Yeah, sorry. I couldn’t come up with a better title.

One of the things about my photographic work is that I’m not really totally wanting to “just do photography.” In almost all of the images that I capture, I want to add something of an element of painting, or compositing, or otherwise manipulating the image. Frankly, if I were good enough, I’d probably try my hand at photo-realistic digital painting, so that I could create exactly what I want without the need for the intervening photograph. I think.

I mean, I still enjoy the craft of photography, of getting a good picture straight from the camera. It’s just that sometimes, when I look at an image, I “see” things that aren’t really there. 

Such was the case with this image. The story behind it is that Fresno’s Selland Arena is about two or three blocks from my downtown office. From time to time, there are shows there, and when this show — an animatronic educational display of dinosaurs — came to town, I insisted to my office manager that we take her then-8-year-old daughter to see it. (After all, what better excuse did I have for getting to see the dinos, than to help someone’s kid learn something?) I figured it would be a great opportunity to get some images of dinosaurs to use in my compositing work, so I took along my Canon 5D Mark III.

The lighting in the hall was actually quite dark in most places, sometimes being lit only by colored lights which themselves were usually dark blue or green in color. Many of the images, including the one featured in this post, were shot at an ISO of 20,000 in order to get a usable image. The particular photograph used for the composite above was shot hand-held with a Canon EF24-70 f/2.8L lens at 40 mm, 1/50th of a second, at f/4.0, with an exposure bias of -1/3 EV. I wasn’t using flash, because I had assumed that would be frowned upon. As it turns out, I suspect one reason it was so dark inside is that many of the dinosaur models, including the one in this image, were pretty banged up; the darkness helped to hide the very non-dino-appearing scars on their plaster carcasses. You can see these pretty clearly in the original image.

Don't Feed the Dino, original image
Don’t Feed the Dino! (as it appeared straight out of the camera; note the scratches all over the lower jaw)

Before I could start actually compositing, I had to use a combination of healing brush and cloning layers to fix the dino defects. I also used the “Liquify” filter in Photoshop to manipulate the eyes and mouths of my human “models,” to make them look more frightened.

When shooting this image, I knew I was going to composite it, but I wasn’t quite sure what the background was going to be. I actually envisioned a kind of a forest scene, but in the end I went with a rather bright, quite sunny, downtown view. After the clean-up with the healing brush and cloning tools, I first created a mask using the Pen Tool in Photoshop CS6, creating an alpha channel to separate out my office manager and her daughter from the background at the Selland. After placing the background, it was decided that the bright blue sky needed to be more scary. Fortunately, we had some storms here about a month or so past, and I had gone out in it specifically to take photographs of the clouds for future composites. The cloudy skies were also shot with the Mark III, but most were done using an EF85mm f/1.2. I think the clouds used here were actually shot at an ISO of 100, 1/1000th of a second, at f/4.5, and an exposure bias of 2/3 EV. Since I only used a portion of the sky in the image, though, I don’t think that really matters much.

To create the lightning flashes, I utilized Alien Skin’s Eye Candy product — I had actually downloaded a demo just for that purpose, and was satisfied enough with the result that I’ll be buying it.

After placing the clouds and lightning, I realized that the rest of the scene — particularly the cars and the road — no longer fit. Remember, this had originally been a bright and sunny shot. Using a curves layer, and a brightness/saturation layer, I darkened things down quite a bit.

One of the keys to making an image like this work is to make sure that the various images are somehow tied together. If you haven’t planned everything out in advance — and, here, not everything was planned out in advance because, as I said, I’d originally thought I would use a forest background shot — that can sometimes be tricky. The way I tied everything together in this composite was by adding a 50% gray-filled layer over everything, setting it to “Overlay” blend mode, then adding a mask. I set my colors to the default black/white, grabbed a brush, and painted onto the mask to selectively darken my “models,” as well as portions of the dinosaur, and other areas. This also allowed me to do a little work on the lightning strikes, as well as the clouds, buildings and other areas, to selectively lighten certain areas. You simply switch back and forth from black to darken, and white to lighten. The aim for the lightning was to get a realistic “blend” by selectively lighting up areas closer to the strikes, but fading away on portions of the image further from them.

To get the full effect of this image, you really have to see the printed version. I printed it out at a 12 by 18 inch size, using what is called a “metallic finish” at Horn Photo. There are some slightly warm tones in the image, and between those and the grays from the sky, plus the lightning glow, the metallic finish really makes this look more 3D. It’s unfortunate that the online version doesn’t carry that same look.

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