My Experimental Attempts at Steampunking Photography

Steampunk style is informed by the aesthetics of steampunk literature. That, to me, basically means an attempt to create a modern or futuristic object using industrial techniques and styles (Victorian era from 1837-1901). Often, this might be only partially successful, or would appear rather awkward, like an arm gun on a robot being a mini-cannon mounted on the wrist. It fits the definition of steampunk well, where the “steam” refers to the age of steam, and the “punk” refers to rebelling to either balk the steam era style or modify it in a way not typical of the style.

Being a photographer, I then thought, what would photography look like if steampunked? Here’s the theory and example.

To start, the photography style would have something of past photography, and something of the present. It would have to mesh for an interesting and pleasing look because I’m not going to ruin a picture for the sake of conforming to some style! Finally, it should be clear and consistent how the past and present elements appear in the photos.

For the past element, I thought about a daguerreotype look. Depending on where you research your daguerreotype look, though, you get a wide variety of looks. I didn’t like many of these high contrast black and white looks, so I went a little later in time and photography development, to the sepia toning look. Add some scratches and grains to give it an old look, and there I got my nice old touch with a little colour.

For the modern element, I chose to go a little futuristic with High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. There, you produce a high contrast image that gives it a bit more of a three dimensional look than your typical picture. However, you don’t get the high contrast by moving some levers or adjusting some parameters that more or less universally applies adjustments to the entire photo. No, you take three photos at different exposures, using auto-exposure bracketing on your camera. All the photos should all be as close to being duplicates as possible, aside from the exposure, because you’re going to overlay them on top of each other and let a program like Photomatrix choose which exposure to use for each pixel! Also, in this future element, there’d be no grains or scratches. It’d be as good a picture as one could get today.

As for combining the two elements, I figure I’d go with the subject in the futuristic looking 3D HDR mode, and the background being the sepia. That brought out the subject, for sure, and faded the background even more. The sepia was great for this because it had little contrast whereas the daguerreotype had lots of contrast, even colour if you tried to duplicate the stained metal plates on which they were produced, both of which would detract from the effect of the HDR’s boldness. As well, a faded black and white background just looked like to much of an effort to make something look old.

So that was the theory. Getting that done in Photoshop, and getting the right look, was not easy. How much did I want the HDR to “pop”? Or did I just want some colour like progress had been made from the sepia toning era, but that it couldn’t have been applied to everything? Colouring just the subject also gave the photo technique a little feel of mystique, like somehow, the “steampunk camera” was able to detect the subject to colourize it, or maybe whatever was in focus, which was usually what would be closest. Only experimentation will tell, and I have a gallery at the end of the post to show some results.

The actual Photoshop work was a bit tedious, but only for the part of having to select the subject out to treat differently than the rest of the photo. Thank goodness that I have a light pen tablet! Still, it took a fair bit of time. The rest I managed to organize into Photoshop actions I’m not going to describe out here. That would make a really long post! Now, all I needed were a few appropriately themed subjects!

This past August, I was fortunate enough to have been invited to the 2nd First Annual Time Traveler’s Picnic, hosted by the Jules Verne Phantastical Society in Halifax. There were people dressed in steampunk outfits there, which made them the perfect subjects for my attempts at steampunking photography. Below is a gallery of some of the people there, not all of whom were dressed in steampunk because the JVPS welcomed everyone to the event, which was very nice. Their photos have been steampunked by me! I have saved them in the highest quality JPGs in hope to preserve a lot of detail without having to resort to the huge TIF file sizes!

I hope you’ll like some of the photos. Feedback is most definitely welcomed.

Please click here to see more of my photography on this site.

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