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Bringing the Past to Life

One of the things I have loved most about photography is the necessity to learn by doing. Time spent behind the lens is really the only way to improve. And, thanks to the cost effectiveness of digital photography opposed to its film predecessor, that time is cheap. It is easy to snap off frame after frame and under expose, over expose, shoot with the wrong f-stop, make mistakes that give you instant feedback as to how to improve for the future. No matter how many Youtube tutorials you watch, trial and error is the teacher that rules supreme out in the field. It has been my primary teacher as I have lead myself into the world of photography. As frustrating as all those missed moments can be due to beginner mistakes, it makes it all the more rewarding when you finally piece mistake x and mistake y together to produce a beautiful image. 

A second favorite aspect to the world of photography is the ability (arguably inevitability) to learn from and be inspired by other artists. Through social media platforms, you can be exposed to creators of every different subject and specialty. It makes it easy to see images and say Oh, I really like this, and I really like that! so that one day, you can say So how do I go about creating this and that? One such photographer that provides this kind of inspiration for me is Chris Dickinson. His Instagram bio reads "Grittiest shooter in the West"; his feed backs the claim. He does a great job of up close and personal, in-the-moment shooting of riding, brandings, and general ranch work. He also does a great job explaining the methodology behind his work. One such example was a still life he set up of an old lantern and some spurs, and how he went from start to finish. I was blown away by the transformation and the ability to create an image like that from scratch. For the past few months, I have also been inspired by seeing my girlfriend's many still lifes and her process of arranging, re-arranging, and arranging items again to find a setting that worked and that brought items to life. The steps of incremental progression and learning was enticing, so I decided to give it a go of my own. 

For anyone who is not familiar with the term, a still life refers to a staged setting, generally without people (although that last part of the definition could be incorrect). Think of those famous oil paintings you see in an art gallery of fruit spilling out of a basket beautifully lit and arranged: that's a still life. In the photography world, they are quite common in the commercial/editorial scene. If a company is trying to advertise a product, they can center that product amidst a fabricated scene that helps communicate the message they want to send. Say Nike makes a new shoe -- a shoe dedicated to those who put in the long hours of practice on their own to make it to the top of the basketball game. A setting for a photo shoot is created that has those shoes unlaced on a court floor with a basketball illuminated beneath a hoop and the rest of the scene is in dramatic shadow: that would be a still life. An analogy could be to the world of writing. If going out and shooting landscapes, or people, or anything existing naturally is analogous to non-fiction writing, than still lifes would be the fiction scene. Whereas non-fiction is focused on documenting what's already there, what's real, fiction allows the story/photo to be fabricated from the author's mind. It can still be very real -- obviously, a pair of shoes could be left out on a basketball court by themselves -- but it was not a scene that was found. This world of creative image fabrication was going to be entirely new to me. 

On the ranch property where I am currently living, there is an old one room cabin. My understanding is that it was a part of the original homestead property from back in the early 20th century (maybe even late 19th..). In fact, it operated as a speak-easy during the time of prohibition. All the local ranchers would come drink moonshine in this tiny structure; the old still they would use was stashed in the corner of a shed. While the cabin has become home to a random assortment of trash, chemicals, and odd junk over the years, it still had an old table, chairs, and beautiful wood grain in the walls that made it an optimal setting for a western themed still life. With just an idea of how to go about the process and lots excitement to try something new, I spent a chilly afternoon in that one room cabin trying to bring an image to life out of a setting that was old, dusty, and dark. Watch the video below to see the process!

In total, I ended up shooting six different versions of the still life (we'll call them frames). Four of those six were the photos included at the end of the video. To give you a better look at the progression, I pulled together six photos from some of those individual frames that shows the start to finish process.

Frame 1.

The first image in this sequence is the very first image I took for the whole project. A dramatic difference from the final images you saw in the video. I began with way too much lighting. I had a constant light source from a lamp that was shining right on to the whole scene and I had a direct flash shooting at the table from the camera. 

In a photo by Joe McNally (an amazing photographer!) that I saw on Instagram, he referenced the use of a flash set deep within the scene to help give a sense of depth. Photos two and three were my attempt to create that depth, but it didn't give any kind of desired effect.

I quickly realized my set-up wasn't producing anything close to the vision I had in my mind. What I envisioned was something with low key lighting and moody. The kind of lighting you would imagine from a cabin 100 years ago as someone sat and wrote a letter by lantern light. So I cut the power to the lamp and pulled the remote strobe that I had placed on the ground behind the chair. I also started to play with the direction of the flash on the camera. Rather than aiming the flash directly at the table, I experimented with bouncing it off the roof and wall as well as adjusting the power level of the flash when it fired. Ultimately, I was able to move toward the correct lighting but was struggling with finding an angle that I liked. 

Frame 2. 

Shooting directly at the corner of the table with a wide angle lends was making the table too obtrusive and dominating in the scene. So I slid to the right to shoot more head on to the table while still maintaining a wide frame of view to capture the whole scene. 

At this point, having arranged the items into a setting I liked and achieving a perspective I liked, I wanted to start experimenting with the temperature of the lighting. The temperature scale for lighting slides in two directions: "cool" gives a blue color, "warm" heads toward a yellow color. I wanted to create lighting for the scene that would match the orangey glow you would get from having the light of a gas lantern reflect off of wood walls. 

To play with the lighting, I began to use the tissue paper referenced in the video. Having no idea how much paper would cause a noticeable effect, I began by taking an entire sheet of orange, folding it four times, and taping it over the flash on my camera. Picture three in the sequence was the result. Turns out, it doesn't take much paper at all. I compensated by thinning out the layer of orange in addition to adding a layer of blue over top to cool the warmth so to speak. My final adaptation was to switch the placement of the strobes. I had positioned one above the lantern so that it fired light down the wall and onto the table, with the paper covered strobe on the camera bouncing light off the wall. In order to create realistic lighting, the warm light needed to be behind the lantern, the location where the flame would naturally illuminate. So I switched the strobes to have the paper colored flash shining warm light down the wall behind the lantern, and had the regular flash illuminating the scene with extra light. The final edited result is the picture at the bottom. I was making progress!

Frame 5. 

In the frame before this one, I began to move the remote strobe with the tissue paper around in the scene. My hope was to more accurately direct the light where I wanted it so that it could better match the effect of the lantern on the table. I found that positioning the light on its side behind the cowboy hat allowed me to hide it in the scene while bouncing warm light directly off the wall behind the lantern. With a little bit of luck, the first shot I took in the sequence captured the look I was going for!

I didn't love how in shadow the pipe was in the foreground and wanted to find a way to illuminate it better. Unfortunately, every attempt that I tried -- even with the flash on its lowest power setting -- left the foreground too bright and with a very artificial look. It occurred to me that a naturally lit setting would leave the objects farthest from the lamp in the most shadow, so ultimately I stuck with the first photo and made slight alterations in the post edit process that allowed me to draw out a little more definition in the pipe. 

My editing abilities in Photoshop are still very much in the amateur stage. But below is a brief look into the stages I went through to get from the out of camera RAW file to the final edit you see at the bottom of the sequence! 

The image in the top left shows the image as I imported it into Photoshop with a few global corrections done in Adobe Lightroom. Image two in the upper right corner shows the image I used to create the lantern flame. Using an image sourced from the internet, I pulled it in as a new layer and changed the blend mode to screen. To make it fit the scale of the still-life, I dropped the overall opacity, lowered the color saturation, and erased some of the edges of the flame to elongate the shape. 

Image three in the lower left corner is where I began to make specific alterations to the still life with the Camera RAW filter. I warmed the temperature of the table and walls to help match the feel of the overall picture and mitigate some of the natural light that had been leaking in from the ceiling. I also darkened the exposure of the lower half of the bottle to make the appearance that liquid was still inside, and upped the clarity and whites of the smoke coming from the pipe to make it pop a little more.

The final version shows the high pass filter that was added (to sharpen the detail in the photos) and adjusting the tone curves of the to make it a little more contrasty and shadowed as a single lit scene would be. 

Frame 6. 

By the final frame, I felt I had the lighting fairly dialed in. As you can see from the first few shots, I made a few more attempts at alternative versions. I brought back the continuous light source from the lamp that I had used before but at a different angle to see if I could have more success. By greatly decreasing the power from my on-camera flash, and moving the lamp with a warm temperature bulb closer and more above the table, I was able to cast more light on the foreground while maintaining the warm lantern glow off the wall which got me shot number four in the sequence. 

At that point, I reached the old adage "if it's not broke, don't fix it." Subsequent attempts to improve the lighting even more didn't yield anything great. So I stayed with the lighting in shot number four, added in artificial smoke for the pipe to make it more defined, darkened the bottle, added the flame, and brought in gradual filters that lowered the exposure from the corners to add more low-key lighting. 

The images are certainly not perfect but I was very happy with the progression that they showed. From the first image of frame one to the last few of frame six, I had a complete change in process, vision, and technique -- all of which came from making mistakes and not getting the results I was looking for. To top it off, I was able to walk away with more than just four finished images. I finished the project with a slew of new ideas and inspiration to take the process even further in the future. That's always the best part: when from the creative process, new fuel is produced to drive the next one.

To anyone reading this that might be starting out with photography, or who has always had an itch to give it a shot, I hope this process is an encouragement to pick up and camera and try. Because that's the beauty of it: you can try, make mistakes, and learn from them. Whether its creating your own still life or starting out with understanding exposure, the opportunity is there to learn on your own simply by doing -- to start with nothing, and create something that is original and your own. 

Happy wandering, and happy shooting! And here's a big cheers to the creative process and to those that inspire us to do more :)

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