kyle cassidy (kylecassidy) wrote,
kyle cassidy

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Deconstructing a photo, behind the scenes

A reader writes:

I am a very confused digital photographer.

I know how things were done with regard to film photography...but I feel very confused as I look at the photographs of today because I am just not sure if the photographers are using "old school" techniques -- or if the shots that I see are being edited post-production.

Your photograph "Heartless" for example, Did you shoot that with gel filters...? Or did you adjust lighting and color post-production? It is an amazing creation -- I just don't know how you did it! As such, I am a bit lost with moving forward. I've asked (MANY) photographers their technique -- but, trying to get anything out of photographers is like trying to pry state secrets from the lips of government officials. Many members of my own family are photographers -- and they will not divulge their techniques, at all.

I tend to use "old school techniques" because it's what I grew up using and I figure they're less likely to make your photos look dated in 20 years. As for divulging them, I've learned that an artist isn't made up of technique nor a single idea, but rather the evolution and growth of a fountain of ideas, that they flow out of you:--when Picasso gets tired of blue, he'll move on, people trying to duplicate Picasso won't because they're looking backwards and not forwards. So I'm not worried about divulging techniques so much because I realize that it's not the "how" so much as the "what". That said, pretty much anything a photographer does is stolen bits of things other photographers have done before them. You go to school (and hang out in bars with other photographers) to learn techniques, the ideas -- well, those are yours.

Behind the scenes
In any event, the Heartless Revival shot is ... pretty much straight out of the camera with very little manipulation, as you can see here:

I didn't (and typically don't) use any techniques in post-processing digital that you can't do in a "traditional" or "wet" darkroom. There's just some burning in around the edges which serves to isolate the subject and cover up some of the ... er ... crap ... on the floor and ceiling that don't add to the image. There are a couple versions of this image that have a bit of a blur added to them which is a technique I saw some photos from the vietnam war printed with years back, the idea being that when you print the image you do a short exposure that's slightly out of focus, and then a tack sharp one right on top of it so there's a bit of a diffuse glow coming out of it -- sharp and soft at the same time. It seems really popular in Japanese glamour photography. Anyway....

Taking the photo was the easy part. Making it happen started with a lot of work before hand -- beginning with Heartless Revival making the dress, and then Alex doing an hour and a half of makeup on Daphne. This is the hard stuff, really.

The actual picture takin'
I thought I wanted the image to look a bit metallic, a bit blue, on what photographers call the "cold" side of the spectrum (red being "warm") so I intentionally set my white balance incorrectly to give it a blue hue (set to "tungsten" instead of "flash" -- but I was also shooting RAW so I could change it later if I wanted). I wanted the light to be a bit sharp and I wanted it to work sort of like a spot light, with a good deal of fall-off (going from light to dark relatively quickly).

About five years ago I bought a beauty dish because I saw that Lithium Picnic had one and then when I figured out what a pain in the rear it was to use, it's sat in my closet mostly ever since, but here was an opportunity to use it. The beauty dish is a giant, unweildy piece of metal that sits with a big heavy flash head on one end of a boom stand, on the other end of the boom you have a bag filled with bricks acting as a counterweight. I like the way that the beauty dish looks when it's almost directly overhead -- it's sort of like the light you get from a UFO when it's about to beam someone up. (I deny any actual knowledge of UFO lighting. Move along, nothing to see here.) I used it in this promo shot for No Exit and it looked great. The downside is, well, your assistant has to haul around a giant bag of bricks as well as the beauty dish and the light and the giant boom stand and while they're doing that, it's difficult for them to make you a martini.

I thought you might be curious about it so I took a photo of the beauty dish as it was setup.

There were actually two people working off camera here, one holding the bag of bricks and one fluffing and primping after every few shots. But that's pretty much it -- you set up the light, you do a couple of test shots and make sure it's exposing properly, you plop your model underneath the light and your model does the thing that s/he gets paid for, which is know how to move around in ways that flatter and show off the clothes and look interesting, and you do the thing you get paid to do, which is notice when the model looks best and move your finger down about 1/16th of an inch and occasionally say things like "Oh baby, now shake it."*

Darkroom techniques
The things I use most in Photoshop are: the selection tool with feathering, levels (brightness and darkness), & saturation. And that's pretty much it. 90% of everything I do is with those things.

"Getting it right in the camera" is important, but often overrated. I was watching a photographer berate his assistant on a mini-golf course a year or so ago -- "Hey," he said "go pick up that gum wrapper, do you want me to have to clone it out of the freaking shot?" and I thought to myself "I'd just clone it out of the freaking shot."

Hope this helps. Thoughts or questions on processing? I'd love to hear them.

* (Not really. You actually say stuff like "move six inches to your left, the light stand's in the shot" and "do that again" and "once more, but look over my left shoulder this time." )

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