The Story Behind the Meadow
This particular landscape took quite some time to create! The set took no less than 8 hours to create, from start to finish. The process began with digging up 5 gallons of dirt and mixing it into mud. The entire table needed to be covered with the mud as a foundation, and we needed enough of it so we could create a proper dynamic landscape with hills, mounds, etc.
Once the foundation was laid, the mold of the river was excavated and the moss was rooted. All of the moss was harvested from the roof of a nearby abandoned house. It was simply scraped off of the roof with a shingle from that same roof and toted home. We attempted to use store-bought moss, but alas, it looked like exactly what it was - hardly real, mostly hideous, processed, dried, dyed, store-bought, moss. The natural moss created a landscape diverse enough to add to the dynamism of the image. I was lucky to find it with the spermatophores (spore pods) still intact to give the landscape that splotchy brown hue.
Raffia was cut to reed-sized pieces and placed in the newly-formed mud bank. If anyone has ever dealt with raffia, you will understand just how tedious of a process this is. Especially to have each piece stand upright after jamming it into mud. Imagine doing the same thing with lawn trimmings and you begin to understand.
The last two remaining elements were also the two most crucial. The tree needed to be put in place, and the river needed to be poured. It was pivotal that the tree not be placed until the most opportune time to ensure that it didn't wilt before the photograph could be taken. Bonsai trees are given very little soil to live in, and so need a high amount of nutrients given to them manually. This particular tree was in a pot with about 2 cups of dirt in it, and with a layer of gravel on top that was sealed together to keep in moisture. This needed to be broken off before the tree was able to be transplanted. The tree was pruned, pulled, and planted in the man-made mud, under the sheet of moss.
Quickly, we whipped up a batch of soft-crack sugar. At 300º, the sugar will stick to anything, including humans, and burn through as if it were lava. I was left with second-degree burns on both hands from a failed attempt earlier that week.
We had never done anything like this before, so there was no telling what would happen once the sugar was poured. Hopefully it wouldn't burn through the painted plastic underneath and onto the wood barrier. Hopefully it wouldn't seep through, and absorb into, the mud bank we created, ruining the moss. Hopefully the mud wouldn't melt and start running into the river and creating a mess. Hopefully the sugar would actually pour, instead of "glop" out of the pot. Hopefully it would dry clear instead of golden if it caramelized. And hopefully I would leave the project with as much skin as I had when I started it.
By this point, I had gone through 25lb of sugar creating batches of glaciers, rivers, lakes, and the occasional candy ball. And, to my relief, it poured! And it didn't burn through the plastic because it was protected by the brown deck paint on top of it. And it didn't melt the mud, or infiltrate it. And it ran! Just like water is supposed to (only this was molten sugar). And it dried - clear, not golden.
And it dried slowly enough that I could stipple it with a paintbrush to create the ripples at the top. The tree was planted, the moss was rooted, the mud banks were holding, the raffia was standing up, and the real sun had also risen. Finishing time: 7:27am. Total elapsed time: approximately 10 hours, 36 minutes. The lights hadn't been set up, the background wasn't in place, and I had a Real Estate assignment and a portrait session calling my name that day. It was time for a quick 3-hour nap.
The set remained just where I placed it for the next three days. Each day, the curtains were opened to make sure the moss and tree got the sun it needed, and the entire set was watered thoroughly with a water mister. By day three, the mud was more akin to dirt, and the moss had began to actually turn brown in spots. It was imperative that the shot was taken that night. Lights were set, the background in place.
Technically speaking, this set was both the most elaborate of the series, and the most difficult to photograph. The perspective just had to be taken care of properly, and the verticals (the tree) had to look accurate. Depth had to be created to ensure that the fog would seem suiting in the early morning light. The light had to be placed in such a way that it highlighted the mounds and accented the tree, but also cast a nice reflection on the "water."
Then, there was the background. For every other photo in the series, it was a simple fix. Even though there wasn't enough room to set up the backdrop properly, a round shoot-through diffuser was used to create a series of photographs where each contained a portion of the background, and the actual piece was just shuffled between the images. These photographs were later composited to create a seamless backdrop. However, this composition called for a much more intricate background. One that could only be created from a true composite.
As a photographer, and as an artist, I was extremely conflicted with the idea that I would be placing a "fake background" on one of my images. An image that I had worked so incredibly hard to fabricate.
I used the same technique to create a pseudo-background on the original image. Colored gels were used on the lights to create the colors you see on the background and reflecting in the river. The clouds are composited into the piece. All of the other dynamics in the image were 100% created in-studio.
After all is said and done, I stand tall by my decision. I could have created a subpar sky out of cotton, poly-fill and spray paint/makeup. Put simply, I would have needed double the amount of space that I had given myself, and another week or two with the project in order to create a background suitable for such a scene. The moss would have dried and browned, the tree would have withered and drooped. The river would have, at best, gotten incredibly dusty. If anyone has ever tried to clean a lollipop of dirt, cleaning the dusty river would have been painfully similar. I had to place in clouds. I dug up an old image of mine and composited the grey clouds over the colored background. After a little fiddling, the result is what you see today.
I'm generally not one to agree with the process of compositing. But, in this case, the entire project was a composite. Each material was sourced from something unnatural to the way I have used it to fabricate the image. Moss wasn't intended to be used as an overgrown field. Raffia was intended for ribbon (and crafts) and sugar was meant for eating. The only material used for its intended purpose was the dirt.
- For the Technician -
This entire project was an exercise in innovation. The premise was to create something grand out of something ordinary. This is a concept we know all too well as photographers. To the right is a list of everything used in the creation of this photo.
Photographing this one was probably the most difficult of the series. When shooting something so small with an ultrawide lens, it becomes readily apparent that balancing the foreground magnification and the background shrinkage is a tedious task!
The real difficulty lies in the fact that scale plays such a huge part in creating a realistic landscape. We all think that a grain of sand is incredibly small. I mean, even when compared to a grain of rice. And a grain of rice is pretty small! But, if you try to combine lots of sand grains to create a landscape and photographed it from so close, the sand grains would immediately look large enough to be pebbles.
In this case, a field of grass needed to be created that looked like field of grass (or, scrub, really) and not a sheet of moss. Reeds needed to be created that were tall enough to look proportionate, but also skinny enough to look like reeds. When working so small, what would be small details in a real landscape have to be that much smaller relative to the reduction in scale of the entire scene.
Cream of Tartar
After all of the materials are chosen and displayed properly, it is still crucial to understand the physics behind your lens so you can photograph them properly. Perspective control and depth of field are key here! The perspective of the photograph has to be handled in such a way that the scene no longer appears to be 60" long. The scene needs to look 60 yards long, or more.
An ultrawide lens is one way to accomplish this. Ultrawide lenses have a way of magnifying the foreground and shrinking the background. This works well for having the larger, and more distinct, features of a scape look as if they are off in the distance, and it creates a naturalistic shrinking effect in the way the verticals of a highway seem to converge together in the distance.
This was great for creating depth and atmosphere in the photo, but, as is the case with ultrawide lenses, it's sometimes hard just to have things thrown out of focus the way we would like them to. It became a little easier while working on this series because of the short subject distance. Bringing the subject closer to the camera shortens the depth of field as well. This worked in my favor here, bringing the tree in focus and ensuring no detail was left in the background material, but also blurring the foreground just enough to aid in the sense of depth.
Lighting was a whole different beast to work with. If you were to hold out your fingers and try to pinch the sun, just before you squish the thing, you'll realize just how small the sun is as a light source from the perspective of the subject it is lighting. This means that the sun is a pin light source. In this piece, I was trying to replicate a dawn scene. So, adding the long, deep shadows and the warmth of the morning sun was crucial.
To do this, I zoomed the SB-900 to 200mm for a concentrated beam and bounced it off of a gold reflecting umbrella. The umbrella spread the directional light over the space in which it was needed, the gold added the warmth and the 200mm zoom aided in the shadows and highlights typical of the morning sun.
I "decided" to forego the traditional background and replace it with a shoot-through diffusion panel. This gave me a surface for the gelled lights to land on, create a gradient, and keep the light from spilling or reflecting into my now beautifully warm grass.
The last thing needed was to fill in the shadows to just the right amount of morning-ness. I added a 44" diffusion umbrella mounted on a boom pole to a double-diffused SB-900 on the widest spread setting. It was placed as close to the scene as possible without getting into the frame. This mimicked the ultrasoft, shadowless and colorless light of an overcast day.
After all of the lights were placed, I used another SB-900 on commander mode to dial in and trigger all of the other four lights. Together, there was directional, diffused, bounced, gelled, and hidden lighting all being handled from behind the camera in beautiful synchronicity. It's a wonderful time to be a photographer.
Over the next few weeks, I'll be detailing the stories and technicalities behind the rest of the photographs in this series, so stay tuned!