The floating sword – anatomy of a shot

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“The Floating Sword” is one of my favorite shots.  Not because it is complex, award winning, or particularity great; but because it is pure, simple, and a wonderful teaching tool.

Several years ago I wanted to do a study on light and composition, so I grabbed Excalibur and headed to the studio.  I have a work table that I thought would be a nice compliment for the sword, so cleared it off and began to work.  And being that I didn’t have a set result in mind, it was work indeed.

Those who have photographed reflective objects know how difficult it can be at times to reduce unwanted reflections, glare, and to lose the visual feel of the object (or parts of it).  Angles and how you light the object become very important.  So important that at times it makes you want to scream (ok, screaming is sometimes an actual requirement).  Camera angles, lighting angles, and object angles to other objects become a game of millimeters at times.  You can think you have the shot, and then notice one thing that ruins it.  So you change something to take care of that issue, and now you created three more issues.

Thankfully we live in an age of Photoshop and Lightroom, and small issues can be easily corrected in post.  But with that ability, many people become lazy or sloppy.  And with that, they lose critical skills needed to get the shot right in camera as opposed to editing it right in post.  While processing of images is a skill that photographers should have (it was needed for film as well if you printed your own work), it should not be the skill they rely on.

This brings me back to The Floating Sword.

As I said, I wanted to do a study of light and composition.  So I placed the sword on the table and adjusted the lighting.  I took some shots at various angles and various lighting direction.  I found the flaws, corrected them, and repeated the process.  Over and over I went with it all.  But even when I corrected most issues, I was not happy with the end result.  The sword being so two dimensional compared to other objects made shadows more difficult and less appealing than I would like.

The way to compensate for this is to move the flat object away from backgrounds.  But this creates other issues.  One is to have the shadow actually fall onto a visible background.  And the other is to have the object suspended in such a way that whatever is holding it does not become a distraction.

Many times this is done by simply photographing the object laying flat, removing it from its background visually using editing software, and then selecting the object and dropping a shadow on a lower layer in the edit.  We see this all the time with knife photography for sales purposes.  And while it looks nice, and displays the knife well, it is what it is, and looks like what it is.  This, however, is not what I was trying to do.  That is easy.

I kept playing with various means to get the result I liked.  And the process was not fun, nor fast.  With adding the extra dimension of deeper shadows I complicated the issues to correct with every change in position and lighting.  But I finally got it.  I will not tell you all the different things I tried though, because if I did, it would give away the how I achieved this shot.  Instead, I will go over the guesses people made when I asked them how I achieved the final result.

“It is a 3D rendering.” – No.  This is a real sword.  This is a real table.

“You suspended it using string, and then edited out the string.” – No.  I did not use any string, wire, hands, or anything else to hold the sword up and then edit it out in post.

“You took two shots and combined them in post, adding a shadow.”  No.  The sword, table, and shadow are taken as the image shows.  No editing to create them was done in post.

“You dropped the sword, and took the shot as it was falling to the table.”  No. But good guess!  The sword is static as seen in the shot.

“You propped it up with something, and then removed it, and its shadow in post.”  – No.  I did not remove anything in post.  I did not add anything in post. What is seen is what the camera saw when I activated the shutter.

By this time, most people are simply stumped.  And in all honesty I can’t blame them.  I was stumped many times trying to get this shot.  But I kept at it.  And with paying attention to detail, as well as keeping the basics in mind, I accomplished what I wanted.  And the solution was so simple that it almost makes the quite complicated process seem other than how difficult it truly was.

The sword is propped up using a short piece of 3/4 inch white pvc.

“NO WAY!”

Yes way.

“But there is no shadow!  And you said you didn’t remove any!”

That is correct. Well sort of.  There actually is a shadow cast by the pvc.

“But I can’t see it.”

CORRECT!  It is much like how a magician does tricks.  They are designed in such a way that those watching, and from the perspective they are watching from, can’t see certain things.  This shot is exactly the same thing.

The shadow of the pvc support is actually hidden directly behind the cross guard of the sword.  And to accomplish that, the camera angle has to be just right, and the distance from the sword also has to be just right.  They are there, you have to just FIND them.  And any deviation from them ruins the shot.

Now add in the other factors of light and reflections, and you see that this simple shot isn’t as simple as one might think.  The light being a little bit off and you get glare off the blade, and your shadow also moves; now showing the support shadow.  Again, some of these issues are pretty easy to correct in post, but that was not my intent.  It was not to edit into existence a cool picture, but to TAKE a cool shot.

I believe these exercises should be done by every photographer.  Push your limits.  Think outside the box.  And get back to basics.  Rely on your skills with the camera and photography, vs your skills with editing software.  Your overall skills with both will benefit from this sharpening of the basics.

Now go and push yourself, and have fun!

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