Things Are Not As They Appear

Or, “When is it Photoshopped and When is it Not?”

For years my family and I have been sending New Year’s cards to friends, family and clients. It is a good way to stay in touch and to keep the creative juices flowing. An added bonus is that it is an annual event that leads to lively family debate every year and has become an integral part of our family psyche. The down side is that it is harder to out-do ourselves every year.

Photoshop has been around much longer than quality digital cameras, which really came into their own in the early 2000’s, so in the 1990’s photographers started scanning slides and negatives in order to digitally enhance their work. It was then that we started using photoshop as a creative device in creating our “Cheers” series of holiday cards. With the advent of good digital cameras it became even easier to work our digital magic. We have had wonderful fun making these cards, and in 2009 we went back to good old-fashioned photographic creativity – and to our dismay everyone thought that card was a total photoshop job. In fact, the only photoshop involved in “Cheers 2009” was the superimposing of the words over the image.

Here are some examples of how different “Cheers” photos were made.

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Cheers 2009! – The Prism – no Photoshop

The concept for this card started with the idea of creating a “fun-house mirror” look to the photo, where one could see an infinite number of each person in the photo receding away. In order to do this, we would have needed multiple one-way mirrors and a large studio. The cost of doing this was prohibitive so we developed a prism by joining three 30” bathroom mirrors together, sitting it on our coffee table and then crowding our faces in the opening at one end. We needed to have a plain, dark background behind us or everything in the room would have been in the photo. We shot this by securing the camera to a tripod, placing a single flash on the table and firing the camera by a radio remote trigger. The set up was easy but the shoot took approximately two hours due to the trial and error required to find the right places for our faces. As you might imagine, it also involved a fair amount of contortionist behavior on the part of the more agile members of the family.

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Cheers 2010 – The do-it-yourself photobooth.

Again, we wanted to shoot the photos straight and we came up with the idea of shooting ourselves in a photo-booth. They are surprisingly few and far between, but we found a working photo booth at the Diesel Café in Somerville. With the permission of the owners, we set up two lights and camera on a tripod, again triggered by radio remote. For all pictures, we actually were hustling in and out of the booth as it was taking our pictures and while the timer was running to create the different combinations of us together. In the color photo of the booth, you will see a lady having dinner at an adjacent table looking over her shoulder with a bemused look on her face.

We scanned the photo strips on a flat bed scanner and then sized them to fit in the frames, replacing the existing strips of photos with our enlarged photos. We also had to move the “delivery slot” from the photo exhibit area to an area below the frame. And finally we had to enlarge the frame to accommodate the large strips. We were actually in the booth taking a picture of us having our pictures taken. Good fun.

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Cheers 2006 – the restaurant

This is the photo that set the bar at its highest for the “Cheers” series. The setting for the photo is the Independent Restaurant in Somerville, MA. We were eating there and having a family meeting about what to do for the 2006 card when we realized that the restaurant would lend itself perfectly for a photo in which many Morses filled the restaurant. We arranged with the management to use the restaurant on a Sunday afternoon from noon-5:00. We brought five changes of clothes. We lit the entire restaurant once so that every section of the restaurant would be covered without having to move lights. The camera was placed directly at the mid-point of the outside wall and secured on a tripod. Again all photos were taken with a radio remote trigger.

Normally we shoot all cheers photos ourselves, but we asked a very good photographer/friend to control the camera remote for us. He was crucial to positioning us in the viewfinder, but at no time did he touch the camera after the shoot had begun. It was imperative that the camera not move at all.

Photoshop was heavily employed in making the final photo as we needed ten layers of images to create the final shot. All furniture, shadows, etc. had to be in perfect register for the effect to work. At first blush, it looks like an ordinary photo of a family sitting at a restaurant table. When you take a good look, you realize that the ordinary family is filling the restaurant as as patrons, bartenders, waiters, etc. The best comment came from someone who figured it out when he said, “there are an awful lot of bald guys in that restaurant.” That was when he realized that all the bald guys were me.

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Cheers 2001 and 1994

We had a yellow lab for fourteen years named “Effie” – short for “f-stop.” She was the straight man in all our photos while she was alive. You can see her various roles in the holiday card section of Just For Fun. Here are two of my favorites: eyes and juggling heads. I like eyes for its simplicity. When you first look at the photo you do not expect one of the sets of eyes to belong to a dog. In juggling heads, we shot each person individually against a black background. We then shot Effie against the black background and then dropped our heads in over Effie’s paws. We had many people convinced that we broke Effie’s legs for the picture. Notice the hand (my son’s hand) at the bottom left corner of the picture, ready to catch any heads that Effie dropped. The best comment from that year’s card came from my wife’s grandmother who exclaimed “ Why can’t you just buy normal Christmas cards like the everyone else, dear?”

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In addition, you will see us walking on water, performing “stupid human tricks” on the Wang Theatre stage and doing a variety of other non-sensical things in what we refer to as “our annual effort to embarrass ourselves.” If this appeals to you, we are available to help you embarrass yourselves as well – for a fee.

We look forward to having you become a member of our readership team. Happy New Year!

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