Adding 3D Models to Creative Portraits

I was recently listening to a podcast, and photographer Daniel Grove was discussing creative portrait shoots he does involving 3D models implanted into the scene resulting in shots such as a wedding party running from a Tyrannosaurus Rex.  After looking up Daniel Grove’s work, I knew he was someone I wanted to feature on the website.

Image by Daniel Grove. Details below.

Daniel is a San Antonio-based photographer with thirteen years of experience, primarily shooting weddings, families, events and creative portraits.  About four years ago, Daniel started blending his love for Photoshop, fantasy and special effects to add creative portraiture to his business.  Daniel had years of experience in Photoshop and advanced 3D programs that helped him get started, but he says simply being artistic and willing to problem solve has helped him the most as he has learned this craft.

Daniel’s process is pretty simple, at least in the number of steps (definitely not in completing those steps).  Daniel starts in Lightroom to do the initial edits.  He then takes those images into Photoshop to do additional work and prepare them for compositing.  He makes props, effects and 3D models in a program called Blender, and then composites those into the image using Photoshop.  Daniel has watched countless hours of tutorials on both Photoshop and Blender to learn all the tools and building blocks such as masking, blend modes, layers and brushes.  With all the fundamentals down, it is just a matter of creativity and problem solving to accomplish what you want.

Image by Daniel Grove. Details below.

The tough part for us normal photographers comes in creating the 3D models.  To do this, Daniel says he takes “the image in to my 3D program and use it as a reference to find the perspective, composition, lighting etc. I then make the 3D object and position it in a way that it will fit in to the actual photo much more realistically.  I have to take in to consideration things like focal distance, depth of field, motion blur, perspective, lighting angle, lighting quality, lighting color, color temperature, shadows [and] everything that makes up a real photo that I’ve taken I have to simulate in the 3D space so my fake 3D object or prop will fit in to the real photo’s scene.  Once the 3D work is done, I’ll render the object with no background. Depending on what it is, this process of rendering can take 1 minute to 4 hours! It all depends on the complexity of the scene, model, lighting, effects [and so on] that my computer is emulating.  Once the 3D object is rendered I save it as a .PNG with no background and bring it in to Photoshop as a layer on top of my original photo. I then use masking if needed to blend it in to the real scene. I also use all kinds of tricks like curves, color balance, dodge and burn [and so forth] to blend it in and make it fit the real scene without standing out and looking fake.  For other images that don’t require 3D work I’ll bring the image in to Photoshop and do the usual cutting out of the person if I’m placing things behind or around them. I then use layers of effects images I’ve already created such as particles, fire, energy, debris, fog etc. and blend them in to the image using blend modes, transparency, masking, and other effects to match or compliment the color scheme and motion of the photo. ”

So the process is not quite as easy as it originally seemed, but you can tell how advantageous a good working knowledge of Photoshop is.  Daniel points to how complicated it can become in that the longest single frame in Frozen took 132 hours to render.  Daniel said some images take as little as 15 minutes if he is using premade assets to be layered and blended in to the image and others take him up to ten hours if he is making something complicated.  Obviously, with that much work to get done, you are going to want a fast computer system to cut down on render times. Daniel uses a gaming laptop with a quad core Intel i7 processor, 16GB ram, and 6GB video card.

Now comes the disclaimer.  This is not the photography to get into if you want to make money on it, unless you have the connections to get in with Hollywood or some famous people.  Daniel does not even charge any extra above his normal rates for doing these shoots.  Rather, it is a labor of love.  Daniel also mentioned it would be extremely difficult to know how to charge people because the time required to do a shoot is so much more difficult to estimate than a normal shoot.  Moreover, the people seeking these shoots are from the cosplay world and there is never a large budget in that world for photo shoots as all the money is spent making the costumes.

Image by Daniel Grove. Details below.

If this is something you are wanting to get into, Daniel shared his tools for finding clients: “I go to cosplay conventions that happen every year here in town and I meet cosplayers that way or through their associated Facebook groups. I’ll schedule shoots ahead of time so that when the convention comes, I’m booked doing mini shoots outside of the convention all day. A lot of cosplayers see my work from those conventions and become fans online. From there, they will approach me about doing a shoot. So exposure on Facebook and Instagram has grown my audience a lot. Outside of the cosplay community I also have “normal people” and families seeing my creative work. They come to me with a crazy idea and I make it in to reality for them.”

Image by Daniel Grove. Details below.

So, where do you start on this journey to making epic creative images.  Daniel gives the following advice: “To learn the 3D software I use, Blender, it may take a few months to learn to do modeling, texturing, and rendering. But some of the abstract effects like particles and energy can be made with a few tutorials worth of learning. As for Photoshop, the things to understand are adjustment layers, masking, brush controls, and compositing techniques like warping, faking depth of field, blend modes, etc. which if you watch a few videos on you can master in a week or two. The key is to use the things you learn on your own images so that what you learn really sticks. Much of what I know I learned the hard way and through necessity so it’s burned in to my brain. Whereas if I watch a new cool tutorial on a new technique, I may forget it the next week because I didn’t use it or come up with it on my own. But for those interested I’d suggest learning the basics of Photoshop and figuring out what kind of editing style you want to do. There are a lot of educational videos online that teach the rest.”

So there you have it.  You won’t learn to do it until you start trying.  Come up with an idea of what you want to create with one of your images and learn what you need to by watching Photoshop and Blender tutorials while putting those practices into effect.  If you do not feel comfortable  with that yet.  I would suggest just starting with Photoshop.  Learn all you can there and as you learn more there, I think you will start to learn the process you need to feel comfortable to make the leap.

Below are the stories, in Daniel’s words, behind the images shown in this article.

Wall-climbing assassin

The unedited image:

During this shoot it really was raining on us so I had my flashes taped up in grocer bags to protect them. I knew I wanted to do something cool in this alcove of stone at a popular location in town, although I’ve never seen anyone shoot in this particular spot so it’s a favorite of mine. We brought a step ladder to help hold him up against the wall but I imagined using it for a wall running type action shot which didn’t work because the ground was too uneven. So instead I had him sit on the top of it with his legs against the stone wall and hold on to a metal wire that is actually the lightning rods’ grounding cable! Thankfully there was no lighting that evening. In Lightroom, I evened out the levels as the image was shot dark on purpose. In Photoshop I removed my light and the extra light spill caused by my softbox. I also drew a rope on top of the metal cable he was holding using the paths tool. I used layer styles to give it some depth with shadow and highlight so it didn’t look flat and then I made a rop texture which I warped in the middle so it looked like the diagonal lines were wrapping around the ropes cylindrical shape. Lastly I replaced the sky with a stormy one and added lighting using highlight dodging. The rain I made using the fiber plugin and stretching a few pixels worth vertically so that it covered the entire image. I used 2 layers of rain both of which I skewed the corners so the rain was falling in line with the 3D perspective of the camera angle looking upward. And with a little fog at the bottom of the image it was complete.


The unedited image:

The idea for this shoot came from a dream I had about an angel who comes to Earth curious about the state of mankind from the bits of information she’s gathered from the messenger angels in heaven. I wanted her to look innocent but still powerful. I also wanted her to have accurate wings that would look strong enough to pick a human up off the ground. I tried various ways of creating the wings themselves but had to settle on the hard way – modeling each wing individually, making a few different feather textures in Photoshop so the feathers would look different, and also learning how to make the wings poseable and with simulated hair on top for the downy feathers. Posing and hair simulation is a huge part of 3D work but things I had not touched until this project. I also modeled a castle to put in the background as this story took place in the middle ages in dream. So I modeled and textured almost every single feather. I then lined them up and made the arm that holds the wings movable. For the jumping image I brought my little kids trampoline and had her jump a few times, the trampoline was removed in Photoshop. The particles or embers in the air are from images of fireworks sparking. During 4th of July and New Years, you can find me obsessively taking weird pictures of firework, not the big ones in the sky everyone struggles to capture, but the small, smoky, colorful, and sparky ones on the ground. These images are invaluable to many of my compositions. If you look at her feet you’ll see a discrepancy. I liked her feet positioning and cloth better from a different image I took so I took face swapping to a new level – feet swapping!

Mckree cosplay

The unedited image:

Like many of my composites in Photoshop, they start off with a few basic ideas or goals and evolve over an hour or 4 as I try different things, some work and some don’t. This image has 13 layers on top of the original image that include smoke, sparks, fire embers, an energy ball, and even a nebula! All with masking and blend modes to convincingly incorporate them in to the atmosphere, foreground, and background of the image. Also like most of my composites adjustment layers such as color balance and curves play a huge part in bringing out colors and values that will both bring emphasis to the subject while allowing the layers of fx to stand out better. Most of my fx layers work on screen mode so they won’t be very visible on top of a bright background so when possible I shoot darker or darken the background around or behind the subject so that things like smoke, sparks, or light sabers glow properly and their color can be seen. I did a lot of touch up on the gun which was cut by hand out of EVA foam, a popular material that cosplayers use to create large and elaborate props. Her cuts were not straight so I used grey brushes of the same value to straighten up many of the wiggly parts. I shot this photo in a small enclosed space which allowed me to get rid of much of the real light from the sun and introduce more of my artificial light from my Yongnuo speedlites. I put one on the floor behind her with a yellow gel and another speedlite was in a Rapidbox lighting her from the front. I used selective color to enhance and shift the background color to what I liked which better fit the character. I also learned a cool trick with this image to use the path blur in order to give particles the appearance of motion in different curving directions.

underwater stargate

The unedited image:

 Doing an underwater portrait shoot was always on my bucket list, but when I looked up the prices for underwater camera cases I ruled it out as not something worth pursuing. Around that time I came across a local photographer who was willing to rent out his entire camera and casing for just $100 so I couldn’t miss that! I lined up 2 shoots to make the most of that time. I shot a maternity of a friend and the 2nd shoot was with one of my creative friends who makes costumes, in fact she made her own white gown! Not only was she a natural swimmer since childhood but she just gets it with posing and expressions which made the images come out extra magical. So after learning to sink and not breath for 10-20 seconds on end repeatedly and shooting half blind as the D810’s auto focus often couldn’t focus underwater with the available light, I turned out with some incredible images despite the frustration and challenges that underwater shoots bring. A few images I’ve seen online have the image flipped to where the ceiling of water becomes a magical reflective wall. And of course my nerdy self is thinking of the old movie/show Stargate! If I remember correctly, they originally shot the Stargate special effects using a jet that shot into a pool of water, giving an explosion of air that then returned to the surface and consequently the wormhole within the stargate, who’s surface was rippling water, would open. So I tried my hand at it and love the result, although going in to it I had no idea what I would do in post.
With 24 layers and 3 adjustment layers it was a fun playground of possibilities. I wanted to do something different from my normal hard science fiction approach to space and do something fantasy/magical, but with a space scene. I imagined her being an interstellar goddess approaching the center of the universe or something that resembled a huge sphere of peaceful liquid floating in space. I removed the pool behind her and put in planets that I made in 3D for a space fly-through project I’ve been working on. I added some particles and layers of bokeh Christmas lights turned blue. I also added some subtle light rays coming out of the water and color corrected her skin with the color balance adjustment layer masked to her skin only. With underwater photos there is a lot of particles and impurity in the water that ruins clarity especially the darker parts of images which is why her hair looks pretty bad. I did what I could do but didn’t let myself get stressed about it.

Daniel Grove’s Gear

Daniel shoots with a Canon 6D, which can be picked up new for $1,199 or under $1,000 used.  The newer 6D Mark II is $1,699.  Daniel’s lens line up consists of the 50 mm f/1.4 for full-body portraits, 16-35 f/2.8 for full-body action shots and wide angles, and the 100 mm f/2.8 for close-up portraits.  Daniel uses a flash set up consisting of two Yongnuo YN560IV speedlites and YN560-TX trigger.  That whole set up is available for $179.  He also has a YN568 he can use when he needs a third flash or TTL.

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