Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Anatomy of an Image #4

For those of you who are new to All Photo Buzz, there are 3 other "anatomy of an image" articles that you can find under advanced shooting skills in the All Photo Buzz Index page.  The link for the index is to the right.  These teach techniques that I used to create difficult images.

Here's how I created this image:

The image you see is actually a composite of 2 images.  To capture these I had to use a tripod to make sure the two images would match perfectly for my editing process in photoshop.  The images that I used are shown below.

This image was used for the town and ambient lighting.  The first thing you will notice is that the final image was flipped horizontally.  This is because the eye reads from left to right, and therefore it looks to have a bit more natural flow to have the athlete jumping left to right.  This is not necessary but the final image looked significantly better when flipped.  Captured with an exposure of 30 seconds, aperture f/8, and an ISO of 400.

Unfortunately it started snowing when we arrived (just 3 grueling hours of climbing through chest deep powder with 60 lbs. of gear....).  The snow scatters the light and makes the sky look much brighter.  It would have been easier to merge the final images if the sky was darker without the snow falling.  Also, the town lights would appear much sharper and contain more contrast.

Here's the second image for the composite:

This image is a great shot all on it's own.  I changed the white balance from the city shot back to the flash setting to render the snow a more natural white.  This is the unedited version, but I feel that the lighting on the athlete and the cliff is spot on.

To capture this shot, I set up an AlienBee B1600 below the cliff I was standing on to the left (It would be great if they made a battery pack that didn't weigh 20 lbs...UGH, MY BACK!!)  You can see it's burst in the shot.  The flash was running at about 1/16 power to balance it with the blue flash from above.  A Nikon SB800 flash was placed on the in-run and has a LumiQuest FXtra blue gel over it.  It's set to full power and is just barely above the snow to make sure the blue color does not hit anything but the top of the in-run and the athlete's back.  Setting focus for this involved using a flash light to light up the edge of the cliff, the camera was not able to find it otherwise.

When setting up flashes in the snow, it's very important not to let them come in contact with it.  I bring tripods with me, but don't open the legs.  This way you can just stab it into the snow and it will be fairly stable, a monopod will work just as well and is lighter.  Dropping a flash in the snow has happened one too many times to me and rendered the flash useless for the rest of the evening.  They always seem to work correctly again the next day, but I'm a very lucky person!

The exposure settings for the action shot are ISO 400, f/5 (lowered the aperture for the blue flash to show up stronger), and a 1/250 second shutter.

Both of these images were taken one right after the other, while taking care not to move the camera at all during the process.

Post-processing is where the magic of a composite image takes place.  I first began with the image of the city.  Then I opened the athlete shot, and copied the whole image on top of the city shot (CTRL+C to Copy, CTRL+V to Paste).  From there, I clicked the mask layer button in the layer's panel and carefully lassoed and painted everything out of the image except for the pillows, cliff, and skier.  Use a black brush to paint out the top image, and a white brush to paint it in, with lasso the settings are the opposite, just lasso and delete.

I used different opacities to blend the snow together between the images, and a large soft brush for the pillows.  Experiment with your opacity, and remember that flipping the color of the brush from black to white and vice-versa will allow you fix any spots you blend incorrectly.  The sky was blended together by barely letting the second image's dark sky show.  Snow is very tough to blend, but using the soft brush with a low opacity made it a fairly quick process.

When the image was almost finished, I noticed that the athlete was too white compared to the rest of the image.  For this, I created a color balance mask, and masked only the athlete and snow from the action shot.  I then changed settings until it looked to match the rest of the picture more closely.  With color balance, a little bit of adjustment will make a HUGE impact, so only make very small adjustments.

I then performed all my basic image adjustments with curves and LAB mode.  The image was finished with an UnSharp mask in LAB mode on the lightness channel, and selectively sharpened by painting the masked layer.

The key to creating this image, was starting with two great images.  If your alignment is off, it will be much tougher to merge.  With one bad exposure, the shot won't come out at all.  Make sure that all the flashes are set correctly with test shots, because you really only get 1-2 tries before the snow looks bad.

Now get out there and experiment!  Few photographers create images like this, so set yourself ahead of the pack and sell some unique imagery!

Please comment or send me an e-mail if you have any questions about this process.

That's the BUZZ for Today!  Please check back soon for more.


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