Photographing actors for a composite image

Posted by David Travis on 25 Mar 2024

Photographing actors for a composite image

I recently photographed some actors from a historical society. The group was staging a play about an 18th century figure, Lady Frances Hamilton. Alongside her husband, William Vane (who Wikipedia describes as 'best remembered for his devotion to his openly unfaithful wife Frances, who despised him'), she bankrupted the local estate.

One of the play’s organisers contacted me to ask if I would take some photographs. I wanted to take this on because it was a local community project that didn’t have the budget for a professional photographer. It’s exactly the kind of work I want to do more of: professional-looking photographs for a good cause.

Planning and Lighting

From the start, I wanted to composite the actors into a suitable background. I was aiming for a kind of movie poster look, something like the promotional stills that you see on Netflix and iPlayer. I planned the lighting set up at home and then transferred this to the venue.

Here’s the lighting diagram. I used three flashes. To the camera left of the subject, I had a large soft box in very close (just out of frame). Behind the subject and to camera right I had a strip light, used to create an edge of light on the subject’s left side. And I used an umbrella, on the axis of the camera, as a fill light to lift the shadows.

Photographic Execution

This picture shows three example portraits. These images are pretty much out of camera (the only edit is a crop to remove the edges of the pop-up background).

Out-of-camera portraits

OM-1 with 45mm lens. 1/250s at f/5.6, ISO 200.

Because this was a historical society, I wanted the background image to complement the subjects. So I spent some time before the portrait session walking around the village. I managed to get access over private land to a good view of the castle, only to find it was partly scaffolded! Because of this, I used a different image of the castle for the composite.

The castle in the village, sadly covered in scaffolding.

OM-1 with Olympus 12-40mm lens at 28mm. 1/1250s @f/5.6, ISO 200. Six shot panorama.

Here’s the final composited image. I added a colour grade in Photoshop that I thought suited the historical period.

Lessons Learned

These were not professional actors and, like most people, didn’t particularly enjoy having their photograph taken. So I aimed to complete each session quickly — perhaps too quickly (the longest session was just two-and-a-half minutes). With hindsight, I probably could have extended the session with each person and pushed for a wider variety of poses.

And when I got home and looked at the images full-size, I realised I’d made a rookie lighting error with the spectacles. I should have asked people to remove their glasses (or tilt their heads) to remove the reflections (most noticeable in the actor on the left in the straight out of camera shots). I could fix this in Photoshop but it was an unnecessary step.

Nevertheless, I was pleased with the final composite, and most importantly, so were the actors. For fun, I also composited some of the actors in other stock backgrounds I’ve photographed over the years. Here are some examples.

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