The Quick How To
Making things appear to float or be frozen perfectly still in midair, doesn’t require extremely fast shutter speeds or high powered flash. A little bit of planning and some relatively simple post processing can lead to a fun and impressive photo if you can avoid a couple easy to make mistakes.
You need at least two photos for your levitation photo, one of the entire scene where your object will be floating and one with the object be held in the air by whatever you need to use to hold it in the air. The magic in levitation photography is removing the item holding your “floating” item in the air through the use of post processing software. I used Photoshop for this image but any program that allows you to use layers will work.
Using a tripod, take a photo of your background without your “floating” object or any items used to hold it in place. Now add add your floating object to the scene and use whatever you need to hold it up, it could be a couch cushion underneath or string from above. In my case it was wooden sticks stuck in Styrofoam and tape. Once your object is in place, take your second photo. Using a tripod will ensure the objects in your two frames align in post processing.
Bring the two photos into your editing program. You should arrange the photos so the photo containing your “floating” object(s) is the base layer and your empty background scene is your top layer. Then add a mask to empty background layer covering the entire layer (black mask in Photoshop). You should now see your floating object layer and everything holding up the object. Select a brush tool (with white as your foreground color in Photoshop) and begin painting away your supporting objects by removing the mask on the top image. You’re actually covering the supports in the lower layer by applying a mask made of the empty scene layer on top of the supports. When you’re done, flatten the image and make any additional post processing details you want. Now you’re making magic!
For more details, including the mistakes I made that you will want to avoid, continue reading.
I had thought about doing a photo like this for a while, coins being dropped into a jar. I pictured it as a stock photo being used by a bank to push savings accounts or something equally as grand (or mundane, either way). When a weekly theme of levitation photography came up for a project, I decided it was finally time to make the photo.
I had the jar of coins, I had my old wooden door over plastic sawhorses for my “studio” table and I had my plastic wardrobe to suspend my white paper roll from. All I needed was a way to make the coins float in the air and willing hand model. The later ended up being my son who was paid in coins.
“Using flash is not at all a requirement for levitation photography, so don’t despair.”
To “float” the coins I decided I would use some wooden wooden cooking skewers, a little Scotch tape and a Styrofoam block from a computer monitor product box. I chose these items because they were already around the house and would save me a trip to the store. They ended up working out pretty good, I arranged the coins to try to give them the appearance of falling by twisting a couple of them and keeping them from being in a straight line.
For my specific photo I utilized two Yongnuo Speedlights and a Yongnuo transmitter. I used one flash to light the white paper and another to light the setup. Using flash is not at all a requirement for levitation photography, so don’t despair. You can do your levitation photography anywhere and in any light you find suitable for your particular image.
I took one image of the entire scene, then removed the coins and the items keeping them in place and shot just the jar on the table in front of the background. The process for combining the images is in The Quick How To section above and isn’t difficult if you have experience using layers in Photoshop. If you’ve never used layers don’t get discouraged, it’s not a steep learning curve and very rewarding not just for this project but for all kinds of editing. This video is a great place to start if you’re completely new to layers and masks.
Like a lot of my projects, photographic or otherwise, I made more than one mistake. I hope I’m not alone in that type of experience. The big mistake has to do with lighting and is not confined to using flash. The brightness of the light on the background was different between my floating coins shot and the shot of just the jar on the table. So as I mask out the skewers on my brighter photo, the darker background is revealed leaving slightly darker strips of background where my skewers had been. I ended up reshooting as correcting that by editing would have been more work than reshooting and potentially with a less than desirable outcome.
“My one big takeaway from the project is to keep an eye on the light in your scene.”
In my case, I had adjust the flash output between shots causing the difference in light on my background. If you’re shooting with flash, keep this in mind. If you’re not shooting with flash, you also need to be aware changing light in your scene. A subtle shift won’t cause you a lot of trouble but if you’re outside and the sun is going in and out of clouds, you’re going to want to try and get both photos in under the same condition, sunny or shady.
My other mistake was angling one of my coins right into my flash causing a bright reflection that I didn’t immediately notice. It’s the nickle in the final photo but you may have already noticed that. My one big takeaway from the project is to keep an eye on the light in your scene. Making sure the light is consistent in your frames will really help sell the illusion. Making sure you don’t have distracting highlights will keep people wondering how you made something float as opposed to what is that blinding me in the photo.