workflow description is here, if you didn’t see it), so I’ll make some changes to the final images when I return home. For now, it’s time to have some tourist fun and head for Niagara Falls at sunset. There may be some photos there, too.

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Don't forget to sign up for the 11 October Worldwide Photowalk here. You can join Mark and I, in Harpers Ferry, WV, at 0930, beginning at the Amtrak station. You can sign up for our walk here. We hope to see you there.