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?

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.


GutterGirl - Cinematic Lighting, HDR and a Very Bloody Knee


There is a parking deck uptown that I was kicked out of while back  for taking pictures of clouds..... yes clouds. As much as Mr. Rent-a-cop Droopyface would have liked to have scared me away, I was not detered. Next time I came on foot, tripod in hand, with the intention of getting a cool HDR background plate of a dingy sodium-vapor lamp illuminating a dirty wall and some sort of ominous looking water valve reminiscent of an 80's horror movie   ... and well, that is what I did.

For those of you who do not know about HDRi or High Dynamic Range imaging , it is a photographic technique used to render images that encompass a larger range of luminosity, similar to what our eyes do effortlessly. By combining a group or bracket of images captured at different exposures which encompass the entire range of the scene, we can put together a High Dynamic Range image that looks truer to the physical world. If you would like to try this out for yourself, check out Photomatix.  For more information, and some really awesome HDR tutorials, check out Trey Ratcliff's blog.  He's kinda the go-to-guy for this sort of thing, has the most visited travel photography site on the internet, and on top of all that he wears cool looking glasses.

After putting the background plate together I realized that I needed an epic hero to be the subject of the image, after all it's basically an empty spotlight without one. I racked my brain for while as to who that hero could be - a hip hop artist? (Nope, I don't know any.),  a hot chick wrapped in caution tape and wearing a gas mask? (Nope, ModelMayhem has that covered.), Banksy? (Yeah, then I could just leave it empty!).... I couldn't get my mind around it and I don't believe in forcing ideas to completion so alas, with a lack of realistic ideas, I sat on this one for well over a year and explored other pursuits.

Many long months later I had an upcoming test shoot with my friend Danielle. We were tossing ideas back and forth and she mentioned that she was a skater... and finally I had my first good idea for a hero shot - shoot a hot model who also looks like a real person showing some true to life character - cooler than a gas mask indeed. On the day of the shoot we met up at my studio. Danielle brought her skate board, her silly jokes, and a tiny girlfriend of hers who could do a flawless imitation of Ms. Swan from Mad TV. In order to fit Danielle into the background image I had her pose up against the studio wall with her board. I lit her from directly overhead using a 36 inch strip bank with a grid and also from the front high above the camera with a beauty dish. This allowed me to recreate the original environment as well as bringing some exposure to her face and a nice catch light to her eyes.

The final way in which we created a mood was to add a bit more authenticity... also known as blood. I thought that having her appear a bit worse for wear would sell the idea better. For legal reasons I can't describe the technique we employed to achieve this effect, but I can say that it involved a lead pipe and two consenting adults... Danielle was quite the trooper and you can hardly tell that she walks with a slight limp... I'm horrible - I did it all in Photoshop.


Software used:

Capture One Pro

Adobe Creative Cloud