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Clones, anyone?

I had an experience recently where I was able to get a little more creative than usual with some of my paid photos. I shoot for a local magazine, and was asked to create a portrait of a local home stager. Stagers are people who are experts at decorating new or otherwise empty homes that are for sale, so prospective buyers can get an idea of what the home would look like furnished.

I called Glenn to arrange for a time and place, and he said he'd really like to shoot the portrait in a home he'd staged. I agreed to do that, although I had some serious misgivings about doing a portrait in a furnished home. How could I get the idea across that Glenn was a home stager?

I arrived at the home he chose at the appointed time, and knew immediately that virtually any portrait I took in that very lovely home would not express visually what he was about. But we went ahead and did a series of standard portraits anyway.

Fortunately, the home had a lot of natural light -- all I'd need is some fill from my 24x24 Lasolite Joe McNally softbox and a single Nikon SB-800 speedlight. But as I had feared, the portraits, which did a great job of showing off Glenn's personality, just didn't speak to me about his profession.

After finishing the requisite standard portraits that I was sure would make my editors happy, I asked Glenn if he was up for a little experiment. I explained my idea, and he loved it. So we set about making it happen.

The idea was to shoot a wide angle shot showing as much of the interior of the house as possible, then position him in at least 3 different parts of that frame, thereby creating a couple of “clones.”

I thought about doing this in camera, but although the Nikon D810 as built in multiple exposure capabilities, by the sheer nature of the beast, it produces images that appear to be ghosts. That might have worked for having him move from place to place within the house, but I wanted several well defined, solid images of him in place. That meant doing several shots, and layering them together in Photoshop.

The first thing, of course, it to decide what the final image will look like. From just inside the entryway, using my Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 lens at 24mm, I could get most of the living room, some of the kitchen, and between them, a direct shot into the dining room.

After that, step two was to put the camera on the tripod, place the tripod, weight it down, and frame the image. To make this work, it is absolutely imperative that we do not move the tripod -- even the tiniest amount -- in any direction, from the first frame to the last.

I then took a shot of the area in aperture priority. This gives me a good starting point for the exposure. Since I’ll be using a Nikon SB-800 to light my guy, I need to figure the ambient exposure based on where I put the aperture. I have 2 routes I can go here -- I can focus on my guy separately for each frame, or I can focus on one particular spot in the frame, stop way down, and let the DOF take care of all the focus.

I decided, however, to to refocus on him in each position. I know that no matter how still he stands, if he moves ever so slightly, a slow shutter speed will produce some ghosting. So I opted for a more shallow DOF, and a higher shutter speed, knowing I’d have to refocus on him in every shot. Fortunately, in TTL mode, the SB-800 will just follow along, and give me a perfect exposure on my subject.

My final exposure for each of the frames I planned to shoot was 1/60 sec @ f/7.1 EV -2.0 ISO 2500.

My first was of the area without him in the frame. This one is important as it allows me to make sure I have a good exposure of every square inch of the room, so that if something ends up overlapping something that shouldn’t have been (or maybe needs to be) erased.

From there, it’s now just a matter of shooting as many frames as I need to tell the story I want to tell. In this case, it’s 3 frames -- one of him in the living room, one of him in the dining room, and the last of him in the part of the kitchen that’s in the overall image.

For each of these frames, we talked about what he might be doing in those frames to give the viewer an idea of what a stager does. For the living room frame, we decided to simply fluff some throw pillows. For the kitchen area, placing a bowl of fruit on the island. But because the dining room was so far away, which would make him appear smaller than in the other two, we decided to have him do something visually bigger -- place a chair under the dining room table.

Pose, place the softbox on its stand, shoot. Move to the next location, pose, place the softbox, shoot. Repeat for the last location. Each time, I shot several frames, just to make sure he didn’t blink, or move, or . . . whatever else might go wrong.

After shooting the last frame, I shot yet another of the empty room, just to make sure.

From there, it’s all computer work.

I shoot in RAW format, so each frame will have the full benefit of the huge amount of dynamic range the D810 is capable of.

I imported all of the frames into Lightroom, and picked one of of the images of him in the living room area. This was the image I processed as it needed to make it look its best. I then copied those settings, and sync’d them to all the rest of the images in the series. I could have gone directly to Photoshop, but I love the ease with which I can process images and copy all of those settings to the string of images, and make them all look exactly the same. I then chose the best images for each of the poses.

From within Lightroom’s Library mode, I selected all of the best frames, and from the Edit menu, chose “Open as layers in Photoshop.” This does exactly what the name implies, and opens all of those frames as one image with multiple layers, while forcing those layers to align as much as possible. Assuming the tripod was never moved while shooting, this should not be a problem.

It is necessary to experiment a little with the order of the layers. When bringing them into PS as layers, they’ll automatically come in in the order they were shot in, but this might not be the best order. For example, it just happened that in the dining room frame, the light stand and softbox ended up almost exactly behind where he was standing in the kitchen shot. So it made more sense to me to put the kitchen layer the bottom layer. The next layer up was the living room layer, with the kitchen layer on top.

Layer 1 -- in the Dining Room

Because the living room layer covered the light stand and softbox in the dining room layer, it was a simple matter of using a layer mask on the living room later to reveal him in the dining room.

With the kitchen layer on the top, a layer mask allowed me to paint out the parts of the room necessary to reveal the dining room and living room.

As it turned out, everything worked out according to plan, so I ended up not needing my "safety net" image of the empty room. There was a small problem with the table lamp and window in the living room, so painting them out in the top two layers allowed those items in the kitchen layer to show through to the final image.

Layer 2 In the Living Room

Layer 3 Into the Kitchen

Once I was satisfied with all of the layer mask erasures, I saved the final image as an uncompressed TIFF. Notice I did not flatten the image before saving it. The reason I don’t do that, even though including all of the layers increases the fill size considerably, is that I do make mistakes, and I want to be able to go back and fix those mistakes.

I was very pleased with the final image, and my editors at the magazine must have liked it, too, as it ran as the lead photo for the story. They did include one of the more “normal” portraits I we did that day, but it was the secondary image.

All in all, a great day of cloning a home stager.

All photos ©2018 Don Risi All Rights Reserved

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