I thought it might be interesting for some of you if I explain how this image of a tennis player diving for the ball was created, starting with the concept and working through to the the post-production.
Once the initial idea for the photo had been conceived (and having the idea is often the biggest challenge) the first step was to determine exactly how to achieve the result. In this case I clearly couldn’t ask a model to dive onto a real tennis court (that’d hurt I would think…), so the only option left open to me was to produce a composite image.
As with all commercial-style shoots it’s important to pre-visualise the final image since this will guide the choice of location, the model, the clothing, etc. In the case of a composite image this pre-visualisation becomes absolutely critical; if the result is to be successful each of the individual images needs to be taken under similar conditions. If the perspective of each subject isn’t consistent, the depth of field doesn’t match or the lighting is too different then the final result won’t be convincing. It’s not feasible to undertake a project of this nature without having a good idea of what the final image will look like.
I knew that I wanted to use a wide angle lens with the tennis player close to the camera for a more dramatic perspective, and this implied a number of important considerations:
- I would need a very wide chroma key (“green screen”) backdrop.
- I would therefore need a fairly large studio.
- The perspective distortion would be strong, so it would be very important that the photo of the tennis court be taken at the same focal length as the photo of the player so that I could place the player at the correct distance into the image.
Unfortunately I didn’t have access to a green screen as wide as I needed, so I had to improvise. I ordered a 1.2m x 15m roll of “Fadeless Art Paper”1 so that I could stick it up on the wall using masking tape. I didn’t expect this to be ideal (and I was right!) however I was prepared to spend a little more time in post-production to work around any problems.
Other than the backdrop issue there were many other things to think about – even a small scale shoot like this one needs careful planning. Here’s an non-exhaustive list of the things that I needed to consider or remember to bring along:
- The date and time: the studio, the model and myself all needed to be available at the same time.
- The camera equipment: which lenses and strobes would I need to bring along? I have a very long equipment check list that I use when planning a shoot.
- The model’s comfort: food and drink (I made a quiche), access to toilets, a place to change, etc. Also, in this case, a mattress to land on!
- Setting up: It’s the simple things that are easy to forget – masking tape, scissors and a step ladder for putting up the backdrop for example.
The “Dive” Shoot
I planned to give myself an hour of set-up time before the talent arrived, however I was lucky enough to find a great model who wanted to be involved in the whole process. She arrived early to help me unpack the car and prepare the equipment. Without her help putting the backdrop in place would have been a horrendous experience – thanks Selma!
I’d bought 2 mattresses and a thick double duvet to use as a landing pad. I positioned these at the angle that I wished to take the photo and moved them as far away from the “green screen” as I could. The combination of a wide angle lens, a very wide subject (model horizontally out-stretched with a tennis racket) and close shooting distance meant that I couldn’t get as much separation as I’d have liked, so the green would inevitably “spill” onto the model and increase the post-processing time. The main light also cast a shadow on the backdrop (although that isn’t too hard to handle later).
The lighting setup was fairly classic. I used two monobloc flashes to light the backdrop as evenly as possible. The main light was a Profoto AcuteB with the “New Zoom Reflector”, placed just left of camera and just high enough to put a catch light in the model’s eyes. I planned to use another AcuteB as a fill light but it wasn’t necessary in the end (the white walls did that for me). Rather than let it go unused I was able to use both power packs together for the main light (a dual tube Acute “Twin” head) allowing me to reduce the flash duration to better freeze the model in mid-air. Finally, a Canon 580EX with a C.T.O. gel used as a kicker gave a slight separation. All the flashes were set off simultaneously using PocketWizard radios.
After an hour’s set-up time we were ready to shoot. Once again I was lucky to have been blessed with a great and enthusiastic model. She took a 10 minute jog to get the sweat going a little, and then proceeded to take 70 (yes, seventy.) dives onto the landing pad.
My 5D MKII was tethered to my Macbook Pro, and the images were bought into Lightroom2 so that she could see her body position and facial expressions. This sort of direct feed back really helps to get the talent involved in the shoot, helping them to help you.
At the end of the shoot I took an image of a tennis ball under exactly the same lighting conditions. This would facilitate the composition later on.
The “Tennis Court” Shoot
The choice of court would have an huge effect on the final image. Since I wanted a slightly gritty/hard feel to the image I found a court that would suit that look.
The light falling onto the court was very flat – not at all like the hard light falling on the model – but that actually gave me more opportunity to control the image in post-production, and for the look I was after the flat light was more appropriate. Had I wished for more lighting consistency it would have been crucial that the light was coming from the same direction as the light on the model (and that would have cast my shadow on the ground, complicating things a little).
The only major shooting considerations were therefore the focal length and aperture (which needed to be the same as that used in the studio), the focal point and the angle of view.
I personally use Lightroom to catalogue and rate my images, so the very first step was to bring the images into my main catalogue. Once this was done I selected the images that would be used in the composite.
To choose my selects I use an iterative process. On the first run through I give one star to all the images that have any possibility of being selected (in this case filtering out the ones where there model has already landed or where she wasn’t placed correctly in front of the green screen, etc).
I then filter for only these images and go through again to find the 2-star images – this is possible now that I have a familiarity with all the images in the collection.
In the third iteration I find the best images from the collection and I also check for critical focus. If necessary a fourth iteration will leave me with just a few images to select from. For this shoot the body position and facial expression were the two most important criteria.
Once I had my “dive” shot selected I bought it into Photoshop to remove the green screen (and the green spill). This is a critical step, a badly cut out image will destroy the final effect. Delivering a well-executed composite image requires a fair amount of post-processing experience and familiarity with your editing application (Photoshop in my case).
The tennis court also received some retouching to remove the fussy background. I wanted a clean image in which there weren’t lots of details fighting for the user’s attention.
The resulting composition is achieved using a fair number of layers in Photoshop. Good use of layers ensures that the composition is created non-destructively so that it can be tweaked until it’s right. The three principal images (court, talent and ball) are included as smart objects so that they can be transformed and retouched many times without compromising the image quality.
Here’s a look at the resulting layers palette to give you a feel for the work involved. Bear in mind that some of the work isn’t visible here since it’s inside the smart objects (the green-screen masking, for example).
Note that it’s best to read from the bottom up.
Attention to detail is essential if the composite is to look real to the casual observer. Things such as the subtle colouration of the ball and t-shirt from reflection of the ground help to ensure that the result is as seamless as possible.
Over to you…
I hope that this has been a useful insight into a shoot of this type. There are many things to consider and to control, but this is what makes photography so interesting!
If you’re interested in learning more about photo realistic composition then you may be interested in the workshop that I’m going to to start offering for 2010.
If you have any questions then please feel free to leave a comment so that others may benefit.