Sunday 29 October 2023

How to make a Steampunk Photo, Part One


Rare photo of a Martian harvester, shot down by the Swedish air ship Tapperheten during the Martian invasion 1913-1917.

 In the sky, Tapperheten does battle with two more harvesters. The heavily damaged air ship crashed just a few minutes after the photo was taken.

The woman at the bottom right is holding an early model W-Ray gun, invented by Jonas Wenström.

How do you make a good Steampunk photo? I don't know yet, but I am working on it. Two of my friends, Petra and Peter, and I are going to do a Steampunk photo session. It is currently in the early experiment-and-plan stage. Still, it's worth writing about what I've got so far.

What is Steampunk?

Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction that incorporates retrofuturistic technology and aesthetics inspired by, but not limited to, 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.[1][2][3] Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the Victorian era or the American "Wild West", where steam power remains in mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power.

Though Steampunk was originally a literary genre, it spread to movies, music, and fashion. Along the way, it changed quite a bit. for example, much of the Steampunk fashion today, would raise eyebrows, and probably calls for police, in Victorian London.

While there is a lot of interesting Steampunk art, photos are usually fashion shots, with little emphasis on storytelling, and only very loose connections to the original Steampunk literature.

We decided to go a different route, and stick closer to the roots of Steampunk. We brainstormed a bit, and decided to combine Steampunk with two other ideas.

The first was H.G. Wells' book The War of the World's, from 1898. While this book was written too early to be classified as Steampunk, it was an inspiration for the Steampunk authors of the 60´s and 70´s.

The other idea was to combine Steampunk with the Lost World genre, with books like The Lost World (1912) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and E.R. Burroughs' The Land That Time Forgot (1918). We may, or may not, throw in a bit of inspiration from H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), in the mix. We haven't decided on that yet.

All of that gives us a bit of scaffolding to use when building ideas. We won't stick exclusively to those sources, and we will make things up ourselves, but it is nice to be able to connect our ideas to existing works. It makes the whole project a bit more grounded, and makes it easier to determine what fits, and what doesn't fit in our project. For example, we won't have Steampunk mini-skirts, glasses on hats, or clothes with cogwheels, because it would not make sense in the context of our framework.

What Do Steampunk Pictures Look Like?

Raptor Race is a Steampunk picture I made in 2022. The aspect ratio is 1.85:1. The color grading uses green, rather than brown. The focus is on action, rather than fashion statements.

What makes a Steampunk picture look like a Steampunk picture? Several things:
  • The topic of the picture has to fit the Steampunk genre. Personally, I want to avoid fashion pictures. I am not totally against mood pictures, where nothing really happens, but I want to keep them to a minimum. Steampunk action is where my heart is.
  • Props. The most important props in our Steampunk shoots, is clothing. We need to have outdoor, and perhaps indoor, Victorian clothing for one man, and one woman. Fortunately, Peter and Petra have most of what we need. Our Steampunk world does not need to follow real world clothing fashion exactly. For example, we can have trousers for both Petra and Peter, because that is a logical development in a world where both men and women are active and downright adventuresome. See the Raptor Race picture above for an example of a woman in male clothing. I bet you didn't even think about it when you saw the picture.
  • Color schemes usually use shades of brown, from very dark, to bright orange. Skin tones are often a bit brownish, sometimes leaning towards yellow. Other color schemes are sometimes used, for example analogous green colors, but that is less common. An easy solution is to just slap on a Sepia filter, but I have chosen to develop a set of color grading macros instead. I'll write more about that in a future article.
  • Aspect ratio. This is often overlooked.
    • Early movies used a 4:3 aspect ratio. The ratio was invented for the first moving pictures, by William Kenneth Dickson in 1892.
    • The Kodak Brownie, introduced in 1900, used a 1:1 aspect ratio. It was the first still camera that could be used hand held to take snapshots.
    • Autochrome, an early form of color photography, used glass plates. Common aspect ratios were 4.5:10.5, and 18:30. Autochrome has been around commercially since 1907.
    • Modern steampunk movies, and other movies related to our project, use a variety of aspect ratios:
      • The War of the Worlds (2005), by Stephen Spielberg uses an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The reason is that Spielberg wanted to be able to fit as much as possible of the giant Martian tripod war machines into the frame as possible.
      • Jurassic Park (1993), also by Stephen Spielberg, used, you guessed it, an 1.85:1 aspect ratio, to be able to fit the dinosaurs into frame as much as possible.
      • Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), by Guillermo del Toro, used an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, to accomodate the large robots.
      • The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), by Stephen Norrington, used a 2.39:1 (anamorphic) aspect ratio. Why? Because you want a wide picture frame when you have a lot of lateral action, like car chases, and fights where people move around, in the movie.
  • Lenses a hundred years ago where a bit different from camera lenses today. This is not important if you want a modern style picture, but if you want to emulate a hundred and twenty year old photography, it does matter.
    • Softness. Old lenses were a bit soft compared to modern lenses. They were often softer around the edges than in the center. A little bit of blurring goes a long way though, so it is important not to overdo lens blur effects.
    • Vignetting. Old lenses tend to create a bit of vignetting, that is, the picture is slightly darker around the edges. As with blurring, a little bit of vignetting goes a long way, so I do not want to overdo it.
  • Camera angles.
    • Emulating old photos. If you want to emulate an old photo, you probably want to keep the camera perpendicular to the ground, and at chest, to a little lower than eye level, as if the camera stands on a tripod. You don't have to though. Portable cameras have been around for a long time. Kodak Eastman Co. introduced the hand held Kodak Brownie in 1900. The Brownie was the first camera that could take snapshots, and that opens up the possibility of taking shots at any angle you want.
    • Emulating Steampunk movies. If you want to emulate modern Steampunk, and Steampunk-related movies, watch a few, and make notes. You can also read a cinematography book or two, or, watch videos like the Studiobinder guide to camera angles.

    • For this shot, I used a single remote controlled hotshoe flash with an orange gel. The flash was hidden inside the book, and directed at the book. The light from the book illuminated the model, Johan Hallström.
  • Light sources.
    • Natural light. For outside scenes, you can use natural light as your only source of illumination. The drawback is that you become very limited in when, where, and under what weather conditions you can shoot. Still, if natural light is the only thing you got, don't let that stop you. Do the best you can with what you've got. (I live in Gothenburg. As I write this, it is autumn, the cloud cover is can last for weeks, and it rains five days out of seven. It's damp and cold. My friends and I are still planning outdoor Steampunk shoots.)
    • Practical lights. A practical light is a light source visible in the scene, for example a lamp, or a fire. Modern cameras are quite light sensitive, so practical sources may be all you need. If you do use practical lights, like street lamps, it is important that they look old. In Gothenburg, there are a few locations where you can find street lamps that look a hundred years old. Depending on where you live, they may be easy to find, or utterly non-existent.
    • Hotshoe flashes. Hotshoe flashes work great in many situations. They are small and easily portable, relatively cheap, and can be remote controlled. You can put them on light stands, and use them with umbrellas, soft boxes, and other light modifiers. The power is limited, so you need to put them fairly close to your subject. Indoors, this is usually not a problem. Outdoors, you can help the flash by opening the aperture of the camera up a bit, choosing a tight shot, and even hiding the flash in the scene. Putting colored gels on the flashes can do wonders for the ambience. 
    • Studio flashes. These are light cannons. Big and strong. Also expensive, heavy, and power hungry. To use them, you either connect them to a power outlet, or to a honking big battery. It's worth remembering that it's not just the lights that cost and weigh a lot. You need sturdy light stands, bigger light modifiers, bigger batteries, and all that adds up, both in terms of cost, and weight. I've got a couple, but I actually do not plan to use them for the Steampunk photos.
    • LED lights. These have the advantage of being continuous light sources. You can set them up so you get the light you want, without any of the guesswork inherent in using flash. also, on more expensive models, you can set the color temperature, so you can go from warm orange to cool blue, or green. A good option if you got them, and if you can power them where you are. The only one I've got is a bit on the small side though, so I do not plan to use it for the Steampunk shoots.
  • Locations. We brainstormed and got a fairly long list of locations, both indoors, and outdoors. It's great if you can start by building a long list, because when you start investigating them, you will probably find that most are not suitable for one reason or another. It is a good idea to actually visit a location and have a look at it before the shoot. Take plenty of location shots. They will be useful for planning.
    • Outdoors. Since we plan a Steampunk shoot, we initially focused on the older parts of Gothenburg. Once I began visiting the locations, I realized that while the locations themselves were usually fine, there were cars parked everywhere. I mean everywhere! Sometimes you can get around this simply by pointing the camera in a different direction, and framing a picture tight. However, If you want to include a Martian tripod, or other kind of very large war machine, in the shot, you may need to shoot with a fairly short lens, say 24-35 mm. In that case, you will either have to choose a different location, or cover the modern parts of the picture up. For example, in the first picture in this article, there was a large, white van parked in front of the building. there were also a few people in the picture. I could have removed the van and the people digitally, but it was easier to just cover them with rubble and smoke. The rubble, and some of the smoke, was rendered in Daz Studio. Some of the smoke I painted in, using Affinity Photo.
    • Indoors. Our list of indoor locations include Steampunk themed restaurants, an old factory, a museum for trams, a railroad museum... The problem with all of these locations is that you need permits to shoot there. Also, with our chosen themes, outdoor locations probably work better. We will keep the list of indoor locations, just in case.
    • Studio. The past few years, I've usually shot Science-Fiction and Fantasy shoots in a studio, and composited people into a 3D world. This time, we want to do it the other way around. No studio! We shoot on location, and composite 3D elements into that location instead.
  • Staging and blocking. In cinematography, staging a scene means populating a scene with objects, and determining how they will move. Blocking means laying out camera and actor movement in the scene. In the case of still photography, nothing will move, of course, but it is still important to consider where an object comes from, and where it will go after the photo has been taken. We (usually) do not want things, or people, crashing into walls, or falling off cliffs, for example. For our Steampunk shoot, we will not do a lot of staging with physical objects. The models will have Steampunk clothing, but we plan to rely mostly on 3D for Steampunk machines, vehicles, Martians, other monsters, and even background characters. Blocking, in our case, mostly means having good compositions.

Early picture compositing test, with a time machine, Steampunk characters, and three dinosaurs. The background photo was shot handheld at Café Sirius in Gothenburg.

So far, everything looks pretty good. The main obstacle we have is the abysmal Gothenburg weather. Fortunately, we are in no hurry. We can wait for a nice day. If need be, we can wait for warmer weather. I do hope we won't have to do that, though.

Be seeing you!