Behind The Image: "The Journey"
A couple of weeks ago, I was on Creative Live's photo week, where I had a chance to critique a few images. One of the images placed on the screen was from Aaron Anderson, and I was simply enthralled with the concept! I asked him to write a guest post about it, along with what went into it. Here are all the details below!
GIF of the layer buildup:
It all started as I believe most good things do, sitting in a coffee shop. I was sitting across the table from the creative director for Launch magazine and we were throwing around sentences that started with things like “wouldn’t it be cool” and “how awesome would that be”. If you know me, you know I like to shoot for the stars when it comes to stretching budget, and with this shoot we would really be stretching a small budget. Usually it ends with me saying something crazy followed by “lets do it!”, this conversation was no exception. I ended up coming up with the idea to shoot not just one, but 3, people in astronaut suits, and compositing them into a desert environment with our city, Colorado Springs, in the distance. We wanted to convey the idea of a journey, the excitement and the fear of the unknown mixed with a sense of community while still looking cool. This is how composite images start, with crazy people and crazy ideas.
Photography always has been, and always will be, about knowing people. I would say that composite photography is even more connection oriented because of all the moving parts that are involved with the final image. In this case I knew someone at the Space Discovery Center, who not only had space suits for three people, but a mars environment that we could shoot in! Step one was complete, and that brings me to my first point: Never be afraid to ask! I don’t know where I heard it first, and I am sure you have heard this before – “If you don’t ask, the answer is ALWAYS no.” I live be these words. Never let the sentence “wouldn’t it be awesome” be the end of your journey. This is the secret sauce in the journey of photography, people genuinely want to be a part of awesome things, all you need to do is ask them.
This brings me to my second, and most important point: Plan Everything! I have written entire blog posts about planning, so I will make this the shorter version. If you’re interested in becoming a composite photographer start by coming up with an idea, then layout how every piece of it will come together. Ask yourself questions like “What time of day is it?” “What kind of environment are they in?” “How are they posed?” “What angle am I shooting at?”. There are a lot of things that go into it, but you get the idea. In my head this beautiful scene was at sunset, which meant EVERY plate had to match that look and lighting. Astronauts were lit with a big 75” Indirect Octabox set off to the side on camera left, it was up but not at a very high angle, because that’s where the sun is at sunset. I used a 53” Octa on an arm as a top/edge light camera right, this is used to fill shadows but also to create shape for a realistic composite. I added a 69” Octabox coming from the front and slightly camera right at a low angle to help fill in shadows a bit more, because of how soft and wrapping the light is at sunset. I did ALL of this because I knew it was sunset in the picture, if I would have just set up some edge light and a fill this would not look realistic.
Astronauts, check. Now we needed a few other parts of the puzzle like a desert, in Colorado. Lucky for us the Great Sand Dunes are only a few hundred miles away. There was a small problem, I wanted to shoot at sunset. It was a problem for a couple of reasons, the first being that the Sand Dunes are crowded at sunset, a bit of a logistical nightmare. Second and the bigger problem for me is that I knew where I wanted to be was a bit of a hike, so I would be hiking around in the dark by myself after the shoot, which was not ideal. I am also a family man, and I didn’t really want to spend the night somewhere if it was not necessary, I like putting my kids to bed and getting my goodnight kisses. So it was settled, I would shoot it at sunrise and then flip the background in post so it looked like the sunset.
1:30 AM, the day after we shot the astronauts…I was back in my car driving to the Sand Dunes. Remember what I said at the beginning? Crazy people and crazy ideas. I arrived at 4:30 which gave me a little over an hour to hike to the backside of the Sand Dunes and get my shot. I barely made it, and I can tell you now that I am not in as good of shape as I used to be. One more thing about planning, I had measured the distance from my camera to the Astronauts, and I knew the angle/height and millimeter of my camera when I shot. I applied all of this to the placement of my camera when shooting the background. I also knew that there were three people on the hill, and those people would have made footprints, so I carefully walked to the location of the astronauts and created footprints. Composites aren’t accidents, you don’t accidently make awesome composites. Composites are a set of blueprints, a plan that guides you in the creation of something magnificent.
Astronauts and Desert, check check. What else is left? A city, a mountain and a sky. I will combine these for sake of time, if you’re still reading this I don’t want to push my luck. I’ll get the mountain and the sky out of the way, the mountain is Pikes Peak, I shot it out of my office window. When I was at the Sand Dunes I shot multiple sky plates while I was walking, so that problem was solved without diving into my sky library. Now for the city, which ended up being the hardest piece because of two issues, the angle and distance. I ended up hiking down a local trail at sunset and shooting with a telephoto lens because the angle/height was correct, but the distance was wrong, it was way too far away. I knew I would be able to warp the perspective of the building enough to make it look realistic. What a perfect segue to my third point – Know your tools! As a composite photographer you need to know and think about a lot of things that other photographers don’t. Even if you have an amazing retoucher, like Pratik, in your corner, you still need to be able to deliver him pieces that fit together or can be manipulated to fit. Learn how far you can push the limits so that when you are in a sticky situation, like a city that’s too far away, you know what you can do to fix it. Can you shoot with different lenses and still make the final image match? How far off angle can you be and warp something or someone back into shape? Can you match different ISO settings? These are all questions you should know the answer to. How do you find out? You do it. You fail a ton, and you do it again.
Onward, to Photoshop! This part is really fun if you’ve planned everything out. It’s like putting together a puzzle that, until now, you were the only person who could see what it looks like. This is why I started making composites, because I had pictures in my head that you can’t make otherwise, and I needed other people to see them. I will spend very little time on this portion because it’s technical and not very fun to read about. You can find tutorials on Photoshop from Solstice as well as myself on our webpages, not to mention I’ve heard the internet has some good videos you can watch. A couple of interesting things I will tell you is that I use the pen tool a lot for my initial selections. It’s how I get started, path out the astronauts, path out the buildings, etc. If it makes sense I like to use magic wand with refine edge for skies or selective color with refine edge, depends on clouds and such. If you have more questions about my Photoshop process feel free to shoot me an e-mail!
That’s it, simple. Take a bunch of pictures, throw them together and voila! Composite! I want to end with this thought – You can do it! I remember my first composites, they were terrible. I have spent years learning and growing not only as a photographer, but as a retoucher. You will not wake up tomorrow and start making exactly what you see in your mind, but one day you will. Keep working hard and of course, go BE AWESOME!