Photography can be a funny thing. You sometimes hear people – and camera companies – minimize the difficulty of photography. After all, all you do is press a button and bam, you’ve got the shot. Much easier than, say, drawing or painting, right?
Well, no, or at least, the case is not as clear cut as it may appear. The illustrator starts with a blank sheet of paper and has full control over what goes on it. The photographer, in contrast, has much less control. When you put a camera to your eye to make a picture, you’ve got dozens of decisions to make. How should you arrange the elements of the picture? Where do you focus? What goes into the frame? What gets left out of the frame? Then there’s lighting. Color. Perspective. And then there are the technical factors: what shutter speed? What aperture? And if things are moving, you’ve got to worry about shooting at the right fraction of a second. With all the factors that go into a good photo, it’s a wonder that we aren’t paralyzed before snapping a shot.
A skilled illustrator can usually draw a picture pretty close to what she originally envisioned, and if whim and imagination carry her vision someplace else during the process, she can account for that. However, even a world-class photographer will encounter difficulty capturing her initial vision in a RAW file. Sometimes things just don’t work out and you have no clue why. It happened to me just last evening. Last night, I shot off a couple dozen test shots, tweaked exposure, shifted angles, moved my lights around. I switched from a wide angle to a telephoto to a zoom lens racked to somewhere in between the two primes. It wasn’t working. I powered lights on and off, went from a big softbox to a small one to no softbox, put CTO gels on, took them off, and finally, sat down, a quizzical expression on my face, studying the image playback on the camera’s LCD, while all this time Lacia scowled back at me as if to say, “Bitch, you ain’t taking my picture.” It happens. There’s a lot that goes into a photograph.
Sometimes, though, things work out pretty well. Maybe not exactly as you had first planned, but that’s the thing about photography. When things don’t work, you’ve got to be able to reverse course and come up with another idea, sometimes in an instant. But when things do go well, you think, “Man, this is pretty cool stuff.”
I’ve used water splashes in a few pictures, but I’ve never really been completely satisfied with them. Maybe my favorite shot in that category was the first picture in my Kurisu Makise post, but it’s always bothered me how it’s not a very sharp picture. Not that sharpness is a requirement for a quality picture, of course, but for this sort of close-up shot, I think a sharply-rendered water drop would have significantly enhanced the effect of the image. But I didn’t have enough depth of field to get both Kurisu’s face and the drop in focus, and I was seeing noticeable diffraction effects at f/22, so f/16 was as narrow an aperture setting as I wanted to use. I didn’t really like the Haruka shot since it looks like a solid pillar of ice growing out of her back. And I’m not too pleased with the Kureha picture either because the water looks like it’s being ejected out of her backside. I wonder if people were too polite to point that out.
A few years ago, I came across this video by Seattle photographer Chase Jarvis and a special effects studio in which they made a picture of a martial artist throwing a punch into a giant splash of water. It was one of the most awesome pictures I’d seen and as I learned more about photography, I thought maybe I could do something a little like that, with my figure interacting with the water in a way that looks cooler and less artificially cheesy than the giant ice spike jutting out of Haruka’s butt.
I needed a suitable figure for this shot and the first two candidates were Good Smile Company’s old dark elf and Alter’s Sen Tokugawa. The idea would be I’d photograph a splash of water and then composite over their outstretched hand, giving their gesture an added element of appeal. I’d already written posts for both of those, however, and as time passed I lost interest in the idea. Then last summer, as I was debating whether to order Miku Append, the idea came back to mind. The upward rise of her hair is visually striking, and I wondered how it would look if I set up a shot where it looked like her hair was exploding into water. The idea sparked my enthusiasm and I decided to order the figure.
I’m not a very artistic person. I studied engineering in school and I work as a computer programmer at my day job. I’m much more comfortable with checklists, flowcharts, and plans of action than questions of philosophy and beauty. I’m a lot better at handling problems that have solutions than pondering things that have no answer – things like photo composition, for instance. Fortunately for me, the challenges presented by photographing water drops are in large part technical and I’d already thought of potential solutions to most of them. Unfortunately for me, the unanswerable questions – like composition – don’t go away no matter how technical a photo setup gets.
The Setup and Necessary Equipment
The setup for this shot was a lot less complex than for something like Sasara’s review. At first, I decided I’d go with abstract geometric shapes in the background, and I went with a blue color, thinking that it would provide an attractive complement to Miku’s black, white, and green color scheme. Later I went with a black backdrop.
Since I wanted the water to fly upwards, the figure had to be hung upside down. I built a platform from a wood plank and some threaded metal rod that I had laying around. It wasn’t particularly stable since I only gave it three legs, which had the potential to cause problems down the line, but I was too cheap to buy a fourth rod. The initial backdrop was made out of some white foam packing material.
For this sort of shot, you pretty much need to use photographic flashes. To freeze the motion of a large animal – like a dog running across a field, or a human being – you typically need a shutter speed of something like 1/500 or 1/1000 sec. However, when you’re shooting water drops, the frame is a lot smaller and you’re going to see motion blur at a shutter speed of 1/500 sec. You need a much faster shutter speed than that to freeze the movement of those drops.
Flashes can give you that faster shutter speed, though in an indirect way. Most DSLR cameras restrict shutter speeds to about 1/200 or 1/250 sec when you use a flash; this is because that’s as fast as the camera can sync the opening of its shutter to the flash pulse. If you’ve got a DSLR, you can test this yourself; turn it to manual mode, dial in a shutter speed of 1/1000 sec or so, deploy the popup flash, and press the shutter button down halfway. You’ll see the shutter speed reset to your camera’s sync speed. However, for freezing objects in motion, we can get around this limitation through a quirk in the way that flashguns operate. Many flashes have adjustable power settings, expressed as a fraction of maximum power. Flashguns actually modulate power by varying the duration of the flash pulse. Flashguns fire at the same initial brightness, regardless of the power setting, but at lower power, an electronic component (a thyristor or IGBT) in the flash cuts off power to the flash tube after a certain period of time. For example, at maximum power, a high-end flash like a Nikon SB-900 or Canon 580EX II fires a pulse that lasts about 1/800 sec. At 1/8 power, the pulse lasts about 1/5000 sec. At the minimum 1/128 power, the pulse lasts less than 1/30000 sec.
Take a picture of your desk at a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. It will almost certainly be completely black. When you use a flash at, say, 1/32 power, your camera sees 1/20000 sec of light followed by 99/20000 seconds of darkness, meaning that although your camera’s maximum sync speed may be 1/200 or 1/250 sec, your image has an effective shutter speed of 1/20000 sec – far faster than your camera’s fastest shutter speed setting and fast enough to freeze the movement of a single water drop with no motion blur at all.
That’s one technical problem accounted for – the easiest one, since I already have a bunch of flashguns and I’ve been using them for a while now. There’s still the issue with depth of field, but I had an idea to solve that as well. Adobe introduced a function called focus stacking in Photoshop CS3, where you take a series of photographs focused at different points and then merge them into a single image, giving you a deeper depth of field while not needing to shoot at a very narrow aperture. I also plan on generating the water splashes on her hair by stacking images and selectively masking them to ensure full water coverage of each twintail.
So besides flashguns, you need Photoshop for this image. A note about Photoshop: this image is by far the most photoshopping I’ve ever performed on a photo. Typically, I don’t do a lot of post-processing; my general scheme is to get exposure right in Lightroom, increase global color saturation a bit (usually +3 to +5 in Photoshop), increase red tones in highlights by +4, and sharpen. But I’m not opposed in the least to photoshopping. My belief is that a photographer’s main imperative is to make the image that is in your head and if photomanipulation is part of that process, then go for it. My only beef with photoshopping is when it is done badly; bad photoshoppery sticks out like a man wearing a kufi at a Klan rally.
So those are the technical issues involved in making this image. How did the actual picture-taking go?
Attempt #1 (850 images)
The image I envisioned was one looking at Miku straight-on. I not only wanted water to be flying above her head, I also wanted to have two drops of water colliding in front of her so that she would be looking right at the impact point. I figured that timing a collision like that would be nearly impossible, so I planned on photographing that effect on a black background and then merging it in front of her face in Photoshop later on.
Here’s the platform Miku’s dangling off of. My idea was almost confounded by Max Factory’s unusually-shaped base. Presuming that Miku would come with the typical flat circular base that most figures get, I planned on securing her to the platform with a couple of A-clamps. When I unboxed the figure, I found she had this tiny base with an inclined surface and a couple of fragile-feeling struts underneath. I wound up using a couple feet of gaffer tape to stick Miku to the platform. Have I talked about how awesome gaffer tape is? It’s absolutely amazing. A bit expensive, but it’s way, way better than masking or duct tape.
So here’s Miku hanging upside down while I work out exposure. As mentioned, flash power has to be kept fairly low to ensure that the light pulse is brief enough to get sharp water drops. My main flash unit – a 580EX II – is quite powerful for a hotshoe flash, so I’m not too worried about not having enough power, particularly because I’m shooting at a fairly wide aperture – f/3.5 – for a lot of these shots.
I’m pouring the water out of a couple of soda bottles. I tried to use some twisted-up aluminum foil to block part of the mouths of the bottles in an attempt to break up the water flow, since I didn’t want that ice pillar effect. It didn’t work too well, though; I probably would’ve been better off just covering up the mouth with my finger and agitating the bottle as I poured.
Note that for these images where I’m pouring water onto her hair, I’m only going to be using the parts of the image where the water is splashing onto her hair. The rest is going to be masked out so it’s not a big deal that part of the bottle is obscuring a portion of Miku’s body.
My camera was on a tripod, set to burst-shooting drive mode, manual focus, and I used a remote shutter release. It was quite a pain to trip the shutter, by the way; since I was holding a soda bottle in each hand and the cable release was on the floor, under my foot. When I poured the water, I used my big toe to press the shutter button. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds to coordinate all this, particularly since the cable release’s button sometimes got stuck. Canon’s Rebel cameras have a self timer-initiated burst shooting mode but their higher-end cameras do not, and I wish that those cameras did, since it would’ve come in really handy for this sort of shoot.
With water, basically getting the shot involves a tremendous amount of luck, and that means shooting a ton of pictures. Each trial involved pouring water onto Miku or squeezing the eyedroppers, shooting off three or four shots, cleaning water off of Miku, and refilling my water containers. Not particularly thrilling but at least I had the procedure more or less refined so that I didn’t have to think too much about it.
I focused on the center of Miku’s twintails and I noticed that the water splashing on the front and rear parts of her hair is out of focus. That’s no surprise – I’m shooting at f/3.5, after all. I’m too lazy to go back into Live View and refocus, so I just stop down to f/9.
Which, of course, causes the background to go dark. Oops. I figured I could just get around that in Photoshop. Hmm … no.
After finishing up the shoot, I load the images into Photoshop, auto-align and auto-stack the images to perform focus stacking, and load up one of the shots where water is flying off her hair. And then I realize that since the background is darker in that shot, it’s going to take forever to mask it out. And I realize that I’d have to do that for every shot all the way down each of her twintails. And I realize she’s not even looking at the camera. I also took some pictures of water splashing on a black background and after copying it in as a layer, I realized that I don’t have any idea how to blend it in. So … not much hope there. I decided I couldn’t salvage anything from this shoot and stopped working on the picture.
Attempt #2 (819 images)
Though my first attempt ended in complete failure, I didn’t think it was a waste of time. The most significant thing was that I felt that the idea was sound and that the solutions to the previously-mentioned technical problems were sound. I decided to give it another try.
The basic setup remained the same. I did move in a little closer to get a tighter framing and to reduce the depth of field since I planned on shooting at f/4.5 the whole time. I also ditched the idea of getting two water drops colliding in front of Miku; this time, I decided I’d photograph water squirting out of eyedroppers in front of Miku’s face and hope that something interesting would happen.
Here’s how focus stacking works. The left image is focused on the rearmost part of Miku’s hair, the second image is focused on the base of her twintails, the third image is focused on her face, and the fourth image is focused on the tip of the strip floating in front of her. Four more images were used to generate the composite; the more images you use, the more accurate the stacking process is. Run Auto-Align Layers and Auto-Blend Layers in Photoshop and you get an image that is sharp from necktie to hairtip:
The stacking operation is remarkably accurate. It adds a little space on the sides, which is easily cropped out. The next step is to get the water on her hair.
Here’s how I got the water effect. I picked out the images that had splash effects that I liked. The picture above is one of them.
I pasted the image on top of the focus-stacked image and masked out everything except for the part of the splash that I wanted to keep. I repeated this process for each image that had a splash I wished to use.
Here’s a splash on her other twintail. After I was done, I got an image that looked like this:
Now that the water effects on her hair are done, I perform basically the same operation to get some water flying around in front of her. The idea here is that I want something interesting to happen in front of her face. If I can get a couple of water drops to splash into each other in front of her, that’d be great, but I’m looking for something that is interesting in general. To do this, I point a couple of eyedroppers at each other and squeeze them.
This is probably the best shot out of over 600 attempts. Getting two eyedroppers aimed at each other is way, way more difficult than I thought it would be, even though they’re only a few inches apart.
It’s no wonder I couldn’t get two drops to collide; the streams from each eyedropper are repelling each other! I’ve got no idea why this happens but I saw this sort of thing quite a bit.
After merging in a lot more images, masking, and performing my usual post-processing routine, I got this image, which was pretty close to what I had envisioned. And then … I decided I didn’t like it. I’d managed to solve the technical problems I had encountered but the artistic aspects of the picture bothered me. The composition is poor; Miku’s face is smack in the middle of the photo, which is a weird place for it. The way her legs are cut off at the knees is awkward. The thing I disliked the most is her stare, which is eye-level and simultaneously vacant and disconcertingly intense. I thought this was the image I wanted to make but in the end, it wasn’t what I wanted. Time to go back to the drawing board, this time with more thought spent on the image’s composition.
Later, I put Miku on my desk and took a few quick test shots to experiment with different angles. The image I liked the most was this one, where she’s angled away from the camera. After using bright blue backgrounds for the other two shoots, I really liked this darker background and thought that it provided a more appropriate mood for a figure like this. The one thing I didn’t like is the prominence of her chin; to minimize that I knew that I needed to shoot at a higher angle – or, as the figure was suspended upside down, a lower one.
Attempt #3 (734 images)
So with that in mind, I set up for another shoot. The lighting system is basically the same – a snooted rimlight on each side to give her body a hard-edged outline, and a key light short-lighting her face with a LumiQuest Ultrasoft modifier.
I shot off a bunch of images with focus adjusted in increments from rear to front and focus-stacked the images, as I did with the earlier shoot.
I like the composition of this image far more than the earlier photo. I put Miku a bit off-center since I felt that balanced her hair. She’s looking out of the frame; sometimes people say that subjects ought to be looking into the frame but the way she’s sculpted, I think this framing works better. Also, the bottom frame border set at mid-thigh and just below her fingertips is more natural than cutting her off at her knees.
Sometimes you run into unexpected surprises while shooting. After I had shot the images to perform focus-stacking, I placed a towel – visible in the setup shot – to catch water being ejected from the eyedropper. The towel reflected light coming from the flashguns and filled in the left side of her body with warm light. I hadn’t planned on that at all but I liked how it looked, so I incorporated it into the image. Also, light reflected off of her necktie and filled the lower part of her face with a soft glow, which was something that really pleased me, particularly because I didn’t anticipate it.
The procedure for getting the water splashes on her hair is exactly as it was before; here’s a look in Lightroom at some of the images I selected for masking.
And here’s how her right hair tail looks after compositing and masking images.
I still wanted something to be happening in front of her face. A year or so ago, I took a picture of Kureha that I don’t think I ever published here, but I uploaded it to Tsuki-board on a whim. I liked the effect of the water drops seemingly flying horizontally and then splashing spectacularly. I wanted to incorporate that idea on this shot of Miku. On the earlier shot, I used Kureha’s body to generate the splash effect; on Miku’s shot, I wadded up a little piece of adhesive putty and stuck it to her necktie to disrupt the path of the flying water.
There’s that U-turning water stream again. Weird how that happens.
Here’s two of the photos used to generate the water flying in front of her.
While looking through the images, I came across this one, which I liked a lot. An eyeline connecting the subject to an object generates immediate interest in whatever is being looked at, in this case a fairly large globe of water. The only thing I didn’t like was that the drop is slightly out of focus. I found another image with a sharp drop of water and pasted it over the blurry one. A few people might consider that cheating. I don’t particularly care. I shot over two thousand images in this sequence, I wasn’t going to shoot off another five hundred just because of a dubious ethical issue.
With everything merged and masked off, I finally arrived at this image, which I am fairly happy with. It’s not perfect, but it’s very close to what I intended to create.
One thing I was aiming for in the composition was distinct and easily-identifiable lines. Miku’s pose is very vertical, with a diagonal line running through her hair, and I also wanted a horizontal line going across the lower part of the frame. Horizontal lines often convey a sense of stability, and as I knew that the top half of the frame was going to be much more energetic, I thought that the contrast would present an interesting dynamic, even though nobody’s going to consciously think about that.
This image required quite a bit of effort to create, but the process actually went fairly smoothly, apart from my inability to coordinate two eyedroppers. The tricky parts were thinking about how to frame the picture and getting everything organized. The Photoshop side of it was, by comparison, very easy – though a bit tedious – to do.
While I worked on the final image, I debated whether to include that hook-shaped stream of water emerging out of her left twintail. On one hand, it looks out of place, as it’s not moving in the same direction as the rest of the water. But as I looked at the image, I thought to myself, “That looks kinda like a tentacle” and I decided that I had to include it. Maybe it detracts from the image in an objective sense, but I wanted to put a little bit of myself into the picture. I like tentacles. It had to stay in.
A random thought: my enthusiasm for photography has grown considerably since I stopped reading camera gear forums.
Now, back to Lacia.