Before Photoshop: Flipping the Switch


Another in an ongoing series about commercial photography in the analog age. See other related posts here and here.

As artists and communicators, we produce our creations using the current tools at hand. What we can create is largely dependent on those tools, but it’s also true that the tools at hand have an effect on the process of creating the work, the how it’s done aspect. Here’s an example of how a simple magazine cover illustration was produced in the “old school” days of analog photography.

For years I produced the photo-illustrations for the cover of a trade magazine called “Word of DQ.” This was distributed to the thousands of Dairy Queen franchise owners throughout the country and was produced by the DQ home office in Minneapolis. Each month’s issue had a lead story that had to be highlighted on the cover with an appropriate and eye-catching photo illustration.

These magazine covers were good examples of effective low-budget photo production. Each month, DQ’s art director and I had to come up with a visual idea that would represent that month’s lead story. The budget was tight—I would have perhaps a half day of billable time to bring the idea to life. It proved to be superb training in the art of visualizing ideas with economy and efficiency.

The theme was “Flipping the Switch,” a metaphor for the kickoff of a big new marketing program. The art director wanted to illustrate the concept by picturing some sort of switch being engaged, with special effects to depict sparks, lightning, or something of the sort. Of course, this being almost 20 years ago, none of this could be accomplished using digital means. Special effects back then had to be created in the studio.

Today, photo-illustrations often begin with someone scouring the internet for images. Sometimes, a stock photo image is found that conveys the idea well enough, and that’s the end of the process. Back then, image ideas came out of discussion, sketches, and maybe a trip to the local antique store.

At this stage of the process, lots of ideas got kicked back and forth. The art director wanted to have a visually-interesting switch for the illustration, and one of us (I forget who) came up with the idea of finding one of those old “steampunk-style” blade switches. You know, the type you’d find in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. I had actually managed to round up one of these from a collector.

At first, I was interested in illustrating this concept using cool antique switches like these.

At first, I was interested in illustrating this concept using cool antique switches like these.

Further discussion nixed that idea, with the visual emphasis of the concept moving from the switch itself to the idea of the energy produced (fire and sparks and all that). Thus it was decided that a regular light switch would be used (painted red for added visual impact) and that the sparks and background should have a contrasting blue color.

This was hastily sketched out and faxed to me. Here it is:

This faded fax of a rapidly-made sketch was what I had to work with in preparation for the shoot.

This faded fax of a rapidly-made sketch was what I had to work with in preparation for the shoot.

I’m sure this drawing didn’t take my client more than a minute to make. All art directors of that era were expected to have rapid drawing skills. Ideas had to be presented and “sold” to superiors and clients, and making a drawing of the proposed layout was the only way to do this before the Powerpoint age. Such comprehensive layouts could be finely detailed (and almost indistinguishable from the final product) or very fast and rough, like this one.

This came to my studio via fax machine, another technological relic. It was sized so that I could retrace the image onto clear plastic—this template could then be fastened to the ground glass viewing screen of my 4×5 view camera to better help me in composing the shot to precisely fit the layout of the publication.

Before the day of the shoot, I also did some prep work by spray-painting the household switch and visiting the local magic shop, where I purchased a few packs of “4th of July” sparklers.

I had created spark effects before using these incendiary devices. You can get some really interesting images by opening the camera’s shutter in a totally dark studio and “drawing” shapes in the air with the lit fireworks. I also knew that they produced lots of acrid smoke and can cause nasty burns if mishandled. Getting the right photographic exposure of the sparks and determining the right shapes to draw in the darkness would require some experimentation and testing with Polaroid instant film.

And so we began shooting Polaroids. Setting up the basic lighting for the light switch and hand was easy—this was lit with electronic studio flash lighting. Once we had this perfected, we wrote down the pertinent power settings and F-stop information.

The next tests took place in total darkness. I put a blue filter over the camera’s lens to get the color we wanted. Then, the camera shutter was opened and the art director lit the sparkler and “drew” shapes in the darkness radiating outward from behind the light switch. It took several tests using different F-stops to get this sorted out.

Finally, a composite test was done on Polaroid. The camera shutter was closed and the electronic flash lighting readied for the shot of the switch and hand. After this first shot was made, the film was left in place in the camera and the lighting turned off. The blue filter was put in place, and the shutter carefully re-cocked and set to “T” (time exposure). This had to be done without moving the camera, as this would ruin the registration of the two images. Finally, the sparkler motion work was done in the darkness. After this, the shutter was closed and the lights came back on. Finally, the Polaroid film was run through its 60-second process. Here’s the result, taped on a piece of scrap paper with my original tech notes:

Color Polaroid test picture with technical information jotted down.

Color Polaroid test picture with technical information jotted down.

Satisfied with the tests, we could then go on to expose some real 4×5 color transparency film. This two-step exposure process had to be done for every precious sheet, and although we had a good Polaroid test, we wouldn’t know if we actually had success until the film was processed the next day. Fortunately, it worked out rather well.

The final magazine cover. No PhotoShop required.

The final magazine cover. No PhotoShop required.

Today, such an image could be easily composited in PhotoShop from a couple of inexpensive stock images. Heck, something quite similar to this is probably available as a ready-to-go composite that can be had for a nominal fee. There’s so much of this sort of imagery for sale on the internet these days that an art director hardly has to leave his or her desk to get the images needed.

This is convenient, but it’s a bit of a shame. Things are easy and fast today, but I’m not sure they’re more creative. “Old School” meant experimentation, struggle, mishaps, improvisation, and sometimes failure. You learned valuable things in the process and ended up with a solution that was, if not quite as slick as today’s digital wonders, a hard-won victory. What you got for your smoke-filled studio and first-degree burns was an image that nobody else had, a totally custom solution to a visual challenge. For me, that was the reward.


One Response to “Before Photoshop: Flipping the Switch”

  1. 1 Dean Severson

    Cool – must have been fun doing this trial and error stuff back in the day.

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