Part 1: The Shoot (fun with chocolate)
I decided to just have some fun with this shot, so I created this background with purple LED christmas lights layered behind red tulle fabric. To add more “sparkles” I placed a silver reflective board behind the lights and aimed toward the camera. Some additional tulle fabric wrapped around the bowl served to unite the foreground and background.
Note the long distance between the bowl and the fabric background, which allows me to throw the background out of focus, as well as prevent the main light from spilling on the background.
Since we are shooting both still images and video for the cinemagraph, I lit the shot with tungsten (continuous) light so I wouldn’t have to change the lighting for the video. I used a 1000 watt tungsten bulb in a strip light softbox, positioned above and right of the bowl, which gave me a nice hilight along the side of the strawberry. A gold reflector board on the left side filled in the shadows and leant a nice warm glow to both the strawberry and the chocolate. You can see both the light and the reflector in the corners of the shot above.
Since, as you can see, the main light is shining towards my lens (causing flare), I attached a French Flag to the camera stand and positioned it to block the light from hitting the lens.
I also made use of Canon’s live view software (EOS utility) to give me a live preview on the computer so I could tweak the position of the strawberry. I used a Manfrotto Articulated Arm and Super Clamp to securely hold the bamboo skewer and strawberry.
Meanwhile, Linsey was busy melting chocolate, and sampling liberally, which accounts for her smile. She used a large syringe to drizzle the warm chocolate over the strawberry so we could catch just the right flowing drip.
Once we had the final still shot, we switched the camera (Canon 5D MKII) to video and captured a series of drips and drizzles, while being careful not to disturb any of the elements. Using continuous light made it easy to switch back and forth between video and still captures, and ensure that we had just the right elements to combine in the final Cinemagraph.
Part 2: Cinemagraph lessons
A Cinemagraph is an image that combines a still photo with video to show small areas of motion… such as the chocolate drip. It’s made by layering a still image over a video in Photoshop Extended, then masking areas of the still image to allow the video to show through. The results are saved as a .gif file, which can be posted on a web site. I have another example here, and a fuller explanation of the method here. If you want to give this a try, I recommend you have a look at this video tutorial, which walks you through the process step by step.
I did run into some interesting challenges with this image however. The background, which is made up of colored LED Christmas lights shining through colored fabric, has very intense hues and is almost blown out in the hilights. I didn’t realize it as I was shooting, but the video capture rendered the tones quite differently than the still capture. I’m guessing that it has to do with the compression that is applied to the video, which skewed the background tones quite severely towards the red/purple hues. When I masked the still image, the difference in tones made a nasty halo around the drip. I had to apply a few adjustment layers (Hue/Saturation and Color Balance) to get the video layer to blend with the still layer.
The same areas gave me some problems when it came time to save the final .gif file. The .gif format is limited to 256 colors instead of the thousands or millions of colors in a jpeg or tiff file. When I tried to render the intense colors of the background I saw a lot of posterization (hard color breaks rather than smooth gradations) around the sparkling lights, which I felt were distracting. I ended up solving the problem by reducing the saturation of the reds and purples with a Hue/Saturation adjustment. Basically, I sacrificed some color intensity to get smoother gradations. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:
You can see that the colors are a bit less intense, but the overall rendering is much smoother. I also played with the settings in the “Save for Web & Devices” window, trying different combinations of color rendering intents and dithering patterns until I got a the best possible results, in this case Selective Color and Noise Dithering. You’ll have to experiment on your own, as I find the results vary depending on the particular image.
So… a few lessons learned about shooting for Cinemagraphs! When designing your shot, you have to bear in mind the tonal compression of the video format, as well as the limited color range of the .gif file format. This means that you have to shoot a smaller color palette…. less saturated tones and softer colors. This will make combining the video and still images much easier, as well as making for easier rendering into a final .gif file.
I hope this will help you when you give this fun technique a try.
For this shot I was able to go back and re-use the set up that didn’t work for my Pork Tenderloin shot (see the post below), but this time it succeeds! I really love the white-on-white look for this shot, with the blown out background. However, this raises a critical issue about flare!
OK. I’ll say this right up front… I’ve developed a pet peeve. Through my teaching and workshops I’ve noticed that photographers have forgotten (or never knew) how to use lens hoods. I constantly see photographers shooting, both in the studio and outside, with their lens hood securely mounted backwards on their lens. I notice that Scott Kelby has observed the same thing as well (see his article here). That lens hood is critical in preventing image destroying flare (stray light that bounces around in your lens and lowers contrast and sharpness).
In the studio, this is particularly critical, as we often position our lights so they are shining towards the lens, thus guaranteed to produce flare. One simple test: with your camera mounted in shooting position, put your head near your subject and look at your lens. If you see your lights reflected in the lens, you have flare! You must use something (a lens shade or a gobo) to block the light from the lens.
In this shoot, I have a huge soft box pointed directly at the lens…. here’s my set-up:
Note the camera on left is pointed directly at the big softbox behind the subject. Therefore, it’s critical that I block off all light outside of the actual frame of the shot. The best tool for doing this is a bellows style lens hood:
These adjustable lens hoods adapt to a wide range of lenses and focal lengths. Note that I’ve actually put a custom made mask in the front slot that exactly masks off the frame of my 90mm lens. Although these very handy tools are not as common as they once were, Lee Filters makes a very nice version. Here are examples of the exact same shot, same exposure, both with and without the lens hood:
Note the reduced contrast and saturation when the lens shade is not attached. That’s the effect of flare!
Now you know…. Rant over!
Here’s Linsey with her oh-s0-tasty homemade marshmallows:
Here I demonstrate the back-of-the-spoon method of pouring the hot chocolate without disturbing the liqueur, and Linsey applies a touch of the torch:
Add a few marshmallows as props, and here’s the final shot:
The lighting and set up for this shot is the essence of simplicity. My food stylist, Linsey Bell, suggested that we break open a coconut to form the bowls for both the chocolate and the fruit, and to convey the idea of the coconut milk. She had also picked up the big tropical leaf at her local florist while she was shopping. All I really had to do was arrange these beautiful items and light them. I knew from experience that I wanted my light to be very soft in order to bring out the texture of the chocolate and not to create harsh shadows. So I set up a very large (4ft. x 5ft.) soft box and placed it behind my table. This combination of a very large light source and placement behind the subject creates a great sense of texture and richness without being too contrasty. I used a large gold reflector to bounce some warm light into the shadows and give the coconut that warm glow. I also added a small, shiny gold reflector to bounce more light into the coconut and prevent the chocolate from going too dark.
When I looked at the test shot I like the sense of texture but I felt that it was too even over all, I needed a bit of shadowing in areas. I stacked a couple of bricks just out of frame behind the leaf to cast some shadows around the corners of the shot, and that seemed to give a nice sense of depth to the background. You can see in these two shots the difference that just that little shadow makes.
I know that it’s easy to add in those kinds of shadows later in Photoshop, but the purist (and long-time film shooter) in me still prefers to get the light and atmosphere right in the moment of capture rather than adding it later.
I did however decide to do a bit of Photoshop enhancement, using what I call a richness layer. The technique is fairly simple. I duplicate the background layer, then apply a threshold adjustment, which creates a high contrast black-and-white version of the image. I tweak the level of the threshold to give a good balance of white and black. Then I change the blend mode for that layer to overlay or soft light, depending on how strong I want the final effect to be. Then I apply a Gaussian blur to the layer, adjusting the amount to taste. I play with the opacity of the layer to get just the level of richness that the shot needs. Finally, I add a layer mask and block out the effect wherever I feel it’s too strong, in this case on the strawberries and some of the chocolate.
What this technique does is add some contrast and a bit of edge softening to create a bit of a “romantic richness” without altering the color of the shot. You can see the effect here in these before and after shots. It’s very subtle but I do like it.