Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Why I love shooting portraits against green screens


Cover of CCNM's 2020 Annual Report


Yes, I am going to write one more article on shooting portraits on green screens. Why? Because this is my favourite new way of shooting "environmental" portraits and I want to explain. I love environmental portraits, ie. portraits that look like they were taken somewhere other than in a photo studio. They tend to be more interesting, and more creative and more layered in terms of the story they tell. But for many reasons actually shooting in an appropriate and visually appealing environment is often either not possible, or it would be way more trouble than would be justifiable. Shooting on a green screen lets us visually put a subject where they want to be, regardless of time of day, weather, lack of a beautiful board room, or any other logistical concern.


It was green screens that made it possible for me to shoot one of my favourite annual reports ever this past fall, so I’m going to illustrate most of this article with examples from that project. Initially, due to Covid, the brief was that we’d have to shoot outside, or mostly outside. To be honest, I was horrified. You know if you read my previous post how I feel about shooting outside. On location…yes! Outside…really?…Is there really a good reason to shoot outside? In this case, yes.


The situation was that they needed over twenty beautiful, potentially full page portraits of individuals, no pairs or groups this time to be Covid safe although we did end up doing one informal socially distanced group portrait for the student association.


Informal socially distanced group shot outdoors


I proposed we shoot on green screen for several reasons:

- By the time we were going to be scheduled to shoot fall would be well underway and it would look like it…leaves turned and falling or fallen off trees, foliage withered, flowers gone, duller looking days.


- There weren't very many pretty outdoor backgrounds to choose from at the organization’s campus where we’d be shooting, certainly not enough variety to do twenty plus distinct portraits.


- If we shot outside on the backgrounds that did exist we’d have to time all the shoots so that the light was right at each location at the right time…that would have made logistics much more difficult, and the time needed to shoot potentially much longer.


What was the process?


Before they even approved of the green screen idea I headed out, on a weekend, to start collecting background images because I knew if I waited I’d run out of opportunities and options. And they didn’t want fall backgrounds…they wanted summery backgrounds. Furthermore, I knew I’d be able to use the images as backgrounds for other shoots even if they chose to go in another direction. After I had a few initial background shots I photographed myself in studio dressed as If I were outside and mocked up a few test shots.

Contact sheet showing rough concept/test shots

This confirmed for me and for the client that the concept would work! So over the next few weeks, when I had time and the weather was right I went out background hunting, driving to parks and locations in and around Toronto. And when I could I grabbed site specific shots for them on their campus, until I had a nice selection. I wanted a variety of looks, so sunny days and less sunny days, light coming from a variety of directions but never full on frontal…ie. from behind me shining straight onto the landscape. It needed to be coming from one side or the other, or from behind, ie. backlit. I was always imagining what the scene would look like as a background with a person in front of it. So I composed the shots as if there were someone in the frame, focusing on the imaginary person, visualizing how they’d fit, making sure there was unencumbered space for a person such that nothing would be sticking out from behind their heads or looking distracting. And I shot some horizontal and some vertical.


Knowing that aesthetically we would want a very limited depth of field look for the portraits (ie. sharp person, blurred background, based on the inspiration shots in the brief…almost all close-ups with beautiful bokeh backgrounds) I was careful to shoot with a wide aperture, again always focusing on an imaginary person in the foreground. It was important to do it this way because blur created in-camera looks very different from blur created in Photoshop. If you want bokeh, those lovely lens-induced shapes you see in the out-of-focus parts of photographs, you need to shoot for them. (Yes, there are ways to add a bokeh layer when Photoshopping an image, but not in a way that would be practical or work with these types of images). So, to be sure I’d get what I needed I had to bracket the amount of ‘out-of-focusness’, in case what I thought would work didn’t make visual sense once I placed a person in the frame.


The other tricky thing is that the amount of background blur and bokeh that make visual sense vary hugely depending on how much of the person is in the frame. The bokeh photographers and film makers swoon over tends to occur in close-ups. But, the designers needed me to shoot everyone down to upper thigh, as again, they didn’t know ahead of time how any one portrait would be used. Generally the wider angle the shot, and the more space around the subject, the more in focus the background will be, so it doesn't work to have a ton of space all around the subject but have it be blurred out the way it would be when you shoot a close up of a person with a long lens and a wide open aperture. It just doesn't look right partly because it's not what we're used to seeing.

Left: Too much blur in the background to make visual sense behind a torso portrait. It looks fake. Right: Makes much more visual sense when cropped to a close-up.


This meant I had to be very careful to shoot for flexibility, while not sacrificing aesthetics by shooting too wide and/or too sharp. I was also careful to include visual cues that might help the illusion of reality by, for  example, ensuring foliage at the edges in the foreground remained sharp so that a sharp person placed beside it would look correct.


Foliage in line with the person is sharp.


I did shoot some beautiful bokeh-heavy backgrounds for more close-up portraits in case they did end up being able to crop any of the portraits tighter. The way this one (below) fit in the layout allowed it to work perfectly. 



I also had to think about the angle, and height of the camera vs. height of the people I’d be shooting, as some would be tall and some short, and I changed the camera lens for different looks noting I’d have to be sure to do some of the portraits with the different lens too. All this without knowing anything about the actual people I’d be photographing, where in the report they’d be featured, whether the images would be big or small, horizontal or vertical, closeup or medium view/torso.


Later doing the green screen shots, I basically randomly varied the camera angle knowing I had different angled backgrounds, and randomly lit them differently so that certain portraits would work better on certain background shots. Because I didn’t know which backgrounds would go with which people I just made sure I shot enough backgrounds that I’d be covered for sure. Ultimately I had a pile of assorted images of people and backgrounds to mix and match.


When it came time to start shooting the portraits the weather was in fact on the way to winter. Weather days (ie. postponements) were not an option, though, so at first we gamely did whatever we could to keep working outside including finding a slight overhang we could shoot under, unless there was wind AND rain. Regardless of inclement weather it was still a challenge shooting outside as we had to move the whole set repeatedly each shoot day to get out of the wind as it changed and out of the sun as it moved. We even had to secure the light stand to a fence at one point making it more time consuming to move. Although we did actually have a few sessions scheduled for inside, we ended up bailing on the outdoors one particularly frigid afternoon after braving the wind all morning. Luckily there was a huge, spacious, well-ventilated room we were allowed to use (while of course observing strict Covid protocols).  


Left: Wind is blowing and sun has crept into the shot...no good! Right: Final shot...no cues that there was a gusting wind. 

Left: Green screen attached to a fence with wind blowing and tree branches encroaching. No problem...they're green! Right: final shot.

I have to say, it did actually feel pretty great to be outside all the time that we were. I love being outside. I just don’t love the stress and possibility of compromise of quality and control that can come with shooting outside.


Whether we were shooting inside or out, we lit the portraits. Inside we had to be careful to light so that it looked as if we could have been shooting outside. And outside we still had to be thinking about shooting loosely for the various backgrounds I had collected. We also did at least one portrait outside that had to look as if it was done in studio.


It was freezing when we shot this outside, same spot as the shots above.


Once I had all the people shot, selects made and retouched it was time for me to see who fit into what background and where they fit in the background. This was the fun part. Final images were submitted to the designers without cropping so they’d have maximum flexibility in terms of final crop and position in the layout.


Left: My final image which wasn't actually too far from the way it fit into the layout (right).


And finally, some of the background shots were requested as-is to be used full bleed on copy pages which I thought looked fantastic.


Left: Original portrait. Middle: Final portrait. Right: Background shot used on copy page.


I did have a brief moment of panic that this project was going to be way more difficult and time consuming to pull off effectively than I had thought (like the therapy dog calendar I did the same way, which was a nightmare!) but it wasn’t, mostly because of all the prep I did over-shooting backgrounds so that I was covered when a bunch of them didn’t fit or work.

Everyone followed the instructions not to wear green, and if there was a bit of green in a patterned top I just had to add one more step in retouching to put it back in after the chroma key software removed it. Same process for subjects who had green eyes.


Left: Original portrait. Middle: Green bits missing from the pattern on the top. Right: Final image in the report with the green put back in.

Overall I was so happy with this project…thanks to the pandemic I kind of got to reconnect with the magic of photography…all those years ago it started when I watched a print appear in the developer tray, and because the shut downs gave me time to explore and experiment I came across this fantastic software that allows for near flawless chroma key knock-outs.

And I do want to note that while this project consisted of individual portraits the technique can work perfectly for pairs, as in this example from another project:


Covid-19 precautions meant we couldn't actually photograph these two subjects together.


And could work equally well for small groups.  


How does all this potentially help you?


I am now shooting more portraits on green screens than not. I love the flexibility, control and creativity this technique affords me. It gives me so many more options in terms of being able to create just the right overall look for any portrait depending on the client’s brand and particular needs. I can tailor the background to the person’s look, what they’re wearing, what feel is appropriate and what will really make their portrait sing.


The final portrait can appear to be inside or outside, so no worrying about whether the weather is going to cooperate, or what time of year it is. We can do a beautiful outdoor summer portrait at any time. Or I can put a person in an image suggestive of a nice looking boardroom without having access to one. Or if there's a gorgeous photogenic boardroom but it’s not available when the person we need to shoot in it is, I can shoot the boardroom when it’s free, and shoot the person separately somewhere else. For that matter any space that would make a great background, even one that’s not in a  place where you could actually set up a shot for whatever reason, can be shot separately and composited in.


For this client (below) the backgrounds I chose were outside on their office deck (it was winter and the day of the shoot it was raining, as it happened) and at a height that would not be conducive to shooting portraits in front of them, so on a sunny day, pre-shoot date, I went to the location to scout and shoot background images (plates), and post-shoot I composited them in. This client also requested a plainer version of each portrait so I used a simple  digitally created background as well.


Left: Portrait shot inside. Middle: Background shot outside on the deck at clients' offices. Right: Alternate, plainer background requested as an option.


Another important technical bonus one gets from shooting on a green screen (or any plain background)…you can shoot using a higher camera angle (more flattering, especially for people with a little extra flesh under their jawlines) without having to worry about converging verticals. If you shoot down on a person in a real environment any vertical lines will be distorted in a visually distracting way, but using green screen, because the background is separate you can 'cheat', so this is a potentially more flattering way to shoot.


Left: Mock-up to illustrate what can happen to architectural vertical lines in a background when camera is looking down for a more flattering angle. Right: Final image delivered to client who was shot against green screen, and the vertically correct background image composited in.


I know some people advise shooting on white for the most flexibility, but in my opinion I prefer green screen with a few exceptions (such as the need for a white background in the final image). We need less gear than you do to shoot on a white background and as a result can get away with shooting in a marginally tighter space. And unlike white backgrounds green screens don’t reflect white onto the subject (nor do they reflect green as long as you set up properly) which can fill in shadows where you don’t actually want them filled; in other words, when you shoot on white you can get highlight spill on the person around their edges which can make the cut-out look cut out. You don’t get this unwanted light spill with green screen so it’s easier to produce a final image that looks realistic. And close-cutting on white properly can take more time and add more cost than using high quality green screen removal software.



Mock-up to illustrate what can happen if a portrait is shot against a white background and the light spills/reflects onto the subject...she looks cut out against this dark background.


And the final reason I love shooting on green screen: you can always go back and change the background in the future to refresh a portrait. 


As mentioned, you've just got to avoid subjects wearing green clothes and watch you correct for and retain green eyes. The final caveat is that this technique definitely works best for portraits in which the subject is free standing or sitting, not interacting with the “environment” in any way like sitting on a couch or leaning against a table or wall. For those more lifestyley shots we’d still need to shoot on set.


And that's it for my green screen treatise! This was a long one…if you’ve read until the end, thank-you so much! I hope this gives you a better understanding of some of the advantages of shooting on green screens. If you'd like to see more examples here's a link to a small portfolio PDF: https://hollinrake.com/green-screen-portrait-portfolio-pdf.


Please get in touch if you’d like me to help put you where you want to be!



Thursday, January 28, 2021

Pandemic Lockdown Portrait Shoot

 Sub-title: Shooting against a green screen in a back yard in the middle of winter

Malene's final selected file (photographer's version), comp'ed into an outdoor background 

January 2021. It has been a mighty tough time for so many people and not great for photographers of people. As I write this we are in a lockdown that for the most part precludes shooting, for obvious reasons. However, recently an old friend and colleague called to ask if there might be a way to do a headshot as her new career launch schedule had just accelerated somewhat unexpectedly and she had to have a professional portrait pretty quickly. She said that she wanted an outdoors shot which would fit well with her 'personal brand' (my words), and would allow us to shoot at a time when visits to indoor locations for any unessential purpose are forbidden/discouraged/not cool. So we chose her backyard as our studio. 

I can tell you that as a photographer who has frequently pushed back at the idea of shooting outside unless there is a really good reason to do so due to the many varied many and varied potential drawbacks, but who was also dying to be shooting again, I leaped at the opportunity to make it happen with the caveat that there would be a few necessary compromises that we'd need to discuss and understand ahead of time. Things like my not being able to bring an assistant which meant my lighting would be a pared down version of what I normally do. And it would be cold, which would make it tough for her to look relaxed and happy. And I probably wouldn't be able to style her properly. So we set out secure in the knowledge that we might not actually succeed.

 Before I go on I want to note that the image above is the one I optimized to a level that I felt satisfied with. Malene felt very strongly that her likeness should not be enhanced in anyway as in her profession as a psychotherapist authenticity is crucial. So for her version I had to stop short of what I'd normally do. 

Here's the above portrait right out of the camera:

The sun kept going in and out meaning that the contrast ramped up, ie. the shadows got darker than I wanted every time the sun went behind the clouds.

And here's the version Malene approved for her purposes:

The version Malene approved is less retouched than my final version.

So how did we do this? The first thing we did was choose a date based on both the weather forecast and her availability. Of course the day before the shoot date the weather forecast changed and the pre-shoot day swapped weather with the shoot day… so we had sun on the pre-shoot day and clouds with snow in the forecast for the shoot day. Excellent! But we didn't want to postpone because temperatures were slated to drop by the following week, so we went ahead. Believe it or not I actually brought a fan, because Malene has fine hair which is longer than usual due to salons being closed and I knew a bit of a breeze in her hair would give it some volume and life. As it happened there was an actual wind so we didn't need to create one. Thankfully, periodically, it came from the right direction! In between it did things like this:

Obviously the goal was to shoot when the wind caught her hair perfectly, just enough to give it a little volume and life (not like this).

We knew we weren't going to use stands for the green background as we needed to keep gear to a minimum and didn't want unmanned stands holding up what would effectively be a sail in the wind, so we tacked the green screen to the one fence that faced away from the ever-changing light (sun going in and out) and was tall enough to fill the frame behind a standing subject. Thanks to 36Pix's brilliant green screen knockout software the fact that the screen was not lit perfectly or stretched perfectly didn't really matter.

How uninspired does this scene look?! The hero shot at the top was taken when it was overcast like this.

As I mentioned above one of the most important things when doing portraits is to make the subject comfortable. A profile portrait shoot is not like a fashion shoot where models get paid a bunch of money and have to suck it up and look warm in summer wear during between season shoots. There was no way Malene was going to be comfortable wearing a T-shirt outside in just above 0° weather, but she was willing to power through it. And I knew I was going to have to retouch out some nose and eye redness. When the sun did come out spasmodically, the slight increase in warmth was hugely welcome, for Malene anyway. And aesthetically it was nice, throwing lovely backlit highlights onto her hair.

An alternate version, not retouched at Malene's request, with different hair, sunny highlights and a different background.

Other compromises included using a far smaller light modifier than I normally would, and using only one light, resulting in harsher shadows on Malene's face which I had to mitigate during retouching. I am a big believer in getting the exposure as close to perfect as possible in camera rather than having to "fix it in post", but this time I had to work with what I got. And I knew I captured enough to ultimately achieve what we wanted.

It's an important step to be able to review captures with the client prior to wrapping, if at all possible, so as to ensure that we've really captured the magic (ie. shots the client loves). (If we haven't we shoot more.) But during Covid we have to do this at a distance, so I attached an external monitor to my laptop and she took that inside with the door cracked open so we could hear each other speak well I stayed outside. 

Left: Moving my laptop closer to the house. Right: Setting up an external monitor for Malene to take inside to review the images. Photo credit: Malene Johansen

Do I recommend shooting business portraits outside in winter, or ever? Well, let me summarize why we may question shooting shooting outside (beyond the obvious question of whether being outside is relevant to one's personal brand):

  • Can't control the weather
  • so shoot dates may have to change last minute
  • may have to deal with changing light (e.g. as sun moves), or not ideal light
  • may have limited control in terms of the direction of available light/sunlight relative to background and subject ie. the best available, most appealing background may not line up with the best light for the subject
  • lighting may be compromised unless extra crew is hired to man lights and appropriate modifier(s)
  • subject may be cold or hot (ie. not comfortable or relaxed)
  • may not be able to keep hair style, or make up under control

Unless a specific outdoor location is significant or meaningful to the portrait or the subject will be interacting with it… for example sitting on outdoor furniture or leaning on a tree, one might ask what the benefits would be to introducing all these variables into the equation when you can shoot indoors on green screen and put in one of the many backgrounds your photographer has collected in her  "outdoor portrait backgrounds" archive. ;-)

That said, it can be done! In October 2020 in between lockdowns when it made slightly more sense, and I do mean slightly more, to be outside, we did a huge multi-day people shoot outside on green screens, and in that case there was no "maybe"; the shots had to be great. I'll write about it in an upcoming blog.

Hopefully soon the world will open back up, and I look forward to working in close proximity to people again then! In the meantime if I may be of any assistance please do not hesitate to reach out. Thanks for reading!



Thursday, August 6, 2020

How to Look Professional on Video Conference Calls - Backgrounds

New Product Launch!  Executive Video Conference Call Consultation and Set-Up Package

Ah, the joy of video conference calls! Does your heart fill with joy and confidence at every opportunity you get to showcase your professional awesomeness in a video call? Do you have a set-up that supports your showing up clearly and professionally?

At this point all indications are that video calls are not going anywhere, with some companies planning to hold off on bringing employees back to their offices until 2021, or possibly ever. A lot of people are not comfortable with video calls. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which may be the feeling that it's like having photo day (the horror!), over and over again. And not only do you have to show up on camera yourself, but people may see your home, your private space, and depending on your particular circumstances maybe a big part of it, or a small but messy or ill-lit or unattractive or distracting part if it. Not a great set of circumstances to reinforce your confidence.

It can be an uncomfortable proposition and I know for some the solution is to turn off the camera. But turning yourself "off" is not going to serve you in the short or long run. That said, we are way past the point where just showing up on video is enough. People may not say anything about their teams' and colleagues' poor set-ups, but I know from experience that they are noticing, they are (in some cases) distracted, and they are (in some cases) not impressed. Recently a high level executive told me in person that some of her team looked terrible on their calls. And I've heard stories of executives showing up in sweats. So truly, people do notice. Looking bad on video calls is not what you want to be noticed for, but you do want to be noticed! Think "executive presence" (but not the guy in sweats!).

Video conference call background #1. The stand is included and is to be positioned right behind your chair. The single stand makes for a tiny footprint, perfect for small spaces. (Photo updated My 2021)

Still from video capture showing me in front of photo fabric video conference call backdrop #1. The image for this backdrop was shot in an office downtown and modified for use as both a digital portrait background, and later a video conference photo fabric background. (Photo updated May 2021)

When the whole video-conferencing-for-everyone thing started I had, like many people, to figure out how to go from no video call set-up to looking professional on camera overnight. I didn't have an appropriate spot in the space I share with my family, and had to set something up. I, at least, had the advantage of being a photographer. So after doing some research I made a little movie with some helpful tips, understanding that not everyone would be as excited about experimenting with set-up details as I was. Here's a link to that if you're interested: https://youtu.be/10l1QrJrVzc

One of the biggest challenges, and the source of much of what is distracting about people's set-ups, is the background. Initially I became obsessed with virtual backgrounds...finding them, designing them, using them, and helping other people use them, until I came to the frustrating realization that they seemed, really, only to work well on Zoom, and even there it helped to have a green screen. So the many users on other platforms were out of luck, to varying extents. Fast forward and I finally realized that I already had a simple solution for everyone to look good on any platform -- actual physical backdrops which I have been specially designing for portrait shoots for years. All that was needed was a redesign to make them image-appropriate for individual business people, and work in their personal spaces.

These backgrounds simplify the set-up part of the equation in an easily accessible way for non-photographers, so professionals can set up quickly, easily and consistently, never have to clean up their space again just for a video call, and feel comfortable and confident about showing up on video (whether on video calls or filming messaging videos for their teams).

Expertly designed and created these small, home-office friendly backgrounds (mounted on a small single stand that’s included) are specifically designed for one person to sit in front of, to hide the room, and create the illusion of a nice, tidy room space. They are designed so that the image frames your head and shoulders, and there are few elements in the "room", just enough to suggest a nice, tidy, home-based (in most cases) space. Even the art on the walls in these images has been modified or created to be innocuous and not distracting. (This, I'll just mention, is in direct contrast to many of the virtual backgrounds on offer out there, which are often highly distracting and filled with eye catching art and furniture...exactly what we don't want as they take the focus off you and onto the background).

Working from home often means space is at a premium so the kit is really small. The super small 3.5 x 5 foot backgrounds are printed on anti-wrinkle jersey fabric*, and the single stand is 5 feet wide (fixed width, adjustable height). This means it will fit into a small space, and the single stand means the footprint (ie. space required on the floor) is tiny. And once you set it up (or I set it up), you can easily move it aside to be popped back behind you whenever you have a call. If you do want to put it away the backdrop can be rolled up and stowed, and the stand is collapsible. *As of spring 2021 the jersey fabric is no longer available and has been replaced with an opaque black rubber backed fabric which does not wrinkle easily, and does not allow light to shine through.

Whether you are using your actual environment in your home or office, or you choose to use a virtual or physical backdrop here are a few tips to make sure the focus is on you (in fact, these are the guidelines I follow for my photo fabric background designs). Unfortunately some spaces are never going to look good on video because they are just not conducive; for example there's a door right behind your head or stuff you just can't put anywhere else, in which case a backdrop really may be the best option. But here's the list:

  • Keep it simple. Remove clutter.
  • If there are shelves behind you, remove objects that may appear to be "growing out of your head".
  • Keep background plants off to the sides, not poking out from behind your head.
  • Remember that most web cams have wide angle lenses so you need to tidy up all the way to the  edges of the room.
  • If you do use a photograph (for a virtual background) make sure it's royalty free, and if it has a lot going on it it, try cropping it to remove some of the more distracting elements and blurring it a bit.
  • And this is not a background thing, but it's the reason I include a small lamp in the kit...make sure there is light on your face!
  • The focus should be on YOU!
Rough mock-ups of 6 specially designed video conference call photo fabric background options. (Please check back for new, additional options.) Please note that colours and crops are approximate; backdrops will appear more tightly cropped when used in real life (as web cams won't see edge to edge), camera and body position will affect the view, and body/head/hair shapes may obscure more/less of the image areas.

Of course it's not just the backgrounds, but the lighting, camera type and position, microphone, wardrobe etc., etc. that affect the way we show up. (I have lots to say about those things as well, just not here or now.) But if you have a nice background and a flattering light you will be a long way towards showing up brilliantly!

The basic package includes:

  • 3.5 x 5 foot horizontal fabric backdrop that hangs from a single stand. 6 images to choose from so far. New designs will be added to over time. 
  • Small collapsible stand 5 feet wide (fixed), adjustable height
  • A small daylight balanced, flattering and flexible desk lamp, the exact model of which may change  based on availability. (What's available and priced right changes all the time. Key features will always be daylight balance, tall enough to be able to shine from above your computer screen, and soft bulb for flattering light.)

I would love to include a web cam and flexible camera mount in the kit, but due to the same circumstances that have us needing to do video calls in the first place, availability has been severely impacted and the webcams I would want to supply are still not available as of my writing this. So I can't promise web cams just yet.

And last but not least I will mention the two options in terms of the consultation part of the package: Option 1 includes initial video call consultation followed by an in-person set-up (in and around Toronto), while Option 2 would involve the virtual consultation only. I can say that from experience it has been found to be very helpful for me to physically visit the space as no two set-ups are the same, and there will be tips and advice on how to get the best results in your space that I'll be better able to offer if I am there and can see the specifics of a space. I also know from feedback that it can be helpful for me to set up the stand and mount the backdrop (as simple as the process is).

I can't wait to help you elevate and align your video presence with your personal brand. Harness the power of looking good to feel good! It could not be easier. I look forward to working with you!

Please note: I do not have e-commerce enabled so to buy a kit please e-mail me. Thank-you!