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Shooting Photos for Skin-Tearing Illustration

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Today, we're looking at the process from start to finish of creating composite work, particularly in this case for commercial advertising purposes. I've teamed up with designer Thiago Storino who will show you how to take my images and mold them into the final product.


Why Shoot for Composites?

The answer to that is quite simple. You shoot composites to achieve physical impossibilities and overcome aesthetic difficulties. For example, most of the time you couldn't easily bill a client to take a model, crew and gear to a remote jungle for a shoot. 

Aesthetically, if you want an HDR-style background with lots of visceral light that isn't there on vacation, it's quite difficult to cut around your model in order to separately style them and the background, and if you get grip in the shot, you'll have to clone or crop it out if possible. If not, tough luck.

Recognise this one Yep all one shot Not so easy to circumvent the problems of location shooting and the limitations imposed on post
Recognise this one? Yep, all one shot. Not so easy to circumvent the problems of location shooting and the limitations imposed on post.

On the other hand, you probably could bill that client for the use of jungle shots as background plates that you took on vacation a few years ago. And if you shoot on green screen or white seamless, it's easy to cut out your model and remove any grip in the sides of the shot. Plus, your background will be perfect since it'll be shot and processed like a landscape photo.

In essence, we composite because it's the easiest, most practical and cost-effective route to get the final image we envision.


Shooting for Compositing

There are some considerations that must be made when shooting for compositing. There are also extra steps you need to take when you're not doing the post-work, but you're simply sending in the RAW files to a separate designer or digital artist. The most important things are lighting and posing.

The lighting must be able to work in a variety of scenarios, wherever the subject may be composited into. If you're lucky, you'll know beforehand and will be able to work with that knowledge to set your lighting.

In this case, and likely the more usual scenario, I have no idea where my model is going to be put so I have to ensure that there's enough data to allow a reasonable amount of manipulation and re-lighting of both him and the background in order to blend them together. I'll look at exactly what I did next.

Random lighting test shot on a random hiking snapshot Just because you have flat even lighting doesnt mean itll go into a scene
An example of what doesn't work. An octa lighting test shot composited on a random hiking snapshot. Just because you have flat, even lighting doesn't mean it'll go into any old scene.

Because you don't know what format, market, or media the image will end up in, you can't be sure that one pose may work where another won't. So you have to shoot several varying poses in order to accommodate the variety of end-uses the image could see. I'll look at my posing shortly.


The Shoot

1. Tearing Off Skin?

What's this about tearing off skin? Well, that's the main aspect of what we're working on for this shoot. The idea is to have the model tearing his skin off, revealing his "true colours" or "true nature" underneath.

How are we supposed to do this? It's actually quite simple. We just need to have another material doing the actual tearing, that we can integrate into Brad's skin seamlessly. The obvious choice for torso-tearing like this is simply a skin-coloured t-shirt.

We went with that over a neutral-coloured shirt (a mid-light grey) that can be used to differentiate in Photoshop between the shirt to merge and the shirt to stylise (if it's branded apparel) or remove (if it's some kind of VFX shot).

The two shirts doing their jobs
The two shirts doing their jobs.

So, in order to get the skin, we do a shot with no shirt. This provides skin colour, texture, specularity and muscle contours. Then you have to do an almost identical shot (certainly identical around the manipulated area, anyway) with the grey shirt under the skin-toned shirt, where the outer shirt is being torn in whatever way you want.

Providing the skin texture and muscle definition
Providing the skin texture and muscle definition!

Thus the contours of the tearing shirt can be blended with the texture and contours of the skin, which should be relatively easy due to it being a similar tone.

2. Versatile Lighting

I didn't have time to keep changing lighting and shooting every pose under every lighting scenario I can think of that Brad could be comped into. So I have to come up with a single versatile lighting scenario that should cover most possibilities, particularly the more likely, dramatic options.

My solution is simple. Three-point edge lighting, close to white seamless. A five-foot octa from front-top replicates diffusive lighting from the sky for outdoors, while being burnable down to a dimmer non-specific indoor bounce light source or large window. This covers everything from mid-afternoon outside to a futuristic gym to a stone-walled dungeon corridor.

A 5ft octa isnt so easy to move around a residential living room Studio upgrade this year with any luck
A 5ft octa isn't so easy to move around a residential living room.

Then the edge lighting provides a reasonable rim, not too hard, which can be blended with outdoor backlighting or toned down a little for interior work as necessary. One of my rim lights is a little iffy on the recycle time and is unpredictable whether it'll fire or not. 

Knowing I would be turning Brad to camera left in any asymmetrical poses, I set this light on the right so it doesn't matter too much whether it fires or not on any one shot, since the result would still be naturally blendable in a dramatic graduated background (say, sunlight on the left, storm clouds on the right). These rimlights were angled inward so that they would light both Brad and the background, so I wouldn't have to worry about extra background lights taking up unnecessary performance space.

Another lighting test only this time with all three lights Very late at night Can you tell
Another lighting test, only this time with all three lights. Very late at night... Can you tell?!

He was positioned quite close to a nine-foot white seamless so that he could also catch some bounce from the rim off of that surface at a slightly different angle, making him appear more enveloped and naturally lit. No grids here, natural light is chaotic.

3. Poses

I wanted to keep the poses relatively simple, bold and strong to suit the sports-fitness theme itself, but relatively easy to create in duplicate. I ended up going with just four poses with simple codenames: "stomach," "chest," "neck," "back," referring simply to where the tearing was taking place.

Brad was fantastically understanding and outgoing, so we nailed each pose with just one shot, usually with a second "for safety."

First shot seconds after the neutral light test shot
First shot, seconds after the neutral light test shot. Brad's a stage musician so he can turn the act on at the drop of a hat

First was the shirt-off, this was where I had Brad do the full act, muscle tension and expression and all. I gave him something to pull against to make the arm muscles actually appear to be doing work. In hindsight, a couple of inches of 1/4" steel rod or 1/2" hardwood dowel would have been much better, as it could have been contained entirely within his hand and wouldn't need to be separately removed in Photoshop.

Tape doing its job Sharpies poking out
Tape doing its job, Sharpies poking out.

Next was the harder part of recreating the above four images with the shirts on and torn.

4. Reposing for compositing

Here we added the shirts, and I mostly "tore" them with a Stanley knife while Brad was wearing them (there's some trust!) to maintain control over its path. I did a bit at a time, in the same order we shot the previous images. The stomach tear was elongated to make the chest tear, which produced a little excess fabric but this could be gathered up in Brad's fist no problem.

I found that verbally guiding his extremities into place was difficult, with him being a mirror image of the camera's view, and I couldn't verbalise precisely enough. Brad was having a hard time gauging exact distances without a mirror or anything to work by.

This was where using a short focal length close to the subject came in handy. I could flip around the LCD panel, and stand in front of the camera, observing the LCD closely and then precisely replicating it by physically manipulating Brad's limbs. This was much quicker and easier, and since we were just replicating arms and torso we had all four shots done in well under ten minutes.


Pace and Tempo

Keeping up the pace of these kinds of shoots is important, you've got to keep it quick and light. Because there's no obvious interaction between subject and environment due to the fact that they'll be composited in later, they have to use their imagination to try to act on what they think is going on.

If you're unclear as to what the purpose of the shoot is and the strange posing or behaviour makes no sense to them, they'll start getting uncertain and bored and you'll lose them. Better to get the poses not-quite-perfect and keep the energy up.

Keep them involved all the way through. Show them any pre-production work you've done, any work of others that's similar technically or conceptually, and generally try to build a solid image in their head as to what is going on, both technically and creatively.

Since I wasn't sure what's going on creatively, I showed Brad a similar example of the end results (easy to find on sites like 500px and Behance) so that at least he could conceptualise the process and his part in it. The actual shoot was only about 25 minutes long, and I only took 17 shots all-told, including the one lighting test shot which didn't really require much interaction from Brad. Since this was the first time we were working together, I used this brief time to get to know him more and let him acclimatise to the studio environment.


Final Images

To wrap up, here are the poses as side-by-sides, showing how close I got. The closer you get, the easier it is in post! None of these are quite perfect, but they're all close enough that post work isn't too difficult.

Stomach
Stomach
Chest
Chest
Neck
Neck
Back This felt like too awkward a pose in the end so we decided to skip it on the tearing part
Back... This felt like too awkward a pose in the end, so we decided to skip it on the tearing part.

Well, that's all for now on the shooting aspects, I hope you've enjoyed the ride so far. Be sure to check out Thiago Storino's tutorial covering the compositing and manipulation of my images.

Questions? Comments? Hit up the comments below!

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