How I pulled off this fiery levitation photo in a single exposure from start to finish

Tips & Techniques

The photo trickery of a levitation shot has been around for ages now, and is a great way to create a compelling image and get in a bit of Photoshop practice while you’re at it!

One of my favourite things is light painting with fire, and the idea of combining levitation into the mix was a fun challenge that was well worth the effort. Read on, and I’ll walk you through step by step how I pulled it off!

The Setup

For the fire aspect, I used a simple homemade torch and a fire-resistant glove. Here’s a list of what I needed to create the effect.

  • 4’ Long ¾” wide wooden dowel
  • 6 Pack of plain cotton shirts (as cheap as possible!)
  • Stapler
  • BBQ starter fluid
  • Fire-resistant silicone oven glove

To put these together, I’ll cut the shirt down the middle and staple it to the top third or so of the dowel, making sure the fabric isn’t too tightly wrapped as the cotton will need air to burn. It is absolutely crucial to use plain cotton for your material, as synthetic blended fabrics (polyester, nylon, etc.) are essentially plastic and will drip and stick to things, potentially causing severe burns.

The BBQ starter fluid is a great fuel to soak the torch with as it doesn’t create a lot of smoke and has a very slight odour, which makes everyone’s life a little more pleasant.
The oven glove is a simple and cheap way to keep my arm hair intact, and it’s very stylish.

A challenging aspect of combining fire painting with levitation is the need to not only work with the fire but also operate the camera in bulb mode simultaneously! To pull this off I use the very affordable and reliable Yongnuo RF-603C camera trigger. It’s a pair of small RF triggers that allow me to accurately open the shutter as I’m starting to move the torch, and close it as I’ve completed the movement of the flames.

Please visit my blog for some very important safety information if you want to attempt a shot with fire like this.

The camera settings are fairly simple, we’ll be using bulb mode the entire time, so exposure times will vary but are typically around one to two and a half seconds. The aperture will remain a steady f/10 to accommodate the luminosity of the fire, and the ISO will also stay at 100 throughout.

The final ingredients are a flowy skirt or dress, and a cheap stool courtesy of Ikea. Having a nice flowing garment will catch the wind nicely and create a sense of motion, as well as cover up our Ikea stool.

The Shot

Beginning at blue hour we get a small ~15-minute window in which the ambient light from the sunset is balanced enough with the luminance of the flames to get a nice evenly exposed image.

Typically with levitation shots, it’s fairly common to take what’s called a “plate shot” which is simply the shot framed exactly the same as it is with the subject in it, minus the subject. This allows you to have a perfectly clean background that can be used to mask out the stool.

Since we’re using fire, it’s really important that the textures in the flames match the reflection in the water, so we’ll forgo the plate shot and just manually clone stamp it out.

Since the wind and flames are both very dynamic and can make the shape of the dress and texture of the fire vary greatly from shot to shot, we’ll shoot as many shots as we can until the light has completely disappeared over the horizon.
Once we’ve captured as many shots as we humanly can during blue hour, we end up with the image you see above that we can edit into something really compelling!

The Edit

Now that we have our rough image, it’s time to dive into Photoshop to help our subject learn how to fly!

First, we want to get rid of the silhouette of the stool seen through the dress. I carefully used the clone stamp tool to remove it, being cautious not to repeat any textures.

Next, we move down to the stool and clone out the majority of it, making sure to preserve the colour gradient from the blue background to the fire’s glow by selecting a target source that’s directly horizontal to the area we’re cloning out.

Now we move on to the reflection of the stool in the water. Fire is fairly easy to clone out, so this part is relatively straightforward. Once the bulk of the stool is removed, I need to replicate that clearly defined flame edge that you see on the sides.
To do this, I went to window>clone>source and in this new panel, we use the rotate option to clone a new bottom edge of the flames that looks natural. The rotate option will allow me to take parts of the flame on the left and right and flip them so they fit perfectly, creating a realistic edge to the flames where the stool once was.

Now that the stool is out of the picture, there’s a weird dark area that screws with the symmetry. It wasn’t created by the removal of the stool, but leaving it in would look strange.
To get rid of it, we’ll make a copy of the background, flip it horizontally, and then crank down the opacity to around 60%. Then we’ll create a new mask and fill it with black (ctrl+backspace) and then paint with a white brush on the mask in the areas where we need to recreate the symmetry.

One of the last things we need to do is get rid of that perfectly straight bit of the model’s dress, and to do that we need to use the liquify tool!

I’ll head to filters>liquify and use the forward warp tool to create a more flowing shape in the dress and in the reflection of the dress. Then we’ve got to go back and clean up the stretched areas that are created when using the liquify tool by simply using the clone stamp to fix the textures.

Finally, we add a bit more drama with a sky replacement. I’ll drag the sky I want into the image and drag the resizing arrows until it fits the scene. Then we add a mask and fill it in (ctrl+backspace). Next, using the quick select tool (w) we select the sky and then paint onto the mask in white to add in the clouds. Finally, using the blend mode drop-down menu we’ll select “soft light” and then we’ll use the transparency slider to bring down the transparency until we’ve got a natural look.

Finally, there we have it! A floating lady with a fiery presence. This isn’t the definitive way to create a levitation photo, it’s just my way. Thanks for reading!

About the Author

Zach Alan is a Houston, Texas-based photographer specialising in light painting, portraits and commercial photography. Zach is probably most well for light painting with fire. You can find out more about Zach on his website and follow his work on Instagram.

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