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A Green Screen Christmas


As a photographer, let me tell you, it’s easy to become complacent.  Same locations, same poses, same techniques.  Why reinvent the wheel, right?  Growth and development takes time, money, energy, and brain cells…all things I could use more of these days.

Which is why when I get the call every December from my dear old friend Vicky Nguyen about a family Christmas card photo, I stress.  I lose sleep, and spend way too much time thinking about it.  But as Tony Horton would say, “I love it, but I hate it.”  That’s because Vicky is a Type-A client.  She knows exactly what she wants, has very high standards, and does not settle.  I think every creative professional should have a Vicky Nguyen or two in their life to keep that fire burning.  Me?  I’m good with just one.  (Love you, girlfriend!)  Don't believe me?  Check out last year’s Christmas card photo.

So the concept was simple: giant toddler, shrunken parents, shrunken dogs.  The only way to do this was to embrace something I have been resisting for years, the use of a green screen.  But I finally caved, and bought this one at San Jose Camera and Video for $50.  It’s 9 feet wide and would have been incredibly expensive to ship.  So just buy one at your camera local store and save yourself the heartache.


Luckily, I have a crossbeam in the garage where I can mount and leave it without annoying the wife too badly.  $5 worth of PVC pipes and hooks, and voila, DIY green screen.

I put my son Lucas through the workflow to test out the kinks.  I learned:

a.       Light the background as evenly as possible to avoid problems in Photoshop later. 

b.      Get the subject as far away from the green screen as possible, or else the green will create a color cast, and give you problems later.  (See the green tint under his right foot in the polar bear composite image)

c.       Toddlers hate itchy wool hats.

When it came time to shoot, I chose to do 2-year-old Emmy first.  It made sense, because her head, arm and body position will dictate what everyone else will need to do.  (Note to self: write blog post titled “5 Most Common Techniques for Posing Kids:  Politeness, Bribery, Threats, Begging, and Shame”).  The giant oversized ornament came from Michael’s.  And thank goodness it was made out of plastic.

After that, it was  “easy” shooting the rest of the family.  Vicky had to pretend like she was off balance, all while pregnant and wearing heels.  Her husband had to hang from the crossbeam with one hand, at an awkward angle.

Treats work great for pets, but hangers work even better.  It also was consistent with the concept of dangling ornaments.

Despite what it looks like below, I'm happy to report the green screen survived, clean and unscathed.

Next came the background.  I used a shoot through umbrella directly above with a Nikon SB-800 at 1/64th power.  Camera settings:  ISO 160, f22, 22 seconds.  This provided for the right amount of sharpness and brightness from the lights.  I shot the tree from the same angle as all the subjects in front of the green screen to maintain consistency and "believeability".

 I had to reshoot the ornament, because in the original shot with Emmy, there was too much reflection.  This turned out to be quite a hassle because the round surface reflected everything.  So I had to cover everything in the room with a black cloth.  The lights were placed to the extreme left and right of the ornament.

Since this was my first green screen, I needed lessons in image extraction.  This tutorial helped out a lot.

After about 15 hours of post-production, here is the final result.  If you look at the right side of dad's shirt, or the dogs, you'll see the closest Christmas light actually "bleeds" color onto the subject.  It's a subtle touch that helps blend the composite and make you believe in giant toddlers. Can't wait 'til next year!

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Reader Comments (2)

Nice work.... I've just started to work with greenscreen on still photos also. Thank you for the link about the CS5 edge detection tutorials... Magic!

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrook Dain

"I love it but I hate it." That line applies to so many things in my life. Loved this post, Kiet. It was so interesting to see things from your perspective--I had no idea we kept you up nights! And the amount of work that went into the card--I had an idea but this was even more elaborate than I realized. It's awesome you shared the secret sauce and we are humbled by your talent and skills. We love collaborating on this annual project. And my husby agrees--one Vicky Nguyen in your life is definitely enough. We love you and your family and your patience, skillz, and willingness to do something new and different every year. Here's to Christmas 2012! Let's get started in February...

January 29, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervicky nguyen

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