20131230 5891 V26JC Small At the Carousel

I had the great opportunity to shoot two of the couture pieces from the Velvet Society Club Circus Collection designed by Megan Pippenger who is a senior at the O’More College of Design in Franklin, Tennessee.  I saw this dress during O’More’s annual fashion show and immediately saw the potential for a great image. In my mind I saw the model in a scene of a circus or carnival. The problem was that there was not a circus or carnival around during the time of the shoot. Even if there were, shooting in the evening with a crowd would be a challenge. So in this case, a photoshop composite might be one solution to achieve the vision I desired.

As part of a series, I shot the image below. It was selected to finish because of Christi (our fabulous model) as well as Ginger’s (our cooperative puppy) aloof attitudes. I liked how Christi gazed to camera right while Ginger gazed camera left. I used a Canon 5D Mk III with a 50mm f1.2 L lens. This was lit by a 27.5″ Rotalux Deep Octa with the deflector, one diffuser plus a grid (acquired from Light Tools) on a boom stand from high left. The light primary lit Christi’s face. I then used a 53″ Rotalux Octa from front right with just enough light to provide fill, lift the shadows from the lower part of the image. and light Ginger. A gridded strip soft box was in the rear right to provide some rim light. All three lights were Elinchrom Quadras.

Christi Hille

This image is not completely finished. I had touched up Christi (whose complexion is so wonderful it does not need any softening!), did some clothing adjustments, etc. At this stage I thought it was a pretty nice image that could stand alone. I was just about to remove the light spill from the back rim light from the seamless when I decided I wanted to create the image I had in my mind at the fashion show…Christi placed in a carnival or circus.

So I did an extensive search for stock photos. I had to find one that met several criteria in order to properly blend with this image. 1) It had to be shot at night; 2) It had to be shot from a low angle; 3) It had to provide enough “back light” to explain the rim light on Christi’s face and clothing. I finally found an image that I thought could work. I converted it from a JPEG to TIFF and resized it to match my image (240 dpi, 16 bit, Prophoto color space). I then had to rotate and level the image, add some sharpening and do some color work to get it ready. This is what the stock photo looked like:

shutterstock_359878 Small

Usually if one is planning to do a composite ahead of time, one shoots the model against a chroma green seamless to make selecting the model out of the image easier. In this case the black background did not provide much contrast to several areas of the image; as such it came down to  doing a rough selection using Photoshop’s selection tools and then hand painting away the black hide all layer mask around Christi and Ginger. Ginger was quite a challenge because of her fur! For selections like this, use a very small round brush. Preserve the edges as much as possible but allow for slight blurring, as it is important for the new background colors to just slightly bleed through in order to create a convincing image.

I then placed the new layer with Christi and Ginger on the new background layer. I increased the amount of orange so that the color temperature of Christi’s skin was as warm as the background. Even with that, Christi and Ginger still looked like “cutouts” and floating on top of the background.

Christi cutout

To fix this, one has to “ground” the object or people by creating a convincing shadow. I accomplished this by simply reversing the layer mask I had used to select Christi (Cntl-I on a PC). This turned her and Ginger to black. I then selected that out and created a new layer.

Using the distort tool I “laid” the image down on the ground and pulled and pushed the handles around until the shadow was correctly placed. I made the shadow appear where it would have been based on the position of the 29″ Deep Octa. Although I won’t cover it in detail here. the rest of the process was creating two different shadow layers and using Gaussian blur to make the shadow softer. A gradient reveal all mask was used so the shadow is darker nearest to Christi and lighter as it fades away. I then reduced the opacities of the shadow further until it looked correct. It took some additional painting with black to touch things up. (The high resolution image’s shadows are much more subtle than the low resolution image in this post.)

At this point things were looking pretty good. But although I love our dog, in this context she was a distraction and did not look quite right. So regrettably for her, she had to go. To do this I added back a layer of the original carousel background on top of the layer with Christi and Ginger. I then added a black hide all mask and used a white brush to paint in the ground where Ginger and the leash were. Since Ginger overlapped Christi’s leg, in the end there was a large section of her leg missing with ground showing through. I would take care of this later. I had to sharpen and add contrast to this patch to match the rest of the background.

Remove Ginger

After flattening this layer I found another image from our shoot where Christi was in roughly the same pose but without Ginger covering her leg. I freehand selected that leg, created a new layer from copy, and moved it on top of the layers of my project. It took some rotating and distorting until I had things lined up right. Using a hide all layer mask and a white brush to reveal the parts of the leg needed, I was able to repair the “hole” in Christi’s leg. I repeated the process to cover the leash. I did some final adjusting so the new patches would match in color and texture to the rest of Christi’s clothing and flattened the image again.

Leg repaired no crop

Although Christi’s hands were gracefully posed, they did not look right empty. I found a riding crop image off the web and placed it into her hands. I then added the shadow that should fall on parts of her clothing. I loved the riding crop, as it gave Christi’s character more strength as a circus “ring mistress” and also tied well to the carousel horses.

Using a very light amount of Gaussian blur I went over any part of Christi that needed to be blended better with the background. I them removed one person on the very right of the background image and another on the left, as they were distractions. I then applied a 4% opacity wash of yellow-gold over the entire image to help tie and blend Christi and the background together. Finally, I added a vignette to the image to draw as much attention to Christi, as the original image without a vignette was bright and lacked a sense of depth.

The key to successful compositing like this project is ensuring that the direction of the lighting makes visual sense, the colors match, and the camera angle of the background image is the same as the image being blended in. Very careful selecting and edge finishing and addition of appropriate shadows ensures a believable end result. In the end, if a person looking at the final image believes the shot was taken on location, then the effort was a success!

In my profession I have transported subjects across time and space in order to create the story I desired. I thoroughly enjoy the process because it combined photography with illustration. There are photography “purists” who sometimes say that a “real” photographer must capture an image completely in camera and that once one starts compositing or making significant adjustments to an image, one has compromised one’s self. I respectfully disagree. Although I also prefer to capture an image in camera, there are cases like this where it is not possible. So having the skills to do creative compositing is something that is great to have in one’s tool chest.

I hope you enjoy this image and that it may inspire you to try compositing to create reality from your visual imagination!

Model: Christi Hille

Hair: Amber Cannon, ambercannonhair.com

Make up: Tina Luke

Wardrobe: Megan Pippenger

Shot in Brentwood, Tennessee. Copyright 2013 Zhen Images