I setup shop in Amanda's living room. My backdrop stands wore a white bed sheet for the first background, and I had a sheet of black velvet to drape over it for the second background. Velvet really eats light a lot better than the black bed sheet I used to use.
Alien Bee B800 studio lights with matching 48" Fotodiox octaboxes. I setup one at 45 degrees to camera left and the other 90 degrees to camera right, both at head level. Both were set to about 1/2 to 1/4 power. When the white background was used, I also had a Canon 430EX speedlite on a short stand behind my subjects to light the backdrop. This was the first time I'd gotten to use the B800's on a production shoot, and they worked wonderfully. The fast recycle time even at relatively high power, combined with the large, soft area of the octas was wonderful to have.
I used my Sigma 17-70mm lens for all of the portrait shots, and my Canon 10-22mm for the BTS shots. I often wished I could go longer than 70mm for closer shots without getting right on top of the small birds, but none of my AF lenses span the 70mm line, and I didn't want to constantly swap lenses or lose my wider angle ability. This was the first time that I've ever wished I owned a 28-135mm lens.
To keep a decent depth of field at such close range, I shot at f/11 to f/16 most of the time. Next time I shoot a subject that size, I'll stay at f/16 (or smaller) all day due to the short working distance. I never would have been able to shoot f/16 at ISO 100 with a 2-second recycle time without the B800's. Did I mention that I loved them?
|My daughter took a turn with the camera while I grabbed this BTS shot
Since this was my first time shooting animal portraits and I needed to experiment, I shot for almost an hour. We started with the white background and later switched to black. In retrospect, I wish I'd started with black, because I like the look of those shots better, but the birds had gotten bored & sleepy (or blinded) by that time, so their expressions weren't nearly as good.
Even the black background had this problem, but in the opposite direction and to a lesser extent. I should have pulled the birds up farther away from the background so that the light didn't hit the velvet quite so hard. Black velvet eats light pretty well, but it's not perfect. Flagging both lights from hitting the background might even be worth while. Another 5 minutes of thoughtful setup time could save hours in post.
To perform all of this postprocessing, I used The GIMP on my Linux workstation. This sort of editing is outside the scope of AfterShot Pro. You can read about the various software I use in a previous post. Let's walk through a particularly bad example in which I had to remove branches and lighten parts of the background.
You need to start by doing any of your cloning before you worry about bleaching the background. For this, I use GIMP's clone tool with a hard-edged, circular brush at 100% opacity. Click on a nearby area of the proper color to use as your source, and then paint over the offending branches or other unwanted features. Do the same, but with a smaller, soft-edged brush, to get rid of stray feathers, if you're going that far. Don't worry too much about smoothly merging the newly-painted area with the old background, since you'll soon be throwing the entire area to pure black or white.
If there are people in the shot, now is the time to use your healing tool to soften wrinkles and remove any zits or other unwanted features. Use a soft-edged brush and keep your opacity below 30%. You can build up your edit with many passes if needed, but you want to start subtly. Editing people is more detail oriented than editing birds, of course. You can read about my human portrait processing techniques in an earlier post.
Next, use the "Select by Color Tool" to select as much of the background as possible. Click on an area that's about in the middle of your background's color spread. If not enough of your background was selected, or if too much of your subject was selected, adjust the threshold window. I set mine at 15. Be sure click the "feather edges" option to avoid hard edges, otherwise the transition will be glaringly obvious when you're done.
|Layer mask isolating background
If your subjects are nearly the same color as your original background (as was the case with my light grey birds), you'll probably have to edit the layer mask manually to paint in some of the areas that weren't properly selected by the Select by Color Tool. You'll want to maintain a narrow, fuzzy edge between white & dark, so blurring any manually-edited edges may be in order.
That's about it. Any time I do significant work in GIMP, I always save a copy as an XCF (GIMP's native file format, like PhotoShop's PSD) so that it retains the layers & masks that I spent so much time creating. The final JPEG gets created by merging the layers & saving the result.
In the end, the rescue organization shelved the project for reasons unrelated to my photos, so these images never made it past my own web site. However, I did gain some valuable knowledge about photographing animal portraits, and some of it can surely be applied to shooting humans, too.
The flaky equipment that I mentioned was my Canon 7D body, which was beginning to succumb to the "Error 30" problem that I described in an earlier post. Fortunately, I had a backup 50D body, so it didn't significantly affect the session.
What's your favorite animal to photograph, and why? Let us know in the comments below.