I've been experimenting with a new technique for making portrait photographs that pop. In situations where I would previously have used light to separate my subject from the background I am looking instead into using depth of field. This is nothing new of course and I used it in my 50 Strangers set but it does have its limitations when shooting wider environmental portraits. Lenses simply aren't fast enough to create a super shallow depth of field at wider angles.
Enter Bokeh Panoramas a technique initially conceived by an amazing wedding photographer called Ryan Brenizer and often referred to as the Brenizer Method. The idea of stitching lots of photos together is not new but what Ryan did was come up with a new application for the technique. The basic idea, shoot with a medium telephoto length lens with a wide aperture, such as an 85mm f1.8 on a full frame body, to get a shallow depth of field and stitch multiple frames together to create a wide angle shot.
Ryan has many great examples over on google+ and a B&H video explanation on his blog. They are well worth checking out. One of the best tutorials I found was here by Daifuku Sensei. The thing I liked about it is that it clearly shows the number of frames required to create the panorama and how they overlap each other.
I had several failed attempts at the technique but now have some of the best pictures of roughly human sized sign posts and statues ever taken! When I first started trying the method I was reluctant for some reason to overlap my shots too much. I was worried that when moving on to a human subject this would segment the person into too many frames and make the stitching problematic. This is still a concern but what I have realised is it's better to have too many frames than not enough and then to apply masking to ensure the best frame of the model is used by the stitching program.
What I have learnt is the key frame, the one including the model's face is the one to get first. Meaning you can worry less about your model moving. But before you take any frames you need to let your model know what you're about to do. Explain that you just need them to hold a pose past the point when they hear the shutter go, to hold it even though you appear to be randomly shooting something else and most importantly not laugh at your impression of James Cordon doing the robot in Gavin & Stacey! If they do move it's not the end of the world, but setting the scene and trying to minimise movement will make your life simpler. You also need a clear idea in your head as to where the boundaries of your shot need to be. Just how much in each direction of your subject do you want to cover? Then come up with a method of ensuring you cover the entire area overlapping each frame by 1/4 to 1/3 of a frame.
Personally I've found holding the camera in landscape orientation seems more intuitive and easier to ensure I've covered the entire scene, but technically it makes no difference. You've still got to overlap in all directions in the same way.
So once you've taken all of your frames, what then? Well the next thing I've found is you need some serious computing power or a love of drinking tea whilst it stitches them together for you! Crunching all of those 1s and 0s is not quick. Photoshop CS5 can automate the process of creating a panorama for you and worked very well on some of my test images. It results in a file with multiple layers, one per frame and then adds a mask to each layer to include only the necessary parts of each frame. I liked this method as it meant the mask of each frame could be tweaked slightly should there be movement between each frame that you wanted to compensate for manually. With more complicated examples including more frames it simply seemed to give up though and did not complete the masking process.
I then found an application called Hugin and best of all it's free! It seemed to work well where Photoshop had failed and produced great results.
Through trial and error I have come up with the following steps for stitching the images together successfully:
- Import the images into Lightroom
- Perform my usual pre editing work flow on the images which includes exposure, brightness, contrast, levels, saturation and curves type tweaks to get the best base images prior to full retouch or other post processing.
- Most importantly ensure that Lightroom's Lens Correction feature is used to remove the vignette and distortion on the raw image. This step doesn't seem to be stressed in other tutorials I have read but I found it essential. I was not happy with Photoshop's ability to remove the vignetting and did not investigate Hugin's built in ability due to step 4 below. If you do not remove the vignette from each frame then the images will not blend effectively. You will clearly see a dark outline around each frame in the final image. Obviously the lens used will effect how much of an issue this really is but my Canon 85mm F1.8 seems to vignette a lot
- Export the images to TIF files at a resolution somewhere in the region of 2000-3000 along the long edge. This is why it is important to do vignette removal in something like Lightroom first so it is removed from your working set of images. These exported TIFs will eventually be deleted. I don't like working with JPG files as they are lossfull and am never sure what quality setting is optimal so working with uncompressed TIFs seems sensible. The 2000-3000 reduction in size of the images is so that your photo stitching program has less to crunch. Unless you've a billboard to hand you're certainly not going to need a full sized panorama so reducing at this stage does not cause an issue and will speed up the processing. Once the images are stitched together you will have more than enough pixels to play with
- Launch Hugin and load the images using the Assistant tab
- Once the images have be loaded, which includes Hugin performing analysis on them, click the Align... button
- The Fast Panaroma Preview will be shown once alignment has been completed. Here you can see how it has stitched your images together on the Preview tab and which images have been included on the layout tab
- If you don't wish part of one of the frames to be included then it is possible to mask out part of an image using the Mask tab in the main window. I used this to remove part of the stick from one of the frames because it had moved between shots and I wanted to ensure the moved version was not included in the final image. This is where Photoshop is better in my opinion as this masking process can be done at leisure at the end. Hugins masking is not as simple as it involves drawing polygons around areas you wish to mask out.
- Click the Create panorama... button on the assistant tab and go and make a cup of tea!
- You can now delete the working set of TIF images and complete any retouching or post processing on the resultant panorama in Photoshop
Once you've created your panorama Brett Maxwell has written a web page which allows you to work out what the equivelant focal length and aperture you would have needed to take your image. Which is quite fun to find out. The image above for example was shot with an 85mm lens @ f1.8 and is mad up of 26 frames resulting in a 149 megapixel image equivelant to 32mm @ f0.68!
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I photograph an awful lot of portraits and fashion images of people I don't know. Be that models in a studio, strangers on the streets, or guests at a wedding. Each and every one of those pictures is important to me and I get rewards from every image I take. I wouldn't undertake a project or engagement if I didn't care about the results. These images hold memories for me as the photographer and bring me pleasure to look back on but the pleasure is largely derived from the artisitic or technical quality of the photography not for the subject on a personal level. The photographs hold more true value whether personal or commercial for the subject, subjects family and friends or commercial sponsor than me.
And isn't the true value of photography to create memories?
I was lucky enough to photograph a birthday party for a friend of my daughter recently. The great thing about photographing an event like this is that the children either ignore you or play up to the fact you are there. Which can give rise to some lovely photographs both natural and comical. Throw in some great face painting by a makeup artist and there's some memories I'll treasure for years to come because I have that personal link to them.
Mathew Jordon Smith recently blogged about being on a "quest to look for the hero" in an image, and I have to say I love the sentiment behind this and am once again using this approach more and more. I love the sharpness in the eyes and face of my daughter in the first image and the way the surroundings are out of focus. But think the context the background of the face painter and young girl in the foreground adds are magical. The image of the candles being blown out again has an obvious hero, the whole room including several DSLRs, point and shoots and phones attention is on him, not to mention every other child who is just dying to break into that icing!
This post is as much a note to self...
...don't forget the true value of photography.
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There's so much great countryside in Buckinghamshire and just outside of Milton Keynes where I live, I often think I should shoot more landscapes. However the below shot of the tree line near St Peter's Church, Stanton Low is one of the few landscape pictures I've taken, so when I was recently asked by a landscape photographer whether I felt he needed to learn to use photoshop to "compete" with images he had seen in magazines, initially I wasn't sure if I was qualified to answer.
After some initial thought though I came up with an answer that I think applies to any photographer whether fashion, beauty, portrait or landscape. The answer I gave was is "that it depends on what your initial vision for the image was". And that's how I view Photoshop. It's part of the process, it gives me the ability to close the creative gap and get as close as possible to what I want to achieve in my mind's eye.
My photographer friend stated that he wasn't sure he had ever really thought things through that much, knowing exactly what he wanted to achieve before pressing the shutter release. Sure he understood the need to shoot at the right time of day to get the right light. To look for interesting angles and compositions and has sold work he's taken so can't be going too far wrong but it would appear that he still hadn't found his style or more importantly set his mind on what that style should be moving forward.
So I think the answer we settled on was that he needed to discover images which inspired him, to seek inspiration from the myriad of sources available to us and to work out what it was about those images that appealed to him. To find people at the top of their game shooting the kind of images he wanted to achieve and to learn from them. Only then could the question truly be answered. If the finish in the images could only be achieved by using photoshop then he would have his answer.
I believe it's that vision that is important, not the tools used. I'm pretty sure if I took a RAW landscape image from a renowned digital landscape photographer and processed it and the same RAW image was processed by the original photographer we'd both end up with very different finishes. I also believe mine would be the inferior. Would that be due to my lack of photoshop skills, probably not, it would be down to not having the vision as to how I wanted the image to look. Not knowing what my landscape style was.
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