Do-it-Yourself Photo Booth!

December 8th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

DIY Photo BoothA friend and her husband recently returned from a wedding with one of the best favours we'd ever seen: a strip of photos that appeared to have come from a photo booth.  But, they were unlike any photo booth photos we'd ever seen: the lighting was textbook, the images sharp and clear, and the colours as good as any professional photograph.  The reason was...that they were professional photographs.  The wedding photographer set up a booth and invited the guests to have their picture taken.

What a fantastic idea.  We simply had to build one.

Mr. and Mrs. Mango are already married but they decided to have a Christmas party this week and thought it an ideal time for a photo booth.  As it turned out, it was very easy to build.

We like using somewhat of a long lens for portraits which requires the photographer to be a fair distance from the subject.  This is because longer lenses are more flattering.  (Ever hear people say "the camera adds 10 pounds"?  Their photographer didn't know not to use a wide angle lens.) The lens we used for this project was only a 50mm but still required the camera to be six to eight feet away.  We did not have enough room for an actual booth eight feet long.  So the project quickly turned from "Photo Booth" into "Portraits taken three at a time and printed in a strip".  "Photo Booth" is however shorter, hence the title of this post.

The first thing we looked for was a backdrop.  Being a rather frugal mango, Mango decided to visit Value Village.  He purchased various bed sheets and tablecloths for $4.99 and declared them an excellent deal.  If looking for a similar deal, consider material as heavy as possible in order to block unwanted backlighting.

Lowel Pro LightThe next thing we needed were a camera and lights.  A camera with the ability to use manual settings would be ideal.  There are many lights that would work for this project.  We used two Lowel pro lights, with attached umbrellas to soften the light.  If you don't own lights they can often be rented very inexpensively from photography stores.

You may wonder, "Why not just use the flash on the camera, or use ambient light?"  Off-camera lights can drastically improve the quality of a photographs for a variety of reasons.  Some of them come to mind:
1) Light makes pictures sharper and clearer and improves the colour.  Just as the human eye cannot pick out fine details or nuances in colours in low light, neither can a camera.
2) Flashes often produce unwanted shadows and harsh overexposed areas of the subject that appear white.
3) When mixing light from a flash and ambient light from a room, the colours do not always appear as you intend.
4) With more light, one can use a lower ISO setting, reducing "noise" in the photograph.

White balanceThe reason why we mention a camera with manual settings is so that the three portraits may look consistent.  If one portrait is significantly darker than the rest, and the colours appear different in another, the finished product won't look right.  Select an appropriate ISO setting, aperture, and shutter speed, and leave them for the duration of the project.  Another setting that is commonly overlooked is white balance.  Different types of light produce different colours, which you may not notice because the human eye largely compensates for these.  Cameras often default to automatically calculating white balance, but this is not good enough for our purposes.  Set the white balance based on the type of lights that you are using.  Check out the Canon Digital Learning Centre for examples of a single image balanced for various types of light.

This is what our finished setup looked like.  The background in this photo is the green tablecloth.  It made a very effective (and economical!) substitute for a green screen.  If you have an extra light, it may be useful to point it at the ceiling so that the light bounces back and accents the subjects' hair.

Build a Photo Booth

The photos required a minor amount of post processing because we wanted a perfectly black background.  The "proper" method for doing this would be placing the subject some distance away fromBlack Background with Photoshop the background so that the subject could be lit and the background left several stops darker.  As mentioned before, we didn't have a great deal of space and the background turned out to be a shade of grey, lighter than we'd wanted.  No matter.  We simply created a Levels adjustment layer.  We used the black dropper on a point in the background which turned it black.  Then we set the blend mode for the layer to Pin Light which left the background black without changing the skin tones a great deal.  It only took a few minutes to process all the photos we took.  The only photos that took a little extra time were those of a gentleman wearing a dark grey sweater, which also turned black.  We simply changed his sweater back to its original colour using a layer mask on the Levels layer.

In order to assemble the final product, we used this background from stock.xchng, rotated 90 degrees.  One local photo lab offered to make 6"x8" prints.  We decided to make three strips of photos per print, each 2" x 8".  For this we used Adobe InDesign.  We also added a drop shadow to the pictures.  The photo lab could only read jpeg files so we had to convert our InDesign document to jpeg.  As far as we know, the best way to do this is to export to a high quality PDF.  Then, open the PDF with Photoshop and save as a jpeg.  True, Acrobat can also convert PDFs to jpeg, but we had much better results with Photoshop.

This is so far our favourite photography project and we look forward to trying it out again.

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