Levitation / by Jaakko Paarvala

As a part of the frequent one-prime challenge at Dyxum I posted some levitation photos. Some folks wanted to know how those pictures were made and although the net is filled with photographic tutorials, here's a short introduction to this fun. Basically there's two different approaches, one in which you do pretty much everything in-camera and then there's the other one with some Photoshop work involved.

Just jump and use fast enough shutter speed!

Just jump and use fast enough shutter speed!

Freeze the action

This is an easy one - you only need fast enough shutter speed, that's it! Anything shorter than 1/500 sec is sufficient, although you can go down to 1/320 in some situations. In broad daylight this is no problem, but you probably have to a larger aperture setting (lower f-number) or/and raise the ISO setting wherever you've less light available. If you have a speedlight that can do high speed sync you can incorporate some additional lightning too. The photo above is done with daylight and one speedlight in HSS mode mimicking the rising sun. After finding the right settings it's just a matter of finding a good angle to shoot from and start jumping! You don't have to use a trampoline or try to jump really high especially if you shoot slightly upwards against your subject. You'll soon notice the best moment to press the shutter button is when your subject is at his/her highest point. Not only it looks cool, but also the velocity is the lowest when at the top of the arc thus helping to get as little motion blur as possible. Natsumi Hayashi has truly excellent photos (with some super cool 3-D pictures, too) in this genre.

Plan, shoot and mask away

Plan, shoot and mask away

The post-production way

This is the more complicated way offering endless amount of possibilities to get your subject to levitate, fly or do all kinds of crazy things. I'd say the most important thing here is a tripod or some other means to ensure your camera stays absolutely still between the frames. Trying to capture the shots hand-holding your camera is going drive you crazy when aligning the frames with your computer. Depending the complexity of your vision, it's a good idea to have a clear plan how you want to the elements to be positioned in the final image and in which order you're going to take the shots, e.g. if you want your subject to be hovering over a flowerbed, make sure you photograph the flowers before your subject goes into the scene and stomps on the flowers! If possible, decide the placement of your camera beforehand and make sure your supporting devices of your choice (ladders, cardboard boxes, chairs etc.) are not blocking part of your subject from the angle of the camera. Also, try to position yourself on the supporting thingy so that the form of your body stays relatively natural, in other words, if you lie on your stomach on a long table, you're going to look unnaturally flat after masking away the table. Of course it's possible to alter that in post, but it takes another effort trying to get a convincing result. Pay attention to the colour of the support also. Any colour reflects back to the subject, and those colour casts can be difficult to remove later. The actual shooting for the picture above took about 20 mins. although I was working alone, finding the concept and planning the shoot took much longer. Here're the frames I used:

The basic concept is this: stack the images needed as layers, your background scene layer at the bottom, align the layers and just mask away the parts you don't want to be visible in the final image. You don't have to do any difficult Photoshop tricks if your images are nicely aligned, just use a layer mask and brush away those unwanted elements revealing the background. 

Brush away

Brush away

Once done with masking I had to use some levels and curve adjustments for some of the layers, it was a partly cloudy day with constantly changing lightning. Also the motion blur was added in the end to introduce some more craziness to the composition. I won't go into details how to work inside Photoshop, but promise to find a good tutorial about layers if wanted.

I'm using Photoshop, but with Gimp (freely distributed) you're able to work in layers as well.

Btw, if you wondered how I fired the camera working alone here, I had the remote inside my glove.