I shot two frames for Tampere based DJ, producer and multi talent Joel Kalsi last spring. One portrait with simple textured background and this panoramic environmental 1/2 body shot I’m about to go into the details.

The portrait ended up just fine from the get-go, but we wanted different clothing for the 1/2 body shot. Something darker than what he had with him. Not a biggie – I shot him anyway from the desired angle and we set up another date to shoot the final frame of him. I could use this shot as a placeholder while compositing the background.

I actually prefer this placeholder method because it’s easier to get the lighting and the contrast ratio for the subject if you have a background to reference to. And it is also a lot easier to build the background around the subject even if it’s not the final shot.

Lighting and setup for the talent

I usually shoot my subjects with white backdrop, which I tend to underexpose towards grey, to get a right amount of contrast between the subject and the background. Having good contrast is essential for the background to cut out cleanly in Photoshop. For someone with lighter hair it’s a good idea to underexpose the background to middle greyish and with darker hair it’s nice to go closer to white. The Refine Edge in Photoshop work wonders on hair but it’s better not to push your luck too far – or you’ll end up hand masking hair ‘till nerve wreck – I have been there a lot! :)

I lit Joel using two 120x30cm strip boxes from behind (both sides) and one Elinchrom silver beauty dish with a grid on from the front, above the camera, quite close to him. First I tried the beauty dish without the grid but I wanted even more fall off from the face to the body and with the grid I could narrow the beam just right. I don’t use flash meter or think too much about lighting ratios, I simply go with what looks good, but I’d say that the dish was about 2 stops down from the strips, or perhaps a bit more, but somewhere in that ball park.

This was all fine and dandy and would already fit the background I had, but since I like to have a spark of light in the eyes, I added the Orbis Ring Flash adapter to my lens and popped in just a tad of light to get a hint of catchlights.  You can see the catchlights better in a larger version of this image in my portfolio page.

Lighting setup for Joel

Lighting setup for Joel. The dish was about 60cm away from the subject and the two strips were maybe some 1,5 meters away.

The background

There are three major elements in the background, the two buildings and the sky. I shot the buildings here in my neighbourhood in Tampere. Two different frames – in broad daylight. These are the buildings:

  • Before-The buildings
    After-The buildings
    Left The buildings Right

I know – not much to look at :)

Both of the buildings were shot with relatively wide angle lens, camera tilted upwards to fit everything into the frame and to match the angle I shot Joel in the studio. (I didn’t have a tilt-shift lens at the time). The keystone is fixed in Photoshop to get the straight-ish lines you’ll see in the final image.

Turning day into night

Day is turned into night simply by lowering the mid tones and toning down the highlights of the buildings and the sky. After that the street lights and lighting fixtures are “turned on” by creating light spots, lens flare effects and adding appropriate shadowing to near by surfaces.

You can add spots of light with white soft brush. One small spot with 100% opacity to act as the light bulb and one larger to give some glow around the fixture with less opacity. The light coming out of the balcony door is made with a triangular shaped white gradient witch is faded out gradually towards the edges. The light beam is also masked away below the balcony floor.  Here is the shot with and without these lighting treatmens.

  • Before-Adding the main lights
    After-Adding the main lights
    Before Adding the main lights After

On touchscreen devices click anywhere on the image to view before / after.

Adding mist and volumetric lighting effects

In 3d rendering and compositing we talk about aerial or athmospheric perspective, which basically means that things further in the back have washed out blacks (typically tinted towards blue) because of all the air, dust and moisture of the atmosphere. To mimic this in Photoshop I often paint behind the subjects (and other objects in the scene) with white-ish soft brush so the background gets this misty feel. This layer is typically combined with another layer painted with one of my custom smoke brushes to get more random variation to the effect. This technique also adds natural separation between different objects. You can create pretty cool smoke and dust effects this way too – brushes made out of smoke are awesome!

The dust, smoke and moisture typically gets more noticeable  in a beam of light. In this case I made a triangle shaped selection – filled with white to black gradient and used this gradient as a mask on a layer containing the smoke. The white of the gradient reveals more of the smoke towards the lightbulb and gradually the black kicks in to fade the smoke away.

  • Before-Turn the lightswitch on
    After-Turn the lightswitch on
    Off Turn the lightswitch on On

On touchscreen devices click anywhere on the image to view before / after.

Fixing the lighting of small background objects

The barrel is a great example on how to completely change the intensity and direction of light on simple background objects.

First off the thing was way too bright. Fix: Drag the white point towards the mid tones in the Levels -adjustment. (See the before/after comparison #1.)

  • Before-1.
    No adjustments 1. Levels adjustments

On touchscreen devices click anywhere on the image to view before / after

Better, but the light has no direction. You can use the dodge&burn tool to fix issues like this, but the easiest way is to use the Gradient overlay -option in the layer’s Blending options dialog. Use a black to white gradient in soft light blending mode and adjust the angle, scale and opacity to fit the lighting of the scene. (See the before/after comparison #2.)

  • Before-2.
    Levels only 2. With layer fx

On touchscreen devices click anywhere on the image to view before / after

That’s kind of working, but there’s no shadow to connect the barrel to the ground. Shadows can be a bit tricky. General rule is that the closer you get to the point where the object meets the surface it’s standing on, the darker the shadows will be. So, usually two layers will get you started. In this case, on the first layer I had the intense black near the bottom of the barrel, and on the second layer, I had the long part of the shadow. I typically use a layer mask on the long shadow to fade it out eventually. If there are multiple strong light sources in the image, you’ll need more layers to create matching shadows. (See the before/after comparison #3. Note that this is a very dark part of the image and to see the darkest tones properly you will need a calibrated high quality display.)

  • Before-3.
    No shadows 3. With shadows

On touchscreen devices click anywhere on the image to view before / after.


Additional items and fixes

After the barrel I decided to add some flying newspapers into the scene. They are all shot separately, cut out of their background and treated in the same manner as the barrel. Oh, and of course I had to break some of the windows.

I also fixed some of the wide angle distortion issues in Joel’s elbow. I use a wide angle to shoot the subjects if the background is shot with wide angle to somewhat match the perspective distortions. You can see the fix I made with the Liquify tool in the final comparison.

All in all there are 133 individual layers in the final version of the composite. That’s an average number for image like this. The saved .psb file size is 9.13GB.

Color grading and post prosessing

After the compositing is done it’s time for the final tweaks for the image as a whole. This finalizing phase typically includes dodging&burning, tonal, color and saturation adjustments plus sharpening. Basically everything you would do to any photograph.

But in this particular image, since I made the heavy lifting on individual layers, I only sharpened a bit and added a tad of film grain on top.

Film grain helps to glue everything together as it adds uniform texture  across all the different elements. I especially like what it adds to the lens flare & lighting effects.

The result

Finally here is the bare composite without any colour/tonal corrections, lights/shadow effects and atmospheric mist/smoke. Since every element and adjustment is added gradually on top of each other it’s always funny to turn everything off and see the before and after… Completely different story, right?

  • Before-Compositing
    Raw composition Compositing Final composition


Thanks for reading and feel free to ask anything in the comments! Until next time, TA!

Check Joel Kalsi at www.joelkalsi.com