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.
Okay, so you’re wondering how I made this still photograph move. This is a new twist on the old .gif animation format that was responsible for all those little goofy animations in the early days of e-mail. Basically it involves creating a layered Photoshop file that contains a still image on the top layer and a video layer underneath it. By masking out the top layer you allow the video layer to show through in certain areas, and so you get this fun combination of still image and moving areas. The resulting file is saved as a .gif format file which can be posted on the web. Here’s a screenshot that shows my layered Photoshop file and the animation timeline window that allows you to play back the video. (The animation timeline window is only available in Photoshop CS5 Extended, so you need to have this version to do these).
These combination still and motion images are called Cinemagraphs, and they’ve become quite popular among fashion photographers. For this shot I used the Canon 5D Mark II to capture both the still image and the video clip so I could be sure that the images would match exactly when I layered them together. This is a really fun technique to play with. If you’d like to experiment on your own, here’s a great video tutorial from Russell Brown that walks you through the complete process.
Our set up for the shot was quite simple, with a small soft box overhead and slightly behind the bowl to bring out all the shapes and textures of the seafood.
One interesting styling issue arose as we prepared the Bouillabaisse. When we filled the bowl with seafood it became too dark and opaque… lifeless. So we solved the problem by using clear plastic “ice cubes” to fill in the bowl and allow us to artfully arrange the seafood.
The ingredients shot was fairly straightforward, with a large octobox as the light source to create a very soft, even lighting. Since the camera had to be quite high, I decided to use the Canon EOS Utility to control the camera. This allowed us to use live view on the computer to see exactly what was in the frame as we were arranging the elements… much easier than trying to peer down through the viewfinder.
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.