Before Photoshop: Painterly Illusions


Another in an ongoing series about commercial photography in the analog age. See other related posts: Making Waves, Making Tracks and Flipping the Switch.

What would you do if you needed to create a picture of someone standing on a mountaintop or in an arena filled with spectators? Well, you could attempt to actually take the photograph in a real-life setting, but this would likely prove impractical and/or prohibitively expensive. As I outlined in an earlier post, working in the studio affords a level of control that often can’t be obtained in the real world.

The obvious solution today would be to create the illusion using digital technology. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has become the primary tool for creating sophisticated illusions in photography and cinema. The ability to blend “real life” imagery with artificial images has become a hallmark of today’s visual storytelling to the point where such visual magic has become somewhat blasé for a lot of folks.

It was not always so. In the pre-digital age, photographers couldn’t rely on retouching or post-production work to create artificial images. All you could do back then was put together an assemblage of real items in a controlled studio environment and photograph them. This didn’t mean, however, that some of these “real” items couldn’t be fake.

This is the essence of practical effects, where props and specially-created physical environments create illusions that are now often done with CGI. One of the more common practical effects we used back in the day was the painted backdrop. Back then, if you needed a specific background for your photograph, you could go shopping for one.

Years ago there were a number of prop shops, custom painting studios, and similar support businesses in the vicinity of my photography business. Need a six-foot-long fiberglass hot dog? A prop-maker could build one for you. How about fake food that won’t wilt under studio lights? Not a problem, in fact, you could “order” whatever fake side dishes you needed to create the perfect Thanksgiving table setting. For me, there were a couple of assignments where I needed to create the illusion of specific, custom spacial environments.

One of these was a mountaintop scene. The theme of the shot was “Reaching New Heights,” and the art director wanted to depict Dairy Queen business owners standing at the summit of a mountain peak. Not the easiest thing to create in the literal sense.

But we didn’t have to. A couple of blocks away there was a custom painting studio that employed talented artists to create all sorts of backdrop images on huge pieces of fabric. They had an assortment of backdrops for rent, and would also create custom scenes on fabric or on studio or soundstage walls on request. These scenes could range from forest vistas to medieval castles to dinosaurs browsing in primordial swamps—your imagination was limited only by timeline and budget. If you could imagine it, they could paint it.

As it turned out, they had exactly what we needed to create our illusion. We found a perfect painted “skyscape” complete with mountain peaks, along with an impressive array of painted Styrofoam boulders that we could use to complete our set.

Putting the shot together was relatively straightforward. After hanging the large backdrop at the rear of the studio and lighting it, the subject setting was placed a few yards in front of it. This accomplished a couple of things. First, it allowed me to light the subject independently from the background. Second, it meant that the background would be somewhat out of focus, which minimizes the imperfections in the background and enhanced the illusion.

color studio setup shot

Polaroid test shot of mountaintop set constructed in studio

Before the real photo shoot, I tested the setup with my studio assistant, adjusting the lighting on the background and subject and trying different arrangements of “boulders.” Once the tests were complete, it was simply a process of positioning the subjects and trying different poses and facial expressions to get the final image. Voilà, a photo illustration that, strangely, is both completely real and completely fake.

WofDQ mountaintop

Final magazine image

Such imagery could be easily created today using a digital stock photo and some Photoshop work. In video, the process would be done by recording the subjects in front of a green screen and creating the composite in post-production. To a certain extent, these modern methods are easier and can create more convincing illusions. But I have fond memories of the old ways and enjoy the more painterly effects achieved. Plus, it was always fun to see the expression on the faces of bystanders when you casually pulled a four-foot-long boulder out of your truck, hoisted it onto your shoulder, and carried it back into the rental shop.


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