5 Tips For Expanding A Dress

"Releasing The Messengers"

I don't know if you've noticed yet, but expanding a dress in Photoshop has kind of become a must-have portfolio piece for fine art photographers. Well, not so much a "must-have," but definitely an "everyone seems to have." I'm totally cool with this. Robert Cornelius is the biggest sucker for any gloriously rippling, larger than life gown; he just can't help himself. Come on, who doesn't love a GIANT flowing dress!? When you can take a 4 dollar thrift store find and make it look like a huge, impressive, expensive, high fashion ensemble, why wouldn't you? Not to mention it adds lots of interest and production value for no extra cost...unless you have to buy the dress, but you know what I mean. 

 Photo courtesy of  The Wild Ones

Photo courtesy of The Wild Ones

I can't vouch for the price tag on the dress used for this image, because it was one of the many beautiful items laid out to be used at the WILD ONES WORKSHOP I ATTENDED!!!  (For all two of you that don't already know who/what the Wild Ones are, kindly check out this post where I explain their incredible awesomeness.) After my buddy Kory and I left the Silver Lake Flickr Gathering in upstate New York, we promptly drove all the way down to NYC along with Lulu to attend the Wild Ones' very last workshop held in Central Park. It was the most perfect day with the most perfect people. The light was just right, the weather was just warm enough, and the company was just the best most creative bunch of humans you could hope to be shooting with! I made some friends, took some photos, and even got to be in some!!

One of the photographers there was Isabella Tan (or Bella, but you might know her as XBellanotte). I immediately thought she was awesome-sauce and felt like I knew her, but wasn't sure why. Also, the fact that she was already super tight with my girl Lulu meant that she was definitely on my list of people who don't suck. We discovered that a few months before the workshop I had littered her portfolio with comments gushing about how fantastic I thought her work was (is). Seriously she's SO talented. I'm not surprised her images were still lingering in my head. Anyhooooo, why don't we talk about expanding a dress, shall we!?


1. Pick The Right Dress.

This one is the most obvious,  but if you've never embarked on a dress expansion image it's definitely something to take into consideration.  Right off the bat, you probably want to avoid dresses that are excessively tight. (Duh) It is going to be far easier to create a billowing flowy dress if you start with a garment that already has some movement to it.  Secondly, you're going to want to avoid obvious patterns. Sure, that black and white checkered dress looks really interesting, but as soon as you try to blend a few pieces together you'll find that you've made a terrible error and you wish the dress was solid blue. Really any mostly solid-colored dress is going to make your task much much easier.

SURPRISE! The dress was actually solid red...but my last image was of a red dress so I changed it to a purplish color just to keep things interesting.

2. Take It Off!

A lot of the people I see expanding a dress only do a couple "dress flings" while the subject is wearing the dress. Obviously you should grab a few shots like this, especially if you only intend to add a bit of motion to the dress and just need it to not be hanging straight down. However, if you're trying to accomplish something more in the realm of what I did with this image, have your model change out of the dress after you get your main image and then flap it around at all different angles. This way there is much more fabric to be blowing gracefully in the wind!

 Special thanks to Lulu for being the best dress flinger ever.

Special thanks to Lulu for being the best dress flinger ever.

3. Get Some Real Shadows 

Shadows are a rather difficult thing to recreate in post, or at least it's pretty hard to make them super realistic.  Whenever possible I try to use actual shadows. SO, while you're having someone fling the dress around, make sure you take several where the bottom of the dress is interacting with the ground. By that I mean, grab some photos in which the dress is touching the ground a little, or at least close enough to make a shadow. This way, you can add in some of the real shadow on the real ground that was really around her...for real. It's FAR more realistic than if you were to try to paint the shadows in yourself and thus it makes your composited dress all the more believable. (Yaaayyy believability!) 

4. Be Mindful Of Lighting

It's lots of fun once you've reached the step in the editing process when you get to cut out bits of fabric from your extra shots and see where they fit onto your dress.  It's kinda like doing a puzzle, but you don't have the box to look at so you just have to do what looks right and see what you end up with.  Experimentation is key. Many a time you'll want to rotate or flip a chunk-o-dress to better suit the flow of the image. This is definitely ok to do (especially if you shot with rather flat lighting) - just be aware of how the light is falling on the dress.  For this image I had some fairly directional light, so the left sides of all of my fabric images were always brighter than the right sides. I flipped a piece horizontally because it looked much nicer flowing off to the right, but the light on that piece was now coming from the wrong side. I had to darken it down to match the other pieces around it. So have fun moving things around but keep an eye on your lighting to continue pushing that believability. (YYAAAaaaayyyy believability...)

5. Break the Rules

For me, the whole fun of doing a composited image is being able to create something fantastical that often times couldn't exist without some crafty Photoshopping. When you're planning out your epic giant dress shot, remember there is no one saying that this dress has to actually make sense. You want it to be believable, but it doesn't have to be possible. It does not have to be a dress that could actually exist.  If you really think about it, the dress in "Releasing The Messengers" doesn't actually make sense; there are bits of fabric blowing drastically in different directions. However, I felt that because she is casting this magic spell, there's no reason she couldn't be interrupting gravity in some strange way and causing her dress and hair to swirl all about. Just go with it.  The image I created before this one has a very different sort of dress expansion that also couldn't really exist. The giant red dress I created is essentially flowing downstream which could happen, but in reality this probably would have sucked her away with the current. No bueno. Lots of artists have created BEAUTIFUL dress expansions of all shapes and sizes like this one, this one, and this one! So go crazy and don't let the rules of gravity hold you down!!


PS. You'll notice a giant glowy diamond makes an appearance in the video...don't worry about that. I decided horses trump diamonds. 

Have you made and/or do you know of any amazing dress expansions I should put my eyes on? Let me know in a comment! ;)

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