Life imitates art

I shot the image below very recently, and I kind of love it.  The model, a really charming kid named Derek, was an absolute pleasure and sat very patiently while my super talented makeup artist Erika Seward did her work with him.  He actually was pretty delighted with how rough he looked when she was finished, as I’m sure I would have been.

The Rabbit

Neither children nor animals were harmed in the making of this photo.

We shot at Derek’s home with a borrowed bunny and stun gun.  The bunny’s name is Mr. Thumps, and yes, of course the electricity leaping between the contacts on the stun gun was made in Photoshop.  I know better than to hand an 11-year-old a stun gun with the battery in it, thank you very much.

The photo is awfully funny to me on its own, but I think it’s made even more entertaining by the story that came out of Portland shortly after I shot it.  Seems a 22-pound house cat attacked a family, forcing them to dial 911 from their locked bedroom.  No kidding.  To be fair, though, it does sound to me like the family had it coming.  The baby started it all by pulling the cat’s tail, which earned him a blood-drawing swipe to the forehead.  Then the mom’s boyfriend kicked the cat away, and that apparently is where things really went off the rails.

Me, I just enjoy it when I shoot something that turns out to be timely.

For those interested, the photo was lit with a 4-foot by 6-foot softbox from camera left to mimic daylight through a window.  A silver bounce to camera right filled in shadows a bit, and I used a smaller box from 3/4 rear, camera left, for a rim light.  Camera was set at ISO 100, f/5.6 at 1/60 sec.

Superhero sneak-peek

You’re right.  I don’t blog often enough, and I’m sorry about that.  The infrequency of posts isn’t indicative of infrequent happenings, however, and I’ll use this first blog entry in a while to demonstrate that fact with a sneak peek at a personal project I’ve recently undertaken.  It’s a conceptual series about superheroes that I’ve been shooting these past several months, and am continuing to shoot.  The central question of the series is: What is everyday life like with a superpower, and what would superheroes do in a city without crime?

All of the photos so far are composites of many more than just a couple photos, so each is fairly labor intensive and most have involved several individual shoots.  Here are a couple of the images I’ve done so far—I hope you get a kick out of them.  As always, feel free to click on them to view them larger.

This was a composite of seven shots in total.  Can you tell what they are?  Oh, you don’t want to play that game?  Okay, the first is the cityscape—it’s downtown Seattle as viewed from Smith Tower, a 38-story building from 1914 that until 1931 was the tallest building west of the Mississippi, and until 1962 was the tallest building on the west coast.  (I actually hosted pub trivia for years so forgive me if you’re not interested in the factoids, but I think that’s kind of cool…right?)  The second shot in this photo is also part of the cityscape—the tallest building, the one at both edges of the frame.  I added it for the sake of composition.  The third shot is the flag blowing in the wind, which I thought just added a nice touch.  The fourth and fifth shots are the superhero and her cape.  The sixth shot is the building on the left, the one she’s cleaning.  It’s a building a block from my studio, which I shot from a ladder at ground level.  I just kept the frame and replaced the windows with my own reflections.  The last shot is the sky, which I actually shot about a year and a half ago while on a road trip.  The “Capitol City Times” sign on the building was added in Photoshop to tie this shot in with the other shots in the series like the one below.

How does an indestructible person get a haircut?
I found this wonderful barbershop while scouting downtown.  It’s called The Stewart Street Barbershop, and the owner, Steve, couldn’t have been more generous when I asked if I could shoot in his shop.  Nearly everything in the shop was as I shot it, although I did add every element (except the pole) on the wall behind the models.  And while I did have my superhero model hold an actual magazine, I mocked up a back cover and shot my own image for my new front cover.  The sparks, of course, were all made in Photoshop, as was the shop decal on the window.  And speaking of the window, the scene outside was shot about a mile and a half away on a different day.  In reality, a bus stop is outside the barbershop, and it didn’t work for the photo.  Replacing the scene outside the window meant replacing reflections in the window—the barber’s back, the sparks, the barber’s pole.  All in all, this shot was a fair amount of work, but as I’ve said before, I really enjoy the details.  And I really like this shot.

As I say, these are just a couple—there are more already and there will be more in the future.  I’m really looking forward to going more in depth on the making of each photo, and to bringing the whole series to the blog and the site when it’s ready.  In the meantime, I’ll be offering peeks here and there, so please check back when you think of it.  Thanks!

Blood Squad!

I don’t really enjoy horror movies, but…I have been a fan of the improv comedy group Blood Squad for years—since early 2007, I think.  They’re straight-up amazing, and I don’t say this of many things, but I couldn’t enjoy them more even if squirrels were involved.  (I really get a kick out of squirrels.)  The next time you’re in Seattle, if you have the good fortune of timing your visit during one of their runs, you should really make good on that opportunity.

Blood Squad consists of founding members Elicia Wickstead and Brandon Felker—both longtime improv performers and instructors—as well as Molly Arkin and newcomer Jon Axell.  All four are incredibly talented and together form an improv group quite literally unlike any you’ve ever seen.  Blood Squad builds their funny out of the horror movie genre(!), and they do it in a long-form improv format.  That means that at the start of each performance, the group takes a suggestion from the audience for a horror movie that’s never been made (say, “Killer Prom at Murder High” or the very festive “Santa Claus Your Face Off”), and then they just…go.  And not for a series of short sketches, like ten minutes at a time, but for an entire show running somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 uninterrupted minutes.  Each group member invents several characters to play, and every one of them enjoys a full story arc during the course of the performance.  They narrate character, set, title, and action descriptions from the improvised “script”, and when the time comes, they off themselves and each other in the most graphic (yet not) ways they can dream up.  It’s all done without sets, props, costumes, or anything else typically associated with theater or film, though they do usually have a guest at the side of the stage performing improvised mood music during key moments.  It’s the kind of thing that’s hard enough to do without worrying about being funny, and these guys are effortlessly hysterical.  Every.  Time.  I swear I never get tired of watching them pretend to kill each other, and seriously, I can’t recommend them more.

I think it was in 2007 that I introduced myself and asked if photography was of interest to them in their promotions.  They had been using, and would continue to use, brilliant illustration and design work done by local artists Devin Sheridan and Alex Thomas.  That worked really well because the shows in each of their runs are unified by a single horror sub-genre (summer camp slasher, haunted house, psycho hillbilly, zombie, etc.), and Devin and Alex would draw up a poster for each theme.  It worked so well, frankly, that I actually wondered if they’d be interested in having photography.  It was decided, though, that promotional images of the actual group would be good too, and so it happened that Blood Squad and I collaborated a little later in the year.  That’s when we came up with the morgue headshots below, which I still love today.

Blood Squad’s founders: Michael White, Elicia Wickstead, and Brandon Felker (2007)

With a new official group member and the departure of Michael, Elicia got in touch in September and asked about the possibility of doing a new shoot to reflect the changes.  The idea this time was to photograph them in the woods somewhere, near dusk or at night, with the four of them emerging or having already emerged from a grave.  They’d look dashing and done up, yet still bruised and battered (beautifully done by hair and makeup artist Jana Hutchison), and looking either annoyed and inconvenienced or simply non-plussed and blasé about the situation.  I liked the concept a lot, but it was clear right away it wasn’t the kind of thing we could just casually shoot.  More on that shortly, but first, here’s the final image:

Left to right: Blood Squad’s Brandon Felker, Molly Arkin, Jon Axell, and Elicia Wickstead

If you’re interested in reading about the production of the shot, then by all means read on.  If not, have a great day and don’t forget to see Blood Squad.  Their next show is at the Balagan Theater at 8pm on December 22nd.  Be there.

So, when Elicia presented the idea to me and asked if it was do-able, I did the same thing I always do (the same thing any photographer does, frankly) when asked to do a shoot that poses problems not encountered before.  I said, “Sure, absolutely, totally” and then set about figuring out how to do it.

As is often the case, one of the first things to sort out is finding the right location.  We wanted something that appeared remote but wasn’t.  We wanted trees, but we also needed a good amount of open, uncluttered ground.  In my mind I had this idea that they were buried on the crest of a hill that looked out over nothing but wilderness, and that they stood out against this dark and sort of ominous sky.  I was sure such a place existed but had no idea where to find it, and knew that wherever it was, it was likely to be far enough removed from Seattle city limits that shooting there wouldn’t be practical anyway.  And who knew if we’d get good clouds on the day of the shoot?  Pretty much right away I struck the possibility of finding a perfect location that had everything.  What made the most sense to me was finding a suitable foreground (one with trees, open space, and a clear horizon line) that I could drop in front of a totally new background of mountains, trees and sky, which I would shoot later.
Seattle’s Woodland Park was a no-brainer to check out (although honestly I wish I’d thought of it a little sooner), and it did in fact have a great spot with scattered medium-size trees and lots of bare earth.  Well, almost bare—there was the small, half-hour matter of raking away several inches of fallen leaves.  When I saw it, though, I knew.  If I were going to bury someone, or four someones, I’d definitely do it there.  Here it is, in a photo taken after a brisk raking.  Yes, that’s a dog park in the background.

Woodland Park—a fine place to bury a body. Or four.

You might notice a couple changes I made to the foreground in Photoshop, namely the removal of the two trees on the right.  Behind and to the left of the main foreground tree is another tree just barely peeking out, which I also removed because it was visually confusing.  To the right of the main foreground tree is another, slimmer tree that I nudged left a little bit so it would frame Brandon and Molly a little better.  And then I copied the main foreground tree, reversed it, and put it in the far right of the frame to balance out the composition.
The background image of the trees and sky I found while scouting in Sand Point.  At the top of a residential street, I could stand on my poor car’s roof and shoot a clean skyline above the houses.

The skyline in Sand Point, as it existed before my landscaping work in Photoshop.

I darkened the sky, of course, and flipped the image horizontally.  The reason for the flip was to make the light part of the sky line up more closely with the rim lights on the Blood Squad members, as though a setting sun were creating them.  I had to carve up the background a bit and shuffle pieces of it around, hiding the seams behind the trees in the foreground image.  That was necessary to make the treeline coexist with everybody in the shot, and not intersect in a distracting way behind anyone.  I also made the treeline dip down behind Elicia so her broken shoe would stand out against the sky.

After location, the second issue was the nighttime nature of the shot.  You’re not going to have an easy time shooting something like this if you actually try to do it at night because, well, all your light is gone.  Duh.  When every last bit of natural light is gone, you’re left to bring any and all the light that you want and to try to work in the dark, which doesn’t work very well at all.  To do it at night would mean filling in considerable shadows and dimly lighting a pretty large area, and good luck with that without big lights on lifts.  The simple(r) answer is to shoot during the day, and manipulate the color and density later to make it look like late evening.  Here’s the shot with all the shading, but without the nighttime color layer.

The edited photo, minus the color.

I went with the Profoto 7B for lighting.  I love my Paul Buff Einstein monolights, which I use for most things and would have used for this, were it not for the fact that I needed more output than their 640WS.  I lit everyone from camera right with a four-foot octobank at the top of a rather high stand, and used a softbox from camera right, about three-quarter rear, for a rim light.  The ambient light from the afternoon sun filled it all in.

Opting to shoot in a park meant the hole in the ground would be a problem too.  I didn’t want to dig a hole in a public park without asking but at the same time, I didn’t much want to ask, either.  It didn’t seem like a lot of good could come from that, so it made more sense to me to shoot Jon elsewhere.  We laid some dirt down on the ground at the park to make a burial mound, photographed that, and then after shooting outside moved the party to my studio.  Jon was great, and ran through a series of expressions and actions that were as entertaining as they were varied.  Really, just the kind of model you want.  Here’s an outtake showing the studio setup for the hole shot:

I totally almost used this frame.

I copied the camera angle and lighting from the outdoor shot as closely as possible, using the same high octobank and softbox rim.  To Jon’s right, camera left, was a 4×8 sheet of white foamcore to do what the sun was doing, just filling in the shadows.  The foamcore behind him was only there to make it easier to cut him out in Photoshop.  It’s the same idea with the dirt he’s leaning on—it makes blending him into the scene a world simpler.
I photographed Molly and Elicia in the studio as well.  Shooting them on location was worth trying, and we did, but it was cold at the park and the soft ground made it difficult for them to stand in heels.  It wasn’t a problem.  I’d kind of figured we’d need to shoot them inside anyway so we had budgeted time for that.  Like Jon, I cut them out, placed them into the scene, and drew reasonable shadows behind them.  Obviously, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of shadows when you’re doing this kind of thing.  If you get them wrong, or worse yet don’t add them at all, you’ve lost.  See what I mean?

A shadow fail. There are few sadder things than poorly executed Photoshop composites.

And that’s pretty much it for the broad strokes.  The rest was mostly detailing, because I’m kind of detail-oriented.  The smoke was added in Photoshop by blending a couple smoke brushes I found online.  I also added the color to the end of Brandon’s Nat Sherman cigarette with a Hue/Saturation layer set to Colorize, not necessarily because I think it shows up, but because it was the right thing to do.  It only takes a second.

I broke the heel on Elicia’s shoe in Photoshop.  Also, the shoe was entirely black on the inside, and while it was still clear she was holding a shoe, it didn’t read immediately the way I wanted it to.  I added a liner, which I think looks way better.

It’s a lot of work but I actually enjoy the process as much as the result.  Visualizing a concept, breaking it down, solving it, photographing it, and bringing the elements together over a cup of tea and some good music (a lot of Rolling Stones and Black Keys for this one) on a rainy November day is definitely my idea of a good time.  Big thanks to Blood Squad for being amazing, and for coming back and giving me this project to chew on.  It was a blast, and I’m already looking forward to the next one.

The final image, again.

General Powell will see you now, but you’ll have to make it quick.

General Colin Powell recently paid a visit to Seattle for a number of interviews and a large public appearance as part of a tour to promote his new book, It Worked For Me: In Life And Leadership.  If you live in town, perhaps you saw the billboards.  I confess I haven’t read the book yet but if the reviews on Amazon are to be believed, it’s an inspiring and insightful read.  I’ll wait a while to get my copy though, because I have a difficult time with hardcover.  They’re just hard to travel with, and personally, I like to be able to bend back a book’s cover.  You can hold a paperback in one hand pretty easy that way, and you free up the other to reach for your glass of bourbon, or squeeze that stress ball, or scratch your pug’s stomach or what have you.  What you’re doing with that other hand isn’t really the point.  The point is, Colin Powell was coming to Seattle and I had been asked to photograph him.

To be tasked with photographing someone as accomplished and outstanding as General Powell is really an honor.  From his rise in military rank from a second lieutenant to a four-star general, and in his roles as Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor (during which time he developed an impersonation of Reagan that’s dead-on, by the way) and more, he’s been serving the country one way or another for more than fifty years and he’s had my respect and admiration since I became aware of him during my high school days.  In making a portrait with him, it was important to me to strike upon a look that evinced certain qualities I associated with him—chief among them strength, thoughtfulness, confidence and calm.  As a side note, of further importance to me was speaking at least somewhat intelligently in his presence—in complete sentences, even—and to try and keep my palms from sweating when I shook his hand.  But I suppose those goals were less pressing in the grand scheme.  Getting a good portrait always matters most, and if I’m unable to keep myself from slippery hands and caveman grunts, well, so be it.

Going into the shoot, I didn’t have much nailed down.  I was aware I’d be photographing him in a hotel conference suite, but prior to my arrival I didn’t know which one.  Unsure of how visually appealing the room would be (not very, as it turned out), I decided the day before that I’d only go for some kind of environmental shot if by some miracle the place looked fantastic.  Assuming it wouldn’t, I opted for a high-key portrait using just two lights.  The room didn’t fail to disappoint—it was almost aggressively uninteresting, like…well, like a hotel conference suite.  Or that pointless movie Oliver Stone made about The Doors.  But that was fine; I was happy with and ready for a high-key shot.  Preferred it, actually.

The other question I had going in was about the available room—not, like, which room was available, but how much room was available.  I didn’t know if there would be a lot of open space (what a shock, there wasn’t!), or if there would be a huge table in the middle of the room (surprise, there was!).  So I decided ahead of time that I would keep my setup as small and simple as possible, just in case.  My footprint took up only about fifty square feet—photographer, lights, subject and all—and I still had to move furniture out of the way.  I didn’t use white seamless paper behind him, or fabric, or a pop-up background, or anything you might commonly use in a studio as a white background because all those things would have taken more stands and a lot more space than I could reasonably expect to have.  Instead, I used a four-foot softbox aimed at the camera, and asked General Powell to stand in front of it.  It’s a pretty good way to get a high-key headshot when you don’t have much area in which to work.  It’s also very quick to set up, which is good for situations like this, where the time between your entry into the room and the arrival of the subject is very short.

Not knowing what your surroundings will be like is nothing unusual, of course, since you never really know exactly what you’re walking into on any shoot.  There are always plenty of things that are up in the air, things you can’t know about until you show up but that you nevertheless try to plan for.  That’s the nature of being a photographer, and to a great extent, the fun of it too—not knowing what challenges you’ll run into or what you’ll come up with for solutions.  I don’t generally view these uncertainties as an obstacle.  But this shoot was a little different for me in that one thing I did know for sure was that I wouldn’t have very much time with the person I was photographing.  Practically none, actually, and almost certainly less time than I’ve ever had with anyone before.  Colin Powell is obviously a very busy man, and had a lot on his plate during his brief time in town (in fact, he’d already run a gauntlet of seven interviews that day before he made his way to me).  I understood that my sliver of time was sandwiched tightly between two other appointments, so I knew there’d be no time to significantly alter the set once he showed up and that it would therefore be necessary to have the lights positioned and dialed in as perfectly as possible.

To that end, I ran a quick light test in the studio with my assistant Jonathan the night before.  I knew General Powell wore glasses, but I also knew that they were rimless and as such weren’t likely to cast terrible shadows.  I was actually more concerned about seeing the reflection of my light in his lenses, so I chose to use my beauty dish with a 15° grid.  The light would stay soft, and the grid would go a long way to keep the inside of the dish from showing up as a reflection.  I got the lights positioned where they needed to be, and found the output ratios I wanted.  After recording the light settings and the distances of the stands from Jonathan, there was just one more thing to figure out.  I got online with Google on my phone and punched in “how tall is colin powell”.  It’s weird what you can find out on the internet.  Colin Powell, according to Google, is 6’2″.  So I figured the difference between Jonathan’s height and General Powell’s (about four inches), and added it to the height of the light stands to determine how tall I’d need to set them the next day.

The shoot itself was a pleasure, albeit a very brief one.  It was later than expected when he finally got to me, which I feared but expected, so my short amount of time with him had gotten even shorter.  After a quick test shot, I decided to drag the key light toward me just a couple inches, and then I started in.  I hardly shot much at all, just enough to know I had a few keepers before thanking him and letting him hurry to his next engagement.  All totaled, I don’t think I spent more than three minutes with him.  I have to say, though, I couldn’t have hoped for him to be a better portrait subject.  I didn’t give a ton of direction but the few things I did ask—stand facing this way, head to the left a little…lips closed…now chin down…whoops, no no, that’s too much—he did without objection or complaint.  And not just without complaint, but with a sense of humor even; at one point he cracked a couple self-effacing jokes about his appearance.  Anyway, speaking of the way he looked, I’ve typed long enough—here are a couple of photos from the shoot.

How to create a self-portrait that makes you look much tougher than you are.

I recently undertook a personal project, and I’m thrilled enough with the results that I thought I’d share some what went into making the image.  The photo came about because I wanted something new to use on the contact page on my website, something that would tie in well with a terrible pun.  This was the idea I came up with—a fight club sort of scenario, where I look beat to hell but somehow still victorious.  As though I were some kind of bad-ass.

Step One: Get into shape.
I’ve never worked out in my life.  It’s never been a priority, so while I’ve always been thin (thanks, mom and dad), I’ve never looked like a flight clubber before.  I wasn’t sure what I was in for, how long it would take to accomplish, or even exactly how to do it.  I wasn’t going to join a gym—nuts to that—and I wasn’t going to have a personal trainer.  I decided I could figure it out on my own.  Turns out, it’s super easy!  All I had to do was run nearly every day for about a month and a half, complete thousands of crunches, push-ups, and pull-ups, drink untold gallons of water, and quit alcohol, sugar, and all other foods I hold dear.  Simple.

Step Two: Visualize the photo.
With the hard part out of the way, I just thought about what I wanted the final shot to look like.  When you’re layering images, you need the camera angle, focal length, and lighting between the two photos to match as much as possible.  If they don’t, the photo is going to look fake, so everything has to be mapped out and planned ahead of time.  I decided on backlighting to get some hard rim lights on the crowd and myself, and a lower camera angle for that larger-than-life sort of feel (even muscly I’m still small, so I’d need all the help I can get).  I will often draw up a storyboard, even though I’m rubbish as an artist.  It just helps me understand better what I need for the shoot by way of location, lighting and other equipment, and in this case, models.


Awesome, right?  My career as a sketch artist never took off, but I manage to get ideas on paper.

Step Three: Studio shoot.
I wanted some good makeup—black eye, bloody nose and eyebrow, torn chest, lots of sweat—so I enlisted the help of the terrifically talented Seattle makeup artist Lindsey Watkins.  We talked back and forth and swapped graphic images of brutally beaten people (totally fun in a sort of sick way), and settled on the look below.  I really couldn’t have been happier.  She’s some kind of sorceress, and great to work with.
There are certain post production considerations that enter in when doing this kind of thing.  When you know you’ll be cutting the subject out of a studio shot for compositing purposes, as is the case here, it behooves you (or whoever is doing your post work) to shoot on a background color that will make it—well, maybe not easy, but easier.  In this instance, because the background image would be very dark (in fact black in many parts) and because the rim lights would make my outline so bright and well-defined, I figured shooting on a solid black background would make it easiest when it came time to cut myself out of the picture.  If you’ll take a look at the image below, you’ll see what I mean.
Personally, I don’t think self portraiture is ever particularly easy, but if you shoot tethered to the computer it’s certainly less difficult.  Canon’s shooting software saves a lot of headache, and makes for a much smoother shoot.  You can actually ask the computer to tell the camera to shoot every so often until you have as many frames as you want.  And if you ask it nicely, that’s exactly what it will do.

Step Four: Location shoot.
There are a lot of fences in town.  I wanted a batting cage because I thought it would fit in well with that ultimate fighting, cage match sort of look.  Parks would have had them, but I didn’t want to contend with the public.  Inquisitive bystanders are inevitable, drunks are probable, and there’s no reason to put with distractions like that if you don’t have to.  I was shooting in the evening, so I narrowed my search to schools.  I reasoned they would have such fence-y things and be unattended at night.  After a bit of scouting, I found this perfect spot.

I was giddy.  It had everything I was looking for, including a cage shape, plenty of space behind for models and lights, and a great weathered look.  I very politely asked in the school’s office for permission to use the area—good thing, too, because I was visited during the shoot by a concerned maintenance man—and they very graciously said yes.  There’s nothing more disheartening than to find a great spot to shoot and be told that they don’t let photographers in anymore because that last guy messed stuff up soooo bad.   We photographers actually are denied permission to shoot on property sometimes, so I believe responses in the affirmative are to be appreciated.  In this case, I appreciated them with some homemade apple walnut muffins.
The shoot itself was a lot of fun.  I put out a call for my friends and their friends to come out if at all possible, and promised them pizza for their efforts.  In the end, I had more people than I could reasonably use—always better than the alternative.  I had them jumping and screaming and shouting, all in a residential neighborhood right before the noise ordinances kicked in, and they were able to enjoy the food after just about fifteen minutes in front of the camera.

Step Five: Photoshop.
The most significant Photoshop work done to the image was the darkening of the faces in the crowd.  I wanted their features to be only very barely visible, and not at all distracting.  I also removed the small sign in the center of the fence (you can see it in the photo above), and did a little dodging and burning where I thought it was necessary.  The studio shot, as you can see, was left pretty much as shot.  I was careful to keep all the hair as I stripped away the background (Photoshop CS5′s “Refine Mask” tool is a hell of a thing), but aside from the extraction, I mostly left the image alone.  If you compare the shot above to the final image, you’ll see I did a little dodging and burning here and there, but nothing major.  After dropping the self portrait onto the location shot and positioning and sizing it appropriately, I processed the whole image overall in a way that I liked.  Done and done.

The final image.  I have since enjoyed a lot of pie.

How to Build a Photo of a Robot (Part II)

And now, the exciting conclusion…

In the first part of this entry, I wrote a little bit about the lighting of the photo you see below (as always, you can click on it to view it larger).  As I said I would, this time I’ll share everything that occurs to me about each of the seven individual shots that went into the image—why they were necessary, how they were done, and/or what I think they add to the overall photo.

Those shots are:
1.  Female model (Lindsey) on the workbench and the workshop itself.
2.  Male model (Alan) and the electronic parts on the table.
3.  Lindsey’s right hand.
4.  Lindsey’s leg, in the background on the left edge of the frame.
5.  The wires coming out of the leg.
6.  The grass and trees visible through the window.
7.  The robot’s insides.

Robot

Canon EOS 5D Mk II
f/9 @ 1/160, ISO 100

Shots 1, 2, and 3:  So, first of all, look at the photo and try to imagine the rest of Lindsey’s body—hips and legs in sweatpants, carrying on past the left edge of the frame.  If I had only shot her with Alan, and didn’t get any shots of Alan by himself, I’d have had a pretty significant problem in post.  Lindsey’s lower half covered up Alan’s waist and forearm, which meant there’d be quite the hole in the photo once I turned her into a torso.  So Alan had to be captured in a different frame and dropped in later.  It’s the same problem with Lindsey’s right hand.  It’s out of sight when her whole body is there, but once she’s a torso, you expect it to be right there opposite her left hand, and it would look very strange (yes, “strange” is relative) if you didn’t see it.  So I had to shoot it separately and add it later.

Shots 4 and 5:  The leg was shot with Lindsey sitting on the workbench.  The bouquet of wires was photographed in my studio after the principal shoot, lit and Gaussian blurred in Photoshop to match the rest of the scene.  Personally, I think the leg is a nice touch.  It reinforces the idea that the robot is a work in progress, and that development of different body parts is happening concurrently.  Where possible, I really try to add little details to photos that might go unnoticed at first glance, because I think those are the things that make people want to keep looking.

Wires and Leg

Shot 6:  As I said in the previous entry, the workshop was on the third floor of the building.  The view out the window was of the concrete framework of Seattle’s Alaskan Way viaduct—unattractive, distracting, and not even really discernible.  So after the principal shoot, I took a stroll through one of Seattle’s many parks and found an area of grass with a treeline I liked very much.  Again, I think it’s a nice touch.  The wooded background suggests of a rural location and implies remoteness, maybe even suggests loneliness as the motivation for building the robot.  It’s a relatively small detail, but I think it explains a lot about the image and as I just said, I do love details.

Trees and Grass

Shot 7:  Constructing the insides of the robot was really the most challenging problem of the entire shoot.  I decided the best approach would be to build a little wall shaped like the cross-section of a human torso, and then attach little robotic-looking things to it.  The trouble is, you really have to make the wall exactly the size of the cross-section of your model’s torso—width, height, and shape.  All the pieces you attach to the thing have to fit within the walls of the robot’s body.  If they extended out, I would’ve had to cut them off in post, and odds are that would look…odd.  But how do you know you’re making the wall the right size and shape to correspond to your model’s torso at the point you’re cutting her in half?
Well, the first thing to do is figure out where that end point for her torso would be.  I thought it should be right at the start of her hips, where her waist widens and her lower back would meet the table.  Look at the photo again and imagine her top half were cut off any higher—say, just below her bellybutton.  Her back wouldn’t be touching the table at the point, and wouldn’t that look weird with a levitating stomach?
Once I decided on how much of her body to use in the photo, I met with her to build a cast of her body, out of plaster, from upper back to the cutoff point.  At art supply stores you can buy inexpensive rolls of mesh fabric coated in plaster (Rigid Wrap, it’s called).  Just cut a length of it, wet it, and apply it—easy, easy, lemon squeezy.  Then, once I had a cast, I could see exactly the size and shape of the space I had to fill with robot parts, and I could build a wall that would fit inside.
I made the wall out of silver paper mounted onto foamcore.  The silver paper looks like a sheet of metal, especially when viewing the image at full size.  The robot parts are from a couple $3 VCRs from Goodwill.  I liked the idea of using recognizable parts—the kinds of things your average person might have on hand and make use of.  I’m particularly in love with the shiny rotating head in the center, and its resemblance to a spinal column.  Details!
When it came time to shoot, after Lindsey had left, I photographed the wall of robot parts sitting at the base of the plaster cast, which had been placed (as best I could tell) in the same spot she had been lying.  It wasn’t exact, of course, but it was close enough that the Photoshop work was a breeze.

Parts and Plaster
(Like Steve Buscemi, it may not look like much, but it performs wonderfully.)

Now, there are a number of things I could say about the post work itself—about layer masks and selections, blending modes and healing brushes—but I’m not sure how interesting that would be to read.  So before I close, I’ll just mention a few last post production items I think might be of interest:

· It’s absolutely necessary to get your shadows right.  If the lighting looks off, you’ve really screwed the pooch, and it’s common to have to massage the photo a bit when you’re doing composites.  For example, I had to add shadows to the right hand (cast by the torso) as well as the table (cast by the robot).  It might take a couple tries, but the time spent is a small price to pay for getting it right.
· The lip of the shell housing the robot parts was made by darkening a thin selection of Lindsey’s skin.  The inside of the robot’s shell was made by copying parts of Lindsey’s stomach.
· I made Lindsey’s skin incredibly smooth in Photoshop.  There was a fair amount of cloning and healing brush use, as well as dodging and burning.  Now hold on—before you get excited and call me a hypocrite given my previous blog entry about unnecessary post work, let me just say that no, there was absolutely nothing wrong with her appearance at the outset.  But for this to work, she really needed to look as though she were plastic, fresh out of the box.
· I barely did a thing to retouch Alan’s face.  His expression, to me, is absolutely perfect (caring, proud, and content all at the same time), and I couldn’t have been happier with the way the lighting picks up the lines in his face when smiles.  It’s very real, very genuine, and I didn’t mess with that at all.
· There’s a lot of composite work, yes, and I did plasticate (that should be a word) Lindsey, but otherwise, the photo is pretty much as it was shot.  I made minor global corrections to adjust contrast, gave the photo a very slight overall glow, and tweaked a couple colors a little.  Not much, really.

How to Build a Photo of a Robot (Part I)

After a number of requests from some very nice people, I’ve finally been persuaded that it might interest my average blog visitor if I were to walk through the execution of one of my photos, namely the one in which a kindly-looking inventor builds a beautiful female robot in his shop.  Like skinning cats, there are probably a number of different ways to do this kind of thing, none necessarily better than any other.  This entry just concerns the way I do it over here at Lucien Knuteson Photography.

Now, partly because I’m not up to writing an epic blog entry at the moment and partly because I don’t think anyone would have the attention span to read it even if I did (but mostly because the thought of getting some blog mileage from this topic is an appealing one), I’ll cover the photo over the course of a couple of entries.  In this first part, I’ll talk about the lighting.  In part two I’ll talk about the seven individual photos that make up the image as well as why each of them were necessary, and in a couple cases, what they add to the shot and how they were done.

Before I go on, so we all know what we’re talking about, here is the photo.  Please click on it if you’d like to see it larger.

Robot

Canon EOS 5D Mk II
f/9 @ 1/160, ISO 100

So.  First of all, if a composite shot (which this obviously is) is to be successful—and by “successful” I mean “convincing”—it requires consistency of lighting.  That means one has to control the lighting as much as possible to preserve continuity from shot to shot.  Otherwise, you run into problems (say you’re trying to put someone with a shadowy face into a brightly lit room—whoops) when you go to stitch the photos together in Photoshop.  To that end, if you can light your scene using strobes only and no ambient light (when I say “ambient” in this case I really just mean “light from the sun”, which is problematic for its tendency to change angle and color temperature over the course of a shoot), well, it really behooves you to do that.  So, after scouting the location ahead of time, I decided it would be smartest to shoot in the late morning, before the sun came around the corner of the building and stuck its big bright middle finger in through the windows.  Without direct sunlight, the exposure I chose meant that it was possible to cut out the ambient light entirely*, and light the shot exclusively with my strobe heads.

This next part probably goes without saying, but before I go into the specifics of this particular setup, I’m going to say it anyway.  Lighting has a great deal to do with the way a photo is perceived, because often times the subject matter is, well, subjective.  Sometimes it’s a cue like lighting that helps the viewer understand how to interpret a photograph.  There were a number of reasons I lit this shot the way I did.  It needed to be bright and open because a) this really is meant to be a happy image, after all, b) if it were darkly lit, the photo would probably take on a tone that could be read as lecherous, creepy, disturbing or gross, and c) I thought the brightness would contrast well with the weirdness of a half-nude female robot.  I wanted a kind of bizarro Norman Rockwell feeling to the photo, so bright, natural, and happy lighting—definitely the way to go.

To that end, my intention was to make the whole scene appear lit by indirect sunlight from the windows at the right of the frame. The woodshop was on the third floor of the building, so to affect this effect (homonyms!), Krystal (my assistant) and I put a four-foot octabank (a large, octagonal softbox) on a boom arm, and carefully guided it out the window.  (We used the third window on the wall, almost exactly in line with the female model’s body.)  We sandbagged the hell out of the arm and angled the light so that the brunt of it went to the back wall of the shop to light the tools.  A second light just inside that window, outfitted with a softbox and affixed to a C-stand arm, rather high and just out of frame to the right, provided the key light for the models.  A third light just right of camera was aimed away from the scene and into a large satin umbrella, providing a very diffuse bounced light to soften shadows not only on the models, but through the entire room.  The highlight on the right side of the male model’s face comes from another light wearing a small softbox with a fabric grid, which is why the light falls off so nicely as you follow his head down to his elbow.  One last head was used as an accent, with just a 7″ reflector and a 30° grid spot, to light the robot innards when that exposure was taken.

Other random notes, not all to do with lighting:
· I shot at f/9 because I wanted the background to go a little soft, and it was was the largest aperture at which I could get both models and the table in focus.
· The light on the boom outside the window never plummeted to the sidewalk below, never injured or killed anyone or anyone’s pet.  I was relieved.
· Umbrellas get a bad rap.  It seems to me that some photographers look down on them because they’re very basic and don’t offer any control.  But if you can get past the stigma, they’re worth having in the toolkit.  Sometimes they’re just what you need.
· I read somewhere a quote from a photographer (and I can’t remember who) who said that much of photography is moving furniture.  This is true.  A fair amount of setup time for this shot was spent moving the woodpile in the corner of the shop, and rearranging the tools on the workbench.
· The camera was tethered to a computer for this shoot.  If it were practical, I’d do that more often.
· When you’re doing a composite shoot, it’s absolutely necessary to keep the camera on a tripod or camera stand.  Anchored.  To the.  Ground.  You’d think that would go without saying.  Here, though, are a couple things that might not occur to everyone:  To minimize camera movement even when it’s on a tripod, it’s helpful to use a remote to trip the shutter, or trigger the camera from your computer if you’re shooting tethered.  Some cameras will let you shoot with the mirror locked up—if yours does, do that.  Always set your white balance manually—you don’t want to be on the automatic setting, because the color temperature can and probably will vary from frame to frame, and you’ll have to color correct each shot to match every other shot that winds up in the composite.  Ditto the exposure—manually set it.

*Almost.  What you see out the window—the grass, the trees, the sky—is a photo I took in a Seattle park (but more on that in Part II).  It was lit, of course, with the sun.