the tech of the shoot

As much as I love gear, and gadgets, at the end of the day, I am not a gearhead. I like the good stuff, I like the bells and whistles, but I appreciate them on a user level, and don’t spend much time dwelling on how it came to be, how to modify it, or what else is out there to make my shooting more sophisticated. Necessity drives the little research I do and have patience for, and nothing more. I would rather use something than read about how to use it.

That said, if anyone is interested, here is a little bit of detail about the technical aspects of how I shoot and what is used.

The current gear:

Camera: Canon 5d Mk ll

Lenses: Canon 50mm 1.4 and a Canon 85mm 1.8

Lights: 2 Canon 580 ex ll speedlites and one 430ex ll speedlite (all of these are modified with softboxes and triggered off camera

Modifiers: one 60” octabox softbox with one 580 ex ll shot through it, and one 16” softbox with a 580 ex ll through it, and one 22” beauty dish with a 430 ex ll through it, though I use this less and less.

All speedlites are fired off-camera using Cowboy Studio transmitter/receivers mounted on the hotshoe (think a poor man’s Pocket Wizard) – the construction of these cheapos is poor, but they never fail to fire.

And that’s it for gear! No reflectors, really. Occasionally I will bounce a key light off a reflector, but rarely. The real mainstay is the giant Octabox – it covers so much of the need, it is almost one-stop shopping. Most of the time, I am shooting sidelight with it, and using the other 580 with the smaller softbox on the other side for fill. I always side light. I love it. Lighting Guru and well-known Photographer Joel Grimes turned me onto using the Speedlites and the giant reflector, and he is a sidelighting master. The one thing I have taken away from his online tutorials and tips, is the larger the light source, and the closer it is to the subject, the softer the falloff across the subject. So, I take my giant Octabox and park it inches away from the model, just out of the frame, or sometimes in, and will angle it just forward of direct side, perhaps 20 degrees of direct side (I am not a good math person, so describing angles is not going well!) – in other words, just forward of the model, angling towards them at a 10 to 20 degree angle. The other fill light is placed wherever it is needed to pick up whatever area I want to fill. I consider the large box somewhat static, and do the modifying with the fill light. Having said that, I will modify the “zoom” and the power output of the lights, depending on exposure needs, but position of the key light is not moved much in the shoot. I would more likely move the model slightly.

I shoot at fairly high F stops (F11 or F12) to simulate the painterly aesthetic (painters didn’t experience shallow depth of field) so that means those speedlites are set to almost maximum output on one, and 1/8 to ½ on the other, depending on the desired fill and placement. Lately I have done some shooting at F1.4 or so, just to vary it up, but again, that depth of field is very photographic in nature, so I tend to shy away from that, at least for now. My sessions are about 3 to 4 hours long, snapping about 500 pics per session, so those lights need batteries and to avoid going broke, I use rechargeables and have a backup set charged up for each of the lights per session.

For all my sessions so far, I have shot my models against medium gray seamless,  9ft roll from ceiling to floor in a gradual curve and I add about 5 ft of floor covering and tape it off. This way I can shoot straight on or above the model, and always have a seamless gray surrounding him or her. The gray makes the compositing so much easier. I shoot either auto WB or in Daylight, knowing I will mess with the WB in Camera Raw anyway, so it really doesn’t matter. That gray can go blue or green or orange pretty easily, so it is acting like a blue screen for me. But I do not cut my models out and place them as a layer. Hairlines make this sloppy looking and problematic. My original shot is the bottom layer of every composition and all elements, even backgrounds are overlaid, and masked off.

About the Camera Raw step:

 After shooting, all Raw images (only shoot in RAW) are looked at and tweaked extensively in Camera Raw. Nothing is left shot as is. White Balance is adjusted, and I tend to favor slightly warming the original, adding a bit more yellow and less magenta, to give it a slight yellow/green cast. This tends to bump up the reds and oranges, so those two hues are slightly desaturated (this tempers the saturation of the skin on the models mainly). I usually shoot one to one stop under exposure (this is all trial and error, since you can’t use ETTL on your speedlites when shooting off-camera), so I usually bump up exposure slightly and bump up fill light quite a bit, depending on the contrast as it was shot and what I am going for. I soften the image by reducing Clarity with the slider, and then go to Sharpen and Noise Reduction and really wreck the image! I sharpen about 50% with a radius of about 1.7 (both sliders around the halfway point) and then go to Noise Reduction, pushing the Color Noise and Luminosity Noise sliders up to the max with the detail sliders for each at about half. Now, my shots don’t have a lot of noise in them, as I never go past 200 ISO (usually shoot at 100), but with all my exposure tweaks and fill light tweaks, this eliminates any resulting noise, but also, and this is my preference and aesthetic, it distorts the details of the shot to look almost like a line drawing or brush strokes. Is this reducing the quality and detail of the image? Absolutely, but again, I am going for a painterly aesthetic, so this is what I am looking for.

Once the Raw steps are done, I open in Photoshop, and the rest is all about composition and choices. I have a huge bank of skies I have shot for backgrounds (in case you haven’t noticed, I LOVE cloudy, moody skies!) and several texture overlays I have acquired either online or shot myself for texture of the image, particularly paper and canvas textures, but also rust, scratches, other distresses. A note about skies: This is where the gray seamless really comes in handy: I never add a sky in “Normal” blend mode – it’s usually Soft Light, Overlay, Hard Light, or Vivid Light mode, and this interacts with the gray background really well, marrying to it almost. I usually turn the sky layers black and white, otherwise, your sky plate is coloring your image, and what fun is that?? Once it is in place, I go to my original shot and magic wand select the gray areas around the model. Since gray is generally not in the skin tone, and if you light your model strongly enough, the wand does a decent job of creating a fairly accurate outline of your model, if a bit rough. Once the selection is made, I go to my sky layer, and click ADD MASK. The sky is now overlaid around the model, but of course there are some rough spots. This is dealt with by right clicking on the mask and Refine Mask options. I pull the mask into the model a bit and then feather generously. This bleeds into the extents of the model (arms and legs, for example) but it also makes the hairlines perfect. The bleed into the model can be then painted out and dealt with until all looks as it should.

Didn’t want to get into a tutorial here, but if anyone has any questions please feel free to send me a message!

Michael Bilotta