Sunday, October 15, 2017

Anatomy of a Shot

The client already had a fairly slick looking web site. I could tell that they'd paid careful attention in rendering their staff photos to look professional and had managed to hit the sweet spot between overtly stiff and thoughtlessly casual. For a financial service company they seemed to be hitting all the right notes. I scratched my head at what they might be looking for. My agent filled me in a few days later.
What they'd like is to get some more conceptual and abstract images... almost like stock photos but shot on site and personalized to be specific to their company. Twelve to twenty images should do it.
That was both music to my ears and a creative challenge. I'd lost count of how many thousands of head shots I'd done in just the last few months and a creative exercise like this sounded too good to pass up.

Their office was cutting edge modern with 360 degrees of floor to ceiling windows. You could pick the best lighting at any time of day just by walking from side of the building to the other. There was always sunlight beaming through some window, somewhere. The lobby was meticulously arranged. A seating area had four modern leather chairs arranged in a square formation. A beautiful etched glass divider that was adjacent to the reception desk promised the possibility of backlighting to bring out the texture. Long hallways had tons of potential to use lens compression to frame in subjects. But it was the chairs that first caught my eye. If I could position a camera dead center of the chairs and get a downshot, the arrangement would naturally break into a "+" formation. Put some subjects in them doing vaguely financial things and the first shot would be an easy deliverable on their request for an interesting perspective.

But how to mount a camera and set it up to shoot straight down?

My first thought was to use the crossbar from my seamless paper stand. A clamp might do a decent job of securing the camera but I doubted the bar would be long enough to keep the support stands out of the frame. I'd had the foresight to take some scouting photos on my initial visit and noticed an air conditioning duct in roughly the right location. Hmmm, a magnet or a suction cup might do the trick.

A few minutes searching on Amazon gave me just what I was looking for. A suction cup with a ball head... just strong and flexible enough to hold a small camera. This was perfect. Here it is hanging upside down and securely attached to the AC vent.

I thought my Canon DSLR was probably too heavy. And I'd have to run a USB cable to keep it connected to my laptop. On the other hand, my Sony A6000 was about the right size and it had the ability to tether wirelessly to my iPad. Once connected to it I could use it as a remote viewfinder and have full control over focus, zoom, exposure and color temp without having to constantly climb up and down a step ladder. After all the settings were nailed down, I was even able to hand the iPad to the art director and give him an opportunity to press the shutter at just the moments that he thought were key.

So far so good. But I also knew going in that my widest wide angle lens probably wouldn't be wide enough to get the perspective to capture all four chairs in at once. As long as I could get a clean shot of at least two of the chairs I could always fall back to Photoshop for some compositing or failing that, just use them as scouting photos in contemplation of renting an appropriately wider lens.

On the day of the shoot, setup time was minimal... maybe 15 minutes to secure the camera, dial in the exposure and carefully position the furniture. We shot for most of an hour. Different subjects, varying poses, expressions and clothing.  I was careful to monitor the settings and make sure they were consistent for all of the images. That would make combining all the images a lot easier later on.

OK, not bad... two chairs. On to Photoshop.

My next thought was that I could clone the floor tiles and expand them to give enough coverage for all four chairs. Unfortunately, that wasn't easily done... I had neglected to get a shot of only the tiles and there wasn't enough existing area to turn what I had into a convincing backdrop. I googled "ceramic tiles" and came up with a sample from a manufacturer's web site.

Too dark and not the right size but that's the kind of transformation that Photoshop is made for. After adjusting the exposure, levels and contrast I was able to step and repeat it several times until I had a workable background.

Now the fun really started. The chairs had sharp, distinct edges so masking them... silhouetting them from the original background, took all of 15 minutes with the pen tool. The rest was building the shot in discrete steps.
  • Duplicate the chairs and flop them to mirror them to the other side
  • Overlay the chairs on the tiles... rotate them into position for best effect
  • Cut out a portion of the chairs, add gaussian blur, fill with black and dial back the opacity to create some passable shadows. Slide each into position.
  • Finally, add the figures and the table with the flowers.

The result isn't completely realistic... it's way too clean and the lighting too flat but it does seem to work on a purely graphic level. I thought about grunging it up more to give it a more realistic aspect but decided to stop here. The floor tiles remind me of the precision and geometry of cells from a spreadsheet. For a financial services company that's enough of a lucky metaphor that I decided to go with it.

What would I do differently next time? We were relying on employees to volunteer their time so we had very little choice over what they looked like. With the benefit of hindsight I'd have specified brighter, contrasting colors for hair and clothing. Financial types tend to dress conservatively so the dark colors are ok but I do wish we'd had the option for some shades that could have given them better separation.

And as I mentioned, I would have also gotten some shots of just the floor without any furniture. I made it work with the solution I found but that locked me into a look that was specifically graphic rather than a convincing environmental one. It would have been nice to have had the ability to offer an alternate version.

Several months later. I couldn't help but revisit it and add the blurred figures that I'd originally had in mind.

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