Sunday, December 19, 2010

composite photography - quick and easy how to

What do you get when you have a pre-holiday celebration one night before needing something new to shoot the upcoming morning? An angry, idealess photographer.

Last night, the wife and myself cleaned and prepared as we were about to have about twenty guests over for cocktails and appetizers. It was a BYO party. Not only BYOB but also BYOA (bring your own appetizer). Yes, not only am I a cheap photographer, one who favors DIY equipment, but I'm also frugal in other parts of my life. I don't know how this last minute party manifested, but I made it very clear that since we are having another party on Christmas Eve, that those who wanted to attend last night would have to BYO. Don't get me wrong, next week will be totally out of pocket. I did make some donations last night as well.

For starters, I picked up lots of Cacia's. Cacia's is an awesome South Philly bakery that's been around for generations. They make all types of Italian breads as well as pizza, stromboli and other awesome baked goods. Their pizza is like no other. It's very difficult to explain, you would just have to try it to understand.

I also brought home some adult beverages. I bought a couple different bottles of red, such as pinot noir and cabernet. Along with the wine, I picked up some beer. I prefer to have microbrew styled beer as compared to your typical Bud or Miller. Last night I bought some Victory (made in Pennsylvania) and Leffe (brewed in Belgium).

The majority of attendees were relatives. I was amazed of how quickly family could make a mess of a house. That rant is for another time and another place.

This strange photograph is the result of juggling my brain during a breakfast consisting of coffee, Gatorade and Advil. Maybe the combination caused an adverse reaction, causing me to go down the path of strange and unusual. Whatever the reason was, I came up with this somewhat crazy idea. I do confess, I'm not the first to try this, and admittedly, not the best at it. I saw this type of shot some time ago. I could not remember where or who did it. I thought it was pretty cool though. Sometimes it is good practice to see a shot you like, reverse engineer it, and attempt to recreate it. This will hone your skills as a photographer.

The photo is an obvious digital manipulation. It gives the viewer a sense of ones face being torn from its skull, laid flat on a surface, and finally photographed. Yes, it is a somewhat disturbing photo but that was my intention from jump street. At first glance, you may think to yourself that this type of manipulation is absolutely impossible. The truth is, it was neither that difficult nor did it take too long.

The Model

As I guzzled about a gallon of electrolytes, I decided on the perfect model for such a shoot. The handsome, sexy man that you are staring at is none other! While staring at my bloodshot eyes, in the mirror, I thought that with my face, this shot would be perfect. My skin has lots of imperfections, such as scars, bumps, whiskers,  et al. Since the end photo should not be one of beauty, this would be ideal for the situation. So, I splash some water in my face, clean up ever so slightly, and prepare for the shoot. It's not often that I am the photographer and the subject. This was going to be exciting.

The Set

I placed myself in front of a grayish wall, with daylight coming from camera left (model right). I would have to use a tripod for this self portrait situation (duh). There would be three shots needed. One shot straight on and the next two had to be profiles of either side of my face. The important thing here is to stand in the exact same place for all three shots. If you move up or back ever so slightly, you post processing will be a nightmare. If you shoot as clean as possible, your digital darkroom work will be minimal. Since this shot would demand lots of photoshop manipulation, I wanted to keep mistakes, if any, to a minimum.

I had placed the tripod approximately four feet in front of myself. Obtaining appropriate focus could be achieved in a few different manners. If you have no triggers and are relying on a timer for a self portrait, then it is wise to find an object to place where you would be sitting, focus in AF mode, lock in and flip the switch to MF, so that this point is no longer disturbed. If you are using an infrared wireless remote, the same technique should apply. I rarely use my wireless shutter trigger due to its lack of functionality. Instead, I chose the hard wired shutter release. This works just like pressing your camera shutter. Press half way and the lens will look for a focus point. I opted for this since it would save some time. I would not have to run back and forth from my seat to see if the focus was right. It also reduces the risk of losing that ever so precious subject placement.

Everything was ready to go.

The Exposure

I can sound like a broken record in the ISO department. Yes, I shot at low ISO 100 to minimize any grain (noise) in the photo. I try to stay in the 100-400 ISO range. With my camera, anything higher can yield unacceptable noise.

I did not want any noticeable lens blur, so I set my aperture at f/5.6. This would give me plenty of depth of field, yet not so much that I would have to use more flash power.

I didn't want any off-the-wall light in this shot. If you try and and too creative in that department, you may get some conflicting shadows. You want to keep it looking as real as possible. To simplify that situation, I placed the strobe on the hotshoe angled up towards the ceiling. I was to bounce the light from the large white reflective surface. Having the light source come from above the subject ensured that all sides of the face received equal and ample lighting. The ceiling is higher than average, requiring higher strobe power. Flash power is lost dramatically over short distances, this is due the Inverse Square Law. I fired the strobe, zoomed at 105mm and 1/4 power.

I set the camera's white balance to "flash." Although I'm shooting in RAW and adjusting the white balance later would be no problem, I wanted to keep all fixes to a minimum to save time in post.

Did I mention what lens I was using? Oh, yeah, I forgot. I used the awesomely awesome Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM. And, yeah baby, the autofocus is still fully functional after exactly one week after coming back from the dead. I may have mentioned that I probably will overuse this lens again. I will and I am.

The shoot took all of 5 minutes. I reviewed the LCD and decided that I had three viable photos to work with.

Post Processing

I upload the photos via CS5 Adobe Photo Downloader. After that I review them in Bridge and open three favorites in Adobe Camera RAW editor.

Camera RAW edits were very quick. I was working on three files, but since all three photos should match up, I edited them as one, rather than one at a time. To do this, simply click in the upper left, "Select All." This option allows you to edit all photos simultaneously. I wouldn't recommend this with photos that have different lighting. For multiple shots done in a controlled environment, it works wonders.

I kept the RAW edits very simple. First, I dialed in the white balance. It was on, I just wanted to tweak a tiny bit. That took all of five seconds. Next, I wanted to work on exposure. There were no shadow or highlight clippings, which was great. I only felt that it needed a bump in the fill light. I dragged the slider to 10. Finally, I bump up the clarity and vibrance sliders, both to 20.

Adobe Camera RAW edits are now complete. While all three photos are still selected, I go to the bottom and select "Open Images." Photoshop then automatically opens and the RAW files are ready to be manipulated.

I typically do all corrections to photos, first, before adding any type of effect, while editing in photoshop. Today, that was all done last. First and foremost, I wanted to get all three images as one.

To begin the process of tearing my skin from my head, all three photos have to enter into one working file. To do this, I drag the two profile shots into the head on shot. Do so by grabbing the arrow tool, click on the appropriate photo, drag over to the main photo and your finished. Duplicate this process with the other profile. Now I have all three photos in one working file. Photoshop will automatically put each photo into a new layer. That is what you want, layers. Layers are priceless for any photo manipulation. Even for simple photo corrections, I use layers.

Once you have three layers, you want to add a layer mask to each layer above the main. I set the opacity to 50% on each layer so I could see where to properly place the two profile photos. I then use the arrow tool to place each face in its proper position. Once I have them looking good, I then once again, pull the opacity back to 100%.

Now I'm ready to rip off my skin. First, work on each head individually. This will allow for less distraction. To do so, deselect on of the heads. Now to blend one profile with the face forward photo. Click the layer mask. Grab a black brush and paint away parts of the profile head to match up with the forward head. If you paint away too much, simply switch to a white brush and paint back in. Do this until you have something that looks aesthetically pleasing (didn't say natural, since there is nothing natural about this photo. That would be weird. Feds would be knocking at my door).

Once all looks good and freaky, it's time for the other side. Again to avoid distraction, I deselect the edited layer and only select the working layer. Duplicate what was done on the other layer. When close to complete, make all layers visible.

Once a close to complete product is visible, make some minor tweaking. Make body parts are pretty even. Ears equally distant from eyes? Ears level? Skin transitions smooth? Dial it in and then flatten all layers into one.

Now I begin as if I'm working on another single photo. First, I adjust Curves, then to High Pass filter to do some sharpening. On most of my photos, I use a touch of high pass filter. On this one, due to its morbidness, I wanted to add a little more punch in that department. Rather than 10% opacity, I went way up to 25%. This gives that slightly over sharp look. I feel that it really brought out the skin detail.

Not 100% satisfied with the skin and hair, I added one more layer. This time, I desaturated the whole layer, then opened up the Shadows/Highlights dialogue box. Here I make some minor adjustments to this black and white layer. I take this layer opacity down to 20% and flatten once again.

Almost finished, there is one more step that needs to completed. Although, I don't use it much, the crop tool comes in very handy. I usually crop to the same aspect ratio but that was not working for this composite. Above the head and below the chin, were problem areas. Rather than sit there and mask in and out all day until I had something that was OK, I decided to crop. This was not only a time saving process, but one that actually improved on what the photo was portraying. Cropping was a totally accidental winner. Love when that happens.

Now, I know I have given my technique on creating such a composition. Keep in mind, that in Photoshop, there is more than one way to skin a cat (or a head). I couldn't resist that one. I've been dying to write it the whole time. Corny, of course. Necessary, indeed.

Ultimately the shoot, from beginning to end. Setup to saving as jpeg., took about two hours. Not bad, when needing something good, and something fast.


I went with the eyes staring up along with that Joker smile, in hopes of portraying death. I'm not sure how dead I look, but I do like the final photo. I may even give a future attempt at the same type of shot, adding some sort of sick twist to it.

Happy Scalping.