29 Jan 2018

The beauty and the lasers

In this blog post I’d like to share a short write-up about the making of Arianne’s portrait. This image combines a couple of ideas which I think make for an interesting break-down.

Choreographing a long exposure

The overall tone is comprised by a palette of pale blues and cyans, contrasted why a dash of red in the make-up. On the very last minute I decided to play with red laser light in order to paint streaks of red on the model skin.

Beaming a laser towards someone’s face is perhaps not the greatest idea, so I had to come up with a way to make it safe for the model.

Lasers make everything better.

I began experimenting with double-exposures, where I’d first lit the model with strobes to take the main exposure, followed by a second exposure with the lights turned off, where an assistant would cover the model’s eyes as I flashed the light across her body.

After a few attempts, this proved to be much too cumbersome, as I had to stop down my lens and use different time settings for the two exposures giving the model time to inadvertently shift posture between takes.

What I ended up going for instead was a single long exposure where the two lighting setups would be carried out in rapid succession with the same lens settings.

The actual sequence took a few trials to get right; we ended up choreographing a 3 second long exposure at f-22. This required a lot of power from my flashes, but gave us just enough time to execute the motions without any of the ambient light registering in the final frame.

In the first instant the lights fire off for a split second creating the main exposure in cold tones and freezing the model in the image. Next, in dim light and with the camera shutter still open, an assistant would step in and cover the model’s eyes with her hand, making it safe for me to shine the laser pointer at the model’s body. Because of the closed down lens, both model and assistant register as black in the image and only the laser beam is bright enough to be seen and added on top of the flash exposure. Because I’m dragging he shutter open all this time, the movements of the laser pointer across the model’s skin smear out into continuous light streaks.

You can see one of the tests in this video. Please don’t judge me about recording videos in vertical format like a noob — this was meant for an Instagram story 😅.

Shooting it all in tungsten-balanced film

And as if the setup was not complicated enough already, I planned to shoot the whole thing in medium format tungsten-balanced film.

Let me explain.

One of the reasons why I like shooting film besides digital is for the way it renders colour, and more specifically the nuances in the transitions between tones, which tend to look much richer. I had been meaning to give Cinestill 800 a go for some time, and I thought this portrait could be a good opportunity to play with it and see how it behaves.

Were I a sensible person, I could have simply shot in a daylight-balanced film such as the superb Kodak Portra, and cool the tones down with blues, cyans and green gels in my lights. I’ve done this in the past, but wasn’t particularly happy about the resulting colours. So I wanted to experiment with Cinestill this time.

I did all my digital “Polaroids” by setting up my Nikon camera white balance to 3200 Kelvin, the same as the target Cinestill film. This is meant to compensate the orange tones of tungsten lights (think street lamps), and thus renders normal lighting with a blue cast. Blue! but that’s exactly what I want!

So I cheated in my lighting diagrams above: my whole setup had the lights gelled in shades of orange, just around and below the target temperature of the film.

This indeed ended up translating into shades of greens and blues. Interestingly the laser renders as a shade of orange rather than red, so I colour-graded the end image more towards greens rather than blues to balance it out.

The pain of scanning colour film

Although this convoluted workflow proved doable, and it is something I may have used in location (this is exactly the type of thing I did for Molly’s portrait), I had not foreseen how utterly painful would it be to wrestle the scanner’s software in order to get it to understand my bizarre needs.

My software of choice for scanning, SilverFast, which normally does a great job getting the colour range in the right ballpark, had no colour profile for tungsten balanced films. Thus, the scanner had no reference to understand that it had to compensate for this bizarre setup of oranges and bright reds into something closer to flesh tones. The initial frames turned out pretty encouragingly, but when I started scanning the frames with a strong red component from the laser light (green, in the negative), the software tries to aggressively “fix” all those reds dialling the amount of green tones to 11. This results in very unhealthy-looking sink tones, and sad, sad photographers.

Wrestling with SilverFast to produce a frame, before the final grading.

After fiddling with all settings, and some heavy-handed correction of curves, I could rein the tones back to where I wanted. Above you see one of the intermediate frames before the final colour grading. The process took a lot longer than I had anticipated, but I managed to get my final frame eventually!


A technically demanding setup, arguably mostly due to my stubbornness. I really like the end result however in all its quirkiness and the way it is rendered in film. I could have made my life a lot easier in both shooting and scanning the film had I stuck to daylight-balanced films, but I’m sure I will eventually be using this workflow on location where I don’t have as much ability to tone the ambient light.


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