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On Assignment: Shooting what You Can't See

As photographers we are always looking for tangible, photographable things to include as visual cues. But often we are called upon to make a photo that revolves around something invisible, or even intangible.

I tend to view those assignments not as limiting, but rather as assignments in which the physical limits have been removed. That's the case with this shot of Paul Capriolo, CEO of Social Growth Technologies.

Take a Picture of THIS:

Okay, so here is the description of what Paul's company does:

"Social Growth Technology delivers high performance online advertising and virtual currency monetization in the social gaming and e-commerce environments."

Alrighty then, let's take a little visual inventory. They work with computers. Which if course is a wonderful visual differentiator. (Seriously, people at a computer is a visual trap. We all use computers. You gotta find something different, no matter how cool the things they do on a computer happen to be.)

And as a startup, they are not yet at the phase where they have killer offices with a ball pit and baristas. That comes later. These guys are a nascent but fast-growing business.

Actually, they did have some very cool spaces, but nothing that would fit the brief of the shoot. Mostly because adding to the complications for this shoot was the fact that the photos had to be very horizontal (even more so than seen above—about 1:2 ratio) and there had to be room for boxed quote-outs within the photo.

So any plans for something cool with a computer and/or maybe a gaming environment (which I saw as iffy anyway) were out the window.

So what do we have? In essence we have a kickass, Silicon Vally style start-up, right here in HoCo. But for visual purposes, they make money by deftly manipulating digital ones and zero. Just as Google does. And Facebook. And a gazillion other companies you have never heard of.

But I liked the idea of a web startup as a visual theme, so I was drawn to their conference room and the whiteboard full of ideas and quotes therein. That's because the whiteboard is the essence of who they are and what they do—dream big, iterate often and try to change the world.

The computer is physical. But it is a tool, like a hammer to a carpenter. SGT is largely defined by their ideas, which often find their way to this board. It also represents their personality as a startup. So after scouting, I emailed Paul and told him to feel free to populate that whiteboard as much as they wanted before the shoot. (The last thing I wanted was to show up with it having been cleaned for me…)

Start Here

Here is our whiteboard and shooting space as it exists in fluorescent light, just with the white balance corrected:

From experience, I know my first step will be to kill the ambient (as in, work maybe 5 stops over the ambient with my flashes) and build a new environment of light on top of that.

So I bounced two Einsteins with half-cut CTB gels off of the wall to camera right, creating a new, soft blue ambient. I intensified the color by underexposing these lights by about two stops. The next thought was to call a little attention to the whiteboard with some gridded, neutral light.

I liked the blue environment, but no matter how I shaped the (white) gridded light, I wasn't happy. They all looked like crappy variations of this:

That's when it occurred to me that while Paul is three-dimensional, the walls (and more important, the whiteboard) are planar. As in 2-D. As in something I could easily manipulate after the fact—exactly the way I want—in post. More on that in a minute.

So now that we have the room light the way we want, it's a simple matter of bringing in some key and fill that you can control. If you remember the ATM man, this will look familiar:

The key is an Einstein in a white beauty dish, (seen at upper left) gridded, with a quarter cut of CTO. The fill is an SB-800 in a LumiQuest SB-III (seen at lower left). This grid gives me control of the warm key light not hitting the background.

The SB-III is in close and aimed straight up. In both cases, what little overspray happens will fall harmlessly out of frame.

Tweaking in Post

To separate Paul from the background I wanted to highlight the whiteboard a little—just color correct it and give it a soft glow. Pretty much the way I would have done it if I could have totally controlled that splash of gridded light.

Since it is planar (2-D) this was an easy lasso/feather/lift in Photoshop. But since Paul was in front of it, I would have to either exclude him in the selection or fix him after the fact.

I chose the latter. I am very basic (and by choice) when it comes to Photoshop post production and stacks 'o layers in my images. In fact, a large stack of layers for me would be … two. And you really do not even have to understand layers at all to do this.

Here, I just did a command-J, which is the equivalent of selecting your entire image then pasting it back on top of your image. You now have two identical images (or layers,) one atop the other.

Next, do the selecting/lifting of the whiteboard with lasso and curves. Then use the eraser tool to "erase" the subject back to his original, un-lifted state. (You are actually erasing back to the untoned photo underneath the toned, top layer.)

This is when I had a pleasant surprise. I had just rough-erased Paul with a soft-feathered brush and the overspray looked pretty darn close to a ring flash shadow—and helped to further pop him from the whiteboard. It made the photo look more three-dimensional, just as a ring fill often will.

So I went with it, tweaking the eraser overspray until I got the "shadow" look that I wanted. I know some of you are Photoshop studs and will have problems with this. Similarly, some of you are current (or ex-) newspaper shooters and will have a problem with this. Please file any complaints here.

Seriously, I liked it and the client chose it from among many others as the lede art on front of their annual report. Which is what matters to me.

The important point here is to not be intimidated by the lack of a good, physical visual. And certainly don't get railroaded into using a crappy visual because it just happens to be physical and relevant.

Just think of bad physical pegs as an opportunity to step back and look at your subject and the photo in a different way.


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