While I’ve seen a lot of photography sites that take you through the process of a photo shoot, and I’ve seen a lot that describe the editing work, I haven’t many that provide an in-depth look at the entire behind-the-scenes process of making a photo. So that’s what I’ll try to do in this article: show exactly, step-by-step, all the way from start to finish, how I created this shot:
I’ll cover all of the details, from the original concept to the final editing touches, including every step in-between. Part I discusses the pre-production: goals, subject matter, choosing the model and props, dealing with the limitations of the location, choice of lens and composition, and lighting set-up. Part II will cover production: “chimping” my way through the shoot itself, adjusting pose, expression, composition, lighting, and exposure, and the in-camera editing process of picking the “hero” shot. Part III (coming soon), will talk about the post-production: RAW conversion, clean-up and correction, stylizing through the use of various filters, and more.
At the time of this writing, the shot above, “Bath, Interrupted,” is the second-most popular photo on my website, and at the time I was editing it, I saved incremental steps in the editing process along the way, before merging photoshop layers, so I decided that this was a good shot to tackle first.
I’m not pretending to be some kind of photo guru. Although I think it’s fair to say I’ve picked up a fair bit during the last few years of devouring photography books, researching new techniques and finding inspiration in the work of others on the internet, as well as practicing my skills through both personal and professional projects, I am and always will be a pupil of photography. I learn something new about it every day, quite often through mistakes, and I’m going to share all of the mistakes I made on this shoot, some of which I was able to learn from and correct at the time, and some that I could only see in retrospect.
If you don’t really know much about photography, but enjoy looking at a good shot when you see it, hopefully this will give you some idea of how much effort can go into one little photograph. And if you are passionate about taking photos, like I am, you’ll be able to follow along with me and, depending on the level of your knowledge base, either learn a trick or two or smile at my blundering, and maybe both.
MODEL AND CONCEPT:
The majority of the time, at least for me, photography involves trying to capture special moments as they occur. You keep your finger poised on the shutter release and wait and watch for elements to appear and mingle: eyes lost in thought; a laugh at its apex; two contrasting figures crossing paths; light bathing a textured surface at just the right angle; the curves of a road stretching towards peaks on the horizon; the sun piercing through gloomy clouds; one organic shape amidst an urban maze of straight lines and rectangles; elements that create tension, display patterns or suggest motion and energy. Of course, I always attempt to bring something personal to what appears in the camera’s viewfinder rectangle; some way to put my own, unique stamp on it, but that’s not easy.
Sometimes I’ll switch things around and try to think of a concept for a photo and then search for the right ingredients to make it happen. I have a few ideas I’ve been sitting on for ages because I haven’t been able to get the right combination of conditions together. Other times, the pieces seem to fall into place and the concept just sort of materializes in my brain. That’s what happened in this case.
While I’ll photograph anything if it catches my eye, I prefer shooting people. I love photos of landscapes and architecture, and take lots of these shots, but in general, if I have a chance to stick a human in the frame somewhere, I will. So we’ll start with my subject, the lovely Stacia:
As you can see, she’s pretty easy on the eyes. For a photographer, it’s a precarious luxury to know that you could get most of the technical aspects of a photo totally wrong (short of shooting without a memory card or dropping your camera in the toilet, etc.) and people might still enjoy your photo because your model’s a hottie. I’d already had tentative plans to do a photo shoot with Stacia, but hadn’t come up with a theme yet.
When I asked her if she had anything that might make a good prop, and she told me she owned a gun, I knew immediately that I’d want her to bring it along. Although I don’t condone violence, I’ve been conditioned my entire life by American pop culture to be drawn to the visual combination of a pretty girl and a gun. Can’t help it. What heterosexual American male’s heart rate wouldn’t speed up at the sight of Angelina Jolie with pistol holsters strapped to her thighs? Of course, Angelina Jolie doesn’t really need a 9mm to garner male attention, and actually I’d be far, far more interested in seeing a girl shoot 35mm film than a 35mm handgun, but there’s a reason that the “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” video game was so massively popular, and I’m guessing it wasn’t the tombs. I’ve never been a gamer (a while back I had difficulty figuring out how to turn on my brother’s PS3, and that was only so I could watch a Blu-ray disc), but before I even saw any words on the Tomb Raider movie poster I immediately recognized whom Jolie was playing.
However, the image of a female spy or assassin confidently brandishing a gun is so common in pop culture that I wanted to do something a little bit different. What if the shot was taken right as the girl grabs the gun, as if she’s just heard something that startled and frightened her? What if this all occurs as she’s in a vulnerable situation like, say, taking a bath? The source of her concern remains a mystery, hopefully enticing the viewer’s attention to linger a little bit longer, contemplating what’s going on, wondering what potential danger awaits her, not to mention what might’ve happened in this girl’s past that makes her feel the need to bring a gun with her when she takes a bath.
If you like photography, you’ve probably already seen the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, and if not, I highly recommend having a look. He was the original master of photographing “the decisive moment,” and for a while now I’ve been interested in the idea of trying to capture a moment either before or after the decisive one, and still make it interesting. This fit with the theme I was considering.
LOCATION AND LENS:
While this concept could’ve potentially worked with a posh, brightly-lit, squeaky-clean bathroom, I knew right away that instead I wanted something that felt dangerous, perhaps a bit seedy, giving you the feeling that the water pressure was pathetic and that any door locks between Stacia and the mysterious menace weren’t remotely secure.
Fortunately, or perhaps sadly, the setting I had in mind — an old, dank, dingy-looking bathtub, something out of a horror film set in a badly-reviewed, Eastern-European hostel, was incredibly easy for me to find. The photo to the left is of my bathroom. As you can see, it isn’t exactly 5 star quality, but it does have character, and if you want to live right in the center of Moscow and not sell internal organs to make rent, you’ve got to compromise somewhere. My apartment is pretty old. My landlord was born and raised there. The floor of my bedroom is slanted: if I set a full bottle of something down on its side at the right angle, it will roll.
In addition to being crooked, my apartment isn’t exactly spacious, and the size of the bathroom definitely dictated using a wide-angle lens (in my case, a Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 L) zoomed as far back as it could, which I knew would create some difficulties, including distortion of both the location (vertical and horizontal straight lines become curved), as well as the features of the model (noses and mouths get bigger, ears get smaller). The distortion of the lines could be fixed in post-production, as long as I left enough extra room at the edge of the frame to crop, and luckily, Stacia’s got the kind of face that will still look lovely even if it’s stretched in unflattering ways. So anyway, I decided that I had my location, drew up a quick sketch of the concept (see below) and sent it to Stacia to give her an idea of what I had in mind. She liked it and we scheduled a time to shoot.
The diagram below illustrates the lighting details. As Doc Brown would say, please excuse the crudity of this model. The big, grey rectangle represents the bathtub, so you can probably guess what the oval and smaller rectangle are supposed to be :-).
The key light is a Canon 580EXII Speedlite clamped to my towel rack up on camera-left, with a snoot and a couple of CTO (amber) plastic gels attached (either two full or one full and one half — can’t remember which). The snoot is meant to narrow the beam of light so that it hits exactly where I want it to, and nowhere else. The gels alter the color temperature of the light, giving it an orange glow, intended to simulate the feel of drippy candlelight or a lone, tungsten light bulb dangling from a broken socket.
Ok, you might be wondering, why not simply use the light from candles or a light bulb? First of all, neither of those light sources would give off enough power to allow me the fast shutter speed (1/200 of a second) and deep depth-of-field (I started with f/9, but ended up at f/14 in the final shot) that I wanted. In other words, to keep everything sharp and in-focus, even for a photo with a dark feel, I needed lots of light. On movie sets, you’ll often see a huge amount of lighting blasting away at what is clearly a night scene, and this is because even the latest, bleeding-edge cameras aren’t able to capture the same range of light that the human eye can see.
Secondly, I wanted whatever wasn’t lit by my key light to have a green color-cast, which was accomplished by two monoblocs, both gelled green and coming from camera-right: one in a softbox pointed at Stacia from a lightstand just outside the door, and one right next to it pointed backwards to reflect off the nearby wall. Because I was mixing portable flashes with monoblocs, all of the flash settings would have to be manually adjusted, and triggered optically by an on-camera Speedlite set to a low level (about 1/32 power) so that wouldn’t affect the exposure.
Why the green color cast? Although it’s become a bit of a cliché, color provides a visual shorthand for making the viewer feel a certain way. While I won’t get into the details here, companies spend enormous sums of money to decide exactly what hue will make you want to eat/drink/wear/fondle whatever it is they’re selling you.
In terms of motion pictures, Gordon Willis shot The Godfather with a lot of sepia tones to give it a classic, vintage feel, Minority Report was bathed in blue to suggest a cold, bleak future, The Lord of the Rings was color-graded all over the place to help you keep track of where you were in the fantasy world of Middle Earth (i.e. warm, friendly yellow for Hobbiton, cold, blue tones for most of Mordor, and fiery orange-red inside of Mount Doom), and The Matrix and Fight Club both had a green tint to hint at a surreal environment that might not be what it seemed. I could give many other examples but the topic of adjusting color to create mood really deserves its own post, so I won’t delve any deeper into the subject, except for noting that greenish skin-tones tend to give the viewer a sense of unease, which is exactly what I wanted to portray here.
Okay, so having planned everything out as well as I could (note the emphasis on “I”), I was ready to start clicking the shutter. Learn about the shoot itself in: Making a Photo: Part II (Production of “Bath, Interrupted”). Thanks so much for reading!