So you’ve got this idea
Whether you shoot a figure on your desk, against pure white or black, in a themed setting you built or going outside the box to get the picture you want there’s an idea behind it to make it all work. For this particular article we’ll make use of a themed setting and the obstacles such a setup may bring.
A general consensus seems to be that themed settings are more intricate than let’s say a black background and therefor also provide for better looking images. I’ll agree to the point that varying backgrounds may yield a more interesting picture but I wouldn’t judge a simpler background as simply dull or less intriguing beforehand.
Our focus is still the figure and if the figure is not satisfyingly lit then it’s irrelevant how the background looks.
For Orchid Seed’s Alleyne I knew I wanted to place her in some kind of lush setting, perhaps in a jungle lagoon of sorts. The latter meant working with water, an element I’ve never had much success with; it doesn’t scale well in motion with water drops the size of the figure’s hands and it’s overall not a reliable element to work with. So, there couldn’t be splashing water nor was I keen on placing the figure in still water. What if we added swirls of mist on the water surface, that sounded like a cool idea I thought and started looking for how best to approach this.
Going through older reviews led me back to Belldandy in where dry ice was used for the first time. One of the best uses with said ice is to simulate lingering fog across a surface. As with all great things in life this comes with its drawbacks too; dry ice has a surface temperature of -78.5C or -109.3F so it has to be handled with great care. Once out of its container the ice starts to sublimate into carbon dioxide gas meaning there’s a time limit to how long you can use the product before it’s all gone.
Since carbon dioxide is heavier than air it may also concentrate in enclosed spaces causing breathing difficulties, something I encountered during the Belldandy shooting despite having all the windows and doors open in the apartment. Should you decide to make use of dry ice in your photography setting, bring thick gloves, metal pliers and ensure that your shooting space is well-ventilated. Leave the room and get some fresh air should you start to feel dizzy.
Oftentimes you find everything you need lying around the house. In this case a pizza tray, laundry basket to balance pizza tray, collected white rocks and some plants from the kitchen window. Scaling is of great importance so we have to make sure that our vegetation looks somewhat believable, it wouldn’t be the best of ideas to include over-sized flowers to the image just for the sake of adding color.
Ideally the distance between figure and background should be greater to further increase the depth given to our illusion of the character standing in a lush clearing and not on a pizza tray filled with rocks, on a laundry basket, in someone’s kitchen.
To eliminate unwanted reflections behind the set a black sheet is hung over the window. This also prevents curious neighbors from questioning what the hell I’m up to on a sunny afternoon in March.
Painting with light
The backdrop is built and the figure is set in place. Now is the time to light the stage. As I mostly work with flash, one unit is initially dedicated to the background using an orange gel/filter to make the light appear warmer.
As seen above barely any light is hitting the figure which is only outlined by the light hitting the background. You can also tell that the same light is hitting the black sheet in the top right corner and that my sheet hanging skills have failed me on the far left side as light is being reflected from the window glass. At this point corrections will be made until I’m happy with how the background is lit.
Now we’re starting to light the figure as well. For the shots above, two flash units are used to light the figure and the previously mentioned unit is still responsible for the background lighting.
As seen in the left picture the background is overpowering the figure, something that is not desired on my part. For me, the whole idea behind using a custom background is to complement the figure through proper lighting and composition. For the picture on the right, the background light is turned down through decreased flash power while the two flash units for the figure have been re-positioned for a more satisfying result.
So we’re decently happy with the light hitting the background as well as the figure. Let us proceed with the artificial mist stored away in a styrofoam box on the balcony. There’s a good reason for it being there, having a big box filled with dry ice indoors may as previously mentioned cause dizziness and headaches.
Wearing thick gloves I gently pour a few scoops of dry ice pellets into a bucket which I then bring into the kitchen. Time is of the essence as the ice instantly starts to vanish before my very eyes. Before doing these runs between balcony and I, everything has to be ready in the kitchen. Camera has to be set, flash units have to be set and be ready to go the second the dry ice enters the scene. The ice itself makes a spectacular sound when in contact with metal, a sound I recommend that you experience yourself one day.
Once a few ice pellets have been placed down I then proceed to fill the tray with hot water. Why hot? Temperate determines the reaction of the sublimation and the hotter the water the more chaotic the reaction. As soon as this happens I fall back behind the camera, quickly checking that everything looks ok before firing away a shot. I estimate roughly 10-15 shots before the dry ice has lost its potency and it’s time to make another balcony run. Do be careful not to place the ice close to your figure as it will stick to PVC and be reluctant to let go.
In order to control some of that chaotic reaction caused by the dry ice a small fan was placed next to the figure (seen above) to get a smoother transition of the swirls as the reaction died down.
Ever since I started using custom backgrounds back in 2012 the challenge has always been how to make use of multiple light sources separating the figure and everything else. Unless you for some reason want to highlight the background the figure has to be the main focus. The more advanced the background the harder it gets to control lighting and composition. Time and effort matters not, the end result does.
With Alleyne I would’ve liked a little more depth to the shots, partially solved through a greater distance between figure and background. I do think shadows on the figure could have been richer and the face better lit had I controlled light spill better that came from the flash units lighting the figure.
I’ll reiterate the importance of lighting in figure photography and the use of light and shadow. Through them you can add emotion and drama as easily as you can ruin your entire picture. Adding an intricate backdrop does not put you in some safe zone of being a master photographer because of the time you invested or the resources that funded the project, all it does is providing a bigger challenge for you as the photographer. The more you add to your image the harder it gets to control as lighting gets exponentially harder to pull off. I feel that oftentimes things get lost in translation when it comes to figure photography and that we tend to focus on everything else other than the actual photographs. Backgrounds and props can be cool and all but those alone do nothing without a photographer that takes advantage of what he’s/she’s been given to work with.
I’m decently satisfied with how the following shot turned out with the RAW image out the camera on the left and the post-processed version on the right.