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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

"Green Screen" For Photographers

Pro tips for creating imaginative composite images

Borgman can't photograph the subject effectively without first considering the background, of course. That doesn't always mean he'll be shooting it himself.

"In many of my jobs, I use stock," he explains. "I don't always have the budget to fly to China and shoot inside an ancient monastery. So in these situations, I light my subject according to the light in my stock photo. For one fashion editorial, I was shooting models in full evening dresses doing ballet jumps. I had researched sky images online and came across a tornado-chasing photographer. He had some amazing images of all kinds of eerie skies, so I purchased some for the editorial. As I made my background choices, I would study the lighting and map out my lighting placement. It was actually simple—I shot very flat in front and just moved around the accent lights to continue a similar direction as in the background picture."

"On other jobs," Borgman continues, "I shoot everything. When I do, I have more control, but there's more to go wrong, too. I have to match light, perspective and angle. I should—but I don't—get very technical here. I kinda eyeball it. I remember the lens and, more or less, the angle.
I've never tried to do a composite image too perfectly, especially the more complicated ones. I kinda go for a whimsical approach: Get it close, make it look fun, and then let it go. It's a little more like illustration."

Whimsy is all well and good, but Borgman takes his postproduction seriously. The key for a successful composite comes from a seamless blend between subject and background. To that end, he starts with Photoshop's Pen tool for manual selections around all but the trickiest edges.

Says Borgman, "These are the words I live by: The Pen tool is mightier than the sword! The sword is a metaphor for the do-everything plug-in that masks your image with one click or chop. The Pen tool is what I use 90% of the time when I do compositing. There's no other way to get a perfect mask of smooth pixels. Selection tools have trouble creating a smooth mask, and this makes it harder when blending with the background.

"Photoshop CS5 has some pretty nice features for masking," he continues, "but I'd be lying if I said I've perfected them. I always try Mask Pro, Fluid Mask and Primatte along with Photoshop's built-in tools. These plug-ins are swords and almost never give you a perfect cut. I always have to refine my mask." Adds Borgman, "With fuzzy, furry things like hair, drop your Pen. This is where the masking plug-ins can help. There's no way to pen out every blowing hair; for this, the Pen tool is too exact. If you've lit your subject right and used the right color background, plug-ins offer the best masking options for hair and semitransparent objects like bubbles and smoke."


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