Kaila Pearson: Volleyballer

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

The funny thing is, she isn’t even a volleyball player. A self-described “child of the water,” Kaila told me she loved everything having to do with the sea: swimming, surfing, and SUPing. But volleyball? Not her bag. But when a tall, beautiful, athletic blonde volunteers to pose on the beach for you in December, you don’t let a little thing like reality stand in your way.

Inspired by shots by the likes of Joel Grimes I wanted to create a dramatic sports portrait. Given that I had a ball and had access to the nets at main beach in Santa Cruz, volleyball seemed like a logical choice. Kaila and I had been trying to get together for a shoot ever since we first met back in October. Finally, a few days before Christmas when neither of us were busy and a storm front was rolling through Santa Cruz, we had our chance.

Nowadays the common practice to create a shot like this is to shoot the model in the studio where you can control all the elements, and then composite her into a background. But as much fun as compositing is, it’s usually a lot simpler to shoot the whole thing all at once, provided you have a good background of course. Which we did thanks to the clouds.
Volleyball net Santa Cruz, California

The first step in creating a photo like this is lining up the composition, so after I had positioned the net and the clouds in my frame how I wanted them, I had Kaila jump in front of the lens.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Since at this point I was shooting using ambient light only Kaila was very dark, as expected. But that dark base was exactly what I need to start sculpting a portrait using my speedlights. Because of the storm it was actually quite windy that day and so I didn’t want to bother with big softboxes or octobanks. Instead my key light was simply a small softbox LTP positioned about head high at camera left. Maybe a bit harder light than I would normally use, but since I was going for drama I didn’t fuss.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

This was a good start but there’s nothing like a little rim light to separate your subject from the background and give the image a 3D feel. So I set up a bare speedlight behind Kaila off to the right and blasted it back at her to give that nice edging.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Now that the lighting setup was dialed in it was time to get shooting. Kaila, trooper that she was, disrobed and set about looking like a badass despite the goosebumps. But as soon as she took her sweatshirt off it was clear we had a problem on our hands: the wind. It kept blowing her hair all over the place, up into the air, and into her face. (Note: this is one of those things that’s so easy to control in the studio).

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

We quickly realized we weren’t going to be able to get a shot where we were thanks to the wind, so Kaila got dressed while I made a mirror-image of the lighting setup on the other side of the net. That way, Kaila would be able to look into the wind and have it blow her hair out behind her.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Success! With the lighting design sorted and the wind working in our favor, Kaila ditched the sweatshirt again as I started snapping.

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

From here it was just a matter of trying a couple of different poses and expressions until we got something we both liked. And here was the final shot:

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

But remember that I said I wanted this to be a dramatic portrait. And while the straight-out-of-camera shot above is nicely lit and has some awesome clouds in the background, it doesn’t quite have the punch that I was going for. That aspect was added in Photoshop: some contrast adjustments, lots of dodging and burning, and some gradient maps later, this was the final result:

Volleyball portrait by Santa Cruz Photographer Joshua Cripps

Thanks for reading, hope you enjoyed the process!

Anatomy of a Shot: Amanda Thompson, Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps
Back in August 2011 I dressed my friend Amanda up as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider and took her into the redwood forest of Nisene Marks to do some conceptual portraits of her. I was very happy with the shots at the time but I was looking them over a few weeks ago and thought the photos could use a little more zip. The plan was to remove Amanda from the background I shot her on and composite her into a background with a little more oomph.

So you can see what I was working with here’s the original shot, pretty much straight out of camera. Notice the four-light setup (key, right and left rim, and separation). Pretty nice light which works to good effect, but I knew I could spruce it up a bit.

Tomb Raider portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

First step was to extract Amanda from the existing background. It wasn’t easy thanks to the complexity of the background, but through extensive use of every selection and masking tool I know of (luminosity masking, channel masking, feathering, quick selections, the pen tool, color selections, free-hand brushing, etc.) I finally got a cut out of Amanda I was happy with.

Tomb Raider composite cutout by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Now that I had a good selection of the girl (which was refined over and over and over throughout the compositing process), I had to find a suitable background to drop her into. Digging into my archives I came across this shot of the sequoia forest in southern Yosemite and thought it had some nice elements. I can just picture Lara Croft running through some primeval forest somewhere, right?

Forest background

But that background by itself was pretty blah so I decided to punch it up a bit. First step was to darken the image, then change the color balance to give it a golden, adventurey feel. I also used a zoom blur on the highlights to simulate sunbeams streaking through the forest. And then I used a custom, speckled brush to put yellow splashes of grainy texture throughout the scene.

Forest background

Much more interesting! So then I dropped Amanda in over the top to see what would happen.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

And yikes, she stuck out like a sore thumb. Forget the fact that her legs end in mid air, there are some other issues that need to be addressed: namely scale and perspective. In order for the composite to be believable the subject has to be the right size in relationship to the background, so I shrunk her a tiny bit and enlarged the background. Also, I shot Amanda from about chest height and looking up toward her face. Whenever you shoot a forest with any kind of upward angle the trees point in toward the center of the frame, so I adjusted their perspective to match hers. I also cropped the image to get rid of the floating leg issue. And I used the clone stamp tool to get rid of the fence in the background at left.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Another huge issue when it comes to believable composites is matching color. Your subject and your background need to look like they were photographed under the same lighting conditions. So shadows and highlights should all be in the same color scheme, and the general color balance needs to match as well. You can see in the shot above that the background is much too golden for Amanda so I added lots of blue and cyan to the balance to swing the tones her way.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

But I didn’t want to lose the golden feel completely, so I also adjusted Amanda’s color to retain some of that gold feel. You’ll also notice in the shot above that Amanda is much more contrasty than the background so through some dodging and curves adjustments I brightened her shadows, making sure that the tones her shadows matched the tones in the shadows of the background.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Getting there, but now I found Amanda looking a little flat after reducing her contrast. So I did some dodging and burning to add some depth and dimension to her. Notice the painted-on highlights on the legs, hair, chest, and arms to give a little more 3D look.Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Taking a good hard look at that image I thought that her blue shirt didn’t blend in well with the color, tones, and feel of the image, so I decided to add some camo patterns to it. This was done pretty easily: just grabbed a camo pattern swatch from the web, warped it to roughly match the curves of her body, set the blending mode to overlay, and used the pen tool to make a mask for her shirt. I also thought that she was looking a little too crisp compared to the background, so I duplicated her layer and ran a Gaussian blur of 0.5 px on it. I also used that same custom brush to add some splotches of texture to her.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Cool. Now I was getting there in terms of color and detail. But one of the most important elements in a believable composite is interaction. In that the subject needs to be interacting with the background. Here I thought the easiest way to do that would be to duplicate the light beams from the background and extend them over Amanda so it looks as though the light is actually shining past her.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

The next step was a more subtle one. Using a big, soft brush with a bright yellow color I dodged the highlights on Amanda’s body. The big soft brush creates a bit of a glow which carried over onto the background and helped tie her to it.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Almost done, now it was time for some global finishing touches. One thing I really like to do for a cool, stylized look that ties the whole scene together is to add a gradient map adjustment layer. I make the gradient using a dark and light color from within the scene, then set the blending mode to soft light. It punches up the contrast and tightens the color scheme nicely.

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Lastly I decided I wanted to present the image a little darker so I used two curves adjustment layers: one to simply darken the scene, and one to add a bit of global contrast. And voila, the final product:

Tomb Raider composite portrait by Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

Think this is cool? Think it sucks? Let me know in the comments.


Christy Russell: Zumba Dance Teacher

In June I photographed some dance portraits for Santa Cruz Zumba instructor Christy Russell. I invited my friend and follow photographer Diego Tabango to join me for the shoot. We met Christy at her studio in Scotts Valley and began scouting for an interesting background for the portraits. Since Christy incorporates a fair bit of hip hop into her dance we decided that an urban feel would be cool for the shots. Outside the studio we found a simple concrete wall with some neat holes and lines in it, as well as a standard roll-up garage door. We knew that with the right lighting both of these would provide an interesting background for her portraits. What’s more, we were in luck since both the wall and the roll-up door were in the shade, giving us a lot of flexibility with our lighting design.

Santa Cruz Zumba Dance Photo Shoot, reviewing poses with model

Reviewing posing ideas with the model


For the concrete wall section of the shoot we went for a 4-light approach: the key light is an Einstein blasting through a large octobox. We then used two bare speedlights for rim on Christy, and a third speedlight to splash a little separation light on the background. Diego and I both love this lighting setup because of its punchy feel. Here’s a short behind-the-scenes video which shows the lighting setup pretty well.

Santa Cruz Zumba Dance Photo Shoot

Photo by Diego Tabango


After catching a few cool shots of Christy jumping in front of the concrete wall we moved on to the roll-up door. Here we went for a simple cross-lighting design: the same key camera right, and a single bare speedlight camera left for rim. But here, to punch things up a bit we added a colored gel (1/2 CTO?) to the speedlight to help with color contrast. As we hoped, the metal of the roll up door reflected the lights and added some great color highlights to the images.

Santa Cruz Zumba Dance Portrait

Santa Cruz Zumba Dance Portrait

Santa Cruz Zumba Dance instructor Christy Russell

All in all it was a really fun photoshoot and Christy was great to work with.

If you’re interested in getting portraits like these, please contact me.

The Thug Life

Digital imaging and software packages like Photoshop have led to a groundbreaking revolution in composite photography. I love compositing because it frees you up creatively. There are no limits to the images you can create. Dangerous and fantastical adventures, underwater worlds, and magical moments. Nothing is out of bounds, and the only things limiting the images you can achieve are your creativity and your Photoshop skillz. I’ve been getting more into composites lately so I thought I would spruce up a self portrait I took in the summer of 2011 by adding a gritty background to it.

When shooting portraits with artificial lights I love a three-light setup with the key light being a large, somewhat soft light on-axis with the subject, and two harder lights behind the subject and high up left and right in order to provide a cool rim light for the portrait. This setup creates a punchy, almost 3D look that is really cool. Here’s a shot showing the basic lighting setup:

Four light setup for composite portrait

You can see in this shot that I used a fourth light directly behind me for some additional separation from the background. I like this look even more than the 3 light setup, but here I ultimately decided to nix the separation light simply because my background was too cluttered. So after ditching this light and getting my pose down, here’s the straight-out-of-camera version of my final portrait:

Three light setup for composite portrait

When I originally processed this image I wanted to make a complete joke of the tough guy look so I added some cartoon tattoos. You’ll also noticed that I ditched the background completely.

Thug Life portrait from Santa Cruz photographer Josh Cripps

But like I said, I’ve been improving my compositing skills, as well as realizing that a good background really makes or breaks an image, so I wanted to re-process the shot and composite it into a background. I wanted something a little grungy and urban so I used this shot of an alley in downtown Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz downtown alley

My portrait was fairly easy to cut out cleanly in Photoshop because it was simply on a dark background, so I moved the alley background behind the cutout portrait and free transformed it until the perspective matched.

santa cruz composite portrait

Then to get the two images to blend together smoothly I adjusted the hue and saturation of each, added some noise to the image, and used a gradient map to further match the colors. There was also quite a bit of dodging and burning I did to help stylize the image. And voila, the final result:

santa cruz composite portrait

Looking for images like this? Contact me for a portrait session.

Or if you want to improve your own composite skills, check out the awesome tutorials from the ever-inspiring Aaron Nace over at Phlearn. I also recommend the book Photoshop Compositing Secrets by Matt Kloskowski.