Featured Expert: R. J. Kern

Create Vanity Fair-esque bridal party images 

by R. J. Kern of kern-photo

Looking for a dramatic new technique to add suave, sophisticated polish to your bridal party photos? Look no more.

Enter the  “single light, multiple exposure” technique. The goal of the process is to create a photograph of a static pose whereby the subject remains still. Multiple layers of light are applied giving the illusion of many. Static portraiture has been around for hundreds of years, starting with paintings of royalty in mansions. The technique can still be applied in digital photography today with unlimited creative potential.

Pt 1: Set-up and Shooting

  1. Prep Client. Getting your client excited about the shoot early in the day when there is plenty of time to chit-chat works well… especially in hair/make-up. This gets the girls excited and brainstorming ‘their look.’ Carve out at least 15 minutes at an appropriate time.
  2. Prepare Gear. This includes setup of soft boxes, strobes, and triggering to ensure everything fires correctly. You don’t want to have everyone there ready when Murphy’s Law happens. Troubleshooting when there’s 30 eyeballs staring at your trembling hands isn’t cool.
  3. Plan your Negative Space & Composition. Think about the potential cropping needed for final output. For example, 8×12 vs 9.5×13 albums require different crops, no different than a 20×30 canvas wrap. Always conserve at least 20% around the image empty space so you don’t crop arms/legs/heads. Have the bride and groom sit slightly offset if possible in case the page gutter runs down the middle and you don’t fold her head along the crease.
  4. Plant Tripod. Once Step #1 is nailed down, be sure your tripod is rock solid precisely where you want it and won’t move easily (I like to weigh it down with my filled laptop bag/backpack which is about 20lbs. Camera movement, even the slightest bit, will create more time in post-production aligning images. If I can take proper precautions before the shutter snaps to save me from sitting in front of the computer later, I’ll make that happen!
  5. Pose It Up. This is the fun part and it requires enthusiasm and energy to spark creative posing ideas. Double check for double chins, hands, legs. Give each limb something to do whether it be holding a book, elbow on horse head, hand in pocket, holding flowers, etc. Save a few scrapbook sketch ideas on your iPhone from magazines or drawings to help with your posings
  6. Be The Alpha. I manual focus, manual expose, manual WB, etc, to ensure I’m the one in control over my camera (you don’t want autofocus movements in the middle of shooting).
  7. Get a Safety Shot. You have it if you need it. Confirm focus, exposure, depth of field. When shooting with the full-frame 645 medium format rig, f/11 is a sweet spot for me to minimize diffraction and maximize depth of field (which is equivalent to about f/5.6 on a 35mm DSLR).
  8. Take One. Take multiple exposures using a single flash and an assistant to trigger the camera on your command (I hold the light). Position the light the way you want but keep consistent angles of the lighting position if you want it to look natural (like it came from one big source). If you do not want the light to look natural you can vary it up to create conflicting shadows or elements of curiosity. Take as many frames as you want. Consider angling the flash to create depth from textures & shadows, especially in the foreground. Be sure to explore quality of light AND quantity of light. Consider bouncing the flash off of objects or directly into camera. Maintain equal distance between flash & flash subject for consistent flash exposures (optional)
  9. Take Two. Do a second pass as a backup strategy with your light. If subjects move, blink, and fall over (it’s happened), the extra 5 seconds will save sanity later. Also, Create a “Base” image using sans flash. You can do this before or after, just don’t forget. This “base” image will make compositing in Photoshop later much easier.
  10. Review & Share. At this point the group will be interested in your best shot. Share it with them. Commit to them you’ll share it on the blog if they want to see the final composite.

Practice this technique several times before attempting to use it in a professional setting.

Pt 2. Post-Production

Once you are ready to build the image, hit the studio computer with some creativity and let the good times roll. A good playlist comes in handy, as next part can be rather tedious the first few times, but you’ll get the knack of it.

  1. Process Image. If necessary, convert RAW to JPEG using consistent WB/exposure setting. In Photoshop, load all JPEGs into one stack. Photoshop CS3-CS5, File > Scripts > Load Files into stack or right click in Lightroom your selected set of images. If camera was steady on a tripod, images should align easily in photoshop. No tripod? The auto-align feature works okay for a few images. Low RAM? Consider importing a few images at a time.
  2. Create a layer mask. This is the tricky part, but the idea is you are “painting” in the layers which have the light from the strobe you like best. Create a layer mask on each layer. Locate your “base” image and move it to the bottom. Your “base” can be the shot of the subject’s face. Turn all layers except for base off by holding Alt/Option (Mac) or Ctrl (PC) and click the “eyeball” button. Using your paintbrush set to black (opacity 100%) on your first (non-base) layer, paint on the layer mask (not layer!). it will erase the part of the image you lit with the flash that you want to keep. Invert the layer mask by clicking on the Command (Mac) or Control (PC) and the letter “i” to invert. To fine tune the areas on the image you want to retain, press the “X” key to switch between black & white colors (adding or subtracting from the layer mask).
  3. Repeat. Do Step #2 on each of your layers. This process will go quickly once you have the process down. You do not have to use all the layers.
  4. Save your PSD. If you don’t plan on keeping layers, flatten all layers and at least save a .TIF or .JPEG. Salt to taste in Photoshop: Dodge/Burn, skin-retouch, and other Actions (optional).



While these images weren’t made to necessarily win awards, you could create some unique, killer images with these same technical concepts. I challenge you. And your clients will thank you.


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