John Flury’s Deliverance of the Luminous People
Photographer John Flury of Zurich, Switzerland takes us through his own wonderful account of how he created the below final image, from concept to final crew wrap photo.
Telling a Story with a Single Picture
Hello, fellow photon hunters, my name is John Flury, I’m a photographer/photo designer from Zurich, Switzerland, and this is my very first article for the PocketWizard blog. My professional background is in commercial and fine art photography, with the occasional wedding gig. But I’ve always had a passion for stories, especially fictional ones. As a kid, I loved to draw, paint, write stories and record them on tape. The love for creation of alternative worlds, where you could slip off to and go on imaginary adventures, has never quite left me. Which is why in every photo project I work on, I try to keep true to myself and what I most love to do, telling stories.
The word “story” has become somewhat ubiquitous in photography. When you get asked or critiqued “What’s the story of your photo?”, people don’t expect you to answer with a great tale of some bearded princess who battled a curse which led her through forests with carnivorous shoes, etc. Today’s concept of “story” in photography is something rather more condensed and often vague, an emotion, a mood, maybe a social or political statement. That’s of course fine. Personally however I get a kick out of taking the word quite literally and try to tell a story in the traditional sense with just a few photos, usually just one. This means before even remotely thinking about lighting and F-stops, I will sit down and write that brief story. I try to be very specific about the main characters, the symbolism, the chain of activities and the turning point of the story. As the story grows, palpable images start to form in my head, some of them fade, others stick. By drawing sketches (or photo-sketches like the one below) I try to bring story and images closer together. Sometimes this means rewriting a part. After all, not everything can be told convincingly using just images. Usually at this point I’ve already assembled a team and have a date set for the shoot. However the location itself is extremely important as well. Each location has its own story to tell, which can be both distinct or vague: Mood, light sources, spacial features, available props, age, materials, architectural details, etc. It’s important to let the location tell its story, even if means rewriting the story again. Due to these constant fine adjustments, more often than I’d care to admit, everything finally falls into place the night before the actual shoot.
The (Final) Story Concept for “Deliverance of the Luminous People”
The Luminous People are a tiny subspecies of fairies that become luminescent at dusk and remain active up until the early morning hours — much to the disgruntlement of the human folk. Due to their nature, the Luminous People don’t just glow, they also sing high-pitched songs, which in all likelihood sound beautiful to their own hearing, but are rather irritating to human ears, especially when trying to get some sleep. That’s why most humans call them just “night pests” and catch them with sugary water and butterfly nets and put them inside glass containers. Not only will the caught night pests provide a faint light source, their confinement also reduces the Luminous People’s songs to silent sobs which are nowhere near as offending to the human ear. One day though, a brave and supremely talented young fairy takes all her courage to use her gift of singing to set herself free and start the resistance against the captivity of her people.
While the story concept is always extremely important for me, it doesn’t mean we have to incorporate absolutely every single aspect of it into the photo(s). Some of the story material servers purely as momentum for the models (or rather, actors). They are not the only ones who appreciate the motivation though, everyone from the make-up artist to the wardrobe stylist likes to be inspired and loves to get fired up for an upcoming project. All this excitement and passion thrown together creates something unique, beautiful and, well, fun.
This composite image was partially shot in two separate steps: on-location (see “The Lanterns”) and in my studio (see “The Fairies”). Both sessions were shot with a Canon EOS 6D and EF 70-200mm F/2.8L IS II using “EOS Remote” and “ShutterSnitch” on a wirelessly tethered iPad, so the actors were able to see themselves right there on the set and adjust their expressions accordingly. The on-location session was shot with a Elinchrom Ranger RX and the studio shot was done with five Elinchrom studio strobes. All strobes were triggered either by PocketWizard Plus® III radio triggers or the built-in optical slave cell. The postproduction and compositing was done in Photoshop.
The concept was calling for shining lanterns, but I didn’t like the contrast and lack of detail I was getting from shooting them at night/evening using their own bulb as light source. So I had to craft the light, as if it would be emitting from the fairies. This was done by zone-lighting the scene carefully — a process I’ve written about in my own blog. To sum it up, it is essentially this: strobe-lighting the scene from different angles in multiple exposures, carefully building up the illumination zone by zone, then superimposing these shots in Photoshop.
We concentrated on two separate lighting angles: a) direct light towards the camera, b) light shining from one lantern towards the other two and towards the middle structure of the lantern (and ivy). Since we shot this in the late afternoon, there was of fair amount of indirect sunlight. But shooting at F/11 and shifting the white balance towards the cool end, daylight became blue diffuse moonlight and provided a subtle amount of fill. This part of the shoot was done in about 50 exposures, including lots of “just-to-be-safe-shots”. After all, you can’t go back afterwards and set the camera up in the exact same spot to relight a spot you had missed.
Next up were the glass shards. I had almost had sleepless nights thinking about a way to make realistic looking shards. I had considered doing it with 3D modeling software, but looking at some of the simulations online I had to admit that my 3D skills were nowhere near the necessary level of expertise. So it was back to good old manual labor — good old slightly dangerous manual labor, I should say. I took the remains of a recently smashed wine glass and but them in padded container. We would then toss the glass shards upwards towards the front of the lantern, flash them on their zenith and catch them on their scary way down with the padded container. We also tried holding the shards up in different positions around the lantern. I shot the glass shards on location because I wanted some of the natural reflection and diffraction inside the shards. The shards were lit by two strobes, a Ranger RX with a standard 21cm reflector, grid and full CTO from behind, representing the light emission from the lanterns, and a separate speedlight from the right side in a softbox and a 1/2 CTB gel (mimicking the moonlight).
One of the following days, I went back to the lanterns at night and shot some macro closeups of the dust and scratches on their surfaces. I used these photos to create believable glass surface texture layers for the fairies on the sides, because these two needed to be looking as though they’d be behind glass.
Since the fairies are a luminous species, we were searching for some kind of “glowing look”. Not an easy task though. Think about it this way. Try to shoot a well exposed photo of a burning light bulb. Impossible, right? The contrast is just too great. Either your background goes pitch dark or your light bulb is a white blob, possibly with a lot of lens flare. Likewise, shooting a luminescent fairy is like shooting a light bulb — the photo would be either over- or underexposed and definitely you wouldn’t get any detail in the fairy’s facial expression. So I decided to only “suggest” their luminescence with a halo around them and rim lighting.
The halo was later done in Photoshop, but the rimlight was done with four separate studio stropes: two strip lights (one on either side of the model), one gridded softbox on a boom directly overhead of the model, one 21° standard reflector in the back (in a classical hair-light position). The main light in front right position was a 1.8m octabank. It was not pointing at the model directly though, but feathered to the front facing two medium-sized reflectors on the opposite side which were throwing the light back to the model, acting as fill. Although my Elinchrom strobes come with a trigger system built-in, I’ve never used it once. Instead I rely on what works best for me and has never failed me once: PocketWizard Plus III radio triggers. The industry is full of praise for these little gadgets and rightly so, they are the German cars of radio triggers.
I have again learned a ton in this project and I am really happy how it turned out. There are always things I would do differently, but in a nutshell that’s why it’s good to do personal work — to experiment and figure out these things and learn from them and be ready to deliver perfect results when we are on a paid assignment.
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All images and quotes in this post are used with permission and ©John Flury, all rights reserved; story is ©PocketWizard. Please respect and support photographers’ rights. Feel free to link to this blog post, but please do not replicate or repost elsewhere without written permission.