If there's one subject that comes up again and again on lighting forums it is: "What is the correct way to light and prep for a white drop out background?" Time and time again the bold rush in to suggest everything from blasting the background with one huge flash to shooting against black and just cutting it out with Gimp Tools XP10. But there is actually a method that used to be taught in all the photo schools or learned at the feet of the guys who did it before you. And it made sense back then.
I thought I'd put this up for three reasons: I like the image of the skater. I was playing with the pen tool I've had for ten years and remembered how much I like to scrawl things across photos. And finally, a younger photographer, who will have to do many, many of these kinds of shots asked me to.
In the shot above I'm starting by rolling out a nine foot wide seamless backdrop of Super White paper. I roll it so that the front end (right behind the skater) is at least 12 feet from the plane of the hanging paper in the far background. This allows me put an even light on all of the background but leaves me enough room to scrim the background light off the skater with black panels.
I'm using five lights on the background. There are two flash heads on either side of the set and all four of them have white umbrellas with black backings on them. They are aimed at the opposite sides of the seamless so the light feathers across the surface. I've also added a center light, high up to both clean up the middle of the background and also provide additional light (via careful feathering) to the paper that's spread across the floor behind our model. I always attempt to light the backgrounds so that every surface that shows to the camera is within a 1/3 stop of everything else. Having too much light in a spot is just as bad as not having enough when you don't have the luxury of hands-on post processing.
In front of the background paper I've placed four sturdy milk carton holders to elevate my model's platform. I've placed a stout piece of plywood under the shiny, white Pleixglas for support. Having the platform raised means that, at the angle I want to shoot my dancer and the focal length I'll use, I'm actually seeing the far end of the white paper at her foot level instead of the part of the paper nearest the camera. This is pure white and gives me a great reflection back on the shiny plexiglas surface which works to obliterate detail and go as white as possible. It also gives me a nice reflection of the skater's blades and shoes right in front of her.
The one boom arm you see coming into the frame on the left hand side is tightly secured to a solid tether and it there so the skater can reach out and steady herself if she starts to lose her balance.
I'm using a large (54 by 72 inch) Chimera softbox from about 45 degrees to the left, in front of the skater and just far enough away so that it won't show in camera. The only other source of illumination is a white fill reflector from the opposite side.
I meter (with an incident meter) the background and get a reading. In this case it was probably f11 and 1/3 stops. I then meter while adjusting the distance of the softbox to the model until I get a reading that's one third of a stop darker on the model. In this way I am assured that the background will go pure white but I'm equally assured that the least amount of light will spill forward from the background lighting to contaminate (and lower the contrast of) the model at the front of the set. In this situation all we left for the color separator was to clean up the area around the model's feet.
Even in the zenith of our digital days I can think of several reasons (all lighting and lens oriented) to maintain the same lighting practice. Less spill means less veiling flare. And, as I've written, less unwanted contamination on the subject. The even-ness of the background means that, even though you will be using the selection tool in Photoshop you'll have less issues to deal with and will spend less time with "refine edge." Finally, if you get used to doing it correctly you'll see that it also works just as well for video. And it's easier than "green screening" everything and fixing it all up in post...
I won't get into the argument about "incident meter versus reflected" or exactly how to hold your light meter. I think that's too personal to talk about on a public blog. And I do think you'll figure out your own technique. After all, you can see the results right away now. But can you see 1/3 stop above white, on your camera's histogram? Meters are still relevant.
We took the day off today. Back tomorrow to discuss portfolios for the new age of screen dominance. Maybe.
Thank your lucky stars you weren't hanging around with me today because my photographic mojo was on vacation. Missing in inaction. Everything I pointed my camera at just kind of oozed into blah. And all the PhotoShop in the world won't save it.
Saturday was a nice day in Austin and I went out with the Panasonic GH2 and the kit 14-140 lens to walk around, snap a few photos of a seventy degree day in the middle of January, and to buy some kale. I'm pretty happy with the performance of the GH2 and the long zoom. It's not the world's sharpest lens at it's longest focal length but I give it the benefit of the doubt since I've alway handheld it and depended on the magic powers of the image stabilization.
The wide angle on the 14-140 is good but it does have some geometric distortion. If you use it for interior scenes with straight walls you will become familiar with "lens correction".
But I guess I've gotten bored with my usual route in downtown. When I woke up this morning I had a craving to shoot somewhere different. And, with the weather outside looking pretty darn nice I hopped in my car with two camera systems (the Nikon V1 and the GH2) and headed to San Antonio to shoot in their downtown. Alas, the photo-gods were against me every step of the way...
Saturday afternoon in Austin. Love the long reach of the 14-140. Nice compression effects, too.
I left the Austin city limits, heading south, around 10:45am and within twenty minutes the sky starting turning an abysmal, gray, gravy sort of color and then all the saturation drained out of everything and the light levels began to droop. By the time I hit the street in front of the Emily Morgan hotel, about three blocks from the Alamo, I started seeing sketchy patches of light rain. Nothing sexy or foreboding about the clouds. No picturesque drama, just a gray flannel funk that seemed to suck the visual life out of everything.
I started out with the GH2 and the 14-140 and stuck everything else in a little, sling bag. There were the usual families in front of the Alamo. But even though I made the pilgrimage I just couldn't pull the trigger on another cynical shot of a another little group of social outliers posing in front of the shrine to Texas' freedom while the designated photographer in their girthy group gingerly held the smartphone up and fiddled and fiddled.
I did stumble across these guys but I cheated and actually asked them if I could snap a few pics.
Nikon V1 with the 30-110mm.
Some days you go out and the universe throws gold in front of your Nikon or Canon or Olympus. But other days it's like the universe pokes you in the eye and puts a mental soft focus filter on even your best lens. You have at least two choices. You can keep moving and keep looking or you can pack it in and head to the closest bar/coffee shop/place to take a nap. After driving for an hour I just didn't have the good graces to shove the gear back in the bag, lick my blocked artist wounds and crawl back behind the wheel.
I kept walking and headed down Commerce toward the Mercado.
I did come across this big T-rex which reminded me that I've been hearing T-Rex "Bang a Gong" (or various cover versions) all week long on the radio. Will the current ruling generation spend the rest of their lives mining the meager treasures of my generation? (Kidding, of course. I never tire of hearing instrumental versions of Beatles' tunes in every elevator...).
Chair at Marti's next to the Alameda Museum.
Usually, in the middle of a three day weekend, the Mercado is crawling with tourists and locals and conjunto bands and vendors. It's almost always a patchwork of the interesting and eccentric. Today the crowds were sparse and the gray sky acted like a giant tourist repellant. The usual crowds were in Mi Tierra Restaurant but it was one of those days when I found no pleasure shooting fish in a barrel and only paid homage to the historic restuarant by shooting some images of the altar inside the front door and some sybaritic, sweet delicacies in the dessert cases that run forty feet wide across the lobby.
A detail of the altar in the foyer of Mi Tierra Restaurant. If you've read the blog for a while you might remember me talking about Mi Tierra for its giant wall mural depicting San Antonio history. Or the oil painting of Bill Clinton in jogging clothes. Or the altar to Mexican-American music legend, Selena.
The GH2 seems to handle higher ISO's just fine. There's a fine, black pattern of noise when you examine a file closely but none of the multi-colored speckled splotches that we used to see in previous generations of noisy cameras. The files seem to cling to their normal saturation as the ISO's climb.
GH2 Raw files are fun and easy to color correct.
The Mercado left me cold and frustrated. No matter how I looked at it I couldn't attach the leads to the art battery and jump-start any sort of creative vision. I turned around and headed back east, this time going down Houston St. I'm always happy to see the box office at the Majestic theater and I spent some time trying to get it to sing to my camera but the performance was perfunctory. No magic transferred. No talent welled up like blood in a fresh wound. Nothing.
I usually love the way this structure looks. The colors are so rich and tangy. But today the grey sky reached in under the overhang, snuck around the marquee and just pulled and pulled at the chromatic joy that usually flows off the columns and ornamentation like delicious visual nectar. The light was already failing by four and its dreary decline kept driving my little camera to higher and higher ISOs. With each click up the scale a little bit of the character of the scene dissolved into the monotone froth. The people in the street were mostly small families playing "tourists in their own town" and they seemed off limits to me today. Misplaced compassion or just a lack of mercenary inertia.
In desperation I even tried 16:9 but it's like the wires between my brain and my eyes were disconnected.
When the battery in my GH2 finally died (after 462 shots) I decided to make a big course correction. I buzzed by the Alamo one more time, on my way back to my car, and then headed up Broadway for a total change of pace. I went to the San Antonio Museum, paid my eight bucks and headed in. The featured show was about 5,000 years of Chinese jade. I left all the other stuff in the car and grabbed the Nikon V1 with my favorite optic for that system, the 30-110mm and started walking through the galleries. I would have done it on roller skates if I could have...
I'm not sure why but I still find the files I'm getting from the V1 to be very visually compelling. The camera, lens and IS system handled the low, tungsten light beautifully, with very little intervention from me. I don't remember exactly but I'm pretty sure this is ISO 800, wide open at 1/15th of a second and it seems tack sharp and relatively noiseless to me.
The museum was as sparsely peopled as the streets but that was fine with me. I was there to re-charge my batteries; soaking in the feeling of continuity and creativity across time and culture. And it seemed to work. At least being in the middle of the art took the edge off my frustration at my own frailty.
I loved this detail of the Hindu god, Vishnu, who had four heads that faced in all directions, until Shiva chopped one off.
I came to the conclusion that even if art is permanent (and the jury is waaaay out on digital photography) the nature of the artist, over time, is to sink into anonymity and dissolve into the collective of his or her cultural and context. Maybe that was the message the cosmos was trying to text me today..
But, like a child, I was quickly sidetracked by the pretty colors bouncing off the ceiling of this walkway between two buildings and the repeated diagonal pattern of the struts and I forgot to worry about my own implicit mortality for the time being.
I love the visual pattern of standing in a gallery, looking into a gallery that looks into a gallery.
Detail of a large and disturbing mural by a photo/artist/genius named Daniel Lee.
I almost missed this show (the Daniel Lee: Manimal show) since it was wedged in between a gallery of decorative arts and a gallery dedicated to Pre-Columbian earth goddess figurines, and I've seen enough Pre-Columbian earth goddess figurines to satisfy even Claude Levi-Strauss. I have struggled to wade through, From Honey to Ashes, more than a few times.... But the show that struck me had nothing to do with CLS.
It was a show of highly manipulated photographic images by Chinese born artist, Daniel Lee. Here's a link: http://www.daniellee.com/ This particular show was part of his "Manimal" series and, seen in the flesh, it was stunning, disturbing and convincingly done. That sparked me right up and I spent a good half hour really absorbing the two dozen large pieces of his on display. The above is a portion of a very large C-print (think four feet by at least 12 feet.) It's a riveting and cynical allusion to a number of classical paintings and reminded me of a twisted interpretation of european religious paintings from the 14-16th centuries.
Having finally connected with something provoking I felt justified in heading home. The gray dived from 18% to 90% as only a winter afternoon light can and, even though it wasn't cold, the oppression of the short and parsimonious scraps of spiceless daylight was palpable. I welcomed the stingy sunset and sat back on my battered fabric car seat and listened to an old Moody Blues album as the three laned ribbon of IH35 stretched out in front of me, the hum of the tires interrupted from time to time by the little round disks placed on the edges of the lane to keep drivers awake.
What did I learn today? That sometimes you have off days and, while you probably won't know it until you suffer through them, you'd probably be best served dropping the cameras back in the bag and raking leaves or baking bread instead. I learned that walking is almost always pleasurable, even when you are in a creative funk. On the way back home I learned that Whataburger now offers whole wheat buns for their hamburgers and that jalapeños are delicious when combined with pickle slices.
I learned that more coffee does not make one see things in a more creative or visually interesting way.
I think I've come to grips with why I love the Nikon V1 so much. When I use it I preset it to "A" and leave the aperture set at the widest setting. I put the camera into the auto ISO 100-800 setting. AWB. And the only thing I manipulate is the +/- exposure compensation. It's really become my ultimate "point and shoot" camera and I don't have to think when I use it.
The GH2 is capable of so much fine tuning that the potential creates an impetus to meddle and control. And I always feel like there's just one more thing I should set. While both cameras are capable of very good images the GH2 is less transparent during the process of taking a photograph while the Nikon V1 is becoming more and more transparent. It's no wonder photographers who've taken the leap love the V1. It gives them permission to take a vacation from total control. And sometimes we need that.
I came into Austin just in time to have home made minestrone with the family and to savor a glass of red wine. Then I walked into my office to look at today's photographs. I was disappointed but not defeated. I think it's instructive to feel the world and my mind push back. Next time out I won't take making fun images for granted.
Dear Nikon, Please come out with an 18mm f2.0 lens for the Series One cameras tomorrow. I swear I'll buy at least one. KT
Finally, since I mentioned Claude Levi Strauss I have to toss out one of my favorite quotes attributed to him: "I have never known so much naive conviction allied to greater intellectual poverty." I've never found the actual usage but I love the phrase. I think of it whenever I read something particularly passionate and totally uninformed on one of the photographic forums...
"One fallow day doesn't make a famine." (mine.)