Modern technology has changed our lives dramatically, sometimes I might overreact but the way smartphones and social media have changed us makes me a little scared. We talk less with each other and many of us spend more time online than in the real world. Call me retrogressive but I’m not sure I like that progress.

Looking forward, I believe this is one of the biggest challenges we have in today’s society. I believe that this is a problem that needs more attention so I created this artwork Forever Online.

This image was awarded “Image of the Year” in the category Digital Illustration during the Swedish Masters in portrait photography. 

Behind-the-scenes film

 

Story and background

I decided to create an image trying to convey how I sometimes feel when the phone wants to drag me into the digital world. Even if I’m having a great time with friends and family I can get this urge to check my feed or my e-mail with the “just one last time” in my mind.

The idea behind this image is that this man is away on vacation, he is sitting comfortably in his chair in the hotel lounge drinking his coffee, eating a sandwich or reading some books. He is soul-searching trying to find himself again. Because at times if he is on vacation to get time away from his work and stress he receives a message from his boss reading that he forgot to finish some work before he went on vacation.

Suddenly the digital powers start sucking him into his phone; he is panicking and unable to control the urge and evade the digital world.

 

Sketching

I had a basic idea of how I wanted the image to look like so I did a simple and basic sketch just to get a feeling about what elements would fit into the image to construct a great story. I needed a character, a lot of hands and some props to convey that he is actually in a state where he desperately needs to relax but something is stopping him. I felt that books, coffee and a sandwich would convey that feeling. I also needed a room with big windows with a really calm and relaxing view outside.

 

My initial sketch for the Forever Online project which I used as a reference when planning the shoot.

Location scouting

I had some ideas for locations, but I and my friend Magnus James had a lunch some weeks ago. He owns

Kinnarps Interior in my hometown Örebro, Kinnarps and designs interiors, sells furniture and the likes.

When I was there on lunch he offered to lend me props and furniture for future shoots, so I asked him if I could shoot my upcoming project in their show room and he agreed. They have all sorts of cool design furniture so I had a lot of options for building up a scene. I would save a lot of time scouting for furniture, transporting them to another location etc.

One of the features I wanted in the environment was the huge windows which is an important part of the image and the Kinnarps show room had just that.

 

Kinnarps showroom has big windows which was a must for my project so as to create an environment on the outside.
They also have a lot of cool design furniture which was great for my image.

 

Light

Most of the time I mix ambient and strobe light in my composite images, but I usually don’t mix them in the same exposure.

I shoot exposures with ambient light separately so I don’t have to deal with mixed color temperatures, but also because my productions are time consuming which means that the ambient light changes a lot in character from start to the end of the shoot. Since I blend a lot of exposures together, I need consistent light, shadows and color temperature and I get just that with strobes.

 

One of the exposures I shot of the models lit with strobes lights.

 

One of the Exposures shot to get ambient light through the window. This was later blended in Photoshop with exposures of the models..

When it comes to strobes I used one big main light and a second rim light which replicates the light from the windows to get some edges on the model, without this the composite would look strange. I also used a white reflector behind the main character so it would be easier to extract his hair – this also filled in some shadows.

Used a big 150cm octabox as my main light and a big white screen in the front to get more light wrap around the subject. Camera is weighted down so all exposures are aligned. Bts photo: Sarah Karlsson

 

I used my Nikon D810 with a 24mm tilt/shift tethered to a MacBook Pro. Bts photo: Sarah Karlsson

 

A 60×100 softball with grid as a rim light to get some edges on the model. Bts photo: Sarah Karlsson

Props and furniture

Since I could use Kinnarps showroom as my location, I had so much furniture to choose from. First, I tried a big red armchair but later on decided not to use that chair, the red armchair was too “happy” in both colors and shape so I decided to run for the… *bom-bom-bom* – “prison chair”, the chair had bars all across. It was really cool and reminded me of a prison cell with the bars, which would add to the “panic” feeling. The models could put their arms between the bars by using this chair which would not have been possible with the red chair.

This was the first chair I tried but I found it to be too “happy” in color and shapes.

 

The prison chair with the bars around it. I chose this chair for the shoot.

 

Model reaching her arm through one of the bars on the chair.

 

Model holding one of the bars during the shoot.

Models

The place I prefer to start looking for models is Facebook. I have some amazing contacts that share my content and I always end up finding some great models and props. I was looking for a specific type of model and got some really good suggestions but no one was “spot on”.

But when I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, one of my friends’ post appeared. The model I saw had a great characteristic face withhigh cheek bones and I felt straight away that he would fit this project “like a glove”. He accepted the challenge.

I also needed a lot of hands in my picture so I did another search on Facebook and ended up with a bunch of happy people that wanted to participate in my project.

Main character David relaxing before the photoshoot. Bts photo: Sarah Karlsson
I wanted a wide variety of hands for my shoot. Male, female, big and small. Bts photo: Sarah Karlsson

 

Models during photo shoot. Bts photo: Sarah Karlsson

 

Photoshoot

Main charachterI started photographing the main character to get a good base image to work on so that I could build up the image gradually with hands and phones around him. I wanted him to have a panicked expression in his face, so I asked one of the models to grab his head and pull it backwards and the main character resisting her hand, that way I got a great expression in his face.

The main character was instructed to sit with his hands still and not moving from the arm chair, but also keeping his feet on the same spot on the ground. When blending exposures in Photoshop it makes life easier when everything is as aligned as possible.

Model is pulling main characters head backwards while he is resisting, to get a panicked facial expression.

 

Hand models

When I had a good base image of the main character, I started to shoot hands and phones around him. I shot around 10-20 exposures of each model in different areas around the main character. That way I could pick and choose hands later in post without limiting myself to one composition.

 

I photographed 10-20 exposures for each model and hands.

 

Background and props

Lastly, I shot separate exposures of the room and props both with strobes and with ambient light in separate exposures.

Having different exposures shot at different f-stops, I get to know that if something changes on the way and I want to make the room interior much lighter for some reason, I know I can do that without destroying pixels. If I want to remove furniture, I can do it without having to clone it away.

I shot several exposures of the background with strobes but also with ambient light separately.

Retouching and compositing

 

Sorting, raw conversion and masking of objects

I did a basic raw conversion and inserted all the exposures and placed them altogether into the same working space in Photoshop. I placed them as smart objects so that I could go back to the raw file later to adjust exposure, color, white balance, sharpness etc. without destroying unnecessary pixels.

I do this because as soon as I start to adjust the exposure, sharpness, color etc. with filters or curves, the images start to get artifacts, banding and things like that. It might look nice on a small resolution image on a wide gamut monitor but in the printed work, all flaws will be visible.

After that I made a fast composite, moving around the images and aligning them until I was satisfied with my composition. I created layer masks and masked out all details in the image. This includes the windows, ceiling, chair, table, phones, hands, sofa, lamp, main character, arm chair etc. It’s easier to work isolated when retouching, dodging and burning.

I created a selection mask around all objects so that I could retouch everything separately.

 

Basic masking of main character, models and background.

 

Dodging and burning

Next step is to blend all exposures together with dodge and burning. Since all hands and objects are shot separately they do not cast shadows on each other as they would have had otherwise, so I had to create shadows for some of the hands. I also strengthened the highlights and made shadows darker with dodge & burn technique to create more depth in the image.

I used dodge and burn technique to create more depth in the image.

Background and effects

I tried out some different backgrounds (outside the window) and I choose a sunset over a Swedish water landscape. I adjusted the image so that it would match the incoming light from the windows. I also retouched the lamp so it looks like it’s on whereas it was actually off when I shot the image.

After that I added some light to the cell phones with brushes and different layer modes. My first idea was to try to add some kind of small strobe to the phone so it would light up the face, but I realized that it would be too complicated todo that since the phone-holding hands would be moved around in post.

The final image: Forever Online.

 

Props in the scene. Note the text on the books.

 

Hands grabbing main characters legs.

 

Phones and hands around main character. Note the screens on the phones and the light coming from them.

Gear used for production

Camera: Nikon D810
Lens: Nikkor 24mm tilt/shift
Strobes: Profoto d1 500 x 2
Diffusion: Lastolite scrim jim 2×2 meter
Light meter: Sekonic L-758
Computer for tethered shooting: Macbook Pro
Computer used for retouching: MacPro late 2013, 3.5GHz 6-core 16gb. dual FirePro
Retouching board: Wacom Intous 4
Software:  Adobe Lightroom CC for tethered shooting, Adobe Bridge CC for image sorting/tagging and Adobe Photoshop for retouching.

Fun facts

Production time: 30-40 hours
Retouching time: 15 hours
Time from ideas to finished product: 6 months
Photoshop layers: XX
Photoshop file size: 12,56GB

 

Are you a journalist?

Are you a journalist and want to write about this project? As long as you’re a magazine or blog not containing sensitive content, then you have my permission to publish this story with images. Contact me if you need more information or high-res images. Please send me a copy after publishing.

Always credit my creative team

Photography and retouch: Andreas Varro
Assistants: Sarah Karlsson and Christian Swidén
Behind the scenes images: Sarah Karlsson
Behind the scenes video footage: Emil Nordhammer

Always link to these sites when publishing
Link to this blogpost: http://www.itsvarro.com/en/forever-online/
Link to Facebook: www.facebook.com/itsvarrophoto
Link to Instagram: www.intstagram.com/itsvarro

Contact: Andreas@itsvarro.com, +46 (0)723 289 510