White Screen Knockout: Part II

April 16, 2014 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in News & Events by

With a fishing rod that is circa 1900, some 30 years before colour film, it made sense to me to attempt to replicate a technique that might have been used at that time.

With a fishing rod that is circa 1900, some 30 years before colour film, it made sense to me to attempt to replicate a technique that might have been used at that time.

In last week’s blog entry, I provided the recipe I use for knocking out white backgrounds. As we learned, this alpha-mask technique can be used in a studio environment when the background is white by design, or it can also be used with a landscape image that was made on an overcast day when the sky was a woeful grey.

Using the alpha-mask technique, we can transport the foreground image to any other location in the world providing we have that new, or replacement, background scene on file. I have mentioned before why photographers should be creating sky images and background scenes for compositing purposes.

The challenge when creating or selecting images for compositing is to first identify your goal. Is it your intention to attempt to make the image look completely realistic and non-composited, or is it your intention to leave no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the image is a result of compositing through post-production? It has been my experience the digital alchemist should consider one extreme or the other; a result somewhere in the middle usually nets disastrous results. In other words, “it is or it isn’t” should be your mantra.

With that having been said, let’s move to the current task … moving the studio fishing shot to an appropriate location. When last week’s assignment was completed the image was saved in a psd format with all layers open, thus retaining the transparent background that was formerly the white screen (seamless paper).

A friend owns this rod and reel and indicated it was his great-grandfathers. I asked if I could take a photo of it as I had something in mind. Considering the age of the fishing equipment, I wanted to make it appear as it might have been photographed in the same time period as when the rod was manufactured. The rod is believed to have been made around 1900, a time when tin-plate and wet plate Ambrotype was still commonly in use. Printing the glass negative could have been via a variety of means, and the albumen print was still quite popular until the 1920’s.

As much as I would love to learn these century-old, and older, processes, I have defaulted to modern technology for ease of use, along with an unfounded fear of having cyanide in my darkroom. Accidents happen!  With this in mind, and as much as I have been making images of skies and other backgrounds, so too have I been making photographs of old paper with interesting textures and edges. Likewise, I make photographs of old tin plates and glass negatives that can be found at flea markets and yard sales – I generally am not interested in the image, but I want that border or edge for my growing collection. These are archived in my “Elements Folder.”

At this point it is really a simple matter of finding the right edge and paper texture from your library. In keeping with the “Is or Isn’t” theme, I have generally tried to create historical images that somehow reflect “Time and Place.”

Once the background stream image was imported and correctly positioned, I then leave these as open layers in the psd document. Next I import the textured background paper, and using the Transition function size the paper to the appropriate scale. Next, I do the same with the Glass Negative border.  By now, all my working layers should be imported and appropriately sized as layers in the working file.


I always create a working canvas as a transparent background larger than the file needs to be. This allows me to move all layers without restriction.

I always create a working canvas as a transparent background layer larger than the file needs to be. This allows me to move all layers without restriction.

Once happy with the composition of the background (Layer 2) and foreground layer (fish rod) I will turn off the eyeball on the other two layers to de-activate them. Now it is a simple matter of going to Layer > Merge Visible and leaving just the actual picture and the two texture and border treatment layers. With the merged foreground and background layer active, next go to Image Adjust > Black and White; at this point you simply adjust the various sliders to render a B&W image that does not have too much contrast.  Following this, I will add some sepia treatment to the layer by way of filter or plug in filter, until the results meet the flavour of the day.

From this point forward, essentially all treatment is a function of art as opposed to science – if it feels right, do it. I next move the textured paper on top of the sepia toned picture, and try a variety of Layer Blend modes and adjust the opacity and fill sliders until a desired result is achieved. Like a good chef, we should season to taste as our palette dictates. The trick is to allow enough of the paper texture to show through while not blocking out the main image. Once happy with what the results, merge the layer down. Now, there should just be two active layers, the border treatment and the picture itself.

All that remains is to apply the border. Make this layer active and move it on top of the textured picture. Again, alternate with layer blend modes and opacity to achieve a desired result. Typically I prefer a black border, and this is often times best achieved with the “Multiply” blend mode. Unless you are using plug in border filters, you will probably also have to use a layer mask on the border layer to “paint-out” the centre of the border layer to allow the picture to show through. Once again, go by feel as opposed to a specified formula.

Once happy with everything, simply flatten the images, add a touch of salt and pepper to finally season to personal taste.

With technique, and heaping helpings of creativity you should be able to stir up a good remedy to satisfy the appetite.

With technique, and heaping helpings of creativity, you should be able to stir up something to satisfy the most voracious appetite.

I hope this example inspires you to try your own experiments. It’s surprising what can be done using a dining room table and props you might have lying around No expensive lighting equipment is necessary, and not a whole heck of a lot of time is required. It’s a fun weekend project. Just get creative and follow the muses…