Commercial photographer and filmmaker Dan Bannister matched scenic archive photographs with green screen portraits. The result is a series of ethereal and evocative portraits of lighthouse keepers. We had a little chat with Dan to learn how he did it.
Even though in his professional career, he has focused mainly on portraiture and lifestyle advertising work, when going through his archive, Dan Bannister realized that he had a lot of landscape images – of lighthouses in particular.
Growing up on the east coast of Canada, Dan has always had an affinity for the sea and the characters that live and work on the Atlantic Ocean. Recognizing this, a new idea for a personal project arose.
Tell us about the Lighthouse Keepers project, Dan!
“A couple times a year I try to shoot projects for creative or testing purposes. I was discussing some ideas with a fantastic retoucher I work with, Peter Worthington. I had been going through my travel archive and wanted to try to utilize lighthouse images I had shot in various places.
“I decided to create some characters that we could shoot in studio and blend into the lighthouse files from my archive. We called in set designer and prop stylist Kelly Arsenault, who previously worked on Amazing Race Canada. She was instrumental in coming up with just the right props and styling to nail the feeling and look I wanted.”
Why the interest in lighthouses?
“I started my professional career in photography primarily as an editorial travel photographer, and over the years I had built up a significant archive of landscape images from all over the world. When going through these, I realized that I have a lot of lighthouse images that I’ve shot that I really love. I guess part of the reason why I love them is that I had to get up really early in the morning to shoot them, which is against my nature in general…”
What was the most challenging aspect of the project?
“Well, the retouching and pre-production, to ensure what we shot in studio could be matched up with the file, required a lot of time and planning. Particularly with the image of the woman in front of the Marshall Point Lighthouse in Maine. It was shot in the harshest light of the day, but it was transformed into a dark and foggy morning for the final image.”
“The other challenge was the styling. I wanted props and styling that would speak to an earlier time and have a nautical feel. Kelly Arsenault is a great prop and set person and she was perfect for the job. She managed to find things like the brass binoculars that just elevated the entire shoot beyond what I expected.”
How did you light your subjects?
“We decided to shoot the subjects on green screen to make it as easy as possible to get an accurate mask. Subjects were key lit with a large octagonal softbox above and just left of camera for a soft, even fill. We also added some white foamcore to the subjects’ left side for some nice subtle fill. We then added a head with a Zoom Reflector and grid to hit the subjects on the right side and gelled the light to match the color of light coming from the lighthouse and give more believability to the shot.”
How did you figure that out?
“It was really a matter of analyzing the backgrounds and deciding what sort of light falling on the subjects was going to be believable and really make the final images blend together. Joe McNally once described lighting as “a game of inches.” He’s right in that the most subtle changes and tweaks in the lighting make a big difference in the final product.
“I’ve had opportunities over the years to watch people like Joe and Gregory Heisler work. The one thing you’ll notice is that they are extremely particular about the fine details – that “last 10%”. This 10% is what separates the average from the fantastic and it’s where professional photographers really bring that little something extra that takes a project to another place.”
Was it difficult to match the lighting in the portraits with the lighting in the background?
“I always try to have the retoucher on the set for shoots with complex compositing needs. I enjoy collaborating with people and working with Peter Worthington allowed us to shoot tests with the subjects and do quick mockups with the backgrounds. We could critique and modify the lighting in order to ensure he got files that would result in a successful result.”
Why go through all this trouble with lighting? Why not just do it all in Photoshop?
“I don’t think it’s possible to do everything in Photoshop, and I kind of hope technology never gets there. Nothing beats a beautifully lit photograph and adding shadows and light in Photoshop just takes the humanity out of the final product in my opinion. I like the blending of reality and fantasy as we’ve done here, but without great lighting on the subjects I feel like the results would be less “human”. I think that’s what distinguishes photography from painting and illustration.”
Below is a behind-the-scenes video showing how Dan worked both in the studio and with retouching.
You can see more if his work at his website.