Capitol Steps Then and Now
I love classic old film photos. Well, yes, photos that were taken 15 or more years ago are going to most certainly be film… There is just something about the vibe of them that is incredible. I dont want to be another photographer that is always trying to reach back into the past and then fall into a ‘vintage’ category but I really appreciate the classics and feel like there is a lot to learn from them. They are classics for a reason after all. For this blog I want to look at a very classic classic photo that goes back to the 1800’s. Although it does not date as far back as the first daguerreotype photos, or the first photo ever taken, it was taken in the era shortly after Mathew Brady was taking all of the photos of Lincoln.
During a recent shoot at the Capitol building in Columbia, SC I captured the image of a man on the capitol steps which I have mentioned in a previous blog. The original photo on the left is of Will Robertson of the Washington Bicycle Club riding an American Star Bicycle down the steps of the United States Capitol in 1885. (Photographer unknown) I think that the first time I ever saw this was about 7 years ago at a Starbucks in DC. I remember loving the composition and humor of it and immediately took a picture of it with my own camera so I would remember it and be able to look it up later. There are some things about how a photo can just strike you deeply and stay with you. So having this shot in mind when I captured the shot on the right I thought that it would be a fun idea to do a quick editing match up with both of them and explain here the basics of trying to make a digital photo look more like film from the 1800’s. This is a potential project that I am going to assign my students so I thought that it would be good to do an example here. I didn’t have the original with me when I shot it but when putting them together I can see some good similarities with them.
I took three images and chose this one since I think that it was important to have the subject in motion and landing mid step, it kept the same feeling of motion between them that the original had. His feet being the wheels is a good analogy and common tie between them.
I decreased the temperature and increased the exposure slightly. Then I increased the contrast just a little then and jacked up the highlights a lot. I noticed that is one of the largest differences in the film vs digital. Contrast couldn’t really capture it but by increasing the highlights it helped bring out the differences of the light and dark and the appearance of contrast. I increased the whites as well and added some fill light. There are parts of the original that are blown out so given the lighting I am sure that the photographer had to burn the highlights back and dodge the shadows a bunch. I didn’t have to burn or dodge much since the lighting on mine was so even.
I decreased the sharpening to zero and then added some grain. Nowadays you can do a lot with grain to really customize it, I went with a fairly large size and medium roughness but couldn’t get it quite as smooth as the original. I think that the age of the photo when it was scanned made it smoother and softer and almost creamy. In the original the faces and clothes of the subject were almost black so I darkened my subject as well but not as much since I didn’t care to be so exacting about staying as close to the original. Having a subject that is indistinguishable on the Capitol steps is a powerful symbol that it can be any of us there and having that access.
They were taken with totally different lighting and probably different times of the day. On the left you can see by the shadows that it was taken with some direct sun late in the day but on the right the light is soft and barley casting a shadow at all. I added some shadowing to it to match it up a bit more but there really isn’t any way to match the lighting if the original is so far off.
Fun project, I am sure that with more time I could get it to match up even better but overall it was great to learn what qualities make film film. Actually I just reread this and looked at it again and see a few dozen things that I would change to make it match better but I am going to leave it and move on. The original is such a great photo and I can see why it is an enduring classic. I included another edit that is more modern and more like I like to edit my black and whites below these two to show you the difference of the editing. It really is like night and day. Let me know what you think.