Isolated on white

Burned out highlights are a photographic blight ... a blight on too many of my photos, anyway (see preceding post).

But sometimes you want large areas of blown-snow-white, usually in the background of commercial photographs. The reason is that it isolates the subject, which can then be dropped on to a page (most pages are also white) to blend in perfectly.

Of course ... the universe being made the way it is ... when you want pure white, it's fiendishly difficult to achieve.

One way to do it is to photograph your object ignoring the background. Then, using something like the pen tool in Photoshop, carefully draw a selection around the object you want to isolate and extract it from the background. (If you want the best results don't waste time with fancy things like the 'magic lasso' or whatever. They don't give accurate enough selections for commercial purposes.)

Here's one of my examples. It's a poisons bottle that I found in a Victorian rubbish dump that was being excavated near the town of Luton, in the UK.

What was I doing rooting about in a Victorian rubbish dump? That's another story, but my father is an amateur archaeologist and in my late teens I got bitten by the bug too. I went through a phase of collecting old glass bottles. This particular image features on the front of my book of poetry (shameless plug, please take a look) and there's a poem about the bottle inside - a poem from which the title of the book is taken.

This technique is relatively easy if your subject has nice straight lines or regular curves. The only tricky bit in this case was ensuring that the bottle was lit in such a way as to make the embossed 'NOT TO BE TAKEN' stand out.

If it's a more complex subject with folds of clothes to contend with or, worst of all, hair, then isolating with the pen tool is just about impossible.

In that case what you need to do is place your subject against a white background and throw enough light on the background to burn it out completely.

It ain't easy. Get your subject too close to the background and light will spill around the edges giving a weird 'halo' effect. And you need to make sure that whilst the background is way, way, over-exposed, the subject is not.

Here's one I did that, I hope, tells a tiny story. The background was a white projection screen with two flash heads, operated by slave units, top and bottom.

Even then I got grey corners which had to be eliminated in Photoshop. But, provided the subject is isolated on its own patch of white, that's relatively easy to do.

The difficult bit is getting the subject isolated in the first place.

No comments: