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How to Shoot Levitation Photography – (Part 1: An Intro)

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We are always looking for new things, new photography projects. Not only professionnals but also every single amateur photographer are always on this hunt. Getting out of one’s comfort zone, that is also what it is about.

It’s fun to experiment new techniques and exciting to get original results, the kind of results people are puzzled and amazed by and make them wonder how you did it.  Something extraordinary. “Levitation” is this kind of project. I had presented a few weeks ago a photographer who is a specialist of this technique, Ravshaniya from Uzbekistan. So, of course, I’m not a levitation specialist, I do not have a great experience in this field but I wanted to experiment this technique because I find it very original and science-fi like. I also wanted to learn how to do it in order to share with you this very particular technique, the tips and tricks and the challenges I have been confronted with.

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For this photo shoot session, I wanted to explore different effects and even combine them. I thought they could match pretty well together as the idea was to get something surreal! It was quite tricky to combine them because I had to combine multiple shots with long exposures as you will see further on.

So obviously we’re going to see the levitation effect, ghost effect as I like to call it and some light painting. As always, it’s about creativity, you can basically experiment all of these things with humans, animals (without hurting them of course 😉 ), and fruits for instance.

What You Need

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“Ghost” effect. Only one shot needed (unless you add a levitation effect to it like in this picture). Long exposure, around 10 seconds. The model doesn’t need to stand perfectly still. A little blurry is good for a “ghost”. In order to get the transparency, ask your model to stay about half the time of the exposure. (e.g.: about 10 seconds if the exposure is 20 sec.) and then quickly go out of the camera’s sight. Adapt this technique to the level of transparency you want.

First of all, a sturdy tripod is the most important thing along with a remote control for more convenience. Secondly, a software such as Photoshop or Gimp (it’s free) is mandatory. For the light painting you can use any powerful source of light but the most common one will be a flashlight (LED light for instance. If you are able to get several colors, it can allow you to be even more creative). Patience will be the last ingredient because you will have to be meticulous during the photo shoot session as well as during the post-production. That’s all, not much equipment is needed here.

The “Levitation” Effect

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In this case, I must say, as you have already seen through the pictures, that they are not single shots with jumping people. Those are multiple shots images combined. Here, only 2 shots per photographs, but as soon as you master the technique, you can try with more than just 2 layers to insert more complicated effects/floating objects but that requires a lot of organization and planning. In other words, it’s a lot more difficult. So let’s get started with the basics to understand how this is done.

The Scenary Setup

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You will first have to take one shot of the background without any accessories. It can be just before or after the shots with the model. If you shoot outdoor, with the light constantly changing (sun or moon moving), do it pretty quickly to make sure you will have the exact same exposure on your 2 shots. To make sure your camera is not going to change the exposure, shoot only in Manual Mode. The priority modes (Aperture priority or Shutter priority) will change the exposure value.

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I tried to use a blower to make the dresses float in the air and emphasize the floating effect but my fan wasn’t powerful enough as we were outdoor. It would perfectly work indoor. By the way, I highly recommend it.

Same thing with focusing. I would switch to manual focus. Be sure to focus at the same place. If you want to avoid having different focus areas between the 2 layers, take your shot of the decor after your model shots in order to keep the same settings. This is because while shooting your model, you might change the focus points. Of course, try not to. Instead, try to have the widest possible depth of field (shut your diaphragm between f/9 or f/11). Of course, never ever change the position of your tripod and/or camera throughout the session. If so, don’t forget to take the picture of the decor each and every time you move it. Even moving your camera by 1 millimeter will fail the whole thing. So be very meticulous about this.

Post-Production

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These two pictures are then layered in Photoshop. The background photo is the one that has to be behind, therefore, used as the first layer. Use the tools of your software (Photoshop/Gimp, etc.) to erase the chairs and the accessories supports. Here’s when you discover that shadows can be a big issue. While erasing the chair, you’ll make appear the first layer…without shadow. Two solutions are possible:

  1. Recreate the shadow using the tools featured by your software.
  2. While shooting, pay attention to the direction of the sun/light source in order to have the shadows in front of the model and not behind because when you erase the chair you also erase the shadow.

Another problem that can appear is the  models’ clothes. While directing your model, you have to be careful at the way the clothes fall on the chair/support. It would be a shame to make it too obvious. The point here is to give the illusion that it’s “real”. The shadow and the clothes are often what betrays the final effect. In order to avoid this, try to put the dresses upon the support.

Unfortunately I can’t explain how to use the software as there are many. Check out the user’s manual.

The Atmosphere

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Basic example of the “Ghost” effect. Only one shot needed. Long exposure, around 10 seconds. The model doesn’t need to stand perfectly still. A little blurry is good for a “ghost”. In order to get the transparency, ask your model to stay about half the time of the exposure. (e.g.: about 10 seconds if the exposure is 20 sec.) and then quickly go out of the camera’s sight. Adapt this technique to the level of transparency you want.

As this technique brings some special atmosphere to your photographs, I would recommend to have some sort of mysterious, mystic or surreal atmosphere. The night is a perfect moment for that (prefered with moon and stars) and lights are easier to control but there’s a side effect. The exposures will be longer making it harder for the model to stand perfectly still. It’s important to try to keep the shutter speed as fast as possible.

As indicated in the caption of the 3rd picture of this article, you can add a “ghost effect”.

Light painting

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As I said, I think it’s better to add some sort of surreal atmosphere when it comes to levitation. Light painting can be that last effect!

You will necessarily need to shoot at night or twilight, with long exposures, often 30 seconds to let you enough time to draw what you want. No need to say your model must stand still, even if it’s very hard for 30 seconds. All the settings described earlier are useable here to combine levitation and light painting. You just have to increase the duration of the exposure. Use your flashlight and let your imagination draw!

Here are the “behind the scenes” :

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The “don’t do” picture: here I tried to combine all 3 effects: Levitation, Light painting and the ghost effect as you can see a certain transparency of the model. It appears to be pretty hard to combine and the effect is not well done here. You can see on the grass that I unfortunately got a different exposure on the layer behind due to the flash light too powerful. I wanted to show you this picture to show you the flaws we can be confronted to. It requires a lot of practice to control every technique and combine them.

Last advice, don’t forget to have fun and try this technique on different subjects like floating pieces of fruits cut with a floating knife or a levitating dog. :-)

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As always, feel free to leave a comment or contact us.

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See you next time with some other photography adventures!

Chris