Onward and Upward

When reading Natalie Dybisz‘s book recently, I skipped over the part where she talked about making composite shots for her levitation photos. What I mean is, I read about it, then rather forgot about it when trying out some of the techniques she mentioned on my own. Then, when I was reading people’s responses to my first levitation post, it suddenly came back to me that she often takes a shot of the set without being in the shot at all, then can use that shot to layer her image over it and avoid some of the complications that come up when trying to just edit out chair legs or something. I know I’m doing a lovely job discussing all this in a technical manner, so you’re welcome for that. I am nothing if not completely incapable of discussing photoediting using proper terminology. Moving on.

On Saturday I decided to quickly give this process a shot. And I do mean quickly (although once again I managed to spend the rest of the day editing). The process for these shots couldn’t be more different from how I usually work. My usual method involves very little in the way of set dressing – I just hang a backdrop, pull my lighting umbrellas out and into place, put the camera on the tripod, and jump around for an hour or two. My vision usually involves fabric, hair, makeup, color, and movement, but all the shapes that get created are a surprise to me, which is why I take loads of jumps, then pick my favorites based mostly on the shapes those jumps create.

For these shots, the workflow was totally different. I had a very set idea of how I wanted to pose and how I wanted the final shot to look. That’s pretty new for me. Because of this, the setup was more particular. A lot more thought went to being in exactly the right spot when the flash went off, too, so I posed very deliberately and carefully instead of just leaping around. Then, once I had what I wanted, which happened pretty quickly, I was done. Instead of my usual two or three hours shooting, I only shot for about 15 minutes, which was weird as hell.

And, since I had no idea how this process was going to work out, or even if it would work out at all, I decided to forgo my usual prep time on makeup and just went barefaced, with only a touch of lipstick. If I’d had any daytime makeup on before getting started I would have looked better, but it was Saturday afternoon and I’d run errands that morning barefaced, and decided I didn’t want to waste time putting any on for shoot that might produce nothing edit-worthy anyway. Even if I did get some decent shots out of it, though, I figured my face would hardly be the focus, so I just decided to rough it this time as I wanted to get to it. I did put a wig on though, since my own hair is so fine it doesn’t provide much movement.

My first step was to take a background shot of the wall I’d be posing against, so I could layer myself over it later. So here it is, in its unexciting glory:

backdrop 1

It was important to be sure the lighting was exactly in this shot as it would be when I was posing, which means I of course didn’t do that at all. Hey, this is a learning process people. Anyway, for the first shot I’m going to share, here’s the pose I chose to edit:


I was annoyed at first that my hand is covering my face, but in the end it didn’t matter; as I got to working with the shot I completely overlooked it. I used a wicker ottoman that usually sits in front of a chair in my office, and covered it with a white blanket so it would provide a matching backdrop against my body to the wall – this makes it easier to layer myself over the background shot and make the edges blend.

float composite 1

So there I am, layered over the background shot. It was still a bitch to get all my edges smooth and blended, but with each attempt at this sort of thing I discovered more techniques to make this easier. I’ve got a long way to go, for sure – but one thing at a time. So far so good on this one, except that it looks terribly flat. I should have shadows in the shot somewhere – but where? Honestly I had no clue, still have no clue in fact, but I gave it a try:

float composite 1_final

Those shadows aren’t all great at all, but for a first attempt at this it’s not too bad. Moving on to attempt #2.

When taking the background shot, I’d also had the idea it might be fun to take one with Simon in it, so I could be floating above him. A little kitty snack strategically placed on the floor took care of that (as a side note, Simon is the first cat I’ve ever had who liked treats, and as he’s been taking steroids to heal up some ulcers on his lip for the past three weeks – they’re called rodent ulcers, although they have nothing to do with rodents, and they are rather common – man is this helpful. I can finally  just shove a pill into a treat and the cat will eat it. Yay!):

backdrop cat
Yep, he’s still eating

Unfortunately, when I was attempting to pose on the ottoman, I forgot that a cat would be down below me in at least one of the photos, so I didn’t take any shots where I was looking down. As I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot more planning that goes into shots like these, and I’m not used to thinking ahead about stuff like this. I tried flipping my body around so I’d be looking down, but another thing I forgot to do in these first shots was fling my wig about – again, just too much I was already thinking of and I forgot some details. Flipping me upside down so I’d be looking at the cat didn’t really work when none of my hair was moving in a downward motion (it looks weird enough when I’m right side up and the hair isn’t moving) so in the end, I had to just float above the cat without acknowledging him.

Also, I tried something else here that Dybisz mentions when discussing her levitation shots; I used my upper body from one pose and my lower body from another and merged them together. I’m not sure this is something I’ll do all that much in the future, but I intentionally wanted to try it here just to see how it would work out. I can see how it could be useful to twist the body into some really crazy shapes, so it’s good to know moving forward if I can pull it off. I used my lower body from the first pose already shared above, then the upper body from a different shot:


Doing this actually wasn’t as big of a challenge as I expected, although I’m sure a skilled photo editor could pick out my body reconstruction easily:

float composite cat 1

What was a challenge, though, was shadows again. Adding shadows is definitely the most difficult part of this process, for many reasons. Where to put them, how dark they should be (answer: NOT DARK unless you are a master at creating them), how to create them effectively (without looking like the cheesy evil spirits whisking souls away to hell in that Patrick Swayze Ghost movie), this is all pretty tricky stuff in my opinion, and I made the whole thing trickier by tossing a cat into the picture. Poor Simon kept getting overshadowed, literally:

float composite cat 1_final

As I kept trying to get the shadows right (well, right wasn’t even what I was going for here, just, not ridiculous-looking) he kept getting more and more…gray. When I finally had some shadows I was OK settling on, I went back and brightened him up as much as possible, and he bounced back all right. But working around him here was a bit of a pain.

One last shot from this first set I’ll share (yes, I did two sets this day, so I have more to share later) is one that didn’t work out, mostly due to the pose. I wanted to try one more edit using two different bodies, and used the same lower body as in the previous two shots. The upper body I pulled from this original:


I just ended up looking goony when it was all pulled together; as I mentioned earlier, the lack of hair movement meant I couldn’t flip this upside down so the cat would be getting any attention, and this upper body didn’t work too well with the legs. But what the hell, I’ll share it anyway – I’m not going to show it anywhere else, but I don’t mind sharing it with you all.

float composite cat 2_final

I don’t know, it just looks like I’m imitating a jumbo jet banking into a death spiral or something. Just a weird pose, and I really didn’t need another shot of me levitating over, and ignoring, my little cat. But once again it wasn’t particularly hard to merge the two bodies together, just the damn shadows giving me hell, so good to know.

Tomorrow I’ll share part two, where I got wild and threw a sofa into the mix. And a dog. It all sounds like too much craziness to handle, doesn’t it? But I managed.

12 thoughts on “Onward and Upward

  1. These are truly amazing, especially since you really do look like you are floating over Simon. I can imagine how you will be applying these steps with more involved sets and costumes, makeup, etc. Really great work. Whew. I am worn out reading it.

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