Behind the scenes with the Snow Queen

March 11, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Lily La Mer & I have collaborated on all sorts of shoots. We seem to inspire ever more intricate ideas in each other; this Snow Queen shoot was no exception. It’s from a while ago now but there’s been some interest in how it came about so I’ve finally got around to writing it up.

Snow QueenSnow QueenLily La Mer in her guise as The Snow Queen

Blog post here.


Lily makes beautiful elaborate costumes and wanted to create some promotional material for her newest stilt outfit – an elaborate long white dress with LED lights sewn into the skirt, shoulder ruffs and crown.  She uses Durastilts normally intended for use by plasterers. They differ from Chinese ‘peg’ stilts in that it is much easier to stand still on them – even if they don’t afford the same range of acrobatics. They’re still decidedly dangerous to use in long grass, though.

The costume is intended for night ‘walkabout’ use at balls and similar events  so we wanted to portray it in a dark setting. I could have lit the costume to show the white dress but then the effect of the LEDs would have been lost; we decided to let the skirt go dark and expose for the LEDs.

The shoulder ruffs were a particular problem – there are so many LEDs in them that they tend to blow out. In retrospect an graduated neutral density filter might have helped but the challenges of focusing and shooting in the dark were already significant.  A concomitant issue was that the shoulder ruffs tend to produce ‘monster lighting’ – i.e. lighting the face from below – exacerbated by the fact that Lily was on stilts and considerably above the shooting position.

I shot from low – to emphasises the height – but on a fairly long focal length, approximately 35mm on a micro 4/3 system which is crudely equivalent to 70mm on a full frame system. Anything wide angle just made her head look miles away. I was using a tripod and remote release so I could prefocus using back-button focus and then concentrate on timing the shot.

The LEDs thus determined the base exposure – ISO 400, f5.6 – and shutter speed of 1/200s, i.e. as fast as I could manage while guaranteeing not to exceed the flash sync speed.

I needed to illuminate Lily’s face separately from the rest of the scene. A snoot was the obvious choice. I also wanted to get the light above her slightly to counteract the uplighting from the dress. The solution was a 1420 VAL spigot as designed by Ian Pack – this is a handy threaded gadget which mounts on a extending painters’ pole and can accept a standard female cold shoe and speedlight.  This was patiently wielded by my trusty assistant – and Lily’s partner – Alex. The snoot was a medium Roguewave Flashbender, rolled into a tube. The white interior of the Flashbender  gives a nice gradual falloff but it does tend to droop, which was a real issue for us especially since the flashgun had no modelling light. It took a few goes of shooting and chimping to get the power level right.

I took this image in the days before I started using a light meter and this experience was one of the reasons I started using one. The problem with chimping – reviewing images on the back of a camera – in the dark is that camera monitors look very bright and can give a false impression of the scene. When there are areas of intentionally blown highlights then even the back-of-camera histogram is of limited use. ‘Blinkies’ help a bit – but only a bit.

We’d decided we wanted to use smoke to create texture and drama. Some research led us to Enola Gaye white smoke bombs, normally used for Airsoft & paintball events. Not quite knowing what to expect we took a lot of precautions – fire extinguisher, fire blanket, metal toolbox to store them, metal bucket for the dead bombs and heatproof gloves to hand-hold them. It’s illegal to set them off in a public place – we worked in the private grounds of a studio – but the printed instructions just say ‘don’t be a d*ck’!

In fact they are very easy to use – after striking they do spark a bit at first but don’t get too hot. They do make a lot of smoke, though, and burn for about 2 minutes. I had a second assistant - an experienced pyrotechnician, as it happens – striking the bombs and running around with them to get the smoke where I wanted (followed by cries of ‘get out of shot... no the other way’).

Smoke needs illuminating from behind for it to show up, and we needed to try to keep it behind Lily or it would have just obscured her completely. I wanted to enhance any texture in the smoke, too. My solution for this was another speedlight in a small 60cm x 60cm softbox lying on the ground with all the diffusers removed. In their place I stretched some extra-wide strips of Velcro to form a cookie (or cuculoris) – this casts some hard edged shadows on the smoke. The flash power was again determined by trial and error.

(An aside: some folk would call this a gobo. My understanding that a gobo ‘goes between’ the light source and the optics, i.e. any lens – though the usage seems largely interchangeable).

Smoke is woefully unpredictable stuff. It goes wherever it wants to and then hangs around for ages. It took about a dozen bombs and perhaps half a dozen frames per bomb – with a considerable wait between each one – to get this shot. We were lucky with the way the smoke frames Lily in this one. Other than this shot we got maybe only 10 worthwhile images from this set.

I always shoot in raw to maximise the processing options – in this case I did the following:

  • lifted the foreground shadows a little
  • a bit of highlight recovery on the dress
  • noise removal
  • slightly desaturated the image
  • added a bit of greenish tone to the shadows
  • evened out harsh shadows on the skin, especially the near hand
  • boosted the local contrast in the smoke and bodice to add drama
  • dodging and burning the smoke to even it out a little
  • output sharpening

It was probably about an hour’s work in Photoshop and Nik’s Color Efex Pro, all told.

With thanks to

  • Lily La Mer: http://www.lilyshowgirl.com
  • Alexander Stephenson (voice activated light stand)
  • Guy Smith (pyrotechnics)
  • Conrad Webb (of Windmill Art studio).

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