I wish I could say that one day I woke up and my style just came to me. I really don’t know any photographers that can say that. My style evolved from many years of doing different things.
I started in the late 90s using Photoshop with my father to mess with images and building some really basic websites. He was the technical guy writing the code and I was the artistic eye helping to try to make everything look pretty. I have to say that in the beginning the cloning tool was my best friend. We would spend hours using it at 1 pixel to clean up images and remove things we did not want. We jump ahead to 2008 when I purchased my first digital camera, a nikon D80. I had many years of playing in photoshop and the word cloning stuck in my head. As my photography skills got a little better it allowed me to blend my photoshop knowledge in.
In 2012 I rented a small studio office and things took off. It all started with a joke from our baby sitter. It is amazing how kids can change your life without you even knowing it. We were talking about how a normal day can feel like you did a million things with kids around. I thought it would be funny to try to show how just one kid can seem like a million. She made the joke, only if you could capture that in an image, and so it began.
Being able to visualize the image in your head is everything. You have to see the end result before making the first image. My first two images were created with my daughters to try to show what it was like to be a single parent for a day. Once I have a concept, it is time to shoot. Remember, this is just my style and how I learned to do this. You can adjust, change and adapt this to how ever you see fit to match your style. Let's go through my set up.
The camera must be on a tripod and a wireless trigger helps a lot. Compose the image, know exactly where the edges of the image are framed. Once you know this it is time set the image, anything in the image, inside the frame, cannot move during the complete process. If you plan to have any props you need the have them off to side. If there are chairs or furniture, they cannot be moved once you create the first of many images. Even more important, I learned this lesson the hard way, have a good tripod and head that holds the camera steady. Quick horror story: I was using a very cheap tripod and the camera was slowly drifting downward. Moving just fractions of an inch each image can add hours of work in Photoshop to save the image. Don’t move the camera, this is why you need the wireless remote because pressing the shutter can cause the camera to move ever so slightly.
Back to the setup: Once everything is locked in place you can now bring in the subject. Settings on camera are decided by the location you are in. I try to be around F8 to F11 so everything is in focus. The shutter speed will fall in the 80th to 200th of a second. Now I bring in off camera flash- my strobes controlled by my Radio Poppers. I use one or two strobes for each placement. The strobes are almost always my main light and as I have taken these images to the next level, I have combined that with other lighting. The very first image is shot without the subject. It is for the overall lighting theme throughout the location, the base image. This will be your starting point in Photoshop later. At first this was done by lighting the whole room with a soft light and balancing it with ambient light. In some of the crazier images, I have light painted the room first before any of the images with the subject. This may take 5 to 30 images combined depending on the situation. We can talk about light painting in the future. For now I will just say, use ambient light and a slow shutter to get a nice image of the location. I will shoot this a stop or two under exposed because I tend to want a darker, edgier feel, but that is just my style. The next image will be the subject as the main feature. Decide what direction your main off camera lighting will be coming from and place the subject on the opposite side of the frame and work across the image. Create about 5 images with the subject doing slightly different looks. This is where the fun comes in. Have them excited, laughing, mad, being goofy, and let them take it as far as they will go. Want to step it up a notch, have them change clothing in-between each location within the frame. This adds a lot to the image. Most viewers will not even notice it is the same person at first.
Advance step, my two light set up is pretty quick. I place my fill light on the opposite 45 degree angle from my main. I love that I can adjust it as we move towards or away using my radio poppers. I quickly turn it up or down and never really move that second light. I walk with the main light as a human movable light stand to keep it in position for each image. The main does not need many adjustments but the fill will as you move.
Your brain will start to hurt after a while but you have to remember exactly where they are in each image, try to keep them from moving their feet. For your first attempt, try not to have them interacting or crossing themselves in to many images. Once you are happy that you have something move the subject and your lighting to the second spot. You want the lighting to be balanced over the complete image. Now repeat the steps as you move them across the image doing different things in each location. I recommend you start with 3-5 locations within the frame your first time.
A Couple hints: make sure you are focused on the subject in each image. Double check that the camera cannot move. I set my camera to take 5 images each time the shutter is pressed, with 2 seconds between images. Keep your first try simple. The higher the f-stop the better. Use radio poppers to trigger your lights for a wireless option.
Now with all that said and done you should have a base image. 5 or so images of the subject in 5 or so different locations. So at the minimum you should have about 25 to 30 images. I always over shoot a good bit because once you move the camera the image is over. So I would likely be at 40 to 50 images. For my largest shot with 17 different positions and a light painted room, my image count was well over 200. The harder the better.
What’s next you ask? Pack up all your gear and head to Lightroom and Photoshop. Grab your base image or group of base images if you care to take it that far. I do all adjustments in Lightroom, adjust the base image where I open up the shadows, bring down the highlights and bring up the clarity till I see fit. Crop the base image to make sure everything is level, I am a stickler on everything being level. There are no presets, no global solutions to what I do. Every image is edited differently but these are the basics. Once I have a basic look I go through and rate with 1 star all the images I think I will use. Pick the best image of each group and sync them all to match the look. There will be some final quick adjustments before I send them to Photoshop. Starting with the base image, command E on a Mac sends it to Photoshop. Bring the first subject image into Photoshop and add it as a layer on top of the base. Create a layer mask and drop the transparency to make sure that everything lines up. If your camera did not move this should be perfect. Place the transparency a 100 percent and turn the layer mask black, it should disappear. Here is where you need a draw pad and pen. With a white paint brush, paint the subject back in. To start, I use 0 percent hardness on a relatively large brush. Everything should line up as you paint the subject back into the frame. Now it is just rinse and repeat as you continue to add layers. If your subjects interact you may have to adjust the brush smaller and harder to get the fine details, in-between fingers, around face and what not. This is not easy, nothing awesome is, but with practice and time you will get the hang of it. There may even be better ways to do this, please let me know if you have ideas. I’m always up for bettering my style. The very first time I created one of these, it was 17 images, and took well over 5 hours to completely edit. I still missed things that I had to go back and correct over time. That was nonstop with a couple cups of coffee. Keep layering and adding subjects till your heart is content. Once you have all your layers placed and painted, click save and it should automatically create a copy of the image back in Lightroom. NOW SAVE THE ORIGINAL AS A .PSD file in Photoshop. You may come back to find things you want to correct in the future.
Once the image is back in Lightroom, I run through all of my adjustments again. This is what gives it a real painted look. 90 percent of my adjustments are done with the sliders, highlights, contrast, shadows and clarity, I normally will take the vibrancy and saturation down some too. This is all done to fit your eye and style. I do not use vignettes a lot but will add gradients around the edges sometimes.
This is what Flash painting is to me. You can do this in almost any situation. Have fun.
Now that I have said all of that, go shoot something.
Have any questions? Thoughts, concerns or ideas? I would love to hear them. We can all learn from each other and further the field. Have a great day, I’m going clone myself so I can get more work done!