Creating A Cinematic Fantasy Portrait Series

Creating A Cinematic Fantasy Portrait Series

My friend Israel Groveman is a photographer and filmmaker that is always up to something interesting and unique. Recently he helped a buddy promote an online fantasy series by crafting a group of creative portraits that I thought were awesome. This is how Israel made these compelling cinematic portraits, which took a little bit of gear and a lot of ingenuity.

Israel Groveman's story:

As both a filmmaker and a photographer and even sometimes actor, I often find myself involved in projects that have a great degree of crossover.  Shooting cinematic subjects of any genre is one of my favorite things to shoot, and great fantasy happens to be one of my favorite things in the cinema, video game, and literature world; and of course, with franchises like Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones taking root over the last decade, fantasy has had a virtual golden era recently.

I wrote/directed/shot a fantasy short titled “Desdichado” that premiered in New York City in Spring 2013, and I’ve done photos for actors trying to get fantasy roles in the past.  Ron Newcomb is an active and energetic film producer and director in Northern Virginia, and he needed some character shots and a poster for a new fantasy web series he is promoting called “The Rangers.”  Ron and I have been friends for a while, and have discussed working together on a number of different projects; thankfully we were able to pull this fantasy shoot together before I relocated to LA this summer.

We scheduled a whole day for shots, and there were a total of seven characters to shoot, along with an army of props, producers, makeup artists, sword wranglers, LARPers (do yourself a favor and Google or YouTube this if you don’t know the term) and, yes, the all important elf-ear sculptors.

With their feet firmly planted in the geek community, Ron and team have worked with some very advanced fantasy elites and writers to create an entire world that they are proposing to investors; each actor was well chosen and perfectly cast for the “type” they were playing, and we had closets and closest of wardrobe and weapon material to choose from.  Their pre-conceptual work was stellar; all I had to do was show up, light, and shoot their awesome material and people and do it as fast as I could because of the number of characters and incoming thunderstorms.

I spend a good deal of time refining and compositing in Photoshop, so there can tend to be a vast iteration between what’s captured in camera, and the final shot.  This is especially key in a cinematic shoot. When I am shooting, I am choosing lighting and settings that will be a launch platform for what I do in post.

A big key with lighting for maximum cinematic and composite flexibility in post for still images is not to let the light own or overwhelm the shots too much; first of all, if it does, it may look corporate or too editorial in nature (unless that’s what you’re going for), and second of all, if you’re shooting RAW, and you leave some shadows and midtones in the file, you will have way, way more to play with at the compositing stage.  It’s better to have a file that will let you stack and layer from deep shadow to the border of the white edge of the histogram, vs. a file that simply has too much white in it.

As I mentioned, we had a lot to shoot, BIG storms were coming in, and it had taken months to schedule it all, so the pressure was on.  The location was one chosen by the producers that I hadn’t seen before, so I also had to largely improvise where and what I was shooting when.  I ultimately approached each subject with a general list in my head, including a variety of shoulder to head poster type shots and wide angle “scenic” type shots.

Number one, number one goal: drama. I have to shoot enough to really connect with the subject and even allow them to go into character a bit and I wait for those moments where the combination of lighting, wind catching their hair, and “feel” are just right. Something has to happen that is outside the realm of just camera and poser and lighting.  This usually involves a degree of instruction and guidance and lots and lots of shots. With only three vagabonds to power the whole shoot and the storms blowing in, by the end of the day, I was having to select when I would even press the shutter to preserve battery.  The key for me is a “these are real” and “you were there” look in my work. Sometimes they happen on the first few shots; sometimes it takes a while.

When I do a shoot like this I use a mix of Paul C. Buff lights (both White Lightning and Alien Bees), Vagabond battery packs, and Nikon speedlights.  The only speedlight I used in this shoot, the Nikon SB910, had a specific mod on it, a Rogue circular spot grid.  You can see a bit of my strobe lighting setup in this shot (White Lightning 3200 with a beauty dish and a beauty dish grid; Two Alien Bee 400 or 800 on either side for rim lighting).


I always do a series of shots that are well lit from the front and the sides, usually with a softbox or beauty dish as my main, and open dishes or 10-20 degree grids on the side lights.  I will often keep the side lights going when I switch the main light off, and go for the small grid light.  When I shoot, I always turn each light off or on selectively to see what kind of variety I get.

The Rogue grid light on the Nikon speedlight is extremely narrow and bright, and you really have to work with the combination of angle, lens distance, subject height and timing to get it to work. If your subject sneezes, they can slip out of the stream.

This next shot of the main character, Wolf, his face is lit by the Rogue spot grid, with a strobe angled to the side to smack the sword with a bit of light, and one to the right to highlight his cheekbone and jaw. The challenge was getting the speedlight spot grid to hit his face in a way that caught some feedback from his eyes, but also didn’t flood his face with too much exposure.  When I finally got the eye bounce I wanted, it blew up his nose like crazy, so I really used layers and the burn tool and other methods to bring his nose back to neutral.

It isn’t natural light, and it has that otherworldly semi spiritual glow to it, but by also not covering too much of the surface area, it maybe feels like it could be a light that is going through foliage.


Whenever I am doing something cinematic, I also do a mix of carefully posed shots along with some carefully constructed sequential movement shots – movement being a huge key in making anything look cinematic.  For instance, the second female elf I shot had never handled a bow before, so I had to teach her how to hold and draw the bow and arrow, and the biggest thunderstorm of the day was moving in right when we were shooting, this along with her slight physical nervousness about handling the weapon lent an air of tension and speed that just made it really work.  I usually have a series of shots that really work and have to just pick which one to go with.


During Photoshop post production, I use a host of actions and plugins and generally just a lot of patience and refinement, sleeping on shots, then coming back to them as part of my final process.  It’s really about getting to know that shot like an individual and trying to make them sing.  I am also ravenous, ravenous to learn more from other people and constantly read, study, research, and play to learn new things in post.

As an example of some of the most extensive refinement I did, I am showing the before and after for this shot.  This guy was just massive and beastly, and I knew I wanted a shot where it looked like he was in battle.  The before shot is straight out of camera with no changes.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 9.21.38 AM


This next shot was the absolute hardest to line up in camera, I was using the grid light, and wanted just a hint of ghostly light that exposed but still hid the character; the actor is a very tall one, well over six feet, and I unfortunately didn’t have a ladder, and the hood for his costume was incredibly non-compliant. Not only that but the grid light really had to be above him to “come down” at an angle, and my tallest tripod was still a couple feet too short.  I got the height I needed from dollies and a picnic table and was able to get the angle and lighting I wanted.  No, I am not short, but you often need to be slightly above your character to get a favored angle!

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 9.21.53 AM


With this female elf, we discussed the animalism of the Navi in Avatar (no, it’s not my favorite movie) to give her a more aggressive and ethereal feel.  Elves have always had a slightly uncomfortable/other aspect to them, and much fantasy literature emphasizes their unification and sensitivity to nature. I felt she nailed it.


You can see more in the full album on my Facebook page. For the poster, which was definitely the most complicated compositing work for the whole shoot, the toughest part was choosing disparate elements that would work together and allow me to include 7 characters in a way that flowed.  Beginning to end, the poster was probably about 20-25 hours of layering and masking and refining work. As a compositor I often shoot sky/storms/landscape whenever I can so I have elements I can work into other shoots, and when you are pulling in so many elements, you can have a wide variety of focus sharpness, lens distance, lighting, and more, so a lot of the work you are doing is in the nature of blending and matching.  I also never, ever feel like work like this is done, and eventually just have to say “well, I don’t hate it” and walk away!

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Jason Vinson's picture

i like them all except for the compilation at the very end..

E Port's picture

They just need Xena front and center to complete this 90's throwback.


Great great work, I love this type of images

Nice set of shots goes to show simple lighting can create strong images. I feel the assassin with the 2 blades is a little dark for me and seems to lack the impact of the others get the feeling there is more detail to be brought out of the image in particular the swords. Nice set of work well done.

Josiah Moore's picture

I personally didn't like how tight everything was. I would have preferred seeing more of the whole body, and a whole scene. But, that is just a personal preference. Nice work!! (except the awful composite at the end)

Jason Ranalli's picture

I loved this article. It is incredibly empowering for me to read an article from someone who is more experienced having some of the same thought processes and worries about compromise that I have. The statement, "I also never, ever feel like work like this is done, and eventually just have to say 'well, I don’t hate it” and walk away!'", is exactly how I feel. This is what I go through all the time...I NEVER feel like I'm done and keep fixing, fixing, and fixing.

I also appreciate his struggles with lighting, height problems, storms and any other factor that could drive us mere mortals to madness when trying to be as professional as possible on a shoot with the potential for awful mediocre shots just looming on the horizon. At least for myself I somehow pull a rabbit out of the hat...but it really seems like I flirt with creative disaster nearly every time I shoot something. I'm glad to see others struggling(and succeeding) through the same.

Great FStoppers article!! Love this kind of content!

Regan Shorter's picture

Great idea and execution, but I'm not a fan of the retouching.