Hot Mess Shoot - Behind the Scenes

Ever try to wrangle 7 pretty young actresses in black dresses?  It's not as easy as you would think, and I'm sure you weren't thinking it was going to be easy. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post about an upcoming shoot to take the promo shot for season 3 of a web series series run by my friend Amy Kersten which is due out in January. Well, here are the results of that shoot. My friend Claude was nice enough to do some BTS filming so you could get an idea of the scene. Be sure to play it at 720p to see some detail.

For those interested in the technical aspects, I shot with my 5D2 tethered to Lightroom on my new 13" Air (which worked great by the way, far better than my old unibody Macbook) with a 50mm lens. In the end, I changed the lighting setup I was considering in pre-production and swapped out the ring light for a beauty dish up front.  A softbox up a bit on each side were used to get some separation from the background.

This might be a good time to mention something about white, black, and grey seamless paper backgrounds.  Under the right conditions any one of these could show up on camera as white, black, grey. It's all a matter of distance. Distances between the subject and the background and the lights.  In my particular situation I would have liked to have more distance between the group of girls and the background, but the laws of physics and the long dimension of my space thwarted my efforts. So in the end what I got was less of a black background than I had intended, which is some ways was a blessing in disguise because it made it easier to cut them out of the background when I decided to do a composite.  More on that in a bit.

So I was all set up when they arrived. The best girl ever brought some wine and cheese to feed and relax them while they got ready.  All told, that part of the evening was a fine flurry of people. As a general rule I prefer one-on-one shoots, no let me rephrase that. Shoots with one person are a completely different animal than shoots with a number of people.  The latter is more an exercise in shepherding than interaction. Or at least it can feel that way, so I had brought along a couple of people to assist me in the endeavor.  Once we figured out the best way to group the girls so that we could see all their faces, Cisco spun them up in caution tape and we were ready to get started.

I shot about 150 pictures in total.  Not many at all compared to some shoots like this, but ultimately we were looking for one main shot, so as long as I had the raw material to work with, I was good to go.

When we were all through I sent Amy about 50 pictures to look through.  The final shot choice was pretty painless, she chose one shot of all 7 and wanted two specific faces replaced from a couple of consecutive shots. Easy stuff because the shots were almost identical anyway. With that bit of trickery done I started on the post production.  When we began I had vague ideas of just having them look like they were caught in a police searchlight on a black background. Thus shooting them on black paper as opposed to something on white or similar light color like we used for last year's pin-up shots. So here is what I started with:

First step was to clean-up any rogue hairs and odd dress straps and misguided makeup. Then I went in and darkened the background a bit to make them pop and used some masked curve adjustment layers to add local contrast.

Not bad, in fact it's just fine, but it didn't get me excited. I wouldn't put this version up as the main image in my portfolio. Too dark, too unfinished. I had to do better. So then I was thinking, 'what if they were out late one night, had a few too many and were discovered like that in an alley or on the street?' So I went out and took some images to use as a plate background.  There is an empty store a couple blocks away that looked perfect for this concept, so I came home with this:

Yes, it was shot in the daytime, but it was hazy that day so the sun wasn't harsh coming straight down. In fact there are some advantages, because at night you've got the scene lit by a number of different street and store lights, all at different color temperatures with lots of spectrum peaks. Not what you want if you're looking for a plate that you can mold into your vision. Darkening is easy, and if you do it right you don't notice that it wasn't shot at night anyhow. Hollywood does this all the time by the way, when they shoot night scenes in the daytime with the exposure way stopped down. Once you get the background in the ballpark, the next stop is to drop the girls in from the original picture and do a really rough mask just to see if the overall perspective and sizes are right. I took care in shooting the door a bit wider (35mm lens) than the girls themselves, so that the field of view would be bigger and everything would match up more easily. Because I filled the frame i both shots to give me as many pixels as possible, I had to grow the background a bit to make the ladies fit into the background properly. Alternatively, I could have made the girls smaller, but why throw out pixels from the most important part of the shot? The background being a little soft only makes them stand out anyway. In the end the full size image is 4500px square, which is way bigger than it'll ever be used.

The next step is the tedious part: masking. Ugh.  I've tried every plugin and technique I can find to do this kind of work. Some of them look like magic in the demos, but at 100% I always find myself going in and working over the final line with a paintbrush anyway, so now I just mask the whole thing manually. In a situation like this where it's not obvious where a black dress ends and the black paper begins, it's massively time consuming and headache inducing. But that's how you make sure it's done right I guess. There is an advantage to of the kind of work I do, my final product is usually an image or a few images, not 300 like an event photographer would have to churn out. So I take my time until it looks perfect (or at least perfect to me).

With them all masked out like this, you can see that while they're in the right position and the right size, they feel like they're floating in the scene, but you still need more layers. That's because there is nothing connecting them to the background, depth is needed, and shadows are the answer.  The first and in my opinion the most important shadows are the smaller sharper ones right where their shoes meet the sidewalk. Adding these alone adds a layer of realism.

Next of course, are the shadows the girls are casting on the background. The main key light up front is going to darken the area right behind the girls.  I usually start with a copy of the layer with the girls, move it behind and then fill them with black.  Blur and distort it to taste. Then maybe go in with a very soft and light brush to add a little extra shadow where needed.

I got to this point and started to think that maybe I was finished, or very close to it. Then I realized it needed more electricity. For example, where were the side lights coming from? I might as well make them volumetrically visible in the upper corners, and perhaps a lens flare or two to blend it all together. So after a couple hours of shooting and many hours of editing, here's the final result.