Making Your Family Portrait an Adventure

Do you know how most people have BORING Family Portraits with no life? The portrait’s where the families are all smiling and looking at the camera, wearing the same khaki pants and white button-downs, and literally lack all and any personality?

Today, I’m going to share the Adventures of creating the Cesare family’s Portrait, “A Day at the Zoo”.

composite photography of the dallas zoo and cesare family by dallas portrait photographer jason ulsrud

Being a Rockwall Portrait Photographer who specializes in creating Creative Family Portraits about your life, I usually post a detailed breakdown of each of the images in my Composite Photography. However, because of the extent of this Dallas Zoo Project, I do not have the exact number of images I used.

Suffice it to say, this Composite will easily go down as one of the most extensive ones I’ve done to date.

Now, let’s pull out our binoculars and look at some zoo animals.

Where to Start

I’m frequently asked by clients and photographers alike, “How in the world do you get started on a picture like this?”

Believe it or not, STARTING is always the most challenging part of the process for me.

This portrait, like so many I’ve done before, started with an idea I sketch out in a Concept Sketch to show the powers that be at the Dallas Zoo. This is a super important step in the process, especially for the zoo, since we had to be sensitive to portraying the animals in an appropriate way.

concept sketch for the dallas zoo composite photography by dallas portrait photographer jason ulsrud

At this point, coming up with an idea in my mind and sketching it out is the easy part. The next step, doing the photography, is the hardest part of getting started with each Uniquely Different Portrait I create.

I have a vision requiring many, many photographic pieces to bring together, but No Idea how or where to start.

The BEST Way to Get Started

At the Discovery Session with a client, I frequently tell them, “Now I’m going to sketch out the idea for your portrait and once that’s finished we’ll meet again for the Approval Session. There you will approve the concept for your portrait and then I will create something that looks completely different than the sketch you approved.”

For the Dallas Zoo, that statement couldn’t have been truer.

Prior to capturing that first photograph, there is a lot of confusion happening in my head. Where do I want to start? What photos do I need first? What angles do I need to photograph the subjects at? Where do I find the pieces I need for the background?

All these answerless questions can be paralyzing to the inexperienced Composite Photographer.

For this Dallas Zoo project, there was no other way around these problems and no way for me to rationally answer them, so I had to just grab my camera, go to the zoo, and hope for the best.

As you can see in the Concept Sketch above for “A Day at the Zoo”, my idea was that all the animals would be up and visible for the viewer to see.

What I didn’t count on, or think about, was that many of the animal exhibits are located “down” where you’re looking down on the animals. I guess this makes it easier to see all the good stuff.

This small detail made photographing the animals featured in this portrait more challenging, and in some cases, nearly impossible.

My answer to How to Get Started is JUST START because all the questions you have can’t be answered until you JUST START.

Putting the Puzzle Together

Because the photography generally takes a couple to many sessions, the Puzzle Phase of creating a Uniquely Different Portrait happens in phases as well.

I’ve learned through experience to piece the scene together first, then focus on the main characters second.

Requiring many hours of Photoshop time, I select each image that will be used, intricately cut it out, and place it within the scene I’m creating for the portrait.

I call this the Puzzle Phase of the process and is done before any “Depth & Shaping” takes place.

Here’s a Before and After of the “scene” to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about when I say “Depth & Shaping”, which is what really separates out my work from many other Composite Photographers.

Once the scene has been pieced together, and Depth & Shaping has been added, I have a great idea of how my main characters will need to be positioned and lit to realistically place them into the portrait.

dallas zoo dad before and after by dallas photographer jason ulsrud

dallas zoo son by dallas photographer jason ulsrud

dallas zoo giraffe by dallas photographer jason ulsrud

dallas zoo flamingo by dallas photographer jason ulsrud

dallas zoo snake by dallas photographer jason uslrud

At this point, between the sketching, photography, and Photoshop, several hours have been invested in the Dallas Zoo portrait, but it’s anything but finished.

B&W and Desaturation

Along the way to a finished portrait product, one of the coolest steps a Composite goes through is B&W and Desaturation. This is where I can see for the first time whether all my hard work will pay off, or if there’s more to do.

black and white screen capture of dallas zoo composite photography

Before applying any of my color stylings, I want to Desaturate the image to balance out any minor color or tone differences. To do this, I convert the entire image to a Black & White first, which gives me some super valuable information along the way.

If your image or Composite can hold up in B&W, then you’ve got a good image.

Here’s what I mean by that…

When you remove color from you photographic equation, you’re left with only Black, White, and every gray in between to define your image. If you have sufficient balance between your Blacks and Whites, meaning if your Blacks are Black and your Whites are White, then you’ve got a solid image.

If, however, your Blacks are a little muddy or dark gray and your Whites are a little muddy or light gray, then you need to recheck your image and possibly tweak your curves.

Blacks gotta be Black and Whites gotta be White.

That’s a Wrap

This gives you a small look behind the veil of Photillustrator and some of the psychology and techniques of how your Uniquely Different Portrait is created.

If you’re a client, this process is fun and exciting, and the anticipation of what your Uniquely Different Portrait will look like is exciting. If you’re a Composite Photographer, this gives you some insight into the process of creating such an extensive piece of Photographic Art, and some of the psychology behind it.

Where would you start on a Uniquely Different Portrait like this? Leave a comment below and let me know.

Comments (2)

Hi Jason,
Your work is fabulous. Very creative and genius.
I’m interested in your tutorials, but I’m still using photoshop cs6. Can most of your tutorials be done using cs6?

Hey Jim… Yes, almost everything I do is pretty basic to Photoshop. However, Photoshop CC is only $10/month, so I would highly recommend updating if you’re really wanting to get into Compositing. Good luck and let me know if you have any questions.

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