How I Got That Shot: A Wing With Drama

June 25, 2012

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Kevin Twomey/Heather Elder Represents

The cover image for the young adult book Fuse, photographed by Kevin Twomey. To see outtakes from the shoot, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Photographer: Kevin Twomey
Client: Grand Central Publishing
VP/Creative Director: Anne Twomey
Art Director: Elizabeth Connor

San Francisco photographer Kevin Twomey had photographed a still life of a butterfly and a bell jar for the cover of Julianna Baggott’s young adult novel Pure, published by Grand Central Publishing. For Baggott’s second novel in the trilogy, Fuse, Grand Central’s Anne Twomey (no relation to the photographer) once again hired him to shoot the cover. Like a lot of young adult fiction these days, Fuse is “a dark, post-apocalyptic novel,” the photographer explains. In it, one society has survived a nuclear blast inside a protective dome, while outside, another group has had their bodies fused with objects, parts of animals and even other humans. For the cover photo, the photographer says, “They requested a water bird in a stressful environment, and asked me to keep it simple.”

His suggestion was to show a bird’s wing splashing water and stirring up feathers. What made the image challenging, however, was that animal trainer Joe Krathwohl, who accompanied a one-year-old pelican named Neptune to Twomey’s studio, said it was impossible to throw water or feathers at a bird who was already experiencing the stress of being away from his natural environment. Twomey decided he had to shoot Neptune’s wing, feathers, and a spray of water droplets separately and then combine them in post production “in a way that made them look like they were all part of a single shot,” he says.

Logistics: “The concept on this was to make the wing look like a classical Greek sculpture,” Twomey explains. Neptune would stand on a table that was about three feet high while the photographer hunkered near the floor, shooting up. “I had to get below him to capture all the muscles and details.”

Having an animal in a studio presents problems. “He was a very well-behaved pelican, but for safety, we had to make sure everything was sandbagged, [so] he didn’t knock over any light stands,” Twomey says. Because he shoots tethered to the computer, “We even strapped down the computer to the work station. This had to be done to take into account his massive eight-foot wing span and the amount of power and energy that the pelican created when he flapped his wings.”

Krathwohl remained near the bird at all times. “We called him the Bird Whisperer,” the photographer explains. “He knew the slightest movement to make, touching [the bird’s] leg to make him feel off balance so he would spread his wings.” Twomey notes that because Neptune was a young bird, “His wing had these beautiful brown tones to it. When he is older, all those feathers will fall off and become white.”

The client asked Twomey to try shooting against both a white and a black backdrop. The table was placed about six feet from the backdrop, which extended about 12 feet high. As he shot, Twomey sent JPEGs to the client to preview. He notes, “After seeing how the water drops popped off the black background, it was a pretty obvious choice.”

Getting the water to arc the way it did took Twomey an hour of experimentation with his assistant creating differing splashes. “We started off just throwing a cup of water and then finally ended up dunking a broom into water and twirling it around to create that arc of individual droplets,” says Twomey. “We did over 100 captures before I was satisfied.”

Lighting: Twomey chose two 2400 w/s Profotos for their flash duration. To bring out details, he set to the left of the bird a 20-inch beauty dish that was on a stand about six feet high. “It’s a harsh light, but not as harsh as a bare head,” Twomey says. “It’s the beauty dish that’s creating texture.” He placed a large Chimera softbox on the right, about ten feet from the beauty dish, and set at the same height and equal distance from the subject.

After photographing Neptune, Twomey and his assistants had to capture the water spray. They used the same lighting setup, but moved the lights closer together so they were four feet apart. In capturing the moving droplets, Twomey says, “We had to try to get as fast a flash duration as possible, which helps capture the crispness of the water. If your lights are closer, you need less power.”

The feathers were supplied by Krathwohl, who had gathered several from his own birds. To photograph them, Twomey placed them on a tabletop set, with the beauty dish and softbox at the same angles. He placed the feathers at a variety of angles, laying them down or standing them upright by putting the quills into balls of wax and attaching monofilament thread to the tops. Shooting down, he was able to capture them at different perspectives.

Camera: Twomey used a Hasselblad H4 with a P65 back and a Hasselblad 50-110 zoom lens; 1/800 at f/8.

Post Production: Twomey frequently collaborates on post production with Susan Scott, a retoucher who is also a photographer. “It’s a great working relationship,” Twomey says. He gave her the image of the bird wing that the client had selected, as well as many of his favorite water splash shots and several feather shots. “I sat down with her and said: I would like the water to move in this sort of direction,” Twomey recalls, and from there Scott worked on making each droplet appear transparent, so the wing is visible through the water. She also had free rein on how to place the feathers in a realistic way. Twomey notes, “We did push some of the highlights and purposefully blew them out which gave a beautiful glow to some areas.”

The photo has already appeared in early press material and on the Web site for the novel, due to be published later this year.

Check out the video below or click on the Photo Gallery link to see outtakes from the shoot: