Back Story

It’s interesting how one idea can lead to another… This time the process was all to blame the awesomeness of Mad Men, one of my favourite TV shows of all times, I just started to watch from beginning… Again. The show is elegant, well written, the characters are deep, actors are amazing, the cinematography is beoynd exellent and the ligthing and the look is pure brilliant.

Ok, let’s wipe the drool…

While watching it kind of hit me, I couldn’t remember the last time I used hard lights only, so I though I’d better fix this issue as fast as possible. The next morning I set up my lights and started to dive into the 60s kind of lighting. I was soon to discover the following two things:

1. Jon Hamm has amazing face and great skin.

2. I was no Jon Hamm.

… What a bummer!

This made me forget the hard front lights and go with a softer look, while still keeping the hard kickers. This far all the shooting was purely experimental, something to be deleted afterwards but then out of the blue, I rememberd one of my old composite images I used in Facebook some 4 years ago that I really liked the idea of, but the execution was not up to the scratch anymore. Lights were already up – why not re-do that?

The Consept

The idea of the image fits to this blog (and to me, kind of) – a guy who is burning the mid night oil, cutting images out of their backgrounds to create something with. I guess they didn’t have Photoshop back in the day, though.

This time I wanted to make something a bit more muted and subtle and the lighting to be motivated only by the background. The photo should look down to earth and casual, so while typically shooting from low angle I shot this one from the eye level.

The Lighting


I used the Elinchrom’s 44cm silver beauty dish with the front diffusion sock and a grid as a key light. It was placed above the head little less than 45 degrees to the camera right, about 80cm away from the subject. The grid was used to focus the beam to the face and to the cigarette, and it was a slightly feathered towards the camera (that’s mainly why there was a sock, so you can feather beauty dish without exposing the bare flash head to the subject’s face). This creates kind of cool narrowish beam of light going across the face. This position was later match in 3d with the light that illuminates the cut out paper animals with the stick up in their a*ses :) (in other words: the foreground, naturally – but every time you get a chance to write “…stick up in their a*ses”, you’d better take it, right?) The background also motivated the two kicker lights, one from the top and one brighter from the camera right side. The big Rotalux was used to fill in the shadows from the optical axis, behind the camera.

Ok… Now, I know that the end result is not exactomundo into the 60s lighting style anymore and I rambled of lot about it in the beginning of the post, but it was the experimenting that led me to the execution of final the image and was important, so I decided to tell the whole back story.

3d Work

Overview of the 3d scene

I have wanted to 3d model everything but the subject for a while now – what would that look like, real ? fake ? what ?

In this one everything but the craftsman, the old tape machine and the buildings in the back are modelled and rendered with Blender.

The old tape machine was thrown in to test how well perspectives & measurements match between real world and the 3d limbo land – and because I had one…

I used this raw proximate object of the tape machine to cast shadows to the surface underneath. The actual 3d model was not rendered - only the shadow.
I used this raw proximate object of the tape machine to cast shadows to the surface underneath. The 3d model was not rendered – only the shadow.

And this is the real take away part this part of the study. It’s magic. If you use the same camera angle, height and the distance of the objects in 3d and in real world, it just snaps in to position, exactly.

Here is a couple examples.

  • Before-Subject plate drop in
    After-Subject plate drop in
    The 3d background Subject plate drop in The subject without masking
  • Before-Layer mask
    After-Layer mask
    Before Layer mask After
  • Before-Tape machine drop in
    After-Tape machine drop in
    Tape machine shadows only Tape machine drop in The machine without masking
  • Before-Layer mask
    After-Layer mask
    Before Layer mask After

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

Above: Notice how well the perspective and the scale match between the 3d elements and the photograph, if you use same focal leghts and distances & camera angles. The first set of slides is without the masking, the next is with the masking work done. You can also see the kicker light position matching the 60s lighting fixtures in the 3d plate in the slide set of the subject.

The tape maschine was shot on a table, which was exactly the same height as the drawer in the 3d image and the distance was also matched. Because of this I didn’t have to scale or move the images at all, just drag & drop + layer masking.

To me the key is to match the lighting ratio and direction. The perspective typically comes secondary, close enough is close enough, although in this image the perspectives match almost exactly, but that’s mostly due to the fact that I measured everything.

I used a laser measuring device to check the camera heights and distances and an iPhone with TiltMeter app on top of the hotshoe of the camera to check the angle in degrees. I used that info to set my 3d camera in Blender. Works like a charm.

Adding The Reflections

One important thing that added another dimension of realism is the reflections in the window. I added the buildings in Photoshop, because they needed lots of fine-tuning, so I decided against including them in the 3d render. Because of this I couldn’t model a real window with glass material with reflections. This was easily solved by rendering another image with a plane in place of the window with glossy black material. This results an image with reflections on black background, which you can get rid of using the “screen” blending mode in Photoshop.

Here is the before and after:

  • Before-The window reflections
    After-The window reflections
    Before The window reflections After

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

… And then some extra random screenshots:

The table with probs.
The desk with probs.

The oh so realistic intercom. We had exactly like this in the sixties...
 The oh so realistic intercom.  Yep, we had exactly like this in the sixties…

The probs in the background.
The probs in the background.

Color grade

  • Before-Color grade
    After-Color grade
    ungraded Color grade graded

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

Final grade was done 90% during the editing on top of the layer stack. So everything done with the layers were affected by the grading layers, that makes the comparison kind of pointless, but whatta hell, right?

I’m not a plugin guy, nothing wrong with using them, though, but I did experiment a while with Nik’s Analog Effects Pro. While I kind of liked what I got, it always looked way too gimmicky. So I got rid of the idea of using anything else but the Scratches & Dirt -section.

The color idea was a mix light type of situation on an aged and saturated film captured late at night in an office. Mixed light because there was a mix of the tungsten lights that would be the right light fixtures on camera right + invisible lamp somewhere in the right side of the table (key), there are the fluorescence lights in the the office ceiling. So greenish shadows with warm tones in the key light and camera right side kickers, with a twist of an aged film. Damn. It’s so easy to slide into the Instagram -gategory.

It makes me laugh to think about this stuff. In photography you (typically) fight to get rid of mixed light, unwanted color cast, lens distortions, grain and what not. And in compositing you always try to introduce every single one of these factors. In 3d rendering you want to create stuff that looks real with imperfections and in photography you try to create something as perfect as 3d rendering. How twisted is that ?

Anyway there is nothing special going on, just a couple of Curves -adjustments, Color Balance – adjustment, Hue/Saturation -adjustment + the dust&scratches layer + some film grain. It would make no sense to post any values, because they always need to be adjusted individually for every image.

Okey… Uhm…Yep, this is it, nothing more to say, time to move on, bye bye! ;)

ps. I’m off to Italy for a week, so to my Finnish speaking friends this sign off message is a must: “Syökää räntää!” :)

… And for everyone else, sorry for the typos. They will be fixed – eventually.