Who Ya Gonna Call?
How do you create an executive portrait for a boardroom where the background for the portrait doesn’t exist? Also it needed to match some existing portraits hanging in the boardroom… same picture size, same lighting on the subject, same kind of pose, same painted canvas background behind the subject, same frame. This is what we were presented with when we were contacted by Ms. LaVeda Carter, Concordia University’s Executive Director of Annual Giving and Special Events.
When Ms. Carter contacted me, she had already tried to find the photographer who created the previous images. Alas, she came up empty handed because he was out of business. Gone too, was his custom painted canvas background. And unfortunately, the name of the company who made the frames also disappeared with him also. “Could you do the job,” she asked, “and have it ready to hang before the next board meeting?” Sure, I said, and scheduled an appointment to see the boardroom portraits she was looking to match.
So, how do you photograph a portrait without a background? Having another canvas background painted to look similar to the first would be difficult– and prohibitively expensive for the university. Having it painted, dried, and shipped would likely take a lot more time than we had. And then there was the framing. We’d have to find the same style frame among thousands of offerings from dozens of companies nationwide. Talk about a needle in a haystack. But hey, we’re always up for a challenge!
First we scheduled the photo session with Dr. Preus, the retiring President of Concordia University. Then in the weeks before the session, we set to work tracking down the frame and creating the background. Our plan was to use the same methods cinematographers use for movies like Avatar, Lord of the Rings, and Inception. They merge computer generated backgrounds with shots of real people. We’d do the same for Dr. Preus’ portrait. We’d create it on a “green screen” and later knock out the green background and drop in a custom-created digital background.
Luck seemed to be with us… it only took two days of poring through catalogs and websites to find a few frame styles very similar to those gracing the boardroom portraits. Gorgeous frames, but they were custom made, not mass produced. We’d have to order them right away and express ship them to meet our deadline.
Meanwhile, the drop-in digital background took several days to create in specialized “painting” software. Creating digital backgrounds in this software is truly an art in every sense of the word. Imagine holding a “brush” in your hand and painting, not on a canvas, but on your computer screen. The brush in this case is a special stylus that you sweep, dip, and smear against an electronic tablet laid flat on your desktop. As you “paint” on the tablet, the strokes appear on your computer screen. You dip the brush in a digital paint color and move it across the tablet. As you do, the brush runs out of paint, the stroke becoming feathery at the end. You can also blend together two dabs of color just the way you would with real paint, smearing one into the other. Small hand movements control every nuance of the brush strokes, just as they do with real oil painting. Only there’s no horrible turpentine odor or stray paint on your clothes!
On the day of the shoot I had all the equipment set up so we only had to make minor lighting adjustments. A special green fabric hung behind where Dr. Preus was to stand. When he arrived, I took a couple minutes to get to know him a bit and chat about his love of golf and his grandkids. Then I showed him the computer screen on which he could view each frame as I shot it. Once he seemed relaxed, I began clicking the shutter. A short fifteen minutes later we were done shooting, and he’d chosen two of his favorites.
Then the real work started—refining the image of Dr. Preus and combining it with the blue-tinged clouds of our digital background. On a large-sized portrait every detail has to be done just right. As the deadline approached, everything came together. I framed the blended and retouched image printed on canvas in a luxurious dark wood frame that matched the ones already hanging in the boardroom. We were even able to deliver the portrait a week before the board meeting.