Meet Your Neighbors (On the Cheap)
It’s getting more and more popular. Those shots you see with the animal isolated on a completely white background. What are they? And how do you start taking them?
Well the style can be addressed by several epithets: Meet Your Neighbors (MYN), Out-to-White, Whiteout, lab shot, and by “those awesome shots that the Tropical Herping guys take.” Whatever you want to call it, they are striking and can be decidedly useful!
I’m not going to delve into every cat skinning fashion there is for this technique, as that cat can be skinned in plenty of ways, I would rather describe only the most realistic and accessible methodology. For that I refer you to what will be our only extra piece of equipment required: the white acrylic background (purchase here)
Let’s face it, we don’t all have room or money for elaborate setups and much of the time even when I carry elaborate setups on trips, there’s never time to erect them. So with this method, as long as you have a camera setup with a remote flash, and the board that I just linked, you can create these shots. No elaborate tents or boxes are required! If you have sufficient flash power, you can even just use a clean white shirt. I do recommend the acrylic board though, which can be slapped in a clipboard and be carried and cleaned with ease.
Pro tip: Clean your acrylic with bleach wipes after each animal or at least after each location to avoid transporting diseases!
So let’s all pretend right now that we’re traveling around southern Mexico and on a night hike, you find a juvenile Stuart’s Lizard Eating Snake (Mastigodryas melanolomus stuarti) sleeping on a branch. You’re hella far from your car, or base camp, and you just want a quick, striking photo of him before you continue your transect. Mind you, your friends aren’t very patient when it comes to taking photos and you don’t want to haul him all the way back there in the next morning. This is a very common situation I find myself in on trips. Luckily you brought your trusty acrylic! Break it out, and get your camera set up. Clean any debris off the snake and place him gently on the board.
As you can see, position can be an issue, especially with larger animals. You want the acrylic to encompass the entire frame, so position the animal close to the front edge and angle the board so it extends as far back into the frame as it can. Or you can just bundle him up and call it a day.
Seeing snakes balled up like this is a pet peeve of mine so I never snap this position, except for safety shots or instructional purposes. To each their own though!
Pro tip #2: Softboxes are a godsend. If you don’t have one in your arsenal get one! It helps considerably with this style of photo
Now, I’m assuming you have at least 1 off camera strobe that can be set as a “remote” and an on-board flash that can be set as commander. Consult your camera manual if you aren’t familiar with this process.
Compose your shot (Consult my other blog entry for composition tips) and place the strobe about 75 degrees above horizontal, a foot away from the subject, and have it aimed at the subject’s head. Mind you, these are rough estimates as each situation will be different. Make sure the subject is in an appealing position, take the shot, and see what it looks like. Adjust flash power as necessary.
Hot damn! It turned out perfect!…Well, that never happens. These shots always require post-editing to max out all the color channels and get that bright white consistent throughout the image. It seems this is one of the only instances where it’s acceptable to edit the heck out of a photo. Let’s go behind the scenes and see what’s involved with that…
Straight out the camera, this may be what you get:
It’s a sticky salamander, there’s going to be dirt on the board. It happens. Clone it out really quick with Lightroom (Preferable), Photoshop, or iPhoto.
Now, sometimes I like to just bump up the exposure and highlights, adjust shadows, and leave it at that. It’s all about personal preference. That wouldn’t be true MYN style though. They demand there to be no shadows and every inch of white be maxed out to 255 on all channels. That’s fine, just take your adjustment brush in whatever editing program you use and pump up the exposure and give yourself some feathering. Now with a steady hand, paint over those shadows as many times as is required, and there you have it! Hopefully after no more than 10 minutes, you’ll have a distraction free image that is easily ported to design additional composite images.
There’s more purpose to these shots than that though. They are also a great way to document different species and characteristics of said species. This is how I in fact began taking this style of shot. Generally when we document an individual we take 4 shots for identification purposes: Top-down, 60 degrees from horizontal, horizontal, and upside down. That way you can have a catalogue of every external morphological feature. Top-down would look like this:
And as always don’t be afraid to get a little creative with your compositions!
Until next time amigos. Hasta!