As a part of a personal 50/50 project (a photo a day for 50 days with a 50mm lens), I tried my first attempts at levitation photography and had a lot of fun doing it. This tutorial will walk you through the best methods to make a surreal levitation portrait; only a pinch of magic required.
I think that creating a surreal portrait exemplifies the creative process. The entire experience, from planning to set up to shooting to processing, is a slow and methodical creative endeavour. When you have the intention of creating something surreal, all the constraints and bounds on your creativity are loosened.
With such loose constraints, you are limited only by your imagination and your results will directly.
Think of levitation as one of many elements of your photo. There are still a lot of other things to think about other than just the levitation part: your subject’s pose, the setting, the light, makeup, clothing, props, and all the other technical elements of the shot. Think about what unique ideas you can bring to your levitation photography project.
- Digital Camera
- Step Stool or Similar (this is our magical levitation device)
- Intervalometer (optional, helpful if making a self-portrait)
There are more ways than one to levitate. The first and most rudimentary method is probably the most obvious:
The Jump Method
I tend to dislike the jumping method for a number of reasons: It’s difficult to make look natural, it requires care to not fall and get hurt, and it’s downright exhausting to perform. My very first attempt at levitation photography was a self portrait and I used the jumping method to make it.
Using only my camera on a tripod and an infrared remote to trigger the shots, I would jump and twist my body at numerous angles to try and capture a good levitation pose. The camera was set to continuous shooting mode in hopes that I could capture as many potential frames as possible.
Every once and a while I would get lucky and actually grab a frame right at the apex of my jump. I’m pretty sure numerous people walking by me on the beach thought I was absolutely off-my-rocker-crazy for jumping around like a complete fool, but I was actually pretty happy with the results.
I would like to say that this technique can work fairly well, but it’s very difficult to get right and nearly impossible to safely make a photograph with your head lower than your feet without face-planting.
I have seen it used to great effect and it can be a fun, impromptu method to levitate your subject when you’ve forgotten your step stool. The best part of this method is that it’s not necessary to perform any tricks to get the final result. But you’ll look like a complete fool doing it.
The Support Method
For the best results, you’ll want to used the method below. It will require more pre-preparation and post-processing than just jumping, but it opens up the possibilities for composition tremendously. The support method is my preferred way to shoot a levitation portrait.
I used a simple IKEA stool for almost all of my supported levitation photos. Using a support of some kind is preferable to jumping because it’s possible to place your subject in more interesting poses. Putting your subject’s head lower than their feet can result in a very surreal look and in my opinion has more impact than a photo where their body is more upright.
While easier on the model, the support method makes for a slightly more difficult shooting process. It requires compositing multiple images in post processing so it’s necessary to carefully execute the shoot for the best results.
Shoot Two Photos
We will want to take two photos with the camera in the exact same position with identical framing. A tripod is absolutely necessary when shooting this kind of levitation portrait.
The first photo is the portrait and the second photo is an identically framed shot of just the scene without the subject. It’s very helpful to use an identical focal point and identical exposure settings between the two photos.
Shooting in manual mode with manual exposure will ensure that neither the exposure nor focus point will drift when shooting (just don’t bump your focus). Ensuring that these photos are identically framed and exposed will make the final compositing in the easiest.
I prefer to shoot the portrait first for a couple reasons: it allows you to get your framing just right to complement your subject’s pose, and it lets you see nearly the final result. Once you’re happy with the framing, pose, and exposure and you’ve ensured that you got the best shot of your subject, have your subject exit the scene and then snap a quick shot of the bare setting.
It’s important to find a pose that doesn’t look too much like your subject is supported on a stool. If they’re just sitting on their bum or standing on the stool, it will likely be obvious that there is something supporting them and that it was just ‘shopped out.
The best way for your subject to support themselves is on their back, chest or stomach. Since humans rarely support themselves with solely their back, chest or stomach, it makes it less apparent how they are supported in the final photo.
Similarly, placing your subjects head low to the ground is a great method to add tension to the photograph. We don’t usually expect people’s heads to be lower than their feet, so this helps contribute to the illusion of the photograph as a whole.
Post processing is done very simply in layer masks. It’s easiest to explain this in a video, so check out the post processing.