One of the neatest photo manipulations my friends always ask me how to do is levitation photography. You know, those photos of people seemingly floating above ground. I don’t remember how I learned to do it; most of my photography skills are self-taught, so I probably saw it online first and then figured out how to do it via trial and error. It’s an easy effect to create. Here’s how I do it:
What you’ll need
Camera (preferably a DSLR)
Tripod or a spot the camera will rest and stay very still
Camera remote control (not a must but highly recommended)
Chair or something else for you to stand/lay on
Adobe Photoshop/similar photo editing software
Taking the shots
The science behind levitation photography is simple: take one photo of the scene without you or the chair in it, take another photo of you standing/laying on the chair (“I’m levitating!” pose), then merge the two photos together through Photoshop, making sure to edit out out the chair. As long as you follow a few rules when taking the photos, it’s a relatively painless procedure.
(Other ways to create levitation photos include using a short shutter speed and simply jumping in the air, and using a hidden prop to make it look like your levitating. These methods are not always as practical as the method I explain here.)
The first thing to do is focus on where you’ll be (I zoomed in on the street post to focus), then turn autofocus off to maintain continuity. The photo on the left, the establishing photo, was the first one I took (1/100th shutter speed, 400 ISO). This photo is needed so that when the chair is erased, there’s background to fill the void. I made the time between both photos as short as possible since lighting can quickly change outdoors.
Now, bring in the chair and start ‘floating;’ let’s call this the levitation photo. Take a bunch of shots with several poses, plus another establishing photo at the very end for good measure, then check your photos on the camera. When you scroll through the photos, you’ll likely move the camera slightly; if you decide to redo your levitation photos, your best bet is to take another establishing shot. I can’t stress this enough: keep the camera as steady as possible on the tripod throughout the entire process since even a little bit of wind can adjust it enough to make editing more difficult.
Make sure to use your remote control to take the photos. Basically all DSLRs offer that functionality, and getting a camera remote online is pretty cheap these days. Also, play with your camera’s settings and turn off the automatic shut-off feature since it takes time to get into these wacky positions. It is possible take this type of levitation photography without a remote, instead, using the camera timer and pressing the shutter button, though that would be risking camera movement.
Probably the most important thing is to make sure the chair is never in front of your body from the perspective of the lens. Remember, you have to erase the chair afterwards — if you’re behind it, you’ll have to manage some clever Photoshop-ing to fill that empty space with your body again. See the example on the right. When the the chair was removed, so was part of my back. Luckily, I was able work my Photoshop magic and create more jacket (see the finished product further down below).
Another key to making levitation shots work is properly angling your body. When I laid on the chair for my ‘hanging off a street post’ picture, my legs and arms naturally wanted to lean to the ground. If I left my body in that semicircle shape, it would look like only the middle part of my body was floating. So, I had to straighten myself for each shot, which, yes, after a dozen or so shots becomes quite the workout.
Another pitfall to look out for is the part of your body resting on the thing you’re floating on. I gave my coat some slack on the chair, so that it flowed a little in front of my stomach. Ideally, your clothing should slightly flow over the tip of the thing you’re laying on. If you don’t, the clothing that’s touching the chair will stretch in a straight line, resulting in a less convincing levitation photo.
Many photo editing programs offer enough of the same features these days that, despite this tutorial being geared toward Photoshop users, you can probably get by with another. Even Microsoft Paint can sometimes produce salvageable levitation photos.
First, edit the levitation photo’s brightness, contrast, etc. to your liking. If you’re using the raw photo editor, save the Camera Raw Settings (.xmp) when you’re finished and then load the settings to your establishing shot so they look the same. Make sure both photos are edited exactly the same way. Next, place your levitation shot as a new layer on top of your establishing shot. Use the marquee tool to select your body, right click to select inverse, and now delete.
As you can see on the left, the photo is not matching up perfectly (thank you very much, wind!). Move the levitation layer around until it fits correctly. Use the eraser tool (soft round) to blend the two layers together. You might have to erase a lot to match the different lighting.
Now, it’s time to add the shadow.
As you can see below, there is a noticeable difference between the levitation photo and the establishing shot. In erasing the chair, you also get rid of the natural shadow. It’s important to reintroduce the shadow since it’s small things like that that make the photo more realistic. Thankfully, this is easy to do.
Use the burn tool (soft round) with an exposure between 40-60 per cent to add in the shadows on the establishing layer. Don’t over do it; you want to mimic the shadows that would normally have been there. I would copy and paste the original levitation photo and then compare and contrast how the new shadow looks by clicking the layer visibility button a few times.
I would recommend saving a copy of this version (with the multiple layers) in case you have to come back to it in the future. Finally, flatten the layers and make any last edits. For this photo, I wanted it to appear as if I was dangling off the post, so I rotated it counter-clockwise by 90 degrees.
I feel somewhat pleased with the results. With hindsight, I think it would have worked better if the camera was set at a lower angle.
Examples of other levitation photos