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Studio Anywhere: Isolation Drills for Photographers

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Nick Fancher, author of Studio Anywhere: A Photographer's Guide to Shooting in Unconventional Locations, walks you through some actual scenarios where isolating the subject led to better photographs.
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Figure 1 I needed to shoot a pair of hands holding tomatoes for my client, Scotts Miracle-Gro. The grass background proved to be too busy for the shot.

Often, the best light is good old-fashioned outdoor light. Sometimes, however, you or your client may not want the natural backdrop that goes along with that outdoor light. Even out of focus, natural backdrops can prove too busy, which is when a bit of isolation comes in handy.

White-out

For instance, I had a gig shooting plants for Scotts Miracle-Gro out at the test farm where Scotts tries out new products and documents plant growth. Because the plants were all at the farm in a controlled environment, I wasn’t allowed to modify them, let alone move them. Instead, I made sure to bring a few panels of white foam core with me, in case I needed to flag out the environment around the plants.

One of the scenarios I needed to shoot was a pair of arms, holding tomatoes. At first the art director suggested that they be suspended over plant leaves, which would serve as a blurred background (Figure 1). The image proved to be a bit too busy to be used on the company’s packaging, however. Instead, we decided instead to shoot the arms and tomatoes isolated on a white background to simplify compositing them into another image with Photoshop (Figure 2). By sliding a white board underneath the arms and using another panel to shield them from the bright sun, I got a clean shot that Scotts could use (Figure 3).

Figure 2 The lighting diagram. By sliding a piece of white foam core underneath the arms, I got a clean shot that was ready to be used on the client’s packaging.

Lens

24–70 F/2.8L

1/250 sec. f/9 ISO 640

Figure 3 The final shot. So fresh and so clean—it’s just what the client ordered.

Pushing Noir

Figure 4 The setup. Pretty cool fort, eh?

Similar to the plants at the Scotts farm, the wildflowers in bloom at the park near me could not be moved. By setting up a black V-flat in the middle of the flowers, however, I was able to create a surreal setting that felt less like a park and more like a film set (Figure 4). Because the black board was draped over the top of the model, it helped direct how the available light illuminated her. The light could now come only from the sides (Figure 5). The shoot took place on an overcast day, so without the V-flat over her head, the light was pretty flat and boring. With a more dramatic sidelight and the blacked-out background, the image started to take on a studio-like quality, as you can see in Figure 6.

Figure 5 The lighting diagram. All I needed to isolate my model and some flowers on a black background was a black V-flat and a C-stand. By flagging the overhead light, I turned the otherwise flat light into a more dramatic, directional light.

Lens

70–200 F/4L IS

1/200 sec. f/4 ISO 100

Figure 6 The raw file. The image has a much more dramatic feeling with the directional light and blacked-out background.

Figure 7 The Lightroom settings. Besides adding a signature look to the color grading, I also softened skin blemishes and irritations by lowering the clarity and making a brush adjustment.

In Lightroom, my first order of business was removing the irritated area on her chest. As you could imagine, hanging out in tall grass and flowers in the middle of the summer comes with more than a few mosquitoes. Removing the mosquito bites in Lightroom was an easy click of the Spot Removal tool. The harder part was removing the red, inflamed area on her chest where she’d been scratching.

For that, I applied a brush adjustment to the area highlighted in red in Figure 7. Once I activated the tool, I slid the Clarity and Contrast sliders to a negative setting, so that I could see changes happening in real time as I painted over the affected area. I made sure that the area was completely covered, then tweaked the color Tint and Saturation sliders to further match the adjustment to the rest of her skin.

After I removed the blemishes, I went on to color grade the image. For this image, I wanted to push the surreal, noir vibe that it already had going for it. Because our eyes aren’t used to seeing wildflowers out of context on a black background, the image takes on an otherworldly feel to it: It doesn’t quite appear natural, nor does it appear to be completely staged. It kind of feels like an image shot at night.

As seen in Figure 7, the RGB Curve in the Tone Curve panel is sitting well below the dotted diagonal line, which marks the neutral point. I made sure to keep a slight S-curve to my adjustment, which ensured that there was still some contrast in it. Because the overall adjustment was sitting below the neutral line, however, the image looked like it had a dark opacity layer over it. This effect won’t work for every shoot, but it completes this subtly eerie image, as you can see in Figure 8.

Figure 8 The final shot. The presence of the flowers in otherwise blacked-out scene creates a surreal feeling to the image, almost like it was shot at night.

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