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A Glimpse into Editing a Levitation Self Portrait

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I’m bummed to admit I don’t have a tutorial ready for today, which seems kind of silly since I have the supplies for two tutorials just sitting around! I’ve been really busy this week, though, and I’ve had a cold that’s left me feeling very tired, mostly because I get congested as soon as I lie down and then I can’t sleep! I really wanted to share a tutorial today, but I took a lengthy nap instead of photographing it. Oops.

It’s okay, though, because I’ve also been wanting to share a bit of how I edit my creative self portraits. Folks keep asking how it’s done, so it’s time to share! Yesterday I posted this one, “Really good book.”

A really good book

The first step to creating a levitation photo is planning. So are the second and third steps. Without a plan and a concept, it just won’t work out or will be incredibly difficult to composite. I like to start with the concept/feel and then go from there, so I ask myself questions like:

  • “Why am I levitating?”
  • “What am I wearing?”
  • “What feel do I want the photo to have?” etc.

For this photo, I wanted to express the magic of reading a good book and the power it has to make you feel transported somewhere impossible. If you can’t tell, I really love reading! I’ve finished off four books in the last week (?! Maybe that’s why I always feel busy… Two of them were really short, though! And two I listed to in audio form). I wanted to use this white chiffon dress I recently found on super sale because it has a sort of childlike, innocent feel to me. It has little lace details around the neck and arms that sort of remind me of a nightgown, plus it’s very floaty and etherial. I like how it lends an air of childlike trust and confidence in the situation – the belief that a book really could make you float and accepting that this is going to happen by going ahead and tethering yourself to the ground so you don’t drift too far. The float/weight was another important element for me. I really enjoy juxtapositions, so I liked using something that is typically used to float as a weight, instead. Once I had the concept and dress figured out, I knew I wanted the picture to be in the forest, not at the beach where I usually like to shoot, to give that added sense of contrast. A fishing float at the beach doesn’t make you stop and think nearly as much as seeing one in the forest!

After figuring out these details, you have to pick a prop to “levitate” on. The right prop is key to a successful levitation photo. If you want it to look realistic, and not just like someone jumping in the air, you need a stool, ladder, or something else to stand/lie/sit on. In this case, it’s one of our “dining room” stools (we just have a little dining area that’s somewhere in the kitchen/living room area of our apartment). You also have to plan how you’ll be perched on the prop, or props, so that the overall feel will be realistic. You can just plop down and have your dress clearly hanging over a chair and expect to look like you’re floating! There’s a levitation photo I’ve been wanting to take for over a year, but I haven’t figured out how to hit the pose and make it cooperate with a dress, so I still haven’t been able to take it. In the picture below I did an elbow and one leg plank between two stools. It was difficult, but it’s how I kept the skirt from being squished under me!

reading a book levitation

This is the unedited shot I used for the skirt – you can see my husband in the shot because I had to get his help “floofing” the dress for that flowy look! When I’m in a less ridiculous position, I just do the dress floof for myself. No, my elbows were not at all comfortable.

floofing the dress

When planning this shot, I knew I needed a picture of myself pretty much as shown above, plus another picture of just my left leg in the air (see how it’s squishing into the stool’s padding?) and another one of my elbows without that stool in the way. I also used a different shot for my hair, which is normal because I typically toss my hair around for some added movement and life. Yesterday’s photo was almost impossible because I didn’t plan well and only had really awkward photos of my feet! Luckily, one foot was inadvertently in a different position in one photo where I was tossing my hair and things worked out. Forgetting to shoot the details, like a shot of your foot without the stool, can make everything virtually impossible to edit smoothly in Photoshop.

You also have to have a blank photo, or plate, for the levitation magic to occur. Here’s the plate for the above photo:

plate for levitation photoIt’s incredibly important to have this blank shot, just like it’s vital your camera is on a tripod and set to manual focus. Because the focus was locked down, the plate’s focus was exactly the same as it was when I was actually in the frame. If I allowed the camera to refocus, the background would be weirdly in focus somewhere and your mind wouldn’t quite believe the photo. You actually need to lock down all of your settings when taking a levitation photo – your aperture, focal point, white balance, exposure compensation, everything. If you leave your white balance to auto, for example, if the quality of light changes over the course of your shoot the photos will turn out looking pretty different from one another! You may be able to fix this while editing, but it’s an extra step of hassle that you can easily avoid.

The basic editing process involves aligning the two layers in Photoshop and then using a simple layer mask to “erase” the stool by making it invisible so the underlying plate layer can show through. A similar process with layer masks and a “soft” brush is how I add on skirt or swap out other parts of the photo. Since I do everything “on location” and use a tripod, it’s very rare that I need to make more careful selections with the pen tool, for example. That extra planning makes editing so much easier! Here are a couple unedited shots from yesterday’s levitation photo. This one shows some extra skirt I used:

dress floof for levitation photo

While I try to get as much the way I want it in a single shot to decrease the amount of editing, it’s obviously pretty impossible to get everything in one shot! The dress floof means I can’t hold on to the book, for example, and it can be darn hard to look relaxed and like you’re enjoying a book while you’re actually balancing on one foot on a stool in the forest. Just saying. So I also took a photo with the facial expression and upper body position more the way I wanted.

upper body for levitation photo

Now, you can see I actually did have some lighting changes between the two photos, which was a little problematic to deal with. In my opinion, it is always best to shoot levitation photos in indirect light. This means you won’t have as many headaches matching things up and dealing with random shadows! Unfortunately, the cloud cover wouldn’t cooperate, so the light kept shifting on me. I ended up with bright spots in the background and the foreground even darker than I wanted in my favorite upper body shot, which meant I had to do more editing (It wasn’t too bad as far as editing goes – I just selected my upper body in that layer and used a curves adjustment layer to brighten it up a bit and everything worked out fine. Given the contrast of my dress on the background, I could have also used a luminosity mask).

I addition to misplaced feet, I had another goof during this shoot. I was trying to get a hair flip, but I used my right hand! I’m right handed, so that’s the natural choice for me…so all the pictures ended up like this:

hair floof gone awry

Womp womp. Oh well, lesson learned! Hopefully I’ll remember next time!

After getting all the body parts alighted how I liked, I “just” had to erase the stool out from under me and let the plate shine through! Obviously there was a bit more to it than that. If you look at the finished photo, you can see more of the forest. That’s because I took extra pictures in order to “expand the frame,” so I had to get all those aligned, too. Then, of course, I played with the exposure, color balance, curves, etc., and I added a couple of textures to give a slightly etherial, more painterly feel. Oh, yeah, I also got rid of that annoying stump/stick in the foreground. It really wasn’t doing anything for me!

A really good book

I know this doesn’t show any of the actual editing steps. There are lots of terms, like “luminosity mask” that may have you going “???” I’m happy to share a more in depth look into editing  photo like this one day, if anyone is interested! Please just let me know. =)

If you’d like to learn more about editing and photography right now, I highly recommend you check out CreativeLive. That is not an affiliate link, I just really like them! You can always purchase a class for permanent access, but they also have a running schedule of broadcasts and replays that allow you to watch amazing content on a wide variety of creative subjects for free – as long as you’re willing to sit in front of your computer all day! Phlearn (also not an affiliate link) has great tutorials, as well, including free and paid options. If you want to improve your creative photography, the best things you can do are 1) never stop learning and 2) never stop practicing! As my Etsy teammate Rose wrote in her recent post on 5 tips for improving your photography, take lots of pictures! Whenever you make a mistake and a forget a crucial part of the photo shoot, don’t beat yourself up about it. Find the lesson and remember it for next time! I have some absolutely horrible pictures sitting on my hard drive, but I keep a few of them just to remind myself of the lessons they taught me.

I really hope you enjoyed this glimpse into creating a levitation photo! {{As a side note, yes, you can purchase copies of these photos! I’m not trying to push them on anyone or anything, but a couple people have privately asked me now how they can get prints, so I wanted to share with everyone that several of my creative self portraits are available on my Fine Art America store. I ordered a very large print on metal of one of my landscape photos from them earlier this year and have nothing but good things to say about both the item’s quality and their customer service. FedEx somehow lost the print in transit and they sent me a replacement pronto with no hassle.}} Please do let me know if you’d like to see more “behind the scenes” posts about how I create these pictures and if you’d like to see a little more into the editing process. I know it looks hard, but if you plan well the basic compositing is actually incredibly easy and incredibly fun. As a human, I can’t actually float, but it sure is neat to look at a picture of myself floating. =)



{ 18 comments… add one }
  • Pamela July 28, 2016, 02:19

    As I am new to your “levitation” photos – which completely amazed me at first site. I appreciate that you took the time to explain the “secrets” behind your unique photo process. Almost like a magician telling his secrets!
    As one who also is also an avid reader, often reading 3 books at a time (my daytime book, my book on my bed to read before I sleep, and always keep one in my car for when I have to sit and wait while picking someone up). So my first thought when I saw your levitation photos was that each one tells a story. Woods are a perfect background as they always have such hidden thoughts – what is behind each tree – what will one find if they venture into the woods, etc. Connecting your photo’s to telling a story – I am reminded of how Mary Lennox feels when she first finds “the Secret Garden” and how her spirit is lifted with each visit to the Garden only to find it coming to life. Mary’s mind seems to float in all directions as she enters her “Secret Garden”; so too the symbolism of your floating away while reading each book.
    One can find so much in each of your “magical” photos – what is she reading that is making her float above the ground, what is hidden in the woods that she is soon to explore.
    Thank you for explaining your unique talent of photography and the “magic” behind your “levitation”.

    • Natashalh July 28, 2016, 07:21

      Good connection to The Secret Garden! I haven’t read that book in so long, but I used to have this beautiful hardback illustrated copy. Well, I technically probably still own it, it’s just somewhere at my mom’s house! I think I’m only reading one book at the moment – it’s been kind of a busy week! In middle and high school, I would bring a paperback with me absolutely everywhere – eating out with my family, the movies to read before the previews started, everywhere.
      If folks are interested, I may do a video or other explanation of the actual editing process. It’s way more simple than it seems and so much fun!

      • Pamela July 29, 2016, 02:27

        I would certainly love to see video’s of your very different photographic process!
        I can’t tell you how many times I read “The Secret Garden” to my children, and the numerous times we saw the movie. As my children were all avid reader’s also, I saved all of their favorite book. Now at Christmas I will wrap one up for each of my “adult” children; who are amazed that I saved all of their favorite books.
        One of my son’s is an artist, so I shared your very introspective “Levitation” photos with him. He was completely into the story you portray with each photo. I look forward to seeing more, and will patiently wait for those videos!

        • Natashalh July 29, 2016, 20:23

          Thank you for sharing it! I’ll definitely keep a more in-depth video in mind for a future post. =)

  • Julie July 24, 2016, 22:39

    Wow! I loved this and being able to see the “before” shot and all the prep that goes into this…! I don’t think I’d have the patience for it..! But I love these photos, they are so beautiful!!

    • Natashalh July 25, 2016, 07:12

      Thank you! I have an idea for yet another book photo I’d like to take. Can you tell I enjoy reading?

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