We're Helping Hands! - Using 3D to Bring 2D Photography to Life with Zbrush and Keyshot

I often encourage my clients to capture as many real world elements as possible during photography. This is often the most believable method of achieving realism but every now and then, this can limit creative possibilities. This proved to be the case in a recent job for Mike Carroll photography and Trinity Real Estate.

The concept centered around two images - one of Raleigh NC Triangle and another of Charlotte NC - featuring a pair of hands with a map of the area applied to the back of them. Trinity wanted their customers to know that they knew these areas like the backs of their hands. One idea was to have a tattoo artist draw the line art on the model's hands, but I was worried that this would prohibit us from easily making changes in post. Thankfully Trinity allowed us to approach this project from a 3D perspective. 

Doing it this way allowed Mike the freedom to focus on getting great shots with the hand model sans line art and only have to think about lighting and gesture. Once the client had chosen the hero shot, I used the selected image as reference and sculpted (by... hand!) a simplified 3D version in Zbrush by Pixologic. This would serve as a 3D scaffold and allow me to wrap the map around the hands in a realistic fashion, rather than trying to use any of Photoshop's tools in two dimensions. 

A basic rough sketch of the hero hands in Zbrush. 

Now that I had a 3D model of the hands I was able to bring it into Keyshot, which is a wonderfully accessible rendering application by Luxion. Keyshot uses image based lighting derived from high dynamic range photography to create incredibly realistic imagery. This would allow me to use a similar lighting setup to Mike's photo shoot to create accurate highlights and shadows, that would add depth to the map effect. 

An early draft showing two options - with and without color. 

One of the great benefits of working in 3D was that I was able to freely adjust each element - the hands, the map, the lighting, all independently. As I moved the map artwork around, it would realistically wrap around the hands. This allowed me to show the options to the client and after several tries we landed on the best placement. 

The final ad for the Triangle region. 

Innovative Works - Entering Another Dimension with the Charlotte Ballet


I was recently hired by Mythic for a new project for the 2015 season of the Charlotte Ballet that has quickly become one of my new favorites.  One of the most satisfying experiences is when I am able to be a part of a job from beginning to completion.  Not only was I given the opportunity to complete the final image, but I was able to sit in on the photo shoot with Jeff Crovotta, which is always a treat.

I'm always blown away by the athleticism of ballet dancers. Watching them perform the super human things they can do is simply spellbinding. Watching a guy my height jump four feet straight up in the air and complete a flawless split as many times as needed to get the shot is also rather humbling - I can't even touch my feet. The subjects of this image are no exception to the rule. They demonstrated a powerful connection as they created beautiful lines and poses under the watchful eye of Jean - Pierre Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride, Charlotte Ballet's prestigious artistic directors. And by the way... the dancers weren't running or walking towards the camera.. no, they were just standing in place like that... I know, right?!

What Mythic needed for this image was for the approaching heroes to pass through a mysterious portal from another distant dimension, devoid of color. They also requested some geometric lines to complement the shape and movement of their bodies. For this I was able to use a great plug-in for After Effects by Rowbyte called Plexus. The software uses paths made by the user to create beautiful constellation like patterns. Utilizing the seamless nature of Adobe Create Cloud I just dropped the near final PSD saved from Photoshop straight into After Effects, created some simple paths and then fired up Plexus. From there I was able to easily refine the settings in an intuitive way, and Plexus connected the dots. I moved my path around to match key points in the pose and quickly I had a great element to bring into my final composition. 

All things said and done, I'm very pleased with this new piece. I really appreciate the minimalist aesthetic of Mythic's concept and may experiment with it in some of my own work. 


A Pipe Dream - Creating Environments with Fibermesh in Zbrush by Pixologic

From time to time photographers have to create images in which the central point of interest is almost completely surrounded by distracting clutter. This was the case for Mike Carroll on a recent shoot for Charlotte Pipe. The client needed a hero image of their iconic sign for a new campaign, but there were a lot of distractions present - faded grass, power lines, and cars, and it was a bit of a gloomy day.

Often stock photography is the first place to go in this case, but then we are limited by random camera angles, lenses, and depth of field, not to mention the biggest issue of all - lighting. Probably the biggest challenge in using purchased stock scenery is that while you may find a beautiful image, the lighting usually is either a bit off, or a world apart from what you want to match it with. 

I decided this would be a great time to experiment with creating 3D grass. I'd been wanting to try out Fibermesh, a great feature in Zbrush, a 3D sculpting application made by Pixologic. Fibermesh allowed me to paint with a mask on a flat plane and turn that mask into thousands of blades of grass. The beauty of this method is that I was able to match Mike's camera angle, field of view, and even add some creative depth of field using a depth pass in Photoshop. 

The benefits of utilizing 3D assets in your 2D composites is undeniable. Having the ability to match a static image with a 3D camera, adjust lighting to match the original and render color, depth, and shadow in separate passes for maximum freedom is empowering to any retoucher or designer. 

Masking a 3D sphere in Zbrush. Now let's find a Fibermesh preset for blades of grass.

After a few seconds of tweaking max fibers and coverage...  We have grass. How cool is that?

People of Reddit! Help Me Create Something Great and I will Share it with You!

I have devoted most of 2013 to developing a large and diverse set of  presets for Lightroom and Camera RAW and have had a great time doing so. I hope that this product will fill a few gaps in that market.  This pack will include versatile black and white presets, HDR treatments, retro effects, sets devoted to studio work as well as available light,  and even some experimental presets that can help achieve some interesting effects. There will also be a large collection of presets made specifically to work on video within Photoshop CC inside smart objects.

Until now I have been using mostly my own personal images as references as well as that of a few fellow photographers. I've had wonderful results but I've come to realize that I need to pull from a larger cross section of the photographic community. I need to work with as many tonal and color palletes as possible.  I want this release to work for photographers as well as retouchers and designers and to encompass as many styles of expression as possible, while remaining well rounded

For this reason I am taking this opportunity to reach out to the Reddit community for help. I'm asking Redditors to submit their own photography for this purpose. The genres I am mainly interested in are as follows...  Fashion - Automotive - Wedding - Editorial - Kids - Landscape - Architectural - Nature - Sports - Wildlife - Portrait - Conceptual - Fine Art.  If you have an interesting image that doesn't quite fit into either of these categories, send it anyway!

For the first 100 Redditors to send a serviceable RAW image that either fits into one of these genres or represents one not mentioned here, I will be giving a full copy of the final product and these people will receive significant breaks on any future releases. For all images received I may consider using them on my blog in a section on my blog I plan on creating entitled "Heavy Redditors". If I choose to use your image I will contact you and get your express permission first. Also, all of Reddit will get a huge price break on the final product.

Send all attachments, links, or FTP sites to With all submissions please include contact information such as your username on Reddit and optionally your real name, links to your work, and anything else that would help me contact or promote you.  I do not need phone numbers, addresses, or any personal information. And of course, I will not claim any rights to your images in any way. I will not share or transmit them in any other way than what I have mentioned in this post. Please only share with me images that you own exclusive rights to.

I'm really looking forward to making something great for the world of photography with the help of all of you lovely people. Cheers.

The Whiskey River Standoff - Guns, Glory, and NASCAR


Every now and then I get the chance to work on a project that could  potentially produce something worthwhile, so long as I can take all of the pieces and arrange them into some semblance of an interesting scene. A while ago I was involved in just such a project, on a whirlwind production day on Dale Earnhardt Jr's property that contains a full size Hollywood quality western town. This place is seriously impressive, with a church, hotel with livable quarters, stables, and even a working and fully stocked bar. It even has a great name, Whiskey River, which coincidentally shares it's name with a more modern version.

I've been on quite a number of NASCAR related shoots and they all have one common issue - there are so many interested parties invested and so much money involved in working with these drivers that the clients all have to piggyback on each other's productions to get what they need. Inevitably the day is based around a video spot which as any still photographer knows, it means that they are going to come second. I was working (as I often do) with Walter Arce and we knew the drill - get there early, set up, and wait for a really really long time, check our facebook feeds over and over, eat too many carbs, (why is catering always entirely comprised of carbs?)  until you get ten minutes with the talent. Luckily for us there were multiple drivers that day, and they were staggered to us between takes for the commercial.

The theme for the shoot was about, not suprisingly.... cowboys. There were some great props on set and some really solid make up artists and everyone looked their part. The drivers left to right are Jeff Hammond, Paul Menard, Junior Johnson, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin, some of the biggest names in NASCAR. Each driver was costumed in a way that spoke to their own character and in the end they all looked wonderfully authentic. We shot each driver separately as they arrived on set and tried to keep the lighting exact, though a few had to be shot another day.

With our lack of time came the question of what background to use. Walter sent one of his staff photographers to the town set while we were working with the drivers and told him to shoot High Dynamic Range brackets of everything he saw. He came back with a great angle of the saloon entrance, which worked wonderfully in the final image. I believe in the end we had a compelling image with a lot of character.