One photo manipulation trick people often ask me about 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 were self-taught, so I probably saw it online first, then figured out how to do it via trial and error. It can be an easy effect to create under the right circumstances.
What you’ll need
- Camera (preferably a DSLR)
- Tripod or a spot where the camera will stay still
- Remote control for the camera (not a must but highly recommended)
- Chair or something else for you to pose on
- Adobe Photoshop or a photo-editing software with similar features
Taking the shots
Long story short: Take one photo of the scene without you in it, take another photo of you on the chair (the levitating pose), then merge the two photos together via 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 process.
Firstly, focus the camera lens on where you’ll be, then take the shot. I focused on the street post on the right side of the image (above). You need to keep autofocus off to maintain focal continuity in both shots. The photo on the left, which I’ll call the establishing shot, was the first one I took (1/100th shutter speed, 400 ISO). This photo is needed so that when the chair is erased in the next image (right), there’s imagery to fill the void.
Now, bring in the chair and start posing on it. Let’s call this the levitation shot. Take a bunch of photos with several poses. I used a 10-second timer that would take several shots at a time. It can take some time to set all of this up, so it might help to turn off the camera’s automatic shut-off function.
Keep the camera as steady as possible on the tripod throughout the entire process since even a little bit of wind can adjust the image enough to make editing more difficult than it needs to be. Make sure to use your remote control or phone app to take the photos on your camera, if possible.
Make sure the chair (or whatever you’re using to prop you up) is never in front of your body from the perspective of the lens. Remember that 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. When the the chair was removed in the example above, so was part of my back. I was able work my Photoshop magic to create more of my jacket (see the finished product further below), but that added some time.
Another key to making levitation shots work is properly angling your body. When I laid on the chair for my levitation shot with the lamppost, my legs and arms naturally wanted to lean toward 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 my body for each shot; after several shots, it became a bit of a workout.
Another pitfall to look out for is the part of your body resting on the object you’re posing 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 flow slightly over the tip of the object you’re posing on. If you don’t, the clothing that’s touching the chair will stretch in a straight line, looking unnatural. I probably should have put a scarf or something along the right side of my legs inside my pants because in the photo below, it’s obvious that gravity is pulling the pants closer to the sidewalk.
I shot all of the photos as quickly as possible because lighting can quickly change outdoors. It’s a good idea to take another establishing shot at the end; often, that turns out to be better establishing shot.
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.
First, edit the levitation shot’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, then load the settings to your establishing shot so they look the same. Next, place your levitation shot as a new layer on top of your establishing shot, then start erasing the chair from the image.
As you can see in the image above, the shots did not match up perfectly (thank you very much, wind). Move the levitation shot 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 and correct the other parts that don’t match.
Now, it’s time to add the shadow. As you can see below, there is a noticeable difference between the levitation shot and the establishing shot. In erasing the chair, you also get rid of the natural shadow. It’s important to reintroduce the shadow because those details that make the photo look more realistic. Thankfully, this is easy to do.
Use the burn tool (soft round) with an exposure between 40 and 60 per cent (or so) to add in the shadows on the establishing layer. You want to mimic the shadows that would have been there.
I would recommend saving a copy or two of this version (with the multiple layers) in case you want to edit it differently 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. In hindsight, I think it would have worked better had the camera been set at a lower angle.
Examples of other levitation photos