Not Fit for the Yearbook

So I had an idea. The problem was, that I'd never seen what I wanted to do done before.

Let me back up. This scene is the result of a vague idea and my taking everything too far. The back story is that I was approached by the Delchini's to do senior portraits for their son Mario. Basically they told me that they needed senior portraits and one cool image of Mario with a gun or a sword or something to get him interested in the traditional photo session, as he wasn't too thrilled about being photographed. Everything else was up to me.

I like it when people leave things up to me.

So I told them okay and asked them to give me a little time to think things over and gather up a concept. Almost from the very beginning I had this nagging idea that wouldn't leave me alone of using the train station over in Railroad Square in Santa Rosa California. Every other location that popped into my head was immediately eclipsed in favor of this place... At least for a majority of the back plate (fancy term for background). Now maybe it stuck out in my head because I had done a traditional photoshoot at this location the week before, but if I could go back today and do it all over again I'd still pick that same location probably. 

Now as it turns out Mario is really into Anime. If you are unfamiliar with Anime it's basically those really strange (to me) adult Japanese cartoons. At the initial consult, I started asking Mario about these as I didn't really know much about them and I wanted to try and grasp what the appeal to them was. I've had friends that really like different anime, but it wasn't really something that ever made me curious enough to give it a shot. So I had Mario make me a list of his favorite shows. I gave one of the shows a shot. 

So why am I bringing all of this up you ask?  Well, basically I was doing research. I wanted this final image to be a very cool, one of a kind piece of art of Mario. Now I could have just put him into a scene with a gun and made it cool, but I wanted the final image to have that subtle anime flair that would really resonate with both him while still retaining the style of imagery I'm partial to. The cues are subtle and he honestly probably didn't even pick up on what I was doing (even after seeing the final image), but my goal was for him to love the shot, not necessarily for him to know why he loved it. So after my "research" I googled anime guy with gun for more ideas and kept seeing the same style image over and over agin. 

Click on images for image sources 

Notice the angle of all of these examples. I call this the Hero angle, where we basically shoot up at the model to make them look larger than life. Also note the distorted perspective. All of these examples have a very uncompressed wide angle quality to them to make the gun appear even larger then our hero. Even though these examples are just drawings I knew I could replicate this style using conventional optics... Kind of.

The Rub

So I'm going to get a little nerdy here for a second, but bare with me as this is the cool part. So basically I had a very clear vision at this point of what I wanted my shot to look like. I had my back plate, what I wanted my model to do, how I wanted him to look... Everything looked great in my head. There was just one snag. What I wanted to do was not physically possible with modern optics. Camera's basically have a limited depth of field (the amount of things that can be in focus in a single frame). As objects get closer to the lens this problem compounds and the depth of field gets narrower (less that's able to be in focus in one frame). This was unacceptable for the shot I had in my head. I needed that gun close to the lens, with the wide angle distortion, and tack sharp front to back. I mean what the hell was the point of having this awesome background if I was just going to blur it out! Nope not going to happen! So I came up with a solution that I was pretty sure was going to work. I was going to focus stack a person.

I actually tried googling focus stacking a person prior to this shoot. I found nothing. You'll notice from the images above that the first has Mario's face and body in focus while the second has the pistol sharp. Basically I was going to combine the two images so that Mario and the gun were perfectly in focus from front to back. I'm sure someone must have done this before at some point, but I couldn't find any information on it, nor had I ever come across anything in my travels where I'd seen this technique done on a person.

Now you might be asking what's with the strap? Well when I started shooting this, I tried to just have Mario hold the gun steady in between shots. I discovered almost immediately, that the amount of time between shots was WAY too long to try and get his hand to stay (reasonably) in a similar location so the two images could be blended together later. So I thought why not just rest his wrist on something? Problem solved!

The light

One other aspect of the anime I saw very frequently in my "research" was the use of hard lighting.  I wanted the light to have harsh shadows and thus give the final image a more dramatic quality. To achieve this, my main light for this image was actually just a bare speed light off to camera right. I had soft light coming over his right shoulder from the shoot though umbrella to mimic the soft light coming in behind him in the scene and a 24x24 soft box overhead for fill. The combination of the hard main light and the use of fill allowed the image to remain edgy while still keeping things clean and not getting too contrasty in the shadows, which I wanted in this instance.

Here's a shot of the set up.


All things considered the lighting set up here was pretty low budget, as this was shot before I got my hands on studio strobes and modifiers. I think for this shot though, it worked out pretty nicely in the end. I actually had an art director who worked with some pretty well known companies compliment the quality of light for the final image. When she asked what I was using and how I did it, I laughed as I told her Canon and Yongnuo speed lights with umbrellas as modifiers. 

Final Touches

Back plate, check. Model, check. Now I just needed to tie everything together. The image looked flat with just him and the background so I decided to take things a step further. I took a shell casing I had and photographed it in a few different positions. I then took those images and added them to the scene. I also painted in a muzzle flash to give a little extra drama to the image. 

Above you can see all of the different elements of the scene involving Mario prior to blending everything together. Note that at this point the background was flattened to save space, but the building off to the right and the train off to the left were both additions to the backplate and were not actually present in real life.

After blending everything together, and stylizing to taste, the final image is what you see below.

Now of course this image won't make the yearbook for obvious reasons, but it doesn't matter. They liked this print so much that two large metal prints of this image hang in their house. That's a success in my book.