M3 has been wanting to take pictures of the girls with a seamless white background, so we set out a few months ago to figure out how to do it.
We originally bought a white muslin backdrop and tried to make it work with a couple of strobes, but it was dang near impossible to get the background to be totally white or smooth. I read a bunch of books on lighting and saw a few articles in Popular Photography on the white background shots, but it never came together for me until I decided to Google it and found a really informative series of blog posts by Zack Arias. He explains exactly what to do with clear instructions and examples, so I just tried to follow his lead.
Like anything related to photography, we had to go procure some stuff before getting started. The key components were a roll of Savage 9-foot white paper from Amazon.com, a few sheets of Thrifty white tile board from Lowe's, and a couple of 4x8 sheets of 3/4 inch white styrofoam insulation that were split in half and taped back together with gaffer's tape to make two bifold screens. A few months ago I bought a couple of Elinchrom Style RX600 studio flash units with the EL-Skyport studio control system, and we had to pick up one more before doing this project because it really takes three strobes to get the full effect. The front strobe was modified by a Westcott 24x32 softbox with a silver interior, which makes a nice soft light.
One of the challenges was figuring out exactly how to get it all set up and optimized. We originally thought we'd try this in our family room, but it wasn't nearly big enough. I then moved out to our garage, and even then I had to set it up twice to get enough room. When Zack says this needs a 20x20 foot space, he isn't kidding - this really requires the capability to spread out. We wound up using a 16x18 foot chunk of our garage, and probably could have used even a little more. Unfortunately we can't leave it set up all the time because we park our cars in the garage, so we will have to do the setup/teardown whenever we want to shoot with the seamless white background. Now that it's been done once, I'm optimistic that the next time should be MUCH quicker.
Another big hurdle was getting the lights in balance. The background is basically overexposed, which is what makes it pure white. In our 4th of July shots the girls were standing about 6 to 8 feet in front of the backdrop, and were exposed about a stop and a half less than the backdrop. The placement of the lights, screens, and subjects are all critical factors in getting the effect to work properly.
One other factor I almost forgot to mention is the camera itself. When shooting with these studio strobes, the camera is in full manual mode. For these shots the shutter speed was 1/250 in order to sync with the strobes and the ISO was set to 200 to get the highest quality image. This just left the aperture to be adjusted, and that was set to F9 to get the depth of field M3 wanted. The strobes were then adjusted to get the proper exposure, and our Sekonic FlashMaster L-358 light meter really helped to get everything in the right ball park.
All told it was about six hours of setting up, tinkering and tuning before the photo shoot started. We'll try this again when D2 and family come for a visit later this summer, and I'm looking forward to D2 having lots of good ideas on perfecting the setup!
Here's what it all looked like:
M3 was also dying to to try connecting the D300 directly to the laptop via USB, which is shown above. I downloaded a trial copy of Nikon Camera Control Pro 2, which allows the camera to be controlled from the laptop and also stores the images there for instant feedback. The small monitor on the camera didn't give enough feedback on the setup so we tried the software. It's a lot slower, but that may just be the old laptop and slow USB. We'll see if we decide to buy it.
Once it came time to start taking pictures of the girls, M3 and her creative instincts took over. While I was setting up the "studio" she had gathered up a bunch of props and developed some ideas about what to do with the girls. She kept them moving and changed the props (she called them "toys" to the girls) out very quickly (maybe only a minute and a half per prop). The wireless shutter release we have for the camera let her get away from the camera body so she could keep things moving. Her idea was to just get the girls in and out quickly before they got frustrated or stopped cooperating, which is really hard to do at a studio somewhere else. She also wanted "normal" photos where the girls were interacting with each other or their props without having to stand in one place and smile. She talked to them the whole time (using the camera remote so she could maintain good eye contact with the girls), asking questions, telling jokes, doing funny things, asking if they'd like to do a certain thing, and frequently reminding the girls that the last shot would be a "candy shot." This type of control, and the resulting happy girls who are comfortable and willing to play around and show their true personalities, is what got us started originally on wanting to do all of this ourselves, by the way.
The actual photo shoot probably only took 8 or 10 minutes, and the lighting was set up well enough that the only real post-processing was cropping the photos and making little tweaks to exposure and compensating for the strobes that didn't fire in a few of the shots. This is what a couple of the more technically correct shots looked like straight out of the camera:
While we had everything set up, M took a great shot of me and my tuba.
After doing this, I broke down and ordered an EL-Skyport USB transceiver for the flash control system. It will enable us to adjust each strobe from the laptop, so tweaking the strobe levels will involve a lot less running around. It also saves the configuration and settings, which will make it easier to get set up the next time we do this.
This was a pretty big investment in time and money, but I think we've gotten some shots we wouldn't have gotten anywhere else and we'll continue to use the equipment for years. Plus, it was a fun project to figure out and we've learned a lot about lighting and exposure!
PS: M says she doesn't have on any makeup in the above photo and her wet hair is scraped into a ponytail, so please realize this photo is included for informational purposes only, and not because she has any delusions of hotness (her words).