My tagline says I Shoot People and that’s exactly what keeps me motivated as a photographer. My camera is my ticket to meet and interact with people. People that I would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience.
Throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to photograph numerous magicians on stage and in my studio and I have even done images to illustrate a book on how to do magic. I can’t show you any more of those or the secret magicians society will come take me away for giving up their tricks.
Recently through YouTube, I met the amazing Matthew Furman from New York City. Matthew is a magician and mind reader who does close-up magic and card tricks that are simply incredible. What I found fascinating about Matthew is that he isn’t a stage performer – he doesn’t do fancy costumes and have huge pieces of equipment. Instead, he travels the world and he performs for celebrities and major corporations. His website has tons of photos and videos of him performing in front of a who’s who of celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Alec Baldwin, Michael Jordan, and Lebron James as well as a long list of corporate giants.
Matthew gets most of his business the old-fashioned way – through word of mouth referrals. Which means – yes – he is that good. But he does have a basic website that serves as a brochure for his business and potential customers. The website had four studio photographs that he wanted to update.
So my task was not to go off and be creative – I needed to essentially recreate the existing shots, but improve on them so that they would be more current and have a lot more pop than the existing ones.
The thought process
Matthew’s website is built with a black background. The issue with the existing photos is that they look very flat and he blends into the background since he is wearing dark colors.
I knew right away that I needed to use a lighting arrangement that would help separate him from the background. Some of you might say have him wear lighter colors. It doesn’t work that way – a performer has a look or a costume that they wear, and it is our job as the photographer to solve the problem and make it work. If you take the gig, you don’t get to blame the subject for bad choices. You have to solve the problem.
I also noticed that most of the images were shot from about mid-thigh up and that he is holding the cards fairly low – just above his waist. I knew that I could have him lift the cards and perform the trick a little higher and closer to his face. That would allow me to crop closer and make him appear bigger in the same space. That way it’s just a matter of swapping the photos and not re-designing the website.
Lighting was going to be key to achieving my goal with these shots, but I also knew that I was going to be dealing with a subject that was holding white playing cards in front of his body and closer to the lights than his face. I didn’t want harsh shadows, but I did want some depth to the lighting so that it wasn’t as flat as the old shots that he already had.
I had Matthew stand about 8 feet in front of a Thunder Gray Savage Seamless Paper background.
For my main lights I went with two Interfit Honey Badgers in Medium HalfDome Strip softboxes from Photoflex. The HalfDomes are 16 in. wide x 52.5 in. tall x 23 in. deep. If you’ve watched many of my lighting videos – I hope you have watched ALL of my videos and read ALL my blogs – I talk about the idea that with a softbox or umbrella I like to have at least two thirds of the light source above my subject’s eyes. That way the majority of the light is still coming from above and will create subtle shadows where our brain expects shadows. You can see in the video here that is not the case in this set-up – for a few reasons.
Given that these are 52 in. tall softboxes and Matthew is about 5 ft. 10 in. tall, I didn’t have enough ceiling height to be able to raise them high enough to have two thirds of the light above his face. I also wanted to have a third light on the floor, which I’ll get to in a moment. The solution is to raise the softboxes as high as I could and then angle them forward slightly. This way the top of the box is closer to his face than the bottom of the box and as a result of the inverse square law, I wind up with the majority of the light intensity coming from above, but I still get a soft and subtle light falloff towards the bottom of the shot.
I mentioned the third light on the floor. It was another Interfit Honey Badger with a Medium Lite Dome Softbox from Photoflex with the Grid attached to the front so that the light doesn’t spread. The light is mounted on one of my DIY Baby Pin floor stands and aimed up towards Matthew’s hands to add some fill light to the bottom side of his hands. Since the hands and the cards are an important element of the shot, I wanted to add a little fill light to be sure I didn’t have heavy shadows.
I also have two more Honey Badgers behind Matthew, one on each side and aimed directly at the back of his head and shoulders. I am using 30-degree honeycombs to make sure the light doesn’t cause flare in my lens. These two lights provide the rim lighting that separates him from the background when the images are added to his website.
Last is one more Honey Badger also on a DIY Baby Pin floor stand that is placed directly behind Matthew and aimed at the gray background to create just a bit of a glow which will make the background a bit more interesting if he were to use the shots for promotional purposes and it also makes it easier to select him in Photoshop to create the version with no background for the website.
You can check out the full setup here.
The Camera Gear
I shot this with my Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II and the 45mm f/1.2 Pro Lens. My ISO was 200 which is the base ISO of the camera. The shutter speed was 1/250th of a second and the aperture was my favorite f/8 and be there.
All of the shots were done with the camera mounted on a Benro Carbon fiber tripod with an Acratech Ball head. I love to handhold, but in this case, I wanted the same camera perspective in all of the shots – so the tripod was the solution.
The first shot that we did that you can see here was one with the cards fanned out in an S shape. In the original shot on Matthew’s website he’s holding the cards just above his belt – so my goal was to have him lift them a bit higher so that I could crop closer. I also had him hold the cards further away from his body, which made them a little bigger in relationship to his face. I had him tilt his head to his left which means on the web page it leads into the page. All of these little details help create more impact on the webpage.
For the shot where he is tossing the cards from one hand to the other I followed the same thought process. I had him hold the cards higher than he normally would and also a little further from his body to make them appear larger. We made the decision to do these action shots in real time so that there would be some motion to the cards which helps communicate that he really is tossing them. We could have done this as a composite and inserted the cards in post-production, but it would have been extremely time consuming and expensive.
I followed the same steps for the more casual outfit on the Contact Page of his website.
Since I am shooting at f/8, I have plenty of depth of field so that I can still focus on his eyes and not have to worry about the cards being soft or out of focus.
For the shot that appears on the header of every page, we agreed that we didn’t want to use the smoke because it has a bit of a genie feel to it. The goal was to do the flying cards and like with the other shots, make him a bit bigger but still in the same size image that was on the website.
Some of you may be thinking – why can’t you just composite the cards and why can’t you just make the images bigger on the website? How hard could that be? When you are working with clients – you can’t make assumptions like that. If you are able to do some web design and if you understand WordPress, which is how Matthew’s site is built – then sure – you could do those things. But you’ll find that most successful business people don’t build and design their own websites because they are more focused on their actual business – as a result they don’t know how to make those changes and it would cost them money. So as a photographer, you problem solve within the parameters that your client gives you.
This shot is basically about 104 pickup. He is using two decks of cards, one in each had and each time he makes the cards fly – you get one shot. So, it is a matter of communicating, testing, and timing. Just like with the other card toss, it was intentional to do it in real time and allow some of the cards to blur.
The final images required very little post production beyond the usual color, contrast and sharpening and of course removing of blemishes. For each of the four shots, when I was done processing the shot, I selected Matthew from the background. My secret sauce – everyone has a different way of doing this, so there is no right or wrong and all that counts is the finished result – I expand the selection by three pixels, then feather it by 1.5 then create a layer mask so that I can turn off the background to save the version that will be used for the website.
In this shot with the flying cards, I also used a stock photo that was purchased at Dreamstime.com to create a background that made the shot look like it could be used on a poster. That wasn’t part of my assignment. I did it part for me and part because I have always believed in the business philosophy of under promise and over deliver.
The Finished Product
Below you can see the finished shots on Matthew’s website. I shot the image that appears in the header of each of the pages, the two images on the About Matthew page and the casual image on the Contact Page.
I am pleased to say that Matthew used one of his favorite words to describe the finished work – Amazing!
While I am happy he is happy – I wanted to share this with you so that you understand that working as a professional photographer isn’t always about YOU and how creative YOU can be. This job was very basic as photography goes, but like pretty much every job I have ever done it had a lot of small details that were very important to the client and the client’s needs. After all – that’s what you are paid for as a photographer.
The real bonus to this gig is that Matthew performed a close-up magic show just for me, in my studio. And I have to tell you – after spending several days shooting images to illustrate a book about how to do magic tricks – it was killing me that I thought I knew how he was going to do some of the tricks and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t see what he was doing – it was truly amazing. Be sure to check out the video of the show on Matthew’s YouTube channel or you can watch it below. Make sure you watch it to the end and you can hear in his own words how Matthew felt about working with me on his new promo shots.
Watch the VIDEO…
I hope this gives you some ideas, take this idea and run with it – go create and show me what you come up with.
Now, go pick up that camera and shoot something! Because your BEST shot is your NEXT shot!