A Brief Tutorial About Shooting Underground.

I was thinking about dirt and remembered this image (on the right) that I made in the early 1990's.  Now I'm sure photographers would just piece the whole thing together in PhotoShop (tm) but that wasn't really a luxury we could count on in the first Clinton term.  So I thought I would recount the process we went through back in the neanderthal days of pre-digital photography to remind myself that image making used to be a time consuming and sometimes dirty craft.

I was working with an art director named Pam.  The client was 3M.  The product in question was a heat shrinkable sleeve that was placed over electric and data cable junctions to seal the connection and make the cable impervious to the encroachment of moisture and dirt.  Pretty cool stuff.  Apply.  Blast with heat, and you have a leak free connection you can bury under the mud.  So how do you show this to potential clients at tradeshows and in product brochures?  Good old fashion photography.

In the early 1990's clients with high quality budgets usually liked for us to produce photographs using 4 x 5 inch color transparency sheet film.  And it went without saying that everything was "Polaroided" at every step of the process so that the crew (art director, photographer and client) could see how the shoot was evolving and collaborate on the direction.

Step one:  Bring in trash cans full of different kinds of dirt.  Step two:  Create a shooting table by putting a 4x8 foot sheet of white plexiglas on top of a custom made set of saw horses.  The saw horses had attachable side rails to help support the plexi so it wouldn't sag in the middle.
Step three:  Rig our Linhof monorail camera over the top of the set by securing it to a large pipe suspend between two heavily sandbagged, tall, Century stands.  Aim the camera straight down over the white Plexiglas, stand on a tall ladder and rough in  the outlines of the shot by framing slightly tighter than the width of the Plexi.  We mark off our "live" area on the Plexi with black tape and get to work on building our set.  

Step four:  We know that we want to have little pools of blue to simulate standing water so we design the set so that side lighting from a medium sized softbox provides a deep shadow to the opposite side of each wire.  We use the outline of the shadow as a guide to remove the dirt in these areas.  

Step five:  The layout is fine tuned.  It is a process of going up the ladder, closing the shutter on the view camera lens,  setting the appropriate aperture, putting in a Polaroid holder, pulling out the envelope that functions as a Polaroid dark slide and then using a cable release to trigger the shutter.  My assistant times the color Polaroid and then peels it.  Once the art director, client and I review the image my assistant numbers the print on its back so we now where in the sequence each change occurs.  He also notes the fstop and shutter speed of the camera as well as the power settings for the studio electronic flash.  We repeat this process over and over again over the course of the set up.

Step six:  Once we've got the composition fine tuned on the top of the table we're ready to add the blue pools to the mix.  We do this by putting two small softboxes, covered with deep blue theatrical gels onto the floor under the Plexi, facing up.  Anywhere in our composition that the dirt is removed from the top surface of the Plexi there is a blue glow.  We can adjust the saturation by making sure that no light from the main light hits the shadowed pools.  The main light comes from one Norman PD 2000 watt second pack while the two small softboxes share the power from a second Norman PD 2000 pack set up to distribute power the two heads equally.  The main light is about four feet from the left edge of the set and small mirrors are added just to the right of the set to direct beams of light into areas that need to be filled or accentuated.

Step Seven:  At this point we are fine tuning the set.  We use small brushes, toothpicks and straws to brush, coax or blow dirt into place.  We build up little walls of dirt in areas where we feel a stronger shadow is necessary.  After each round of modification I go up the ladder and go through the routine needed to load fresh Polaroid and trip the shutter.

Finally, when we all agree that the composition is just what we wanted and the light is  metered to the nth degree I make another trip up the ladder.  Standing on the second step from the top of the ladder and using one hand for support on a steel rafter,  I put my head under a dark cloth and carefully check focus with an 8x loupe over the entire frame.  This is done with a wide open aperture.  Then I stop the camera down to f32.5, which is the fstop we calculated that would give us ample depth of field without introducing diffraction.  I spend five minutes under the dark clothe letting my eyes adjust so we can make sure there has been no focusing shift.  Then I shoot five sheets of film, bracketing each exposure.  We bracket our overs by double popping the flashes with the room lights extinguished and we bracket our unders by placing half stop and then one stop fabric screens over the lights.

If you've only shot small film cameras or digital cameras you've never had to consider that 4x5 inch film can bow a bit when shooting with the camera faced down.  To combat this we used to put a small piece of doubled Scotch tape (it is 3M afterall.....) in the center of the film holder and then slide the film over it and then give it a gentle press.  Not hard enough to weld the film tight to the back wall but enough to offset the bowing.

After all the film was shot we'd always do one last Polaroid to make sure nothing had moved and that nothing shifted with the camera.  Once that Polaroid was approved we'd get the client and the art director to sign and date the back of the print as an indication that they'd approved the shot.  A nice coda to the contract.

We'd congratulate each other just as the agency's account executive showed up to share in the good feelings and take the AD and the client out for dinner and drinks.  For the assistant and I the end of the day meant unloading the film into light safe boxes and labeling it for the E-6 film run at the lab.  We'd keep the set up and untouched until we saw final film, and only when the final film was delivered and approved by the AD did we start the process of cleaning up.  One day of pre-production and one full day of lighting, scene building and shooting in order to end up with five sheets of color film.  And only one perfect sheet.  

Post production?  Clean the studio and bill the client.  When the transparencies returned from the color separator we'd file them by date, job and subject and we were done.

Thanks for indulging this walk down memory lane.  Sometimes it's helpful to me to remember how we did things in the old days before we absentmindedly try to re-invent the wheel.  Now, where did I put my typewriter?

To see more of my still life work:  Kirk Tuck's Website

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed your walk down the memory lane at the end. Oh the good old days when there were set ways to do things and the workflow was established beforehand. I still use my Hasselblad 6x6 sometimes and you wouldn't believe the battles I have with the labs here to get them to cut the sheets 4X3 and not 3x4. I you have never printed by yourself from a 6x6 you have no idea of why the difference matters, and it matters a lot when you print glass-free!

Oh sweet memories.