Creating Surreality from the Mundane

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I’m often asked about my creative process and if my surreal images are really photographs so I decided to share this short overview with those curious enough to read further. If you receive this post by email, please click the link to view the post on my website; the slideshow does not work in the email. The slideshow demonstrates the four steps from how the camera captured the scene to how it was transformed into a work of art.

My new addition to the Surreality Collection is titled “Welcome Station” and it is the start of a new series called “DisOrient”. I love the play on words in naming my artwork and this series doesn’t disappoint. Welcome Station is conceived to be a first point of contact in a foreign world. The planet Jupiter is placed in the sky to create an other worldly sense of location and the Asian women seem to be greeting us with a basket of fruit much as one would expect at reception in a tropical resort. The images in DisOrient were captured while traveling in SE Asia, part of the world considered the Orient. Since the images are surreal and can lead one to a sense of disorientation, I thought the name DisOrient would be fitting for the series. Enough about this series and onto the method of creating Welcome Station.

Capturing an image in the worst light.

It was late in the evening. Returning from dinner, we walked through the market as the last vendors were packing up after a long day. We were being followed by a couple of very persistent women selling fresh produce. I politely said we were not interested but, as they say, “she persisted”. The rust colored street lamps had cast a dingy light barely sufficient for us to see where were going. Then I happened across this temple, with its lanterns still on. The architecture was compelling but the light was terrible. Figuring I could do something in Photoshop to to correct the lighting I reached for my trusty Canon 5D MkIV camera with EF 16-35mm f/2.8L lens and cranked up the ISO to 2000. (This camera has amazing low light sensitivity.) I turned to shoot the scene with the widest view I could get on the lens. While fiddling with the camera settings our trusty produce vendors appeared smiling and more than happy to be photographed.

So here my creative eye is going crazy. What a beautiful composition of subject and background, but the light was so yuk! (Notice how dark the faces are shadowed in the first image.) I used my best skills to get an exposure that I could work with in the digital darkroom. The shadows and color temperature was the worst you can imagine; but I persisted and got the shot. I was proud of getting something unique but wondered if the light would be the ruin of a great picture. The first picture in the slideshow is what the camera captured and what most people would get with film or JPEG digital processing.

Fixing the ugly

Back in the digital darkroom I began to fix the basic problems. This can only be done when you have a RAW file. The camera captures photons of light and stores the data but the data has to be interpreted. If the scene was shot in JPEG the camera would make the decision as to what the image should look like and simulates human vision. With a RAW file I can determine how that data is transformed into an image; in this case much brighter and colorful that the human eye can see. The first thing I wanted to do was change the color temperature of the light to achieve a full spectrum of color rather than the dingy rust color. This was a delicate process using Adobe Lightroom because the street lamps had the ugly rust tone while the lanterns had a more pleasing color. The image was so flat that I literally pushed the technical limits of the data captured. During this step I also boosted the luminosity and local contrast levels in the shadows to bring out the details of the image.

As I was setting up the shot, I tried to stand directly in front of the doors to take an architecturally correct shot but the two women walked into the frame and stood in front of the door. I wanted the door in the shot so I had to reframe the shot with the women to left of the door. When I moved, the wide angle lens distorted the architecture. Back in the digital darkroom I had to adjust the distortion and square up the building. The second picture in the slideshow illustrates the limits of what could be fixed in Lightroom. The image had been “developed” to a standard beyond human vision.

Creating the beautiful

Now that I had developed an image with proper color temperature, shadow detail, and composition it was time to perfect the lighting and colors for a pleasing image. I brought the developed image into Photoshop for further processing. One of my favorite Photoshop plugins is Nik Effects. Using Nik Effects, I was able to further tweak the shadow detail, structure, saturation, contrast, and color temperature as well as add borders and vignette to finish the image to my liking.

A signature style to finish the image

The final step which has led to a signature style in recent work is to finalize the image with a luminosity mask. I convert the color image to monochrome using a custom designed “film filter” developed with Nik Silver Effects. This final stage embeds a mastered black and white print of the image in a separate layer within the digital file to give the image a film-like appearance reminiscent of my film-based photography from my youth. I apply this technique for a few reasons:

  • I have always appreciated the discipline of black and white photography using the Zone System created by Ansel Adams. This approach makes me consider the entire possibility of light to dark tones in printmaking.
  • It allows me to create a black and white archive that satisfies my need for discipline in printmaking. The black and white image can be extracted and printed as I mastered it without further processing. It is a hidden gem in my digital files.
  • I created filters that emulate my darkroom chemistry using Ilford PAN F film printed on Ilford papers processed with Kodak Selectol warm tone developer. The filter recreates not only the film grain, but the film light spectrum sensitivity in color conversion. The print development settings replicate the low contrast smooth tonal gradation of a warm tone print developer which frequently opens up subtle details in shadow zones. With a few tweaks, I master a black and white [print] image and then overlay it on top of the color image. The overlay becomes a digital signature of my photographic style. Any of my art work where you see a coarse, thin black border similar to prints made from large format negatives indicates that I have applied a luminosity mask.
  • The black border discourages people from digitally cropping, copying, or modifying or otherwise denigrating my original creation. The third image in the slideshow shows a finished image with the signature luminosity mask applied.

Taking it out of this world

To create a surreal image, I first remove the luminosity mask (it will be recreated once the image is transformed). The most obvious thing this picture needed was a new sky. The sky was dark and full of distracting power lines so I began by cutting out the sky and replacing it with a black background. The sky was then recreated by adding in a modified image of Jupiter acquired from NASA’s public domain library of images and painting in a variety of stars and celestial formations. With the sky on a different layer, I was able to use my mouse in Photoshop’s Liquify filter to stretch, drag, pull, and shrink the various areas of the image without affecting the sky. I also added several “sprites” on a layer above the surreal layer so I could control the transparency and luminosity in the blending. Once complete, as discussed above, I created a unique luminosity mask for the final image. The fourth image in the slideshow shows the final result of transforming a finished image into a surreal work of art.

Working with layers in Photoshop

I use several layers in Photoshop when creating my art images. There have been situations where I wanted to go back and change a small thing in the image. It might be as simple as removing a power line or creating a version with a different color pallet. With layers, I can work down to the layer stack as necessary and then work up to create the desired outcome. I flatten the images only when creating a print file. Print files must be created while proofing the image with a color profile of the printer. Sometimes the entire color space must be transformed from monitor colors (RGB) to ink colors (CMYK) before printing. Whatever the situation, the color profile of the digital image changes when sent to a printer. Flattening layers and making small adjustments to compensate for the limits of the print medium are necessary controls for assuring a work of fine art is delivered to the client as envisioned by the artist.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this insight to my creative process. It certainly begins in the camera with anticipation of what could be and it continues well beyond the mechanics of clicking the shutter. If you would like to own one of my works of art, please contact me. I am a firm believer of the open market and will consider serious offers if you feel the work should be priced differently; though, I can not negotiate prices for works represented by a gallery. Each work is printed to order and signed by me upon final inspection before mounting and framing. International shipping is available.