Creating False Moonlight

July 20, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

False MoonlightFalse MoonlightBoulder, CO

This image is not how the scene looked to the naked eye. In fact, I photographed this old truck at about 10 a.m. on a bright overcast day in mid-July. So, how do you photograph a subject in full daylight yet make it look like it was shot under a full moon using a flashlight to illuminate the subject?

As is the case with all photography, the answer is: you have to control the light

SETUP

Approximately 3 years ago, I was on a photography workshop with Tim Cooper and the Rocky Mountain School of Photography. We were at a junk yard in Jerome, Arizona. During our visit, I watched Tim photograph an old truck, only he was using a technique that I had never before seen or even contemplated. I observed carefully as he explained the steps to me, and I filed the information away in some remote part of my brain.

Recently, I was in Boulder, Colorado, photographing an old truck. In planning my shoot, I decided that I would try the technique Tim showed me.

 

Background GridBackground Grid PHASE 1: GET THE BASELINE IMAGE

Find your composition. Set up your tripod and camera and don't move them. In my case, I used a 38mm focal length. By shooting with a wide angle, I was able to get the entire truck in the frame and include some of the surrounding area.

Get your focus and turn off auto-focus. You don't want your focal point to change from image to image. I focused on the hood of the truck.

Determine your depth of field and dial in your aperture. I set my aperture at f/22 to ensure that the whole scene was in focus from front to back.

Set your white balance to Daylight.

Set your shutter speed and take your baseline image. I used a shutterspeed of 1/13 second (top photo).

Once you are happy with everything, move on to the next phase.

 

PHASE 2: GET YOUR BACKGROUND IMAGE

Part of this technique requires blending images together in Photoshop. Therefore, it's important to take what I'm calling the background image. Essentially, this is how the image will appear without the additional illumination on the subject.

 Adjust your shutterspeed to underexpose the image by about 2 stops. In my case, I increased my shutterspeed to 1/50 second (middle photo).

Set your white balance to Tungsten. Because you are shooting in warm daylight, altering this setting will create a strong blue color cast to the image (bottom photo). There is your false moonlight!

Once you are happy with the background image, move on to the next phase.

 

Flash GridFlash Grid PHASE 3: BRING ON THE FLASH

This is where the fun begins! I should also say that your technique may differ at this point depending on what type of equipment you have. In my case, I have a single speedlight (Nikon SB-900) and a couple of remote triggers (PocketWizard Plus X) which allow me to use the flash off-camera. I also put a warming gel over the flash.

Once I had my flash all set up, I took a number of photos using the flash to illuminate different parts of the truck. I left the flash in manual mode and on full power. If an image was too dim, I moved the flash closer to the truck. If an image was too bright, I moved the flash further away from the truck. The grid at the right shows the sequence of images I took, ensuring that I had complete coverage of everything I wanted illuminated. I even took one image with the flash in the cab of the truck. In some of the images, you can see me standing off to the side with flash in hand! 

Once you have complete coverage, move on to the next phase.

 

PHASE 4: BLEND IMAGES TOGETHER IN POST-PROCESSING

Blend all the images together. I am not a Photoshop expert. In fact, this was perhaps the most complicated blending I've attempted to date. Nothing like jumping right in to make you learn the software!

I did some basic editing of each image (background image and all flash images) in Lightroom before opening all of the images in Photoshop. Using layers and masks, I blended all 17 images together. One final crop, and the image was finished.

 

LESSONS LEARNED

Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the end product. I think the final image False Moonlight successfully captures the look and feel I was going for. The most challenging part of this process for me was dealing with the grass surrounding the truck while blending the various images together. Because the wind was blowing, the grass was in a slightly different location for each image I took. When I layered each image on top of one another, this created a ghosting effect, which is pretty prominent around the truck's grille and right fender.

The next time I try this technique, I either need to find a subject that isn't surrounded by tall grass, or be sure it's not a windy day!


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