I had an interesting assignment today to create an image for an article on the online newspaper “Interesting Everything”. The article, about the rights of the photographer vs the need for security, is a hot topic in the UK at present running up to the London 2012 Olympics.
Sometimes when an editor needs a photograph to go with a story, it is not always possible to get the shot required due to logistics, or legal issues. This is when the photographer needs to deploy his creative and technical talent. He can then construct an image to tell the story alongside the editorial narrative.
The shot above started out in the planning stage with a basic outline sketched on a notepad. The elements of the shot, i.e. the security guard, the photographer and the photographer’s subject matter were carefully planed to be shot in three phases. First the photographer, then the security guard, and finally the photographers subject matter.
However on the day of the shoot, as quite often happens in the UK, the heavens opened. With the deadline for the image and the article fast approaching, the only option was to resort to shooting in-doors and using a stock image from a vacation a few years back as the photographer’s subject.
First Element – The security guard
I set up my tripod, and dressed a manikin in the guards uniform in the kitchen at home. I then hung a dark colored bed sheet over the door as a background and lined up the first shot. So far, so good! I then had to break one of the rules of technical photography. That was to leave the vibration control on the lens set to on. Normally you turn off the VC when you are shooting on a tripod, and especially in-doors (no wind excuse!). However, I found that due to the tight angles of the kitchen I had to extend every arm, leg and head of the tripod to get the shot, and in doing so it started to wobble like a 1970’s TV robot. This shoot was starting to look like it might be a rock and roll photograph, rather than a Beethoven. By this I mean, there was likely to be imperfections in the end result, and I would then have to use them to my creative advantage. Rather like rock music, if every note were played to perfection it would be terrible.
Second Element – The Photographer
With the first element of my image in the can, I needed to produce a long distance shot of a photographer taking a photo. This is a bit of an issue in a 10-foot by 15-foot kitchen, and I had to take advantage of the creative part of the final image. I had decided I wanted to convey the security guard looming/towering over the photographer as he came into the frame. This meant I could shift the focus around in the final image, and with some leading lines still draw the audience to the photographer, even if he was out of focus.
Shooting an element out of focus on purpose is one of those quirks of creative photography that surprisingly doesn’t come around that often. You see even if the element is going to be out of focus in the final image, you would normal shoot a element as a construct in focus to give you the maximum creative control. In this case I did not have that luxury as I had to rely on my cameras timed release, and my self jumping into the shot. I set the lens to manual focus and moved the manikin to where I would be standing for the shot and made sure the focus was, well out of focus!
Manikin dispatched to the sidelines, an old camera in hand, and the timed release set I got in position for the shot. I took a look at the first result from this element of the shoot and realised that I had forgotten about the end image, and the desire for the guard to be taller than the photographer. I had also slightly miss-judged both the angle I needed to stand at for the end image to work, and the pitch I was creating with my body.
Second time I got the shot I wanted. It’s always a bit strange being the subject and the photographer! I wanted to make sure I was ambiguous, luckily the need for the, lets now call it, very soft focus, worked a treat. There was no need to worry about any murmurings amongst the audience of narcissism. All joking aside, the shot is about the editorial narrative and not the individual characters /elements, so it was really important to be ambiguous.
Third Element – The Photographer’s subject
I had planed to drive into London and get some distance shots of the O2 arena on the North Greenwich peninsular as it is the backdrop for part of the editorial. However the elements, the god type elements, not the photographic ones this time, had scuppered that and I needed to resort to sifting through old stock photos I had. Luckily I had kept some rather technically awful shots I had taken getting off a plane a few months earlier. Scanning through them, keeping in mind that I would be blurring the shot out of focus, and needing to look for some leading lines I found one. Problem was, it was as an image, that for a background, or in this case the third case subject matter, contained far to much detail. There was only one thing for it – I would have to move the image to black and white for the final result. This coupled with the need for blurring the focus to create depth in the final construct saved the day. Moving an “ok” image to black and white to win photographic competitions will never work by the way!
Post shoot editing
Shots taken and selected it was time to begin editing. First off I imported all the shots into Lightroom and weeded out the non-runners. I had taken eight shots in total, two for each element, and two each for the shoots below showing the final image in progress. I love Lightroom, its purpose is well defined, it’s a macro tool, you do lots with a quick heavy hand and leave any detailed work to Photoshop should you need to. In this case I really needed to, as constructing an image from 3 layers with a lot of fine selective cutting is beyond even the great Lightroom’s amazing photo adjustment tools. One of the things that saves a bunch of time with Adobe’s products is that they integrate really well. All I had to do was choose the three shots I wanted in the final image, highlight them, and then a quick “control + click” and “edit in.. Photoshop.”
Just before I go on to talk about the edits in Photoshop, I’ll let you into a little secret. When you first save images in Photoshop after opening them through Lightroom, you can save “.psd” files that will then appear in your Lightroom film stip. If you use one of the newly created images to be the end image, i.e. you add the other elements as Photoshop layers to this image, you will be able to use Lightroom’s creative controls over the image as a whole, and still edit the individual elements in Photoshop. I will come back to this to explain how I used Lightroom’s black and white settings to do the final transformation of the image in a bit.
Selecting the elements – literally!
Both the security guard, and the photographer elements needed to be selectively cut out of the shots they were captured in, and then added to the photographer’s subject, the background image. I had shot both subjects with my dark bed sheet in the back ground at a nawow aperture to create an easy selection in Photoshop. Well that was the plan on paper, unfortunately the light source had bounced back off the bed sheet and created chromatic abrasion. This meant that I had to remove this whilst using Photoshop’s selection tools, making the job take twice as long! This was particularly grueling as I knew I was going to be artificially adding some chromatic abrasion to the finished image to aide the depth and stop it looking artificial. Now I don’t know about other people, but when I select and cut a subject out in Photoshop, I actually work to cut the rest of the image out and leave the subject in place. Adding back the chromatic abrasion, I feathered the selections by 2px to reduce the sharpness of the edges, whilst allowing the focus to remain consistent.
To blur or not to blur!
So I now had a colorful sandwich of a photographer on a bed of airport with a sprinkling of security guard. It does not sound appetizing does it, and I assure you it was not pleasant to look at either! I had miss judged the focus on the photographer, yes I hear you, I’m talking about myself being out of focus, not good for a fledgling photographer, let alone someone trying to earn a buck or two! Only one thing to do, reduce the focus of the photographer’s focus! A neat trick here is to also reduce or increase the brightness whilst making the focus adjustments using the Gaussian blur tool.
Photographer fixed in place, I turned to the background, the airport apron. I wanted to blur this enough to give depth, but not so much as to loss the leading lines from the security guard to the photographer. I needed the leading lines to convey the audience though the shot and editorial narrative. Again I ended up adjusting the brightness, but not on the background. I literally dumped loads of darkness on the guard, remember I wanted moody anyway.
The Layer-cake is flattened
Rather than use Photoshop to flatten the image, I saved it and returned to Lightroom. I wanted to apply a black and white filter and still retain control over each element to make minor focus/blur adjustments as well as lighting. Using Lightroom’s virtual copy, I then added the black and white filter, a couple of shade tweaks back in Photoshop by dropping the brightness of the background and hey presto.
The result, almost
I was really pleased with the final result, but it looked like digital TV. Let me explain, sometimes when an actor walks across shot, normally in a soap opera, where the lighting has to be balanced for digital and non-digital transmission, the result can be too sharp and look unreal. This was the case with my image. Normally I would have torn my hair out, (ok, if your have been following and realise I am the photographer in the image, you will realise this is a bit of a bald statement!) It took me awhile to think of a solution, but when it came to me it was simple. I needed to make the background more prevalent in the story to trick the audience’s eye. The French call this “trompe l’oeil”, and use it to a slightly different effect, mainly covering ugly buildings. To do this I reduced the size of the photographer element, and moved in on the background by increasing the size of the guard. To do this I shifted him up and left. It did result in less detail of the guard element than I had originally planned, but the trade off was worth it.
Had I completed the days task?
I had spent a relatively long time in the editing of this simple shoot. My brain was now seeing a composite of all the composites I had adjusted all day, time for a break. Returning to the image after an hour, if you have a good memory, I suggest a day to elapse here! I checked the image and was satisfied with result, all bar the mood, it did not quite match the editorial content. I turned down the brightness, and then reduced the resolution. Yes you read that right, I reduced the resolution! The image benefited by presenting less information to the brain. Given the production medium, the web, reducing the resolution also helped to reduce the down loading time. Job done!
I have not gone into a lot of detail on how to perform the edits, or the settings of my camera for each shot. There are hundreds of articles out there on the technical aspect of photography and countless videos on YouTube of how to edit in Photoshop, so I will let Google be your gateway if you want to look these up.
2) Security guard uniform
3) A bed sheet
4) A crouching photographer
5) An old camera
6) A Nikon DLSR
7) Two Tamron lenses
8) One Nikon Lens
9) One small kitchen
I will give a free t-shirt with one of my images on it to the first person to share this post on Facebook and correctly guess the exact equipment used!
The “Interesting Everything” article can be found here Photographers rights vs security.