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Creating a Magic Photo with a Magician and Playing Cards

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In this tutorial, I'm going to show you to create the seemingly impossible. I jammed as much chaos as possible into a single photo to create a visual feat fit for a magician. We'll look at the decision making process, the lighting, and the retouching that went into creating a final image.

Pre-Shoot Prep

I pitched my friend, Jeff, a concept I had for creating an over-the-top stylized photo. It would consist of him doing a trick surrounded by hundreds of playing cards. For all of this to come together perfectly, it required planning and coordination. To get us on the same page, I created a super quick concept sketch in photoshop. Not a masterpiece, but it conveys the feeling I'm going for.


I had Jeff get a white suit while I built the set and props. There was no fancy technique for the background. I used industrial strength spray adhesive to glue cards onto an old bed skirt. I wanted the background to have an interesting pattern, so I was sure to show both the fronts and backs of cards. I used both red and blue cards to avoid having red overwhelm the scene, planning the whole time to mute the blue cards to black in Photoshop. I would have shot with black cards if I could have to save time in Photoshop, but the dollar store near me only had blue and red.

In my planning stages, I was also sure not let have any face cards glued face up on the backdrop. The reasoning for this was that in an already busy pattern, having a singular king or queen peering out from behind Jeff would be a distracting factor, drawing you away from the scene.

I am adding so much chaos in terms of patterns, shapes, and colors, I wanted to eliminate any controllable distracting elements. Could you randomly glue cards to create a background? Certainly. In fact, it may have turned out better. However, in my attempt to shoot "organized chaos," I chose to use a pattern instead, which guaranteed that the background would have an even visual weight throughout the photo.


The next prop that needed building was the card stack. Jeff, while perfectly capable of doing this trick on his own, is still human. In making an overly dramatic and stylized image, I wanted to show him doing the supernatural. I used invisible thread from my local fabric supply store and a needle to suspend the cards.

My first attempt was directly through the middle of each card, but that was visually unstable when you hold it out. I threaded it twice through each card, to help flatten out the stack when pulled tight, and put a loop on each end that Jeff would slip his finger into and make it look as if he was mid-action. Each card was then glued into place along the thread so when pulled tight, the illusion was complete.

Lighting and Shooting

I set up the backdrop and knew that I wanted to light it to add visual separation from my subject. Since I was working in a small space, this was the first thing that needed to happen, then I could set up the key light according to where he needed to stand.


My first attempt at a background light. Not only is it too close to the background and creating a hotspot, but I just don't like the shape of the light and light fall off. It is creating the opposite of what I want, which means the light has to be boomed from above, instead of on a short stand. The good news is I can make better use of my small space. The bad news is that I have to be careful that the background light is not lighting the subject.


My background light is not creating a hotspot, but it is creating a strong vignette, so I will adjust power settings later to taste. It is lighting only the background, and not my subject, so I'll move on to my key light.


Always work with your lights separately. I turned off my background light to establish my key light settings. It doesn't look bad, but there are some problems. It is leaving very dark harsh shadows in his right side. It is also illuminating the background too much to my taste. I want the background black, only lit by my background light.

I swiveled the key light toward me so the softbox was not aimed at him, but more across him. This let the light take a less direct approach and wrap around his face, leaving more fill and softer shadows. Doing this did kill some power, so I had to turn the strobe unit up.


My background is now black and the light wraps more around the subject. I added a speedlight on the other side aimed at the back of his head to add a kicker. To prevent it from spilling on the background, I add a gaffers tape flag. Here's the final setup.

The background light on a boom above his head, softbox aiming across his body instead of into it, and the kicker light with a flag.

Jeff arrived, I gave him my stack of cards prop, and we came up with this shot. I had my assistant use a small reflector to just get a little more light onto the shadow side of his face.

Straight out of the camera. Shot with Canon 5D Mark III, 70mm, f/6.3, 1/200sec, ISO 100.

The next step is to get the flurry of cards that we want to add into the scene. More organized chaos.

Why Didn't I Just Throw the Cards While We Were Shooting?

While this certainly would have been doable, there are pros and cons to this approach, so it is best to know what you need to do, and choose if you should get it in-camera, or do it later in Photoshop.

By shooting it in-camera, you'll spend less time in Photoshop. Your results will probably look more organic unless you have advanced Photoshop skills.

By doing the effect in Photoshop, you can spend less time shooting as you won't have to do the throwing over and over again. Your cards will also not cast any unwanted shadows. My final reason for using Photoshop is that I could spend my time focusing on getting a good expression instead of how the flying cards look.

While happy accidents and getting a more organic feeling are great, there is no reason to not be able to have those both and still have a perfect photo. If you use CG cards, bending, warping, and blurring them into the scene, it will feel fake. We are going to use real cards and composite them in.


I threw a black sheet over my backdrop and turned off the background light. The key and kicker lights are still positioned and powered exactly how they were in the real shot. I set my camera to manual focus (focused on the spot our subject was standing) because I want the same realistic depth of field I would get from throwing them "in-camera."

Over the next half hour, I had my assistant throw small bunches of cards into the air. Some were in my focus zone, some were farther back toward the background, and some were right in front of my face, so blurry I would be hard pressed to identify them as cards. Getting this variety gave me not only a bunch of different shapes to choose from, but also provided depth that adds a 3D quality you wouldn't get with just throwing cards in the focus zone.


The green ones are ones I marked as ones worth extracting. Choosing what to keep is purely subjective. Maybe I liked the shape it made, or the depth it was thrown, or even the bend of the card or the way the light hit it. If I liked it, I marked it green. If I didn't, we don't have to use those. I compiled all my cards to extract into a folder so I could quickly open them all in Photoshop and add the layers I wanted.

Note: Not every card I extracted is going into the final scene. Even though it seems a "waste" to extract more cards than you need, that is part of the creative process, and allows me options to play with for the perfect scene. Only nine card grouping were used in the final image.

The Final Composite


The first step is to clean up anything in the image that needs cleaning. While I used invisible thread and most of it disappeared, there were a few spots where I could see the glare from the lights. I used the clone stamp tool to get rid of these.

Left, before adjustment. Center, after Levels Adjustment. Right, Layer Mask for Adjustment

Next, I added a levels adjustment layer. I did not actually move any sliders. I set the blend mode to multiply, lowered the opacity to 50%, and then added a black layer mask. I painted in white on the parts of his face I wanted to darken to add more definition. This is a simple way to dodge and burn, and I did not want to spend much time on this process, so I didn't do any dodging.


To stay organized (and sane) I added folders for the cards. One folder was called "front" which had no layer mask, and another folder was called "back". I added a layer mask to this one in the shape of my subject by using the quick select tool (paired with the magic wand). By adding these folders, I can quickly put cards in front of him, or behind him, depending on what folder they are in.


Now to finally extract the cards. I'll show you how I did one card grouping, then the process is simply rinse and repeat. Open of your photo and do Select > Color Range. The dialog box pops up, click on the black background and check the "inverse" box. This gets you 99% of the way there.


To finish the extraction, you will notice that it isn't perfect. Cards are not perfectly white, so when you alt-click (option-click on a Mac) the layer mask you created, you will see most of the definition of the cards came through to the mask. The part the select color range does nicely is the outside border.

For tricky areas like card number one, take a white paint brush and simply paint over it to reveal the whole card. For areas that are light gray or perhaps close to the edge of the card, like in card two, change your brush blending mode to "overlay". Then you cannot affect anything that is black. This lets you clean up the card mask quite nicely.


When you are thinking about the composition of your cards while you are adding them to the scene, there are several things to think about. Are you getting a proper visual balance? Does it look like there are too many cards on one side? Are any of your cards "interacting" with the subject? That means are any in front of him, or half behind him, hidden with that layer mask on the "back" folder. This will add to the sense of depth it would lack if there were only cards on the side.

While you want some cards covering him, is he clear enough that the cards don't distract from the subject? Covering his face, hands, or tie would be a no-no here. Are you filling the negative space? While the background of cards looks cool, I want this to look like chaos. I don't want empty spots of background without cards. It's finding the balance between "adding chaos" and "too much going on." Finally, make sure you add at least one or two less distinct blurry cards to your foreground. That completes the 3D quality of the scene, and also gives a good spot to add text if you are using this for advertising.

Shoot Your Own Stylized Portrait


Hopefully, this tutorial will inspire you to shoot your own stylized portrait. During this shoot, I did a lot of planning to get things right. When you have a very specific idea like this, it's best to plan as much as you can in advance. This meant getting my lighting and props handled before the model was on set.

Also consider the types of effects you want to include in your portrait. While I could have composited in the background and the deck of cards our magician was handling, I chose to balance real world images, composited effects and good old fashioned prop work. Consider what elements of your photo fall into each of these categories, and you'll be able to shoot and work more efficiently.

Good luck with your next shoot, and let us know how it goes in the comments!

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