Thinking big with Bigthinkster

I was given three descriptors. "Expansive," "epic," and "light pallet" with the expectation to make something amazing for Michelle. The idea was that this image would be something eye catching that she could use on her site for her new business So we got together and talked about ideas she had until I felt that I kind of had a sense of what she was after and what I wanted to do.

I knew I wanted to do a panorama style shot with a 2x1 crop so the image would straddle nicely as a header image on her website. Her web site at the time also had the look all dialed in so I knew it was going to be a very white site and I also knew what her logo would look like.

The logo was really where I drew a lot of my cues from for the final image. It was obvious that this image needed a really dramatic sky and light rays coming though the clouds. It was also pretty obvious that I wanted the sun to be a big part of the image as well. From there I also knew that in addition to that dramatic sky the image needed to have a very light blue hue as one of the main colors, and red accent(s) in the image by somewhere or something as dictated by the colors of her logo.

With all of that in mind it was now just a matter of execution. Tiburon initially felt like the place where I'd capture the back plate. I remembered seeing this nice long expansive bike path with green lawns and San Francisco off in the background, so I drove out there and spent a few hours photographing different elements of the area. I brought the images home and immediately roughed an idea together. To be honest, it just wasn't there. So I looked at the clock and thought to myself well, I still have enough time to make it out to the coast before the sun goes down. So I grabbed my camera and went.

Now In my head I was trying to remember where this cool wooden path was that I came across once upon a time out there, but I couldn't remember exactly where it was. It became clear that once I was out  there that I didn't have much time to find my spot for the day. When shooting landscapes theres always this panicked feeling I get when the sun is starting to get low and the light is getting good, aaaaaannnnnnnddddd you have no idea what you're going to do. That's what I was feeling when I was out there.

Now something most people don't know is that it's not uncommon at all for a landscape photographer to make multiple trips out to a location to get the exact shot that they want. My images tend to live by a different set of rules, so I get to do things a little differently than the traditional landscape people. So no problem I thought, I'll just look around and try and wing it... or something. And that's exactly what I did. 

So basically this back plate was taken at Duncan's landing near Bodega bay in California. The thing is though, that this backplate actually doesn't exist. In the past I've typically just found a nice scene and shot it two or three frames wide for a panorama and kind of been on my way. I actually did that here too, but I just felt like there was something more I could do with this beautiful location. There was this really cool rock there that I knew had to be part of the frame. I shot it two frames wide and it was nice, but I knew I could make it better

So then I thought well maybe I can shoot this really cool fence and tie it in somehow.


I continued to shoot elements in the area in this manner gathering bits and pieces of what I knew would be a frankenscape later.

I shot until the sun fell behind the horizon and then brought the images home. There I started playing with them, fitting them together and putting bits of this here and that there. At one point I remember thinking to myself, that this was quite possibly the best jigsaw puzzle ever! The really cool thing about this puzzle is figuring out what the final image should look like as it was totally up to me and what my brain could dream up! The hard part was knowing when I had finished it. So I thought I had it pretty well roughed together... but I was sooo wrong. At this point the foreground and sky were as you see in the final image except there was no path... So after realizing the elephant in the room I slapped my forehead and massaged a path I had into the area between the two rocks. Waaaaaay better!

The back plate was now to a point where I felt it could stand on its own. I always like my composites to be able to do this, as I think it makes the final image much more interesting. When the backplate can stand alone I think it it's much more likely to create opportunity to trap the eye. So now all I needed to do was shoot my Michelle and blend everything together!

So I scheduled the shoot and we went for it. I told Michelle to bring her bike (which was unexpectedly way cooler than I thought it was going to be) and a scarf.

Now doing this kind of work can turn ugly REAL fast if you don't plan things out right. It's pretty well known that light and perspective need to match pretty close to sell the fake. What's not as well known is actually how to pull it off. One of the biggest tricks I use is blending feet (or in this case tires) instead of knocking the subject out and placing them into the scene. As a rule if I ever place someone into a scene where I can see their feet, the model NEEDS to be photographed on a similar surface to make things easier in post. So I chose to photograph Michelle in the street in front of my house to utilize the asphalt and match the path as best I could.

Now I also knew from experience that because I chose to shoot Michelle in this way that I needed to pay special attention to the ambient light outside. I got lucky. The day we shot Michelle there was a very similar light quality to the day when the backplate was taken. So what I did was wait for the sun to get low on the horizon and shot Michelle with her back to it creating the strong backlight I needed to match the light of the scene. Then I simply short lit her with flash to give her face and body dimension and not let the light on the front of her go flat as it would if she was only backlit by the sun.

But all of this still wasn't enough. When I captured the image of Michelle I knew it was going to look very static with only slight cues of motion. The image of Michelle was captured fairly slow in comparison to her movement (1/200 sec) and I did this on purpose. I actually wanted a little bit of blur in the tires and spokes and stuff to give the impression that she was actually moving. 1/200 is also maximum sync speed for my camera and also about where I thought would be a good compromise between sharp subject with slight motion cues.  I was a little afraid though that because she would be fairly small in the final frame that these small cues would get lost with everything else going on in the final image. Enter the scarf...

The scarf you see in the final image is actually 3 scarves that I put together. By doing this I could introduce quite a bit more motion to the final image and get exactly the whipped look I wanted. Achieving this in camera would have been impossible especially since I decided to bend reality and make the scarf longer than it actually was. I then tweaked the scarf color to play the compliment of the sun highlight hue and we were looking good.

The final thing that I added was the birds in the upper left hand corner. They actually add a lot to the final image as they are what lead your eye into Michelle and help trap the viewers attention within the scene. This is a well known technique that famous renaissance painters perfected and one of those "rules" we continue to use when composing a pleasing frame to this day.

Below is an animated gif of the progress as all of the different elements come together to create the final scene.