Jun 16, 2009

Seamless portraits on location.

Before I say anything that gives you the impression I know what I'm talking about, go see Zack Arias' fantastic tutorial on seamless shooting. Read every word of it — especially the bit about studio space and cuss words, because he's annoyingly dead-on with that part. This is merely my addendum to Zack's generous contribution to portrait photographers everywhere.

I've always wanted to shoot white seamless portraits. And when I say "always", I mean for the last 12 months — it just feels like "always". Then I took the plunge and did it. Turns out "just doing it" is pretty expensive and space-dependent... And fun.

My opportunity came last Saturday, when I was asked to contribute "photo-booth" portraits as part of "Lobsterfest" — an annual fundraiser for my kids' daycare. This was my first real stab at seamless portraiture, and it doubled as a trial run for a maternity session I'm shooting next week. (As a bonus, I plan to enter some of the shots to David Hobby's recent assignment for Strobist Boot Camp II.

Like all 'Strobist' endeavours, what you need and what you can use are pretty flexible. For instance, you definitely don't need a brand new Manfrotto 314B portable backdrop kit with a 9' Arctic White seamless. You could probably get by with a king-size sheet and some duct-tape. That would certainly cut down on expense and add to portability, but I'm guessing you'd end up shooting yourself in the eye after three hours of Photoshopping grey wrinkles out of all your portraits. Forget that.

Final tally at Headshots: $406.78

Now, if you want that beautiful reflective floor, you could do many things. You could try to P-shop a reflection - the way NAPP some pros think is perfectly passable, but is actually not even close. Or, you could buy a sheet of "tileboard" at Home Despot. (Someone at the store actually showed me the right place to look. I think I cried a little.)

Seamless portrait 1

What I can tell you without any hesitation, is that tileboard was the hardest part of my seamless quest. Here's why.
  1. If you think you can buy an 8'x4' sheet of tileboard for ten bucks in Toronto, you're in for a major letdown. The sheet I got was about $70, and it was the last smooth one they had. I sincerely hope you can find a sheet for less, and I'm happy to be the right fool if someone can point me to something cheaper, because I still want another sheet.

  2. Carrying this stuff in your hands, or on a shopping cart is a bitch. Grab one of those huge dollies that the contractors use.

  3. Driving this stuff home was a double-plus unhappy experience. I didn't think it would fit inside my car, so I strapped the board to my roof racks with crisscrossing bungees. Very scary. As I left the lot, I heard a "bang" and pulled over. It sounded like a cord had broken, but what happened was that one of the bungee hooks made a small crack in the board that was being forcefully driven into it. Lesson one: use padding. Also, watch those bungees. When they let go, they are major deadly.

  4. Hazards lights on. After crawling for 30 minutes at 20km/h (that's 10k, class) , I finally accepted the fact that I was "that guy". Despite everything you know — and Jerry Seinfeld's observation on cheapskates who deliver mattresses on their cars — your left hand will be drawn almost supernaturally to your roof until you get home.

  5. On the day of the shoot, I carefully crammed the tileboard inside my SUV, and bungeed the door down on it. Crack number two. Not a perfect solution, obviously, but at least I never felt that the thing would sail into oncoming traffic.
The two cracks turned out to be at the far end of the board — no big whoop — so I would now recommend looking first for a damaged one. See if you can get some discount.

Everything after that first trip was gravy. The kit sets up very intuitively, and seems way too big... until you step back and look though your lens at your subject. Very glad I didn't buy the 6' seamless.

Seamless set-up test.

After a quick inspection, I talked the organizer into letting me relocate to a big room where the buffet would be. Lo-o-ots of room — but I still could have used more. Any illusions I had about ever setting up a studio in my garage are now sitting on the curb, beside my yard waste and exercise bike. Now all I had do do was contend with the washroom line and hope I didn't get spattered with drawn butter from the buffet.

The rest of the shoot was Zack 101. Although I had my Honl gobos for the 2 background lights, I highly recommend the bi-fold doors that Zack talks about. Otherwise, you'll get cross-shadows and bright feet. The drawback is you're really crimping your portability, but if your carting that 8'x4' already... why not?

Field note: When I set my camera to manual, for some reason I left it at 1/60. Didn't hurt me, but I would definitely have used 1/250 if I'd been paying attention.

I went manual exposure, and set the background power by eye for f/8. Just on the verge of lens flare. I then TTL'd my handheld flash with a small softbox, so I could move around without worrying about a fixed key light. I had singles and group shots, so I didn't want to be tied down.

Everything went swimmingly, and people gave great feedback on the thumbnails. I even got my tipsy neighbour to fire off a few with me and Michelle in the frame.

Seamless portrait 3

My seamless portrait 10 Commandments — some overlap with Zack's notes:
  1. Get the reflective flooring (tileboard). It adds so much to the final image.
  2. Buy some cheapo clamps for your seamless roll, or you will have an aneurysm.
  3. Shoot somewhere with more space and height than you think you need.
  4. A little more.
  5. A liiiittle more. Perfect
  6. Find anyone with a van — even a serial killer —to help move your tileboard around.
  7. Pad your board so it doesn't chip and crack.
  8. Use bi-fold doors to gobo your lights really well, so they won't spill on your subject.
  9. Store your rolled-up seamless on its end, not flat.
  10. If you can use someone else's studio, do that instead. Buy them a 2-4.