How-To: Levitation Photography

Posted By on Feb 10, 2015 | 51 comments


“When you have the intention of creating something surreal, all the constraints and bounds on your creativity are loosened. The entire experience, from planning to set up to shooting to processing, is a slow and methodical creative endeavor.” In this short tutorial, Ian Norman uncovers the simple techniques for shooting levitation portraits, with processing in Adobe Photoshop.

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. This tutorial is a small excerpt from my complete video course: Levitation Photography: Exploring Magic and Portraiture.

diana-levitation-macbook

 

Introduction

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 endeavor. 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 reflect the your creative efforts. 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.

 

Equipment

  • Tripod
  • Digital Camera
  • Step Stool or Similar (this is our magical levitation device)
  • Intervalometer (optional, helpful if making a self-portrait)
  • Photoshop

 

Techniques

There are more ways than one to levitate. The first and most rudimentary method is probably the most obvious:

 

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.

levitation-7

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.

levitation-5

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 Photoshop tricks to get the final result. But you’ll look like a complete fool doing it.

levitation-jumping-

 

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 $5 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.

levitation-2-2

 

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 Photoshop the easiest.

levitation-1-3 levitation-1-5

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.

I prefer to use this technique during the “magic hour” right before or even after sunset when shadows are low and diffuse. It makes it easier to mask out the stool when the shadow is a diffuse blob rather than a dark figure. Shooting on days with a grey and gloomy overcast sky is also great for these types of portraits. The shadow will usually be very diffuse and the light tends to be soft and flattering for your subject.

 

Posing Tips

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.

levitation-2 levitation-3

 

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

Post processing is done very simply in Adobe Photoshop with layer masks. It’s easiest to explain this in a video, so check out the post processing video below:

 

Adding More Levitating Objects

Remember that you’re not limited to just levitating a person. For the title image of this tutorial, I wanted to create a dreamlike setting for Diana.

levitation-7-2

We made a single paper crane suspended from a piece of string and photographed it numerous times in different positions around the scene. Then it was just a matter of compositing all of the photos into a single image to give the effect that Diana was floating among a flock of origami cranes.

levitation-7-2

 

Conclusions

This technique is a ton of fun. It requires a little bit of practice and patience, but the results are almost always fun and interesting. We would love for you to try this technique and share your results on our Facebook Page.

The Complete Video Class

If you enjoyed this tutorial, check out the complete video class: Levitation Photography: Exploring Magic and Portraiture on Skillshare. In this 1 hour video course, I walk through every step of the process for creating complex levitation portraits with a magical  levitating flock of objects.

levitation-photography-exploring-magic-and-portraiture-skillshare

 

I cover a whole lot in the video class: location choices, posing, creating the flock, levitation post processing, and color grading!

Don’t stop here — Keep reading!

 

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Ian Norman

Creator at The Photon Collective
Ian Norman, co-founder and creator of The Photon Collective, is a full time traveler, photographer and entrepreneur. In February 2013, he called it quits on his 9-to-5 to pursue a lifestyle of photography. Follow Ian on Twitter and Instagram.

51 Comments

  1. Awesome tutorial for an awesome trick! It’s sweet that it’s so easy!

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  2. when i first started astrophotography i fell in love with the lonely speck site and all the info to help me start out and now ive already fallen again lol keep up the good work and keep making those amazing tutorials for us 🙂

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  3. This is really cool, I’ve got to try it with my kids once the weather clears up a little bit!

    Post a Reply
    • Olá Mauro. Sim. Todas as apresentações da são gravadas e depois estão disponíveis na Área do Assinante para que voce possa assistir quando desejar. Abraços

      Post a Reply
    • Follow the rule of thumb…6 ounces of fish per day to avoid mercury. I took the advice of a neurologist and did fish every other day with half being freshwater fish. The nori is fantastic for you and especially your skin, and we all want to fight stretch marks. Personally, I ate veggie rolls throughout and ate sashimi after the first trimester, in moderation of course. I just could not argue with generations of Japanese children. How do you like kimchi?

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    • Hoy fue uno de los días mas felices de mi vida, por que conocí personalmente a FLOR ( por mas que ni le hable, me saque una foto al final del programa). Pude ver todo el programa detrás de cámaras. Los técnicos muy copados ( me dejaron estar en un rincón), excelente ambiente laboral y se ve que se divierten haciéndolo. Si alguna vez llegan a leer, les agradezco por trasmitir tanta alegría a los tele videntes. Es muy valorable. FLOR!!!! te quiero mucho y te sigo siempre.

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  4. Nice tutorial and good job Ian. I tried this a few times before, but I never thought about adding more levitating objects. Thank you!

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  5. This is so cool Ian!!
    Your work with astrophotography is really awesome as well.

    just an alternative,
    in the part where you used the gaussian blur to reduce the effect of difference in light, have you tried to reduce the opacity (to 50%) and then masking the places with different light?
    kinda gives you the same result, but without the blur. (credit to Trey Ratcliff HDR tutorial)

    waiting for the next article!! (hope you do one on night photography using the most basic camera)

    cheers!!

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    • Thanks Rakshith! I think I’ve used a million different ways of layer blending and adjusting opacity is definitely one of them. Basically, there are so many different ways of achieving a good results.

      I’ll keep your suggestion in mind for the future!

      Ian

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  6. I’ve been wanting to do this, just wasn’t sure how. I’ll give it a try for sure! Thanks!

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  7. Love these shots! Thanks for the tutorial!! I’m making this site one of my favs!!

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  8. Great how-to article and great website! Keep the great articles coming!

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  9. Loved the move to the next level, with the fascinating addition of the origami figures. Also would be interested to see the tweetings used to assure the correct illusion of the shadow on the beach sand. Obviously the person’s shadow would not be there on the portrait photo; nor would the shadow be there on the bare scene photo. It would seem that after the stool layer has been “erased”, then the missing shadow in that area would have to be “drawn” in. Great teaching perspective…simple, straightforward and understandable.

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    • Hey Thor, I just updated the post with some more detail on the beach shot.

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  10. Ian, this is such a good article!
    I stumbled upon your works and the photon collective over your MilkyWay Motion TImelapse Tutorial and I loved it.

    Just bookmarked the collective’s page and I can’t wait to try the Levitation technique.

    Good, good Job.

    Basti

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  11. Excellent points. Especially about when using a stool and making sure it doesn’t look like the person is sitting/standing on it. Or using it to prop themselves up. Gonna try it this weekend. Any advice for when doing this with a five year old?

    Post a Reply
    • Bryan, show your 5-year old some other levitation portraits to show them what you want to create, maybe incorporate a costume or other fun stuff into it. I bet if you let the kid do some decision making in the project it could turn out pretty awesome!

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  12. Good tutorial. Would like to see the behind the scene photo on the beach (which is awesome btw). Was it hard to remove the shadows from the stool there?

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  13. Oooh! And also, what about combining multiple shots? How much more complicated would that be?
    Do I make a mask for every layer except the background?

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    • Yes, each additional layer has it’s own mask and all you need to do is “mask-out” the parts you don’t need with black on the mask.

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  14. Ok Ian, have you tried this along with a landscape astro pic? I think that would be totally awesome! I might try giving it a shot after I try a few more basic levitation photos first.

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    • Hey man. Thanks for the article. Great stuff. Just one question: what do you do about shadows?

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    • Brad, I have not but I have thought a lot about how it would be executed. I think that a strobe is probably essential in order to keep the subject “locked” in to place, especially if they’re trying to stay in an odd position. I think I’ll try it out sometime too, share your results if you manage to get it to work.

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  15. I’ve held off on the levitation shot, but I feel inspired enough to try something using it now. Thanks.

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    • Great tutorial. Great site. It’s exciting to see people pursue their dreams. Gives us all inspiration. Look forward to what you’ll be sharing with us all. Going to try this levitation thing : ) Always wanted to fly and will help me learn PS better. Thanks Ian and Diana.

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      • Thank you Charlie! Glad to have you here on our first day, it’s supporters like you that really keep us going!

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  16. Nice first tutorial Ian! Have always wanted to give a levitation photo a crack. Might be finally time.

    Post a Reply
    • Do try it out. It’s a great excuse to do silly things and feel accomplished at the same time 🙂

      Post a Reply
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      • WOW! So funny, precious, active & smart…that little man – Everett!!! That cocked left eyebrow is for sure his Daddy – ha! Good luck with that attitude, Ginger -ha! Love being able to keep up with this blog – thanks for your talented input & time. Luv yawl, Mom/Bebe

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  17. Wow.
    I was wondering, “Hmm… what would be Ian’s first post? It must be levitation photography. It’s creative and its tutorial hasn’t been published yet.”
    Turns out to be it!
    I should say that I have long waited for this!

    Post a Reply
    • Awesome Ying! Share some results if the photo club tries out this project!

      Post a Reply
    • Jaap betrekt het wat meer op vandaag de dag, wat er nu in de kerk opbouw zou moeten gebeuren. Alain sluit hiermee af ( god niet de God van alléén Israël is. ) maar van ons allemaal, wat Jaap zegt speekt mij aan ( Als iedereen het belang van de hele geeehnscmap op het oog heeft, dan kunnen er mooie dingen gebeuren )

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    • I just wish the unions would stop screwing up the traffic in downtown Madison…those of us that have jobs, that we actually have to go to, like to shop nearby…but I'm not going anywhere near the Square. You can smell that place all the way down University Ave!

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    • I love Parker pens – they are my stock favourite “everyday” pen. I have one in each of my Filofaxes, one of which is used every day at work too, and a basic fountain pen for when I’m feeling a bit decadent or if I have to sign official papers.

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  18. Really love it Ian, nice work on the site so far. Cannot wait to see what else comes out of this.

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