Even after shooting something like 20,000 figure photographs these last couple of years, photography still has a way of surprising me, and I thought it would be interesting to document how I take certain shots. This is the first post in an occasional series of articles in which I’ll describe what I was aiming for in a particular photo, what I think of it after I’m done, and what I could have done differently.
I like how the image above turned out, and I’ve gotten some nice compliments about it. The funny thing is, I did not intend to use it in my Rin review. In fact, it wasn’t a serious picture at all and I initially felt that the composition was so hopeless that I didn’t bother taking any more shots in this vein. It wasn’t until after I took the shots into DPP that I saw I could do something with it. Why did I dislike this shot so much? Why, because it originally looked like this:
There’s a good reason why the photo is so dark. The first thing I do when I photograph a figure is to get my lights worked out by shooting a series of test shots while varying the aperture on my camera and the power, distance, and position of the lights. The shot above is a simple two-light deal, with the lights set in the following position:
Diagram from OLDC.
The key light is set to camera left, firing through a LumiQuest Softbox III. It’s a small softbox but because it is relatively large compared to a figure, it gives a very nice, soft light, as you can see from the shadows on Rin’s face. The second light is mounted on a Justin Clamp overhead, firing straight down through a dome diffuser. The purpose of dome diffusers is sometimes misunderstood; they don’t soften the light by any appreciable degree. Rather, they scatter light in every direction forward of the flash head. The nice thing about this light is that it illuminates the entire background while putting a little more light above and behind the angel statue, giving it more of a divine look, like light shining down from heaven.
Not that you can tell that from the original image, however. That picture was actually the very first shot I took during the session and I obviously did not get the lights in even the right ballpark. Fortunately, DPP includes an easy way to correct exposure.
This is the image with the exposure increased by one and a half stops and it’s looking much more usable now. The histogram is screaming that I’m blowing out the whites but that’s okay. This is one of the reasons I really like shooting in RAW format and wish I’d switched over earlier from shooting JPEGs. Yeah, it’s not too hard to get a similar result with the curves tool in Photoshop, but this is a lot easier and doesn’t run the risk of messing up specific tone ranges.
I generally only do exposure, white balance, and lens distortion adjustments in DPP; I do the rest of my post-processing in Photoshop. I didn’t do a whole lot to the image; I did a curves adjustment to increase contrast, brightened the image, increased saturation, and increased red balance in the highlights. I’m not sure whether that last step was a good idea; I always do it because I think it gives figures a more pleasing skin tone, but since it’s a global adjustment, it also affects all other bright areas, which is why the image has a noticeable reddish tint. It doesn’t really bother me much, to be honest; I reprocessed the image later on, masking out the background so I could adjust Rin’s skin tone without affecting the backdrop but I did not like the results all that much. I think the red tone gives the image a warm, welcoming feel that emphasizes Rin’s heroic pose. Without it, the image is cold and sterile.
I was trying to give the image a solemn feel, and I think the lighting does a decent job of getting close to that effect. However, that huge-ass knife in Rin’s hand does not help establish that mood at all, and I really wish I’d swapped it out for her magical jewels. I didn’t plan on using this picture so I didn’t even think about that, and since I didn’t like the composition of this shot, I didn’t do a follow-up from this angle. However, I did take one more shot with the backdrop elements in place, and maybe that provides the best explanation for why I had no confidence in the setup:
Look how cramped this shot looks. The composition does not work at all in portrait orientation. The shot is too tall. The flowers piled at the base of the statue are distracting. The figure’s base doesn’t blend in well with the floor. Any mood that might be conveyed is obliterated by the claustrophobic feel of the photo.
The composition of the first photo gets around these problems. Because the shot was taken from a low angle, the floor cannot be seen. Not only does this get rid of the flowers, it also makes it difficult to judge how far Rin is from the background, whereas it’s very easy to see in the portrait shot. The landscape orientation gives the elements of the shot some room to breathe and also allows adherence to the rule of thirds (which isn’t really a rule, but I don’t know enough about composition to feel comfortable with deviating from it), with the columns taking up the left and right sides of the frame and with Rin taking up the middle third. Also, the photo was shot with a 35mm lens pushed in very close; this exaggerates the distance between foreground and background elements, making the front pillars seem further from Rin than they really are. Admittedly, 35mm isn’t a wide-angle lens on an APS-C camera – actually, it’s right in that nebulous area between normal and short telephoto – and I wish I’d tried out a wider lens to see how that changes the look and feel of the shot.
I didn’t like the shot very much at first, but I like it quite a bit now. However, it’s still not quite perfect. One thing that really bothers me is how one of the flowers on the right side of the wall is drooping. A couple of minutes in Photoshop can fix that, though:
There we go. Now I think I can say I’m pretty satisfied with the shot, even though it originally was nothing more than a power test. It’s funny how things work out like that.