This photo was realized without post-processing.
If you follow my work, you probably know I like taking advantage of post-processing, in order to create composites. I like the fantasy it allows. However, I sometimes get messages from people challenging me to create something without such tool, and I decided to give it a try.
It might be a bit surprising, but in order to create this photo, I found myself using the very same set of skills I acquired when doing my extensively edited images. In fact, even if you use different tools, different ways of doing things, the underlying principles remain the same.
First of all, as always, the main difficulty is to come up with a convincing concept, a good idea. Obviously, post-processing is of no help about that: knowing how to handle a tool does not tell you what to do with it. So I started to think about "numbers", personifying them sounded interesting: from there, I had to choose someone who was notoriously related to that topic. Albert Einstein was an obvious candidate. I decided to pay him an homage, using the numbers "299792458" (the speed of light in meters per second, i.e. the value 'c' in the infamous formula).
When one creates a composite in post-processing, there are several difficulties to take into account, but a major one is the composition. Placing all the items harmoniously on the canvas can be painful, but fortunately, when you do it with some software, you can make lots of tries easily. I believe creating composites taught me more about composition than any other exercise. Here, this experience was useful, since changing the position of all these pieces of paper once they are glued is a gigantic pain. Moreover, I wanted to add some perspective to the portrait (just like when you deform a layer in Photoshop), except that I had to do it directly on the setup itself: for that, I built pillars made of cardboard, that I put under the face to lift it as needed (for example the nose has the highest pillar, so that it is the closest part to the camera).
Another usual tools used in post-processing are "dodging and burning". These are very important, to add depth and local contrast, or even to create shadows in composites. Despite the fact this was a "minimal editing" challenge, I wanted to use them anyway, since they usually make a very important difference when it comes to visual impact. What I did is that I printed all the numbers on different shades of gray: the pieces of paper are not all the same. For example, the ones in the background are the darkest ones, while the ones positioned on the left of the face (Einstein's left, your right) are the brightest ones. As you can imagine, choosing the appropriate color of paper for each zone of the setup required some work and thinking (in fact the same reasoning than in post-processing, but done directly with the items themselves).
Creating that setup took about 12 hours of work. As usual, my wonderful wife did an incredible job on it, and without her help I doubt this would have been possible within the challenge week. When it was done, I worked on the lighting setup, which required 3 more hours. Nothing unusual here, but I wanted the vignette to be as perfect as possible: I used different pieces of black cardboard around the setup to create shadows in the corners as needed. Positioning those precisely was a bit long. Technically, 2 strobes were used, both from the right: a softbox at mid-power, to give an ambient light to the scene, and a snoot at full power on the face, to get good contrast and shadows.
All in all, I am very happy about the result. The "pre-processing" (as opposed to "post-processing") worked as intended. In fact, I tried to optimize it afterwards, and except a few hair and dusts I would have cloned out, there is not much I would have adjusted. For those that are wondering, I did not use the camera settings capabilities: as a photographer, I see no valid reason to let the camera adjust or decide things for me, I want to have a full control over my work. This is why I simply set it to B/W and called it a day: the rest comes from my work on the setup and its lighting.