Model: Haylie Guin @ After Dark St Louis, 2014. Art Direction by Brooke Shaden

The Photo That Changed Everything

(And how to build a levitation shot)

The year was 2014 and I was shutting down my photography business. I was a financial mess and everything was crashing down around me. I had left advertising to pursue a more purposeful existence, to forge my career as an artist and a writer.

I had succeeded only in draining our savings and generating so much debt that we were on the verge of bankruptcy.

Worse, I was doing work that I dreaded. We needed money and so I was taking on gigs that made me want to rip out my eyes and curl up in a corner of my studio: corporate events, happy snaps and pharma.

It was time to cut my losses, put my tail between my legs and return to advertising — the land of six figure pay-cheques and selling people shit to help them forget just how empty and miserable their lives really are.

“ We needed money. I was taking on gigs that made me want to rip out my eyes and curl up in a corner of my studio.”

But I had purchased a ticket to this thing called After Dark. It was crazy cheap, like under $300 and included three days of hands-on workshops with some of the biggest names in the business. I almost didn’t go. But at the last minute, my friend Stephen and I packed the car and headed to St Louis. My plan was to shut down the studio on my return.

After Dark changed everything.

On the first day, I met a fine art photographer who I had long admired from afar by the name of Brooke Shaden. She showed me how to use a $200 point-and-shoot, underwater camera to create something evocative and beautiful.

She demonstrated how to use a $12 piece of leftover fabric to build a flowing, victorian gown in Photoshop.

And she showed me, and a gaggle of other drooling photographers, how to create a levitation.

This is not the greatest image I ever created. Far from it. But it is the one I cherish the most, because it is the first time I allowed myself to imagine what photography could be. It is the first time someone showed me, with open kindness, that I can choose to create what is in my heart, soul and mind.

I had become confused and lost. I thought photography was about gear, ego and status. And fine art was some holy sepulchre on a remote mountaintop that required some secret handshake, degree and ordainment I did not possess.

Everything changed with this image.

All because one individual stopped to show me and a group of others how to explore photography as art and expression. And to just f’ing have some fun.

Building the levitation shot

It began with the hair, arms and face. I wanted her mystified by what was happening and yet filled with a dark intent, lifted from her shoulders and hair flying upwards.

I wish I could recall the names of the two photographers who volunteered to help with this shot. Here we see them flipping up her hair. This took a few tries to get just right. This is the shot I ended up using for her body and hair. The legs and feet would come from a later shot.

I should note for anyone new to levitations that my camera was on a tripod and I was using a remote to fire the shutter to minimize any movement of the camera between shots.

This is such a simple idea, but I wouldn’t have thought of it at the time. It’s one of those things that I often swear about when compositing after the fact in Photoshop. I always forget about the damn feet.

Here my volunteers help the model keep her balance while she dangles one foot at a time down below the stool. A levitation is much more believable when the feet look like they are hanging down and not supporting any weight. We shot each foot like this.

In the end, the feet were a problem. The feet are ALWAYS a problem. In this case, the model shifted a bit between takes and the light had also changed outside the windows.

Here is the plate. This would become the background and would allow me to easily remove the stool and my assistants from the final. I took this image last. I just asked my assistants and model to grab the stool and come stand behind me.

And here is the first composite before I worked on the colour and removed things like the silver pipe on the right wall.

And this is what it looked like in Photoshop.

You can just how much fun I was having with the feet if you look at the layers.

In the end, I just darkened everything until the feet faded away into the background. Problem solved and not bad for my first levitation.

My Takeaway

I now see photography as a journey to understand myself — a difficult path of endless practice and skill building in pursuit of uncovering and sharing something meaningful with how I see the world.

This path is open to everyone, regardless of their gear, experience or perceived talent.

And it starts with learning to have fun again.

I will forever be in the debt of Dave Junion for starting After Dark and Brooke Shaden for reaching out to me at a very dark time. 2014 was the last After Dark of it’s kind, though there are rumors of a rebirth.

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