How to do levitation photography

Levitation Photography tutorial

Remember when as a child you’d watch a magician make a woman float in air and you’d be left in awe, wondering how he’d managed? Fast-forward to today and you can work that magic yourself with your camera and a little Adobe Photoshop editing! The technique is called levitation photography and it’s a great way for any photographer to get creative. Just open a browser, go to Google Images or Pinterest, run a quick search for ‘levitation photography’ and you’ll find ample shots for inspiration, including some original wedding photos, moody and sinister shots (generally in the woods), indoor shots using objects rather than people, and some cool studio shots of food (like a chopped up piece of fruit with each part in air).

These shots can be really eye catching and enchanting, making your work pop and giving you the perfect avenue for creating some cool “outside-the-box” concepts. What’s more, levitation photography doesn’t necessarily require hours of editing and is relatively easy to get a good result from, if you prepare well.

There are two main methods:

The Jump Method

Tools you need: Camera, tripod, remote trigger and model (or yourself).

Your model needs to jump as high as they can go and you capture that jump as fast as you can, so play around with your aperture and shutter speed before you start shooting. Setting the camera to continuous shooting mode will help you get as many potential frames as possible. The trick here is to get your model to make the jump look like it’s not a jump – the point is for the subject to make it seem as if he/she is floating in the air.

Although this is the easiest method in terms of the processing as you only have one shot to work on, I find this method a little bit limiting. It can also turn into a workout for the poor model as they need to keep jumping until you get the shot you’re happy with, and you depend on the model to be able to actually pull it off for the end result to look “natural”. This is why I chose the following method…

The Support Method

Tools you need: Camera, tripod, remote trigger, model (or yourself), a stool or something your model can rest on.

The advantage behind this method is that you can plan your composition, help your model set the pose right without the need to sweat through all those jumps, and use as many props as you like in whichever way you like. It’s a method which requires a lot of preparation – in fact, the skill in this type of photography comes in the preparation itself – and, based on how well you’ve planned the shoot, some work on Photoshop.

Once you’ve decided on the setting, the type of lighting you want, the pose, etc., you need to set your camera on a sturdy tripod, set your settings manually (you’ll need to keep using the same settings for your second shot), prepare a remote trigger and take a shot of the background (excluding the model and the stool).

background unedited

Keeping the camera set in the exact same position you can now have your model pose for you on the stool in whichever pose(s) you had in mind. It’s very important you shoot with a remote trigger as even the slightest shake to the camera can ruin the final result for you.

This is where the planning is highly important. Two mistakes I made in my shot which could have been prevented were the lighting and the type of support I used for my model. I used two diffused flash guns on the side that was opposite the sunlight to fill in the area. It didn’t work out the way I wanted it to – it looked unnatural. Short of time, I didn’t buy a stool (which would have been ideal) so I made do with a small ladder. It was sunny and the sky was clear, but it’s was terribly windy.  Although the wind did add to the effect and gave the impression Steffi (my model) was genuinely going to be blown away, it made it very difficult (almost dangerous) for Steffi to keep her balance and as you can see from the image below, it exposed the ladder – which meant extra work for me when editing which could have easily been avoided.

steffi unedited

Take note: Plan, plan and plan! Don’t just think of the location and the theme. Don’t just think of having a brilliant actress like Steffi Thake as your model so you can get the best expressions. Don’t just plan and time when you can pick up the balloons and the best time of the day for natural lighting. You need to think of every single detail. The material of the dress, the type of support to use for the model (not just for it not to show, but also for your model to feel comfortable and safe on it), the additional lighting you want to use and how to use it to get the effect you want. If you’re shooting outdoors, plan for the weather conditions you’re shooting in and have a Plan B in case the weather turns out to be different to what the weather forecast said it would be. These might sound obvious now, but looking back, I know that although at the time of the shoot I thought I planned things well, a little more planning would have made the editing easier.

Finally: the post processing. This can be very easy if you did a good job with your plan as all you need is to open the two images in Photoshop simply by clicking on File, then Scripts, then Load Files into Stack and then browse for the files you want, select your photos and click OK. You’ll see the two images in the Layers pallet – the top one being with the one with the model and the bottom just the background.

Select the top layer and click the add layer mask button. A white mask should appear to the right of the thumbnail of the layer. Select the brush tool and make sure the colour of the brush is black, and then select the mask tool. You can now start painting over the stool and any other item you want to be removed from the image.  So basically what you’re doing is making these areas transparent and instead letting that area from the background layer come through.

And that’s pretty much it, apart from the usual edits (exposure, colour, clean ups of details, etc.). The important part with the post processing is to make sure that whatever you do doesn’t make the final image look unnatural or unrealistic. Good preparation makes the biggest difference in creating “magic”, however.

Et voilà! The final image is ready:

levitation image


Article first published in Tech Sunday, Sunday Times of Malta, May 17, 2015

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