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Using Chroma key with Blue or Green Screen backgrounds

Why use Chroma key?

Often thought of as a specialist secret of Hollywood directors, ChromaKey or Blue screen / Green screen is easily within the ability of any photographer who wants to be creative with backgrounds. Maybe you are working at a venue and it's raining, taking a fantastic picture of the venue while it's nice (or come back and do it) and shooting your subjects indoors on Chromakey will enable you to replace the Chromakey when you return to your studio (or indeed if you are still at the event to sell prints there and then).

Chromakey opens up the horizons of your portfolio. Event and studio photographers can benefit financially from using this. Cruise ship photographers can slip a photo of Venice behind images of embarking passengers, Wedding shoots in bland and brown registry offices can be transformed by dropping a portico behind the subjects to frame the happy couple, Children dressed in Spider Man outfits can hold a specific pose and you can insert a wall behind them, and hey presto they are climbing the Empire State Building, etc.

In film and television actors can be recorded in a studio in front of a green screen and in the compositing process transported anywhere enabling some of the astonishing special effects we take for granted these days.

How does chroma key work? Which colour should I use?

The principle of "keying" has been around in film since the 1940's, the idea is to film the foreground part of the image masking out the background, and then the background masking out the foreground. The two images are then combined to make the foreground subject appear to be in front of the background even though the two were filmed at different times in different places.

ChromaKey as its name implies, works on the colour (chroma) in the image and this then becomes a mask. If the colour (green or blue) is masked out, then the inverse can be used to bring in another image, so each image is masked allowing a composite to be created showing the subject in a new background. Blue and Green tend to be used for chroma key because they are furthest from skin tone and as primary colours were easiest to separate in the film or video process, but theoretically with electronic compositing any colour can be used that isn't present in the foreground

Blue chromakey is used because:

  • It is complementary to skin tones
  • If you don't pick up all the "blue" in the background in your editing process, the so called "Blue-spill" doesn't notice so much as green.
  • Blue has been traditionally used for film due to the colour separation processes used, but blue chroma key requires more light

Green chromakey is used because:

  • Video and digital cameras are more sensitive to green with less noise making it easier to generate a cleaner mask.
  • Green requires less light
  • Also Green is used where you have predominantly blue subjects (maybe you shoot in schools where the uniforms cross into the particular shade of blue).

But the choice and preference are yours at the end of the day, and some trial and error might be the way forward.

Once you've had a few goes, and become a dab hand at masking in your digital suite, you're ready to start earning from it alongside your usual line of income.

So how do I use Chromakey?

green-screen-chromakeys.jpgThe essentials you need: a camera (!), lighting, Chroma backdrop, and a good quality digital image or images (such as TIFFs or JPEGs) to place behind the subject in place of the Chromacolour.

If you're starting out, try a half width 1.35m x 11m paper roll in Green or Blue Chroma Key, as paper is often easier as it's easier to light a smooth paper background evenly, although fabric allows you to cover certain objects, etc and some photographers just prefer it. But if you're starting out, try the paper.

For convincing results the foreground subject should be lit to match the digital background, so if the background is lit by a low sun coming from the left don't light your foreground subject with a high key light from the right.

The chromakey background (blue screen or green screen) must be evenly lit without shadows creases or wrinkles (won't be a problem as you are going to use Creativity Background chroma key paper aren't you?). Try to avoid shadow from the model / subject being cast on the chroma key background. If you have patchy light (lightspill or fringing), you will be spending a little more time in Photoshop (or whatever your preferred software is, see below) to blank out the Green or Blue screen so you can drop in your required replacement background.

How do I change the Chromakey background digitally?

You can use traditional image processing tools to work with our ChromaGreen and ChromaBlue Backgrounds, try extracting the Green or Blue and placing your chosen "artificial" scene as a "background" layer in Photoshop, Paintshop Pro, Photoshop Elements or other Paint program (not Illustrator as this is a vector or drawing program).

green-screen-with-sofa2.jpgIn Photoshop  make the background a layer, by double clicking it in the layer palette; it will then be named "layer 0" by default. Create another layer below this, and reselect "layer 0".

Choose "Color Range" from the Select menu and first click on the green or blue with the default pipette, the refine the selection you are creating by changing to the pipette with the plus sign to add further similar colours to your selection.

You can fine tune further by using the Fuzziness slider, or the pipette with the minus sign to subtract colours.

Lastly, click the Invert checkbox. Your selection can now be used as a mask by clicking the Make Mask icon at the bottom of the larger palette.

There are numerous tutorial packages on the market, and expert tuition run by various photography groups. The main thing is, enjoy using your Creativity Backgrounds! It's What's Behind Your Great Images!

: With thanks to Rod Wynne-Powell, author and editor of many books including Photoshop Made Simple and Mac OS X for Photographers; especially for his expert advice on the digital process.  Rod regularly tutors and gives demonstrations to groups all over the country www.solphoto.co.uk

Original studio image by Hoss Mahdavi
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In this current climate returning custom is more and more important, so with this in mind, I am changing so much at Avant Photographic, in order to keep loyal customers interested in maintaining their family portraiture collection. Gone is the white hi-key background, here is the new colored background. Creativity Backgrounds are helping me to achieve my vision and keep customers excited by ever-changing trends and unique portraits.

MPA (se) Cherub Photographer of the Year 2009
MPA (se) Cherub Photographer of the Year 2008

Phil Burrowes
Avant Photographic