Photoshop

A Stranger Thing Portrait – Eleven

I am a child of the 80's...

… which means I am direct product of that decade. I was never a big fan of 80’s Hair-Metal but I’ve always loved the imagery of that era. As we started to move away from analog and into digital’s earliest incarnations we all took a big step back in quality. People think of VHS as an analog medium, but unlike the homemade movies shot on film in the 60’s and 70’s – which were a true analog and very chemical-based affair – VHS was rendered to tape using electricity and other various pieces of digital wizardry. It’s part of this loss in quality that help define the 80’s within its time in history and also teaches us the concept of, ‘low-quality doesn’t always mean bad-quality’.

Also, the 80’s were a time of great exploration into the visual mediums. For me, there’s never been a time in my life where the movies were more over the top, more gory, more cheesy, more whatever.  Sure, we all praise and award movies who work their messages in more subtle manners, but I think a lot of people can also appreciate how wonderful ‘blatant-and-unrepentant’ can be as well!

Enter Stranger Things; a new visual and story-telling trip down a cracked 80’s memory lane. It’s amazing to watching Stranger Things and see my childhood, bikes, clothes, and adventures right there on screen for me to relive. Okay, so my real life adventures at that age weren’t quite as surreal, but they were certainly just as grand within my imagination.

It’s truly an amazing show and it has captured a lot of people’s interest. One such couple, some family friends of mine, have two daughters who they watch the show with. When their oldest daughter shaved and donated her hair to Saint Baldricks, they realized she was a complete doppelganger for one of the TV show’s main protagonists – Eleven. So much so that she was being stopped in the street and people would take pictures of her and follow her around, convinced she was Millie Bobby Brown. 

So, we decided to capitalize on this and do a fun Stranger Things photo shoot! They were in charge of the wardrobe, and I would find the right location. For that location I chose the Molly Stark Sanatorium; an old tuberculosis hospital about 30 minutes out of town. This place is defunct, abandoned, and just oozes a whole new level of creepy, so, as you can imagine, it turned out to be the perfect location. 

Above: Molly Stark Sanatorium

We showed up around 8pm in the evening. It’s mid-Spring at this point of the year so the sun sets around 8:30 pm. The forecast originally said it would be sunny, but rain had moved in earlier throughout the day and now it was overcast – which wasn’t a problem since we were taking a potentially moody photo. The only impact the cloud cover had on the location was that I instantly lost about 2 stops of light as the sun was setting behind a large blanket of clouds. 

Because I would have to expose a little longer to compensate for the darkness (I don’t like to bump up the ISO unless absolutely necessary) I set the camera up on my tripod after scouted the location for the right angle. Using the tripod means I can have a slower shutter speed and still retain a sharp photo. Next I hustled to put up one 32 inch octa on a large light stand. The light was about 12 feet up and about 12 feet away and 45 degrees off center from the subject because I wanted to give the lighting more of a moonlight glow by the time it reaches our model. I then took a second light and positioned that opposite of the main light. It was much lower, with a 7 inch reflector on a bare bulb. I pointed the light so it would light her dark side with a little fill as well as light the bottom of the tree branches to help them retain a little detail from the shadows.  Once we had the lights in place it was just a matter of getting the pose right and taking some pictures. To the right is one of the pictures we chose, straight out of the camera. 

If you remember what I said at the start of this article, the 80’s are all about the lo-fi elements. This picture is ok as-is, but it doesn’t match either the spirit of the show, or the aesthetic of the decade it’s supposed to take place in – so there’s some work to do!

First thing I did was mess around with the RGB curves in Adobe Lightroom to flatten the dynamic range. I also de-saturated the image and boosted the blues in the shadows. Next, I took the photo into After Effects (yes, the video compositing program) and added in the fog and the light streaks for the lantern.

After Effects is, at it’s heart, an amazing piece of compositing software that does a lot of stuff, dare I say, better than Photoshop. If it’s not a part of your workflow, you should investigate it’s potential! Once I am done there I exported the file into Adobe Photoshop where I made a few final adjustments to color as well as any last tweaks. 

Overall most of the color tweaks are done with curves adjustments and I use them throughout the process within all of the various programs I mentioned here. One thing that’s hard to explain is knowing where you should move from one program to the next. For this image, I worked in Lightroom until I had the base color correction in place. I then moved to After Effects to add in the fog and light flares because I know those processes are fairly easy for that program to produce. Photoshop is usually the last step because it’s great for the small details and final color correction. 

Here’s the final image

Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Photographer in the Canton, Akron, Cleveland and Northeast Ohio Area. 

Three Point Lighting Tutorial featuring Paul C Buff’s Einstein Studio Light

Three point lighting can mean any lighting set up that uses, (you guessed it!), three lights. Somewhere in your camera or speedlite manual there is a hastily drawn diagram illustrating a simple 3 point lighting arrangement.

Word of caution though, those diagrams are terrible and will probably leave you in a lurch when photo-time arrives and you go to take your first picture only to realize that your lighting set-up isn’t gonna cut it.

The lighting scheme I am going to share with you today is an alternate set-up; and when done right it opens the doors to some pretty interesting possibilities. First, let’s discus what you’ll need:

  • Three lights
  • 2 strip light soft boxes
  • 1 umbrella/medium soft box/octobox

The biggest difference between this set up and the ones you’ll more commonly find online is that two of our lights will be effectively behind and to the sides of our subject, rather than two lights in front.

Our-Three-Light-Portrait-Setup

Diagram of our 3 Point Lighting Technique.

I forgot to get a good production photo during the shoot. Which by the way, is a no no. You should always get a good production photo during the photo session so, if you have to come back and revisit the set for pick-ups, you’ll have a good visual reference to which you can match the lighting accurately. Luckily, I’m familiar with this set up, so not having a production photo isn’t too bad in this case.

This diagram to the left illustrates the basics of the set up. Two strip lights behind the subject, and one light in front of the subject. The lights in the back are positioned so that they are pointed at the subject’s shoulders. The vertical height of the lights depends on the height of your subject.

With strip lights, it’s important to know that even though they may be very tall, the ‘hot-spot’ of light is still centered in the middle of the box. That means I usually end up adjusting my strip lights so that the middle of the box is lined up with the top of my subject’s shoulders. If that isn’t giving you enough vertical coverage, then tip your strip lights so the top of the box is leaning towards your subject. Why does this work? A light source appears brighter the closer you are to it. Tipping the top of the strip light towards your subject will project more light onto their head, while the brighter middle area of the light will be a bit more dim because it’s slightly further away. Using the inverse-kinematic laws of light to your advantage, how cool is that!?

The light in front of our subject was a 22″ beauty dish. This doesn’t have to be a beauty dish, however. It can be an umbrella, a soft box, even a huge octobox. For our purposes, however, we were going for a slightly zappier, edgier light so a beauty dish was the perfect choice.

We placed the beauty dish on a C-Stand with a boom arm and leavered it over our subject. The light should be just high enough to be out of the frame of our picture. You don’t want it too high, or else you’ll fill your subjects eyes and cheeks with shadows. Keeping it just above the camera’s line of sight will render some nice shadows while still dishing some light into the eyes.

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Strip Lights

For this photo, we really want the edges of our subject to be defined. For this reason, I suggest you adjust the power output of your strip lights before you start fiddling with your main light. I know this is a little backwards from conventional lighting logic, but these strip lights are tasked with making our subject pop out of the background so this is where most of our lighting power will be coming from.

You can tell that you’ve done it right when you do a test shot and your subject is completely outlined in light, but the center of the subject’s face is in near-total darkness.

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Main Light

Next step is to dial in your main light. In our case, it’s the 22″ beauty dish from Paul C. Buff. Also, making it’s debut in my studio, is the PCB Einstein. I’ll get to the specifics of this light a little later on this post, but for now let me just say this: WOW, this light is awesome.

Okay, back to the Beauty dish. Once you have your strip lights producing the right amount of edge lighting on your subject, you are ready to introduce your main light. Start low, as in, power that light all of the way down. We’re trying to add just enough light to bring out the eyes and the features of the face. More precisely, you’re aiming for something like 1 stop under what would be considered optimal exposure. If your studio light doesn’t go low enough in power, just walk the light away from your subject until it looks right.

In my case, the light was about 2 feet away from the subject, with Einstein running at 1 stop above it’s minimum power.  For my beauty dish, I am using a sock diffuser to help spread a little light into the shadows – but even with a diffuser on a beauty dish, your light will remain relatively sharp.

Compare the image to the left with the one earlier. You can see that the main light adds a subtle, but dramatic difference.

Using this lighting set-up gives you a very striking final frame. The edge lighting lifts the subject off the background and the main light adds a ton of mood to the portrait – but don’t stop there!

This lighting set-up can be used outside of the studio. It will work with nearly any suitably moody envorinment. It is, perhaps, a little too dramatic for corporate portraiture, but it works great on athletes, or theatrical personalities.

This technique also works particularly well if you are doing a composite image. So, how do we go about doing that? Well, let’s explore further!

The Background

I started this project knowing that it would ultimately end as a composite in Photoshop. I shot our subject on a gray seamless because the background doesn’t really matter. The gray just gives me a nice blank color to lift our subject off of in Photoshop later. So that leaves us with the question, “What is our background going to be?”

Well, it’s a sports themed shoot, so I went out scouting for sports themed locations. The locations don’t have to be specifically tied to sports either. Basketball, for instance, has a long history of being played in run-down inner-city courts. So go find a shabby court, or even an old alley way. You just need to tie the background to personality of the photo.

IMG_2221-Edit_2-Edit_3-Edit_tonemapped-Edit

I decided to be a little more specific with my photo and I drove around town looking for a suitable series of locations that would match my pictures. I finally found a high school football field that would work perfectly for what I had in mind.

I walked around the field until I decided on a composition and then I began to shoot bracketed shots. The reason for the bracketed shots was because I knew I would be merging these into an HDR image. Why HDR? Well, the light on our subject is dramatic, so the background should be dramatic too!

The picture to the left represents the HDR we’ll be using in our final photo.  I created this by merging 3 photos in Photomatix and then Tone Mapping the result in lightroom. You can use whatever process you are most comfortable with in terms of your own HDR images.

Once we’ve gotten our background prepped, and we’ve cut our subject free from his gray background it’s time to marry to the images into one composite.

How you put your photos together, and the visual treatments you apply are completely up to you. There’s no real step-by-step, and it all comes down to personal style. Since my vision was to have a gritty sports portrait, I spent a lot of time making sure the final image conveyed the attitude I wanted. I also spent a lot of time doing things we normally do with our portraits; retouching, dodging & burning, liquefying, etc…

Below is the final export.

Final Thoughts and little more about the Einstein Light.

I’ll be writing up a full review on the Einstein within the next day or so, but I just wanted to quickly add how impressed I am by it’s features and performance. It played a large part in allowing me to achieve the image I wanted.

In regards to the lighting scheme I’ve laid forth in this post, I just wanted to say it’s not something I came up with on my own. I’ve seen a lot of great work from great photographers, all of which have influenced the way I approached this particular project. I suggest you go out and get inspired too!

 

Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.