Photo shoots are one of my all time favourite things. The best thing about them, I find, is that you need to be able to think on the spot and work things out. If you’re stuck in your ways, you’ll always get the same types of shots. Granted – they could be great, but I personally don’t like doing the same thing every time, and people will eventually get bored with your work. At the same time, you need to have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of photography so that you can make changes on the fly. One of the things I’ve wanted to do for a while on Pixel Pop Network is to create a series of photography articles, but I’ve always been stuck as to how to approach it. I could always just go through everything, step by step, from the basics up to the advanced techniques like I would in the high school classroom. But I feel like that could take a while, and in the meantime, our understanding of things could change. Instead, what I think I’ll do is have a mixture of articles and videos. The articles will be mostly theory with some examples, and the videos will have you follow me on my photo shoots. I’ll introduce things step by step, of course, but at the same time you’ll get to see some of the more advanced techniques I use. That way, if you feel like you have a strong grasp on the basics, you can still learn something.
Above is an example of a before and after from the shoot I’ll be discussing with you, and there’s likely a few things that you’ll notice look a little weird. The most prominent of which is “Why isn’t the backdrop all the way up?” The answer to this is actually quite simple (bunny ears are white, and also my model was reeeallly tall), but it has some underlying quirks which also modify why I chose to do things the way I did.
Below, I have a video which shows you a part of the shoot we did. Some of the things that are important to note are as follows.
Lights: I used two lights. One with a diffused pointed at the model which splashed over to the backdrop, and another “open” light pointed at the backdrop. Lighting is the most important thing when it comes to photography. If you don’t get it right, your entire shot suffers, and since light sources can be incredibly hard, no amount of Photoshop is going to be able to save it. The diffused light, which I placed about 45 degrees off to the side, allowed me to get a nice even light across the model’s face. The open light at the background was harsh and helped keep the model separate from the background as well as light the backdrop. Lighting is going to be a massive focus of all my articles and videos, but the biggest piece of advice I can give you here is to start with one light and slowly build up. Don’t go overboard.
Backdrop: At some point in this shoot you’ll notice that I drop the backdrop down, and also move the lights (after conversing with the model). What the backdrop essentially became at this point was a big, diffused, back light. The “open” light pointed at the backdrop which reflected back a soft light. Since it was bent along the floor, the light bounced up just nicely to separate the bunny ears from the roof at the top, so I had limited troubles when I went to cut them out in post. We also knew that we were going to be doing a similar shot from the Me!Me!Me! video (image above), and so we needed to have some amount of light shooting between the legs.
Direction: Another important thing you’ll notice during this shoot is that I never touch the model. Every movement she makes comes from her own pose arsenal, or from my verbal direction or posing myself for her to mimic. I can’t stress this enough. Not only is it problematic if you start touching models who aren’t your friends and don’t know you (and that is completely independent of gender), it shows a severe lack of skill on your end. It also saves a bunch of time, meaning that you don’t have to move away from where you’ve lined up your shot. Stand in front of a mirror and move your body around and put yourself into poses. Try giving directions to your friends and have them pose themselves. Learn how to do it, and learn fast. I’ve been on the other end of the lens in intricate foam armour and had photographers with no idea what they’re doing destroy things because they can’t give clear directions. I’ll never work with them again, and you can bet your ass other cosplayers and models will feel the same. I cannot tell you how many cosplayers have told me that they’re happy that I can give clear directions.
Camera Settings: This is something I think a lot of photographers either don’t understand, or don’t want to understand. I’m not just talking about using the camera in manual mode (which you should absolutely be aiming to do 90% of the time). I’m talking about colour profiles, and focus points, and button controls, and sharpening etc. For now, the most important thing to note is that I shot this model with a neutral profile with the sharpening turned all the way down. The neutral profile on cameras is quite useful (every camera I’ve ever touched has had the option, from Nikon to Canon, to Sony, to Pantax,) because it slightly lifts the shadows and drops the highlights in your image. This limits the chance for blown out pixels, which are frustratingly difficult to fix in post. If there’s even one suggestion I can make in this article to make your editing time easier, it’s to put your camera into a neutral profile.
I’ll let the editing videos (mostly) speak for themselves. I’ve got a terrible flu right now and have absolutely no voice, but hopefully I’ll be able to voice over future edits so that you can have a better idea of why I’m doing what I’m doing and not just how. For now, I’ll do some quick explanation here.
Pen Tool: The pen tool is probably the tool I use the most when I’m editing. You won’t find a better way in Photoshop to get perfectly accurate selections exactly the way you want. One of the tricks I use in this video is Alt+clicking on a point to remove the tail of the line. Usually when you’re using the pen tool, if you create a curve you need to fight against it if you want to go in a different direction abruptly, and unfortunately, with the human body and the way clothing sits, this is exactly what you need to do. This leads to people who don’t know about this trick either mis-selecting parts of their model and trying to fix it later, or making multiple close-together selections with the pen tool (which completely defeats the purpose of having the pen tool make curves). In these cases, I remove the tail so that I can go in a completely different direction without the curve continuing in a natural way.
Select and Mask: This was one of those “Ah-ha!” moments for me when I realised what Adobe had introduced to Photoshop (let’s just say I had folders and folders of “hair” brushes that rarely ever come out any more). There’s a few different ways this tool can work, but if you pause and have a look at the settings I have up – which are default settings now that I look at it – you should be good to go. Make sure you have the second icon selected on the left panel. I want to do an in depth tutorial on how this tool works in the future, so if that’s something you’re interested in let me know. It’s extremely useful for modelling and cosplay photography.
Colour Grading: The last thing I do here is some basic colour grading. As I mentioned before, I use a neutral profile on my camera, so these are some of the catch-all go-to settings I use when I want to give my models a vibrant look against white or bright colours. I use a mixture of Gradient Maps and a LUT here. Gradient Maps do something really cool – they affect the shadows, midtones, and highlights of an image with a gradient of colours. It’s a little more powerful than pushing single colours or tones into shadows and highlights, because it keeps the overall blend uniform. You can achieve the same thing multiple ways, but I’ve always found this to be the cleanest way to do it. The first one I use is a simple black to white. This essentially pushes black into the shadows, grey into the mids, and white into the highlights – the end effect of which is more contrast in your image (as a side note, this is how you should be creating black and white images! DON’T use the greyscale option). The next one I use is a simple photographic toning gradient which comes prepackaged with Photoshop. This is my actual colour effect for this image. Finally, the LUT is another prepackaged look, which is designed off the old Kodak film packs. Here, it creates a little bit of a wash, pushing up the mid-high tones. You can accomplish the same effect with a mixture of curves, levels, and colour mixing (and you should learn to do that), but for a quick edit these do the job perfectly fine in a single click.
The second half here is actually the less difficult part of the editing process, but I split it up because there were a few tricks I used which I wanted to highlight.
Layers and Blending Modes: When you look at the layers panel on the side of Photoshop, you need to imagine that you are literally looking down at the image. The higher something is on the layer stack, the easier it is to see, and if it’s 100% opaque then it’s going to be blocking out things below it. The Opacity slider and the blending modes will change how that layer interacts with layers below it. For example, when I place over the grey starburst, I set it to overlay. Suddenly it’s not blocking everything and is affecting the layers below it as an effect instead of a solid image. Again, this is another thing I’d like to go into depth with in a future video.
Clipping Masks: This allows you to ensure that a layer ONLY affects the layer immediately below it. You’ll see in the video that I use adjustment layers and then chain clip them to a single layer (in this case, the model). It’s another extremely useful ability that Photoshop has. I can’t tell you how many times I played around with solid colours on different blending modes and the pen tool to try to get the effect that I get here with a simple click of the mouse.
If there’s something going on here you don’t understand, feel free to let me know in the comments. I’ll happily make things clearer for you.
Also, this is something I’d likely enjoy continuing. If you’d like to see more, drop a comment and tell us what you’d like to see.
Special thanks to Emily from Coleman Cosplays.