Before Photoshop: Making Waves

20Dec11

In an earlier life, I was a commercial photographer creating images for advertising, catalogs, and audio/visual presentations. Most of my work was done in the pre-digital era using conventional (now referred to as traditional) film techniques. No digital cameras, no Adobe Photoshop. It wasn’t all that long ago, but in retrospect it seems like I worked in an entirely different medium.

Things are pretty effortless in photography these days. With a little computer work, photographs can be optimized, retouched, or altered beyond recognition in ways we could only imagine back then. There was photo retouching a quarter century ago, but it was limited compared to today’s work and often incredibly expensive. Most photographers back then knew that if a client wanted some sort of special effect or fantastical image, it would have to be physically “constructed” in the photo studio.

I have a number of examples of this sort of thing and will be writing about them from time to time under the “Before Photoshop” headline.

Catalog cover shot, 1987

Take this example, a cover image for a fishing tackle catalog produced in 1987. The client wanted an image that looked as if their company’s logo had been dropped in a still pool of water, with concentric ripples emanating from the slightly distorted (“wavy”) logo. Today, the entire image could be created digitally without having to use photography at all. A quarter century ago, I had some serious improvisation to do.

If you stepped back into a commercial studio of that time, you’d be in a place that resembled a mixture of Hollywood sound stage and the workshop from MythBusters. There was lots of camera and lighting gear, but also lots of tools, lumber, props, and oddball materials used to create illusions. To begin creating this image, I needed to construct a small pond in my studio.

Water tanks, as we called them, were made by constructing a wooden frame using 2×4 lumber—this was lined with several layers of plastic sheeting. For this shot, the tank was about four feet square, which holds a surprising amount of water if you fill it to three inches deep. The camera was positioned to shoot down at the water at a steep angle, but not directly overhead.

Next, a large scrim (frame with diffusion material stretched over it) was positioned over the water so that, when lit, the surface of the water would reflect a white “wall” of light. The client had supplied me with a transparent version of their logo; when mounted backwards on the scrim, it would appear “right reading” as a reflection in the water. I focused on the logo and made some test shots to get the exposure figured out. In those days, Polaroid instant film was used for such tests.

Then it was time to experiment. By trying different ways to disturb the water surface (hitting the wooden frame, tossing objects into the water, etc.), I was able to get the logo reflection to appear distorted. This was tricky—after tapping the water tank I had to perfect my timing to release the shutter at just the right instant. Too soon and the logo was hardly distorted; too late and I had “missed” the best image. The only solution was to try lots of things and use up lots of film. Results weren’t known until the film came back from the lab, so there were intervals where the set had to be left in place while waiting for labwork.

In time, I had a series of nicely-distorted logo images. Now it was time to create concentric ripples in my pond. First I removed the logo from the lighting scrim. Then I repositioned the camera to include enough water to match the artist’s proposed composition and focused on the water’s surface (as opposed to the reflected logo that was several feet above the surface).

Next, I devised a apparatus that used a thin plastic tube to deliver water drops into the pond. The tube could be filled with water, and by holding your finger over the top end, you could control the flow of water out of the bottom. With some practice, I could get to where I could make one large drop fall out of the tube on demand. Then the tube had to be positioned so that the drops would fall into the correct location; this took a number of test shots using Polaroid film.

Now, time to burn up more (expensive) film. Timing was even more crucial here, as there was a significant delay between releasing the droplet and having the first wave of ripples move into the desired position. Often I missed, and the ripples would be either too far out or gone altogether. If I jumped the gun, I’d get only a splash disturbance and no ripples.

I don’t know how many sheets of film ended up being shot, but eventually I got several nice images of ripples. Now I had a good logo shot and a good ripple shot. Even with the limited retouching of that day, it was straightforward work for the printer to “strip in” the logo, placing it in the center of the circle of ripples. With some masking to fade out the edge of the circle of ripples, the image was complete.

Today, a skilled Photoshop artist could replicate this in a very short time. The photography sessions that created this image spanned a couple of days while waiting for film to be processed. In today’s economy, few clients would pay for this, so images like this are a testament to a lost way of working. Such work wasn’t easy or predictable, but as I remember it was a whole lot of fun.

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