Sunday, December 21, 2008

Nearly Christmas

After I recieved a request for a setup description of my homless photo, I decided to write one. I took a couple of setup shots right after I was finished with the photo, but didn't have time to post a blog entry.

I got this idea when because of the "Christmas Decorations" assignment on dps. I tried to shoot something out of the box, not just a picture of decorations. I wanted story telling too. One day, after I was finished at my job at the airport, I noticed that one of the hangars would be a great way to shoot "on-location" portraits in the winter months. I have also thought about shooting a photo story about homeless people, and somehow I managed to mix these two ideas with the Christmas Decoration assignment.

The setup
Before driving to the hanger, I had to bring some props in addition to the camera gear. So I wrote a list over things that would make the viewer instantly recognize the situation (Christmas and homless) in the photo. This is the list:

- blue nylon jacket
- sweater with hood
- worn-out shoes
- worn-out jeans
- cap

- empty plastic bottles
- cardboard
- pillow
- plastic bags
- cardboard box
- loads of Chritmas decoration
- crutch
- quilt cover
- paper cups
- "Merry Christmas" card

The only thing I thought was missing was a shopping cart.

I was supposed to bring all this stuff in addition to the photo gear to the hangar, while the wind was blowing up to 60 knots. I had to walk about 50 meter between the hangar and the car, so I didn't look forward to this task. I was very close to giving up, but I thought my idea was too good to let go, so I was determined to continue.

After arriving at the hanger with all the gear safely inside, I got a very pleasant surprise. On one of the shelves I found a shopping cart look-alike. I think it was a trolley that the cleaning staff use, but it looked more than OK for the project.

I started to arrange the setup in one of the corners. It was a very elaborate job to get that look I had in mind. With the Christmas decorations it almost felt like I was decorating a tree. After about 30 minutes of fine tuning, I got this:

(After I shot the picture above, I added the bag, bucket and the cardboard box. I also found an old vacuum cleaner with some appropriate colors which I placed by the wall.)

The light setup was pretty simple. Inspired by Dave Hill and Jill Greenberg I wanted to shoot a kind of subtle "artistic" photo, so I planned to use bare strobes. However, after some test shots, I realized I had to use an reflective umbrella to light up the trolley, since I got too many harsh shadows from that strobe. (It was too evident that it was an arranged picture). This is how the final setup looked like:

I attached the camera to the tripod and started adjusting the exposure.

There were a lot of grey tones in the scene, so was just adjusting the flash power equally on both strobes until I got a clean histogram with a peak on the middle. The light in the hangar was pretty warm and ugly, so I used minimum sync speed for the shutter to block it out, while using a narrow aperture to get most of the things in focus.

Final exposure settings:
Bare strobe: SB-600, 1/8 power at 24 mm
Umbrella: SB-600, 1/4 power at 24 mm
Exposure: 1/250 sec @ f/8, ISO 200
Lens: Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D AF
Camera: Nikon D300
Flash sync: Optical with SB-800

Shooting and processing
I tried a lot of different poses for this shot. I was uncertain how to behave. I tried laying down while sleeping, sitting with my head hung down, and looking at the trolley. It was a lot of walking back and forth. I had to trigger the 20 sec timer for each shot, so I got a great leg exercise out of it. Finally I found that the looking tired and unhappy at the camera was the best. I looked dead in the other poses.

This is the best shot, unedited RAW file:

In Adobe Camera Raw I increased the clarityto about 50, the vibrance to about 20 and corrected the white balance. Luckily, the exposure was spot on.

In Photoshop I did this:

1. Duplicated the background layer and changed the blending mode to Soft light.

2. Added a high-pass filter (radius 44) on the Soft light layer and reduced the opacity to 70%. This created the slightly artistic look.

3. Used Surface blur on the Soft light layer to even out the surfaces while preserving the edges.

4. Lowered the master saturation a little while increasing the reds to make the decorations stand out.

5. Cropping, vignette and sharpening.

This is the result:

Nearly Christmas and a (hopefully) New Year

Surprise from above

Inspired by winning the "Christmas Decoration" assignment on dps, I wanted to try a selfportrait including fairy dust, a Photoshop techinque I learned earlier this day.

The setup
I hung a green cloth on the wardrobe and placed a SB-600 on lightstand in front of it, about 40 cm from the door. This was background lighting.

The camera was mounted on a tripod. Right next to the camera I placed another lightstand with a snooted SB-600 on top, pointing down at were my face would be.

Since the background flash was pretty close to the surface, I entered the lowest flash output on this one. For the main flash I held up a white sheet of paper and checked that the highlights didn't blow out on the histogram on the camera and adjusted the main flash accordingly.

I also used a narrow aperture to get as much of my face in focus. I shot with the timer on the camera, so I had to lock the focus prior to shooting by focusing and the lock it.

Final exposure settings:

Background flash: 1/128 power, 24 mm zoom
Main flash: 1/8, 85mm zoom
Exposure: 1/250 sec @ f/11, ISO 200
Lens: Nikkor 25mm f/2D AF
Camera: Nikon D300
Flash sync: Optical triggering from the camera

Shooting and processing

Finding the right facial expression and the positioning of the hands was the hardest part. After 30 or so shots I got a pleasing shot. This is the RAW file - straight from the cameram with no editing:

In Adobe Camera Raw I increased the clarity slider to about 50, adjusted the white balance a little before I sent it to Photoshop, where I did the following:

1. Added surface blur to entire image to soften the skin while preserving the edges.

2. Dodged the highlights and burned the shadows, both on the skin.

3. Duplicated the layer and added a high-pass filter on the new layer. Changed the blending mode to Soft Light and reduced the opacity a little.

4. Selected the greens with the Color Range tool and blurred it almost maximum to even out the wrinkles on the green cloth.

5. Covering some of the green background with black to make it more uniform.

6. Created the fairy dust using this Photoshop tutorial. (I'm sure I could have done it better than what I did in my photo, but my sketching capabilities are at level 0...)

7. Cropping, flattening and sharpening.

The result:

Surprise from above

John Brainard: Yes, I finally managed to put together a new blog entry before Monday, LOL.