Being a commercial photographer, I rely primarily on freelance assignment work as an income. Back in the heart of the Pandemic last year when we all were in lockdown I began to realize that I was going to have to up my game to find new ways of generating some revenue. After months and months of hoping this was all going to pass, I decided to set up a playday and attempt to do a live virtual photoshoot. The goal was to see if it was possible to direct and shoot photos of someone virtually by determining the best lighting, angles, and use of whatever camera device they had available. I contemplated whether I could render anything unique, unusual, and sellable.
As I began researching my options I considered using an app called CLOS, designed for shooting high-resolution photos and videos remotely but because it was only for Apple products I decided against it. I found several other photographers doing their own versions of virtual photoshoots, some using specific kinds of screen capture software, Facebook Live, Google Meet, Zoom, Facetime, and others.
I decided to use Zoom because it was free with no time limit, simple to set up, not Mac-specific and most people seemed to be using it at that time.
Prep Before The Shoot
I asked my good friend Randy L. Purcell, a beeswax ink transfer artist if he would be willing to be my test subject and he agreed. We discussed when the best light would be coming in through the window of his art studio knowing it needed to be during daylight hours to help with naturally filling the room with available light. Once we had a plan we set up a Zoom call for the shoot. I figured I would set up my camera to shoot but also take a few screenshots using the Quicktime app on my Mac.
Before the shoot, I set up a tripod with my Canon 5D MkIII using my EF 24-70mm Zoom. I mounted the camera on a tripod, closed the curtains, and turned off any light that might cause reflections on the computer monitor. I leveled and aligned the camera as parallel to the monitor and made sure to wear dark colors to prevent any possibility of reflections.
The Live Virtual Photoshoot
Randy and I each logged in to Zoom making sure the video and sound were working on both ends. He had his iPhone 11 on a phone mount positioned with the camera facing the area he wanted to use for the shoot.
*In retrospect, I did not consider if he was using the front or rear camera and I am unsure of how that works with Zoom, something that might have made a big difference in the quality of the final images.
I had Randy adjust the window blinds to get the best overall soft light in the room. While the light was brightest with the blinds wide open it was softer when adjusted where the light was directed upward slightly and bouncing off of the white ceiling. Because the window was located to the side of Randy I needed an additional light source to fill in the shadows from the camera angle. He added a small LED light he had next to the phone to fill in the shadows on his face. I directed him where to sit and we tweaked his iPhone in order to set up the shot, posing him within his surroundings. Once I felt we had the best set up I began shooting directing him just as I would have if we had been shooting in person.
There are so many tricky parts of doing a virtual shoot, lighting issues as well as technical issues. The streaming quality and camera quality are also challenging because every single person you photograph will have different equipment and scenarios. With my choice to shoot the computer monitor, I had to experiment with shutter and aperture combinations. Although I was using a professional camera, the mix of all of these other aspects created a host of things I had no idea how to deal with technically. I knew that shooting the LCD/LED monitor would likely create vertical or horizontal stripes in my photos due to the flicker or Hz power rating. Round stripes, also known as a moire pattern, random dots or noise with low light, and color cast were all problems I had to contend with while shooting in this manner.
I played with the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed finally settling with an ISO of 640, at 1/60th to1/80th of a second at f/5.6. While I would have thought a longer shutter speed would have helped with the flicker issues this combo seemed to be the sweet spot. The most disappointing part of the entire process for me was the lack of ability to achieve sharp focus. The further away Randy was, the wider the shot the less sharpness I had, the closer he was the better the image looked. Obviously, shooting via screen capture or through an app would offer a much better result although any real consistency would still be a challenge.
I knew going into this that I would never have the ability to get the amount of sharpness in an image I am accustomed to as a professional. However, I thought it might be cool to bring the image into photoshop and attempt to manipulate it as a unique and artistic expression of the person in the photo. I asked Randy to send me some digital images of him as a child, as well as of his artwork.
Post Edit With Adobe Photoshop
Randy handwrote in black ink on white paper answers to some questions I sent him emailing them to me as a quick digital image. I felt as if part of his personality was coming through within his handwriting style and I loved the mistakes and scribbles he left on the page. I wanted to incorporate these elements into the photo to create interest but also to distract the viewer from the focus and lighting issues. From there I began layering the elements into parts of the photograph using Adobe Photoshop.
I experimented with the results for several days, using different masking techniques, actions, filters, and experimenting with blending modes and texture overlays.
I found the overall virtual playday fun despite the challenges. At the time, there wasn’t a lot of technical information out there to test so I did the shoot on a bit of a whim and abandoned the idea of offering any of my services virtually. I didn’t feel that there would be ample interest in paying a fee that would reflect the hours of invested time to create a final piece. Admittedly the image quality was my main struggle, the ability for something to look great as a large piece of art is crucial and although I have not tried to print any test images.
My ability to have hands-on control of lighting, image quality, camera angles, and propping made shooting virtually extremely uncomfortable for me as a pro. With more than 25 years in the industry, shooting virtually didn’t match my usual style of perfectionism. Like so many other things I have explored in my career as a photographer, I deserted this idea pretty quickly.
That being said…I might like to give this another go, maybe experiment with Quicktime screenshots, Facetime, or other options. I am sure now a year later there is likely a lot more information available online. When I recently stumbled upon these forgotten images of Randy I thought maybe I would share the experience to see what you all think about the results.
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