Portrait Illusions – Green Screen and Other Tricks

I recently came across a blog post by Fuzzy Duenkel, a photographer over in Wisconsin. He makes a pretty passionate case against using scene swapping (e.g. the type of stuff you do with Primatte and green screen) for traditional, ‘classic’ portraits. By and large I agree with him. I don’t think it’s a great use of the technology to put someone in a place they’ve never been so they can say they were there. For novelty photos and the like, it’s great, but for a ‘classic’ portrait, maybe not so much. But there’s more to portraits than just the classic look.

Image by Deverie FX, www.deveriefx.com

Let’s define the classic portrait. It’s a portrait of a person at a place and time, exactly as they are. Sitting in their car, standing with a violin with a regular muslin background behind them, walking on a beach, etc.

However, there’s more to portraits than just the classic look.  Putting someone in front of the effiel tower so that they can tell all their friends they went to France is cheesy. But sometimes portraits are more about creating a story, a fantasy, or something else that provokes an emotional response. Creating an image that not so much captures that person at that moment, but captures their dreams, goals, desires, and how they veiw themselves at that moment.

It’s not about deceiving the viewer. It’s about letting the viewer see more of them than a classic portrait would show. Green screen (or scene swapping however you do it) can give you flexibility in creating that story for them.

Image by Steven Gotts

Are the portraits created this way going to be their favorite image of themselves 15 years down the line? Maybe, maybe not. But I would argue that to many seniors these types of images resonate more strongly in the short term than a classic photo. It allows them to really express themselves and reveal how they view themselves. Of course, much as the fashions we wore when we were 18 change, so too these types of images may end up looking dated. So shooting a classic portrait, as well as an ‘enhanced’ portrait, is worthwhile.

I’m certainly not arguing against classic portraits. They can be timeless, and because of that are potentially more valuable long term. Just don’t overlook non-traditional portraits. They can provide a great deal of emotional impact for seniors (or anyone) that are wrestling with new identities, dreams, and much more.

8 thoughts on “Portrait Illusions – Green Screen and Other Tricks”

  1. Keep in mind, my thoughts are pretty much unimportant and will become more and more irrelevant as the craft evolves away from giving people the real experience into a CG, “Total Recall” type of profession, where we place people anywhere they want to be. It was just a point of view on the ethics of devieving the viewer and its eventual cost to our profession. I realize I’m a dinosaur on this point.

  2. I’d just like to add that a truly “classic” portrait is one in paint, where the background was usually entirely composed by the artist — either physically, by adding to the background/environment objects representing the subject’s life and accomplishments, or in the studio, using imagination, metaphor, and so on, to evoke the subject’s inner and outer life.

    So to me, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with or unjustifiable in using green screens. It’s just a natural evolution of the portrait — and one that should be encouraged.

  3. Funny how you used the Eiffel Tower reference, since that’s one of the examples I used in my book, Jim! Though it really wasn’t meant to be a “cheese” shot. ;)

    But I digress… I think it’s not HOW you compose your portrait but how does it LOOK in the end? Photographers are artists. Very few are “finished” with an image (especially a portrait) the second they press the shutter.

    Jeff Foster

  4. I think the ethics conversation is a good one to have. I don’t think it makes you a dinosaur to feel that portraits should be real experiences and not rely on computer generated backgrounds. It’s brings up some great questions. Where do you draw the line between a portrait that someone will value for a long time and a novelty photo they could’ve gotten at the Mall? Where is the line between allowing someone to tell their story and allowing them to fabricate a story about themselves?

  5. I’d like to say that I agree with Tim- any form of photography is manipulative, if only in how and where you point the camera, how you light the scene and which frame you choose. Green Screen extends this control; it is an extension of the inescapable nature of photography editing reality.

  6. I have to agree with Jim’s comment, “Creating an image that not so much captures that person at that moment, but captures their dreams, goals, desires, and how they view themselves at that moment.” I’ve noticed the huge positive impact this approach has had on my clients young and old and I have been becoming more passionate about it. As a side project, I’ve been talking with people who are heading up organizations that help at risk youth gain personal and professional skills as well as people who help battered and disadvantaged single woman with children gain self esteem and professional skills and jobs to support their families. My goal is to work with these groups to give them a positive view of themselves that they don’t see in their minds. Green screen helps me accomplish that. Even the professional/ career people I work with most of the time benefit from the small amount of application of this mindset to their images. I get so much great feedback and they like the fact that I can match just about anything they throw at me.
    BTW, enjoy your blog and newsletter. It’s one of the few I actually read. Hopefully it’s keeping your cats happy. :)

  7. A friend pointed me to this thread, and I see that I responded already, but I ‘d like to explain too that it was never m y intention to compare a “classic” background portrait with a green screen one.

    I’m saying that if we put people in places they never were and the image is done well enough to trick the viewer into believing it, THAT is a deception that cheapens the industry. All our work simply becomes a cheap computer trick in our clients’ eyes.

    What I AM saying is that if we want people in a place, we should do the real thing, not fake it.

    It’s obvious that most photographers disagree with me. Not surprising as we humans often justify and rationalize away discomfort.

    I do predict that in the future we’ll look backat this time and wish we hadn’t gone down that road.

  8. I would also add that if anyone took the time to READ my entire opinion, they’d see that it’s not a simplistic “just say no” response to any and all manipulation. My revulsion to this kind of lie is specific and defined. I don’t condemn effects that are superfluous to the basic core truth of the story.

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