The Continuing Adventures of trying to Photograph a Portal

what goes in, must  come out

Hello!  Welcome to my new site!  I decided to separate out some of my personal everyday life posts and my photography related ones, which is why everything has been a bit quiet on the blogging front lately.  I am loving WordPress – it’s the first time I have installed themes and I have to say for a total webpage-making dunce like me (I think I tried once, back with what, Netscape?) the pre-packaged goodness make it really easy to put together the site that I want.

I feel like I’ve been getting into a groove now with coming up with photography ideas I’d like to explore and then getting the momentum to carry out those ideas.  One of the things that has been on my mind for months now, is to how to portray in photograph form a real-life version of the portals from the game Portal (and Portal 2) made by valve.  I’m not much of a gamer but I really enjoy watching people play and the storylines those writers spin – and the graphics!  If you’re not familiar with Portal, the basic idea of the game is that you have a gun that shoots out two portals.  What goes in one, goes out the other.  There’s some fantastic use of momentum and it’s all puzzle solving – a very brainy, very cool game.*

*Unfortunately I can’t actually play this game due to not ever owning a gaming system, or more realistically, my crushing lack of being able to visualize a 3D space.  It’s amazing how bad it is.  I used to not be able to see 3D movies until they improved the technology.

I had been pondering for weeks on just how to show a Portal – without it being invented purely in Photoshop.  I was really inspired by this live-action short video – but it looks like their effects were probably done with some really fancy post production software.  As I’m not (yet? never too late, I guess) a VFx artist I started playing around with things I know more about.  I looked into a few ideas – something like perhaps making a giant ring flash, shooting a strobe from behind a cardboard ring cutout, neither of seemed all that feasible.  Then in my research I found this great article on how to use rope LED lights and oval mirrors to get a very good effect.

Two things I had to adjust on this idea – mirrors are both expensive and heavy, especially in the size I was looking for.  So, one Amazon order later, several sheets of foamcore and a handy Exacto  blade slicing later, I made an oval to the size I needed.  There’s a sheet of foamcore on the back, the light is mounted on with duct tape, and I have to say that spray adhesive is my best friend (right behind the duct tape.)  I sprayed this example silver, although it didn’t turn out very chrome-y.  Second models had a sheet of reflective mylar over the front which still doesn’t give a perfect reflection, but since I knew I’d have to use some Photoshop tricks to get the “looking into a different space” effect the mirror wasn’t 100% necessary.  Here is my first version propped up against a wall.  So far, so good.



Now, a test photograph.  Still looking really good!  This was in my room, all the lights off, just with my iPhone.








Next: live subjects.

It turns out to be quite difficult to light a scene where a light source is a central subject; especially one you need to glow but doesn’t in fact give off huge amounts of light.  I did a very long exposure here with just the one light, no fill flash.  It’s not the worst ever, this is no editing other than a quick adjustment to bring up all the light levels.

The real challenge was to get two portals in one scene, with a person doing any kind of anything.  This last is what I ended up with, although it is just one step in a continuing process.  Here the lighting is not even right and I feel might be getting a bit elaborate.  I knew I’d have to end up doing multiple exposures to try and get the different parts of the scenes lit right.



Left side version of me I tried with just the blue LED lights.  The glow in the room was great, but I turned out a completely black blob from the back.  I needed a bit of fill, but using my strobe tended to wash out anything I had going on in the background.  I ended up using a blacklight to cast a blueish glow over myself and to get my clothes to pop.  (This is one reason I nearly always wear light clothing in my long exposure shoots – to get it to show.)  Now, this is a 6 second exposure.

Right side me needed to be lit orange to mimic the effect of looking into the orange portal.  I took the portal off the wall and faced it towards myself.  I left the blue one on and glowing to cast some light as if from behind/from the side, and I really needed a bit of fill on this to see any of my features at all.  Still had the problem of the fill washing out the background, so honestly, I’m not lit enough.  The orange LEDs are also not as bright, so I layered on a second, 13 second exposure to get more pop out of the orange.

What will I do next time?  I’ll have to spend time to light each side of a person separately from the portal.  A strobe with colored gels to tint the light would be a good start, probably more of a spotlight instead of the softbox, too.  The edges of the portal are too sharp – it makes everything look really flat when you drop in a different scene inside the portal, so I’ll also have to figure out a way to add more depth to them.  (That is, without creating a ring of actual flames which admittedly would look really really good.)   I did amp up the glow in Photoshop in the end, so I feel OK about how the outer edges of the portals look.

I really enjoy trying to solve these problems with prop making and figuring out lighting.  This is going to be a continuing process, as I mentioned.  This is a particularly challenging subject so I’ll have to keep wracking my brains to deal with all this weird lighting and crazy colors.  I may in the end decide that I don’t like these effects at all and move to a more completely digital solution, but for now the photography nerd in me wonders if I can do it with practical effects.  More progress reports to come in the future!

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