A few week’s ago armed with my camera, my mother (who was convinced I was going to get murdered) and a $20 piece of fabric I disappeared into a forest to try and build a dress. But we got there too early and the sun was all wrong and I had to shoot all the components three different times because although I kept moving out of the sun the sun kept following me and my props weren’t working and the mosquitoes kept biting and my makeshift dress kept falling off and tripping me, and really, the whole thing was just a disaster. And it makes me wonder how many photos are born out of similar stories. Certainly most of mine.
However, were I a more emotional person, I would probably weep with joy on a daily basis at Photoshop’s magical powers. Honestly, I don’t know why they haven’t changed their motto to … “It turns out you CAN shine sh*t!’ Because so often I’ve taken a photo I wasn’t feeling good about and watched Photoshop transform it into something well beyond expectation. For example, I can buy a $20 piece of fabric, throw it around in a forest and manage to create a beautiful, unique, priceless dress fit for any mosquito-bitten princess.
How to photograph dress and hair flicks
So, how to make a pretty outfit out of next to nothing? For the sake of elegance you’ll likely want to create a dress with a cinched, flattering waist and a full, flowing skirt so I recommend working on the top of your dress first. You can either wrap your top half in fabric or simply put on a dress that has a skirt you’d like to make longer or fuller. If you’re really ambitious you can choose to use a patterned dress but for the sake of your sanity when matching up all the pieces later I’d suggest working with a plain fabric. From my own stupid mistakes I also wouldn’t advise using a translucent fabric. Sheets work wonderfully, which is how my shoot started out, but clever old me changed my mind last minute.
As usual you’ll need to set up your camera on a tripod. Compose, expose and focus, as covered extensively in my previous posts, then lock your settings and camera position so nothing can change. Begin by shooting you or your model’s pose first. You really want to concentrate not only on getting the pose right but also that the top of the dress looks just how you want it, even if you have to capture these in two different shots to blend together later.
Now’s where things get interesting. Next you need your model to take the dress off. This part CAN be done while still wearing the dress but it all depends on how billowy the skirt is and how you want your final dress to look. You want to start throwing your dress or fabric around. Your aim is to photograph the dress moving in different ways so you can combine the photos later in Photoshop to make the dress look much larger than it is. If you’re still wearing the dress you can try flicking your skirt to the sides. If your model is now semi-naked you want to hold the dress (by the waist) or the fabric (by the top) and start throwing it up and around but try and pull the area you are holding back into your waist just as the camera clicks so that the fabric looks like it’s naturally billowing from the waist area as it would with a real dress.
The same principle works with hair. If you want to make your model’s hair look longer or more full get them to either put their head down and then flick their hair back or use their arm to flick it out to the side. They’re going to get dizzy and their face will probably look stupid but it’s all for the sake of beauty. Now hair is incredibly hard to cut out and I don’t want to go into great detail about it but there’s two ways to minimise the horror. The first is to make sure you’re shooting on the same background that the main pose was shot on. If that background is neutral or blurred, even better, because you won’t have to be masking between individual hairs. The second way is to shoot against a colour that is the opposite to their hair colour. It’s great to have a sheet or reflector handy so you can shoot dark hair against a white background and blonde hair against a dark background. The selection tools in Photoshop look for areas of contrast so this makes it much easier for it to recognise the hair. It also allows you to use blending modes (more on this next week) to speedily mask the hair into your image. This may all sound too hard but trust me, it’s worth it in the long run. And I know, because I never follow my own advice and have wasted far too much of my life trying to fix stupid hairs.
And of course don’t forget to take a blank shot of your scene!
How to edit dress and hair flicks
Firstly you want to open your background with the main pose image layered above. Then cycle through your RAW shots and pick the fabric and hair shots you want to composite onto your main image. The dress is usually easiest so I like to start there. To save on file size I prefer to cut my fabric out of its background before I paste it onto my main image (even though this image STILL ended up being 18GB which actually BROKE my MacBook Pro). For ‘If You Go Down to the Woods Today’ I worked through all the selection tools to see what would work best. I suggest trying the magnetic lasso, the magic wand, the quick selection tool, the background eraser, the blending modes and color range (under Select ->Color Range) until you find one that works best. I thought color range would work great for me considering I had a red dress on a primarily green background but I was seriously having zero luck with all of these tools (although color range is best at preserving transparent areas so keep this in mind when working with translucent fabrics). Eventually I got fed up and drew a rough lasso around each piece of fabric, feathered the selection (using Refine Selection or Refine Mask) until it looked OK, then chose Select -> Inverse and deleted the rest of the image. I moved the fabric that remained onto my main image and placed each piece where it fit best and formed the shape I liked. I had to do this roughly at first and then fine-tuned it with a second pass.
For the hair I had much the same trouble with my selection tools (I suspect because the ends of my hair and fabric have quite a bit of motion blur) so I chose the photos I liked (with some I had to Edit->Transform->Flip Horizontal to get the hair flying in the right direction), roughly lassoed around the area and copied these onto my main image, moving them into a position that looked natural. If you’ve shot on a contrasting background your selection tools should work a treat. (For a more advanced technique you can try using the Refine Radius brush in your Refine Mask options to force Photoshop to better detect the hair but I find it a bit hit and miss.)
Hair flick horror
In both cases I had some images where the colour and luminance of one flick was wildly different to the colour of the others so I had to clip an adjustment layer to the problem images Alt click between the adjustment and image layers) and use curves or levels to make them match.
For some areas of the dress I wanted it to look as if there were many panels of fabric flying in different directions but usually I like the dress to look like it’s fully intact, so to blend your fabric together add layer masks to each fabric flick and using a low opacity and very soft brush, mask away parts of the fabric until it blends into the underlying fabric layers. Best to work through the layers one at a time while switching the other layers off. Sometimes the healing and spot healing brushes work great for blending fabric also. Just use them to paint along the seams. Be mindful to assess the direction of light in your image and how shadows are falling and ensure to replicate this in your dress.
The easiest way I’ve found to blend hair together is to vary using a brush of soft to medium hardness on a low opacity to brush around your hairs (and because I always work non-destructively I paint on the layer mask, not the layer itself). It’s not foolproof but it’s generally good enough.
If your hair is giving you real grief you can also sample a colour of the hair (alt click with paint brush tool) and use the smudge tool to paint fake hair in, or use a specially designed brush for the purpose of drawing in hair such as the one at this link.
The thing I most love about using hair and dress flicks in my images is that it adds that extra element of magic to your story by bringing motion to a static image and turning your hair and dress into characters of their own.