Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Sepia Scenes #12: "Sepia Tutorial Part III - To Bronze Or Not To Bronze?"

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are mine, and may or may not be mine alone. You might agree or disagree with some or all of them. They certainly shouldn't be considered "a definitive answer" since the answers will probably vary with every person you ask. (And yeah, I know you didn't ask me either.)

It's not a secret that I'm a big fan of monochromatic images, whether they be black and white, or toned in some way. And in fact, I'm a fan of sepia toning... of certain images. But unlike black and white (which may not always be the best choice, but is very rarely a bad choice) sepia isn't appropriate or advisable for every subject.

The quality of sepia that makes it so attractive -- and effective -- is the ability it has to lend "age" to a scene. This is largely because sepia toning mimics the look of one of the earliest photographic processes -- the tintype or ferrotype. Which is not to say that sepia doesn't work with modern subjects -- it can. But like too many other techniques, it has been overused in places where it really isn't appropriate. A one-horse open sleigh is probably going to work in sepia whether the photo was taken Christmas of 2008 or 1908. A Hummer H3 dashing through the snow? Not so much. Although I doubt I'd be surprised to see a Hummer ad rendered in sepia.

I have been as guilty as anyone of painting images bronze without giving enough thought to whether or not it was appropriate for the subject. I did it, as too many others have, simply because I could, without stopping to consider if I should. Of course deciding what works and what doesn't is entirely subjective -- even more subjective than rating the various methods of producing a sepia toned image in the first place. so as usual, what I'm about to impart is solely my own thoughts, opinions and experiences and do not necessarily reflect the... Oh wait. This is my blog, so I guess they do after all.

Here we have an apartment building somewhere in Boston, Mass (Back Bay I believe, but it's been a while). A tiny bit more cropping to remove the streetlight at the bottom center and there's nothing in this photo to give more than a very general idea of when it was taken. The image is clean, suggesting that it was shot with fairly modern equipment, but with restoration techniques being what they are today, even that is open to question. It's only because I took the shot that I know it dates to August of 2005 and not August of 1925. (Well, that and the streetlight at the bottom... dammit.) I would put this solidly in the "To Bronze" category (although the black and white version is quite striking -- as well, and probably my personal preference).

At first glance the neighboring building -- which is probably in the same block as the first one -- looks like a good candidate as well. What makes me less excited about rendering this image in sepia is the air conditioner hanging out of one of the lower story windows. Crop that out, and perhaps the story is different but as it is it stamps the building -- or more accurately this image of the building -- as sometime post 1960.

It could be because I associate it with the '60s, but I think black and white makes a much better choice for this image.

The carriage house at the Cone Estate probably dates back to the '20s, but even so its design looks pretty modern. So despite the setting and even the lighting (which was rather grim that day), I'm a little ambivalent about the use of sepia here. There's nothing actually wrong about the application, it just doesn't seem all that right either. The color image wasn't all that exciting though, so it could just be that it wasn't that great a shot to begin with.

In this shot, there's no question in my mind that sepia is the wrong choice. The power line across the top should be cloned or cropped out in any case (there really wasn't any way to take the shot and avoid it, which I would have preferred). But even with that distraction gone, the lamps at the gate are clearly from the latter half of the 20th Century, as is the architecture of the house itself. As beautiful a home as it is, this house is obviously modern and ill-suited to a sepia treatment. Given the lighting and the time of year (mid-winter) black and white would be a better choice. At certain times of day (twilight if the inside lights were on) full color might be a better choice yet.

This cabin sits atop Mt. Mitchell, the highest point in the Eastern Continental Divide. It was built by Dr. Elisha Mitchell during his exploration of the mountain in the 1830's. Dr. Mitchell literally gave his life to his work in 1857, after being knocked unconscious in a fall and drowning. His measurements put the summit elevation of the mountain at 6,672 feet -- missing modern measurements (6,684 ft.) by only 12 feet. Such history is well served by sepia toning, and in fact many of the tintype or ferrotype photos of the era have a sepia cast to them. In this example, I've actually added "noise" to the image (originally shot on film) to underscore the age of the scene (if not the image itself).

This photo is unique in that it is the only digital capture in this post. All of the others were originally shot on film and scanned from the negatives. But once again, it is the apparent age of the scene, not of the image itself that provides the motive for conversion to sepia. You might recognize this as Yates Mill, which I've featured in other posts recently. Sepia fits this scene like a well tailored suit. The original mill was built c. 1763, predating all known photographic processes and as a consequence many sepia toned photos of it produced by the tintype process (and probably others as well) already exist.

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Anonymous said...

Thanks for the tutorial.

Your EG Tour Guide said...

Thanks, Mojo.

Anonymous said...

Great tutorial, Mojo. I need to do more work in monochromatic images. You can get some really interesting results, even when converting some color shots.

Carletta said...

Hey Mojo,
I think along some of the same lines you do - no electric lines, lights, etc...
Your comparison with a sleigh and a Hummer was perfect.
I liked all your examples but I would say that I like the carriage house in Sepia and think it works well.
Thanks for your insight!

gmj said...

good information, thanks!

Julie said...

Thanks again for the tutorial. So much to learn, nice to have a reason to get out of bed everyday, LOL. Love all your shots.

Robin said...

Good stuff here, thanks.

I love the Yates Mill in sepia. Because of the age of the structure and lack of modern "intrusions" it just fits.

I agree with you too about that neighboring building. To me, the b&w gives it more of a gritty, industrial, inner city feel more appropriate to the period. A sepia a/c unit is just too distracting. (Says she who was too lazy to photoshop out the back of an SUV in her own shot this week but hopes not too many people will notice LOL.)

Greyscale Territory said...

Love how you explain information carefully by giving clear reasons for choices! Enjoyed this post!

Rose said...

You have made me think deeper about applying sepia...but I must say the carriage house is my favorite and I don't think anything could be better than it in sepia...maybe you don't like it cause you have seen the original.

maryt/theteach said...

Mojo, I really appreciate the work you're doing for us at Sepia Scenes! I bronzed the wings etc on my angel this week because (and this may not be a good idea) her winfs and hair were done in gold paint in the color photo. I wondered whether I should do it...I'm still not sure. But I learned a lot from your post and the appropriateness of applying the sepia tone... Thank you! :)

splummer said...

Beautiful photos!! I really like that one of the mill! Thanks for all the info, it was great. Have a great week!


Dianne said...

I'm a huge fan of B&W but in this case I like the building better in sepia

I'm learning more of when to use sepia.

Your choices are always wonderful :)

Anonymous said...

I am really learning from your tutorials..I want to thank you very much....Michelle

SBL said...

Stunning tutorial...

SBL Digital photo manipulation