Howdy to you all. This time I’m going to write a semi-tutorial type of post about how I created the portrait of the professional Finnish athlete Noora Toivo (she has a Finnish blog site Noora Toivo 400m aitajuoksija). Once again I have to say I really don’t fancy tutorials that give you lighting set-ups up front because I feel you won’t learn much from copying a light setup. Instead, I’m going to give you some tips and pointers on how to make a composite believable. The image will be used for promotional material, but it was a perfect opportunity for me to practice my retouching skills.
There’s also a short section for techies at the very end where I’ll talk about light trails and flash durations 🙂
This is where I start almost 90% of the time (provided that I have to concept ready and planned). You need to have your background plate ready before you bring in the model. Why? Because getting the lighting right is crucial. As this was going to be a night-time portrait in the city of Helsinki, the scene would be made up of various shaped and colored light sources. As I am a sucker for complementary colors, particularly teal and orange, I looked for a scene where two colors would converge.
Another important factor to take into account when you want a believable image is perspective. Note down the camera height, angle and focal length. You will need these later on when you photograph your model. I also used a test subject to stand about where I imagined the model to be, just to get some idea on size proportions. Everything doesn’t have to be 100% realistic, but you need a pretty good sense of what the picture would look like if it was actually shot on the street. I ended up resizing the model in the final image (remember to use smart filters in Photoshop for nondestructive resizing) for estetic purposes. Style before realism!
Motivate with Light
Once the background plate is ready and you know where the main light sources are, you need to think of how to light up your subject. All the lights used on the subject need to match those in the background. I call this “light motivation”. My scene had two main light sources somewhat behind the model. To the right of the image, were several sodium vapor lights that emit very warm light. This is easily mimicked by a color temperature orange (CTO) -gel. The left side of the image had a blueish/teal tint, which comes from a bunch of neon lights and street lamps (thumbs up for the Finnish post office and their broken neon lights). This can be mimicked with either a teal gel or a mixture of green and blue. You will need to test different combinations to achieve the best light motivation. The key is to convince the viewer into believing that the light reflected from the subject’s body comes from the scene and not a studio strobe. Lastly, you need some sort of fill light to fill in the shadows – particularly the face.
Attention to Detail
Lastly, you need to think of details that add more motivation to your image. What other factors besides light would make the model fit in the image better? Obviously the model is running and there’s a considerable amount of moisture in the scene. Hence, the model’s skin needs to look sweaty. Baby oil is a good alternative, but I find it often to be over-reflective in the studio. Too much light is reflected back causing hot spots in the skin, which is a big no for me. A good alternative is to use a thin coating of vegetable oil (let’s use olive oil because it’s good for your skin!) and then sprinkle water on top. The oil surface will not only prevent the water from being absorbed by your skin, but it also causes it to form small droplets.
Styling, Make-up and Hair
A make-up artist will improve your image a hundredfold. I don’t see any reason why you wouldn’t use make-up even when it’s as subtle as in this image. The talent in this shoot was Essi Saarinen (see here). She is an aspiring make-up artist with a lot of professional touch (very important to me) and motivation (even more important to me). If you need a talented make-up artist, she gets the “approved by Jukka” stamp! 🙂
Guide the Model
Lastly, the model needs to know what’s going inside your head. Sometimes even I don’t know what’s going on, but I still try to explain myself as much as possible. Tell her what you are looking for and how you want her to be. If your image tells a story, then your model needs to know this. Do you want a very specific pose or do you allow your model to wing it?
Shoot tethered! The model and make-up artist need to know what the image looks like and if there’s something they can do to improve it. The LCD at the back of the camera is not only way too small, it can also be a bit inaccurate…
I don’t like to talk about camera settings for the same reason as I don’t want to draw out lighting diagrams, but here are some pointers to keep in mind:
(i) On the one hand, I wanted to create trails in the scene and to get light trails you will need to use a slow shutterspeed. This will cause moving lights to draw streaks of light along their path of travel (think of car lights here). Then consider how long you want your light trails to be and compare how fast the light sources (=cars) travel. I did a simple calculation in my head as I wanted the light trail to stretch across the entire scene and ended up with 10 seconds. In other words it took 10 seconds for a car to travel all the way from the left side of the frame to the right. For convenience sake, you should also shoot at night because a) there are less cars to worry about and b) a slow shutter speed means more light gets recorded on your camera’s sensor so you want to minimize thi. In my case, the time was about 7:00 pm (which is actually pretty dark in Finland during winter) and I had to darken the scene with a LEE filter (I will talk about filters in another post).
(ii) On the other hand, I wanted a crips sharp model with as little motion blur as possible. Some studio strobes are better in freezing motion as others. To simpify, the faster the flash duration, the better the strobe is in freezing motion. I use two different brands; Elinchrome Style RX and Einstein P.C. Buffs. Their flash durations are around 1/2850s and 1/13000s respectively. The difference is HUGE. Obviously Einsteins are much better suited for freezing really fast motion, but I dare say the average studio photographer will never need them (and if he/she does, then a hotshoe flash will be more than enough). In fact, I use Einsteins when I want to freeze water droplets in mid air. However, the Elinchromes were more than adequate for my needs and I decided to leave my good old Alberts in the closet (in all honesty, I actually added a little bit of motion blur in post production for a more dynamic end result).
There we go! Thanks for reading and happy shooting!