EXPECTO PATRONUM! a Halloween theme photoshoot

Posted on Oct 31, 2016
EXPECTO PATRONUM! a Halloween theme photoshoot

This ancient and mysterious charm conjures a magical guardian, a projection of all your most positive feelings. The Patronus Charm is difficult, and many witches and wizards are unable to produce a full, corporeal Patronus, a guardian which generally takes the shape of the animal with whom they share the deepest affinity. You may suspect, but you will never truly know what form your Patronus will take until you succeed in conjuring it.”
—Miranda Goshawk’s overview of the Patronus Charm

This will be our fourth year holding our Halloween theme photoshoot tradition. Personal work, or “passion projects” as I like to call them, are key to keeping a creative fire alive. And I’ll be honest guys, 2016 has been a really tough year. 
The reason why we do this once a year and on Halloween, is because I know we are running on creative fumes by October and this is where we need magic the most. In spite of everything I’ve been feeling and struggling with, I felt it was important; this year in particular.

Of course, I am a huge Harry Potter fan. The books came into my life just as I was getting ready to leave my native Mexico to pursue a career in photography at Brooks Institute. Brooks closed down this year, but it was my Hogwarts. 
Aside from paying tribute to such a beloved book, The Prisoner of Azkaban and The Deathly Hallows in particular, the story for this year’s photoshoot goes a little deeper, and more personal.

I find a Patronus to be a genius metaphor for that grounding, life-saving force within each of us. At the same time, I think of the Dementors as a perfect depiction of anything that threatens your soul or your physical, mental, emotional well-being. Call it what you want, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, etc. I believe we all have that something that can pull us from the grip of such darkness, and yes, it can be very difficult to summon, but when we do, there is no brighter light.
That force can take the shape of anything; maybe it’s someone you love, the sound of laughter, birds chirping, or the spirit of a place that soothes you, or a song, or in my case… my dog.

Joking around one night with friends (all Harry Potter fans), we were discussing what our Patronuses would be if we were in that fantasy wizarding world. At first I said it jokingly, but as soon as it came out of my mouth, it held fast to my mind and heart: Willow is my Patronus.

So this idea was born. My brain started working furiously, trying to figure out how to pull it off.

  • We would need a dark forest… check.
  • I’d need to get over my self-consciousness and be in the photo, since Willow is my Patronus…. ugh… ok check.
  • I’d need a wand… My friend Jen (who played Maleficent in a previous shoot) MADE me one! Check.
  • We’d need a Dementor… A trip to Target’s Halloween section took care of that, our Dementor is a faceless reaper and I got him for $10. Check!
  • We’d need to turn Willow into a glowing, smoking, shimmering Patronus… Enter Photoshop! Check.

The rain that soaked us the night of the shoot, we had not planned for, but we made due. We were all a little cold and damp, but it added to the mood of the final image.


The final image is a composite of nearly 8 different exposures for the forest environment, including our Dementor and our wizard (erm… me).
Once we scouted the location, we set up the camera on a tripod (with an umbrella to protect it from the rain) and we set up the Dementor just to the left of it, creeping into the frame. These two objects did not move, which made the act of sandwiching and aligning all the different exposure layers that much easier.
The Dementor, the light on the trees and forest floor and the starburst coming out of my wand are all light painting. We used a light wand with a diffuser and an iPhone flashlight where we needed more contrast.

Bill froze my image in place by popping a small off camera flash from the distance where we envisioned our Patronus would be. This casted that light and shadow, adding to the illusion that all that light is coming from the burst of my wand and the floating Patronus.

To build the Patronus… I won’t lie, it took a few tries. But here’s what I can remember:

We started by photographing Willow in an area where she would be easy to isolate from the background. We wanted a specific attitude from her, with her ears and body forward in interest and confidence and a slightly lowered head and uplifted gaze that is signature of her. I achieved this by asking her to wait at a distance from me, Bill was ready with the camera. I hid partially behind a bush and I started crinkling a bag of treats. Bingo! She was curious and full of intention, trotting towards me. Image, check.

Next, we adjusted curves and levels, bringing up the contrast, highlighting her natural shine on her coat and eyes. We clipped her from the background. Turned her black and white and started playing around with Find Edges, Inner and Outter Glow, overlaying some dust speckles and brushing in some light. The steps are too many to relate here, but if there is enough interest, I can see about creating a step-by-step tutorial for what we did, however, I found these tutorials invaluable: this one and this one (thank you for that one Amy!) Bill created the smoke trails by using smoke brushes. Bill ultimately, was the one who did the bulk of these Photoshop magic tricks and for bringing our Patronus to life. I just added finishing touches and mood 🙂

Once we placed our Patronus where we needed it to be, I saved a separate flat file to add the finishing touches and mood. Layered, it ended up being a monstrous file, so believe me, flatten where you can.
I added a few more layers of haze and glow as well as magic dust to our Patronus and wand trail. I blurred and vignetted the edges and did some color work to give the overall image the blue mood I wanted. I work strictly with adjustment layers, masks and blending modes, I LOVE them! Finally, I added a touch of grain and called it a day.

I don’t think you have to be a Harry Potter fan to enjoy this image (at least I hope not). I do hope this will bring you joy and remind you that magic is till out there, no matter how crappy 2016 has been for so many reasons in the world lately.

This one in particular is dedicated to anyone who has ever felt the cold grip of sadness, or anxiety. If you have felt the world around you darken and the weight of that darkness take its toll on you. If you have ever felt fear so paralyzing that the very thought of moving hurts. This one is for you. As much as I needed to create this for me, I want to dedicate it to you. May you know that you are not alone, no matter how dark that forest seems. And may you find that force of light within you and around you to blast those demons far away from you. Fiercely protect your most treasured, positive and happy feelings. And may you never be afraid to share your light.

On a personal note. Thank you to Bill, Jen, Fer, Amy and Nic for jumping in on this one with me, head first and with such joy and enthusiasm. Thank you J.K. Rowling for your books and for giving a name to those things we find hard to describe or discuss in such a magical way.
And my dearest Willow, my Patronus. Thank you for being that grounding, positive force that always pulls me out of the darkest corners. Thank you for being my guiding light in the dark night. After all this time? Always.

Happy Halloween everyone!!

Want to see previous years of our Halloween theme photoshoots? Click HERE, HERE and HERE

This photograph is ©The Labs & Co. All rights reserved. Thank you for sharing our work! But please be kind and give credit.

1 Comment

  1. Mama Linda
    October 31, 2016

    Last years blew me away. THIS one made me cry. I’m SO proud of you both. Also thinking some director ( Lucas… Spielberg?) is looking for someone like the two of you. Submit this in any & every contest, creative arts project, ANY where it will gain the attention of a producer/ director of films.