Anna and I recently worked with Black Metal band Nyss, to light and photograph the mixed media cover artwork for their latest album 'Dépayser'.
He contacted us towards the beginning of February 2019, in need of some photographic assistance with the latest album artwork.
He’d constructed a mixed media piece on an A2 canvas, comprising metal work, cardboard, lots of texture and a fairly grim looking centrepiece. It reminds me of what used to go through my mind when grandma descended for a kiss. Except this has better teeth.
Because of just how much was going on, image fidelity was being particularly problematic.
Nyss sent us an example of what he’d captured on his phone. While both Anna and I really dug the overall mood, we could see why he was unsatisfied with the final result:
We felt a more controlled approach to lighting would help. Sure, a better camera would make a huge difference, but quality of camera matters naught against quality of the subject.
I’ve written about real-time lighting with videogame engines on more than one occasion. This was the first time however, that I was really able to apply some of those principles in a more practical setting.
What a ‘Nyss’ camera you have there!
Our gear comprised Anna’s Nikon D800, a pair of portable, table top studio lights, a reflector and Nyss’s tripod – because Anna forgot hers.
Such a pro.
We didn’t stress too much about getting the image uber sharp, initially. I figured we’d be better trying a bunch of different lighting structures first. We could reflect on which worked best and iterate from there.
Out of twenty or so photographs, there were four which captured the elements we thought most effective:
What worked, what did not
We started by placing our primary light source very close to the bottom left corner of the artwork. This resulted in really intense lighting in this area, giving us some awesome stencil shadows. Unfortunately, because of the light placement, over exposure became an issue and too much of the piece became washed out.
There was very little in the way of overall depth with this one. This rendered much of those shadows pointless and the focal point of the piece got lost completely.
What really did work however, was the way in which the shadows lengthened, softened and faded out the further they were from the light source. Having these shadows cut through both the X and Y axis, rather than just along either also created a better sense of perspective.
We liked the variety of shadows, but despised the lack of depth and loss of focal point.
Better light balance across the image
We pulled the light source away from the artwork and positioned it to be more central. This immediately created a gradient across the background and better illuminated the focal point.
This positioning also introduced more shadows directly behind this piece, further emphasising it.
This all came at the cost of those stretched shadows that worked so well previously. It also resulted in fewer highlights, so although we had a more evenly balanced piece, there was little in the way of intensity.
So, the emphasis on the focal point worked and we dug the more balanced background, but the lack of shadows and highlights was a problem.
Light re-positioning, use of a reflector
This time the light was moved to a completely different position, casting from the top left of the image. We also faced it away from the artwork and instead, towards a reflector. Nyss positioned it so the light was bounced downward onto the artwork.
This was probably the strongest attempt so far. There was a decent amount of depth across the lighting of the background. The focal point was also highlighted very well and we even started to see more of the wire work.
The overall tone created a decent sense of mystery and the only thing really lacking, was those stretching sharp shadows that worked so well in the initial test.
An alternative approach to sharp shadows
I wanted us to have another go at bringing in those sharp shadows, because they just added so much to the mood. Going for an approach similar to the first of these tests, the light was positioned closer to the artwork and angled upwards.
As far as I was concerned, this was totally bad-ass.
This is a lighting style used a lot in videogames and movies involving horror, tension and drama. You can see why. It immediately gave every element of the piece a more ominous presence, better highlighting the various shapes at the same time.
Again, we ran into problems with the focal point becoming lost and Nyss felt we’d be better trying to nullify the shadows towards the top. I agreed that this would give us more depth and flexibility with how we illuminated the focal point.
Combining the strongest elements
I forget whether we actively discussed the above elements directly, or I just made mental notes as each person expressed their opinion. Either way, looking at these examples gave me a very clear series of stages to work through.
First was the upward facing light. We wanted those sharp, rich shadows cast upwards. We also wanted them to gradually stretch the closer they came to the top of the image. The plan was we’d introduce the second light later and focus it toward the top of the piece. This would better illuminate the area surrounding the focal point.
It took a few attempts to get the positioning just right and balance the intensity. I wanted some of those highlights to verge on being purely white to really drive the contrast home.
We then introduced the reflector and positioned it to get a fairly decent balance of light dispersion across the focal point. I really wanted to capture the dirt, grit and shine of the metallic teeth. I also wanted to introduce some back-lighting to the cylindrical form beneath them. Because it looked cool.
This immediately gave such elements a greater sense of shape. Dispersing warm light into some of the shadowed areas also introduced a little more depth and variety to the colour palette.
While Nyss was holding the reflector and Anna concentrated on both focusing the lens and criticising me (proving my accusations that she can’t do more than one thing at a time completely false), I introduced a secondary light.
This flooded the image with warmth and filled in some of the shadows. The combination of highlights upon and shadow behind the focal point, really gave that area the emphasis we wanted while not detracting from the image as a whole.
The only element we discussed that was still missing at this point, was the removal of shadows higher up the image. The focal point was sorted, there was a nice balance of temperature across the whole thing and the teeth looked fudging grim.
We needed to nullify some of those shadows towards the top of the image, however. This was achieved by altering the position and angle of the reflector until we got a better sense of there being a gradient over that back surface.
Once that was done, we basically had everything we wanted in one lighting structure and it was just a case of tweaking to get things just right.
We felt like the focal point was getting a little white washed and would benefit from more range in its shading.
So the reflector was moved higher, angled it slightly away from the camera and this balanced things just as we needed. Either that, or we were getting bored and just wanted the whole thing over with.
Here’s a quick ‘step by step’ of how this process looked, in the end:
Colour correction in photoshop
I really didn’t want to do too much work in Photoshop. Mainly because Nyss uses a Mac and they make me want to self-harm. Anna uses a Mac too though, so I kept my disgruntlement to myself. The alternative was to subject myself to stereo abuse.
Because we were satisfied with the range of colour and depth that our lighting structure had introduced, I was loathe to risk improving this into a failure. An undisciplined use of Photoshop can lead you down such a path quite unwittingly.
Although again, I might just have been losing interest.
I genuinely struggle to tell the difference between being bored and content these days. Maybe there isn’t a difference? Maybe satisfaction is as empty and unfeeling a state of being as the monotony of an existencce without drive or incentive?
Perhaps the struggle of the pursuit is the only thing which introduces value to the outcome.
Perhaps the resultant pain is the truest form of feeling.
Perhaps this is the only way true meaning can be found in our lives.
It’s amazing, the amount of self-serving horseshit one can bake when they need to justify a character flaw.
Initial colour alteration tests
Anyway, Anna asked/commanded that I do a quick auto correct on the colours, levels and contrast, once we got the photograph into Photoshop. I did this with Anna, Nyss and myself each agreeing that it looked shit. In your face, Anna.
Just to quantify what I mean by ‘shit’, this edit removed a lot of the warmth from the image. We quite liked the acidic, putrid greens and blues it introduced, but they came at the cost of the overall heat and lighting intensity. These elements served the original so well and we didn’t want to lose them.
At this point, Nyss shared with me some of the panels of artwork that were to be featured in the booklet and packaging. These made more liberal use of those very greens and blues. So in fairness, while the auto correct wasn’t quite the right choice of operation, it wasn’t an entirely misguided direction.
In your face, me.
It’s generally good form to use Adjustment Layers for this type of work in Photoshop. You can commit edits to the rasterised layers themselves, but then you’re a wee bit on the buggered side of things if you wish to correct those later.
If there’s one thing freelancing has taught me, it’s not to bother. If there’s a second, it’s that things can always need to change, so be prepared.
The first Adjustment Layer I used was for Levels. This is a quick and easy way of editing contrast. I darken the overall image but also lighten the darker areas in general. This intensifies the colours and just makes everything feel a little more nasty.
Next, I introduced a Hue and Saturation Adjustment Level, altering the hue so that the image became a palette of cold blues and alien purples.
I then set the blend mode to ‘Hard Light’, so that these shades would only effect the lighter areas, such as the teeth on the focal point.
I then reduced the opacity of this layer to 11%, adjusting the overall tone of everything to just be slightly cooler and intensifing some of the deeper areas of shadow.
I then introduced a Color Balance Adjustment Layer, adjusting the Shadows to be more Cyan than Red (cooling the shadows the deeper they became) and the Highlights more towards green and blue.
The final result isn’t a massively dramatic departure from the original, but that was largely the point. We wanted to bring more of those greens and blues into the image, without losing too much of its look and feel.
Finally, I added a Curves adjustment layer which I always do when I’m preparing this sort of work for print. It’s an effective tool for making broad but in control changes to the overal image incase we need to change the brightness and stuff.
We were all digging this. The lighting was just what Nyss wanted, there was a good range of colours and contrast so I was happy that we’d given it a real sense of depth.
Anna, obviously, had a problem.
She wasn’t satisfied with the sharpness of the image. I was going point out that if she’d bought half the equipment she was supposed to, this wouldn’t be a problem. I thought better of it… desire to make children in future and all that.
So, we recreated our lighting structure one last time (although I did tweak the reflector positioning slightly, so the higher shadows were a little more angular) and Anna took a metric shit ton of photos, each focusing on a different area. These were then stitched together in Photoshop.
It’s difficult to tell looking at the entire piece, but focusing on specific regions shows a much clearer, sharper image.
Sure, it could be better and Anna immediately bemoans not bringing her Macro lens along. I go do my classic ‘Told you so’ raised eyebrow, only to see her classic ‘Shut up’ scowl waiting for me.
There is no purer indication of true love, than an entire argument shared and resolved with a mere glance.
Colour balancing the new photograph
I opened up the Photoshop file with all our edits and adjustment layers, replacing the original photograph with the new one.
Everything worked perfectly – this is why we do things with layers, kids.
Below you can see each of these adjustment layers in action again, arriving at the final piece in the bottom right:
You can calibrate your monitor all you want. I maintain that there’s still a degree of just closing your eyes and hoping for the best when it comes to printing this kind of stuff. That might be a total fallacy which I’ve invented to justify not bothering to calibrate my monitor correctly. Let’s just assume it’s true, for now.
I like to do tests before submitting to printers anyway. More than anything else, it gives a better idea of how the final piece will look and feel when it’s in someone’s hands. Some stuff which looks great on screen just doesn’t translate. Likewise, holding something physically an inspire more ideas of what could work better.
Either way, you don’t want the first time you come to such realisations, to be when it’s too late to make any changes.
I save two test versions of the artwork. One with a Curves Adjustment Layer which lightens some of the darker areas. The other features an additional Levels Adjustment Layer, lightening the whole thing. Both are printed by the ever helpful Jim at the University Print Bureau. They look noice.
I forgot to take a photo of the printed previews. Sorry.
If you’re doing something like this, I strongly suggest you ask the printers to send you whatever colour profile they’re using.
You can then use that profile when printing off your own test pieces to get the best, most accurate idea of how the final piece is going to look.
The end is nigh(ss)
The final artwork looks fudging great. That is 99.99% due to the fact that Nyss created such a strong piece in the first place. A great man once said ‘You can’t polish a turd’ and what we had to work with was far, far removed from a turd.
If anything, I think the final result demonstrates just how important lighting can be, even when it’s not the primary medium.
If you compare it to the original photograph Nyss took or any of our test pieces, I think you’d struggle to say it’s ever the weaker option. The use of light and shadow isn’t just presentational, it is as integral a medium to the final piece as the sculpture, wire, bone and gluey stuff.
Sure, subjective opinion means some people will doubtlessly prefer other versions. Likewise, some will flat out just not like how certain things have been done. DIfferent views are inevitable and vital. I encourage critical perspective and we could’ve certainly run a poll to see which version people preferred. But if you let external personal preferences dictate your objective goals, you’re going to end up with something compromised, inauthentic and that ultimately fails your audience.
I’d rather leave that to Activision Blizzard. Shots fired.
Nyss didn’t compromise his goals and the final artwork is certainly authentic. I think he’s honoured the audience he’s worked hard to cultivate with something so concise in its execution.
From a personal perspective, I’ve enjoyed working with Anna on something where we didn’t find ourselves wanting to kill eachother every five minutes. It was much closer to six. Maybe five and a half.
It’s also been good to apply some of the principles I’ve discussed in my videogame lighting journal entries, in a real-life environment. I always emphasise the importance of understanding how something works in principle, not just in a specific context. This is because the mentality you cultivate will enable you to apply those principles in a broader range of contexts. This improves your employability prospects and probably makes you less annoying as an individual, too. That last bit is mainly speculation.
Anyway, thanks Nyss (who you should listen to) for having us be involved. I hope the new record ruins many, many people’s days.
Buy everything they’ve done so far, this site will of course be updated when Dépayser drops.