Photographic Manipulation 
Musings of a Fannish Pixel Pusher
by Killashandra

 

I did draw, once upon a time. Back in school, when I still mostly made art for fun, I used to draw pretty well. I was no Suzan Lovett, mind you, but when I put down the pencil at the end of the afternoon, generally what was on my page looked like whatever it was I'd meant it to look like. Those days are past, lost somewhere in the eight or so years I've been pushing pixels for a living, working as a graphic designer and spending my free time doing anything but art. Somewhere in that time, writing became my preferred hobby, and art became work that I only did because I was getting paid for it.

As it turns out, though, the fannish urge to create, at least my fannish urge, isn't completely satisfied by the story-writing process. About two years ago, though most of my drawing skills were rusty beyond recovery, I started creating slash images on the computer. There were few zines available in my fandom, and I didn't have any of them, and I hadn't seen any real drawings of these guys. I'd seen a few such manipulated photographs and hadn't cared for all of them, but...I just couldn't seem to help myself. Hundreds and hundreds of stories describing the physical union of my favorite characters wasn't enough; I had to see what these guys would really look like if they just decided one day to fling themselves at each other and kiss like they really meant it.

A monster was born. Four gigabytes of created images, three gigabytes of source material, seven zines, three zine covers, three convention art auctions, hundreds of dollars spent at Hollywood Book and Poster and countless sheets of inkjet printer paper later, and I still can't decide if what I'm doing is really art, if it's worthwhile, if it's unethical, distasteful on some metaphysical level, or just a really effective way for me to practice writing avoidance.

I'm sure everyone is familiar with these digital sleight-of-hand images by now: take a photo or screen capture of Guy #1, combine it with a photo of Guy #2 in some salacious manner, and poof! Instant slash art. They can range from crude superimpositions of heads on bodies to images as convincing as a photograph. In the right hands, I think they can transcend their photographic source material and become something more, something truly creative.

At least, I'd like to think so. This is where the doubt comes in. The mind starts asking questions. Is it kosher to appropriate visual imagery for fannish purposes in the same way that we appropriate the written text of our shows? What about using photographic material that's not from the show, like the homoerotic photographs many of these images are based on? Is it cool if those gay photos are taken off soft core porn sites, where their copyrights aren't protected? And if you do so, does that degrade the characters in some way? Is it fair for these images to be displayed and auctioned right alongside completely original fannish artwork? And if the computer enables me to illustrate a whole zine in a month, am I partly responsible for discouraging would-be fan artists? What if the actors were to see one of these images? Would it bother them in a way that a drawing might not? What's the difference between using a photograph to draw from, and manipulating it digitally to convey a different image? Am I going to hell for this?

Okay, okay, I've talked myself down from the ledge now, really! But I know I'm not alone in these kinds of thoughts. I've heard them echoed by other pixel pushers, as well as by a few fans. I've heard these questions unspoken in the tone of voice of fans at an art show. "Oh, that's computer art."

So why do we do it?

I think it's because the creative urge drives us, regardless of the medium. I know I feel exactly the same way when a photo manipulation is going well, when the image is shaping up the way I want it to, as I do when a story is going well, as I used to feel when a drawing was going well. And that feeling is what keeps me going back to the scanner, even when I'm consciously trying to stay away from it. It's that feeling that convinces me that I am doing something worthwhile, that the potential is there to create true art, somehow. I may not have found the way, yet. But the potential is there.

I was there at the very beginning of computer-aided graphic design, part of the first generation of art school graduates whose biggest hope for a graduation present was a Macintosh computer. I remember how it was in the beginning. How the big name designers scoffed at the computer, and said it would never be anything more than a tool for typesetters and paste-up artists. They thought it stifled creativity, deadened the design process, and made everything look the same. In the beginning, they were right. People were still learning how to make the tool work for them. But a few years later, everything new and exciting in the world of design was deeply rooted in the computer, and the creative tools it had given us. No longer did the tools limit us; instead, they freed us to invent new design rules, whole new paradigms for what makes good design.

It's starting to happen, I think. Fannish computer artists are just beginning to realize their potential, and recently I've begun to see some truly stunning images appearing. In a few months, or years, I think we will have mastered the myriad technical difficulties this art form presents, and will have moved beyond them into a place where we can create digital paintings with every bit as much passion, beauty, and heart as the finest Feyrer, or Butler, or Lovett piece. In my opinion, we've got a long way to go--but it's kind of exciting to think that's a possibility.


Technical Tips and How-Tos
Maybe you really weren't hoping for philosophical musings. Maybe you thought I might actually say something useful about techniques? Okay, I'm easy.

These are just the basics, and they're based on my experiences of trial and error only, so you should definitely try other things and see if they work. And if they do, feel free to share! I'm certainly not the last word on technique.

What will I need to start?
Photoshop is definitely my preferred poison. Of course you can use any program that's designed for working with pictures. But Photoshop has so many features and useful tools in its palette, it's hard to beat. I work in RGB or Grayscale. I've found that RGB images reproduce better on my inkjet printer than CMYK images. And while we're talking about printers, mine is an Epson Stylus 1160 for color, a Hewlett Packard 4500 for black and white. My scanner is a LaCie Silverscanner. I really love the Epson printers.

What kind of images do you use?
There are two things to remember when working with scanned or captured images.

1. The more pics you have to choose from, the better your final image will be. I have literally thousands of images stored of both the guys in my fandom, and hundreds of images of backgrounds from the show, secondary characters, and so forth. If you have a ton of images to choose from, you will be able to get the exact right lighting or head angle to work with, which is the key to making images where the heads don't look "stuck on."

2. Picture quality is everything. If you're doing an image that will appear on a web page, you only need to work at 72 dpi. I generally work within 640 X 480 dimensions at 72 dpi, for anything that's going to appear online. That means your original picture doesn't have to be that big.

However, if you're working on a zine illo, or something to print out and frame, you need really good quality images because you'll need to work at 200-300 dpi, and may need to enlarge the picture. Screen captures are tough to work with, because of the banding and graininess that appears. Lighting is everything. If you are using screen captures, try and get well-lit scenes and the best quality tape possible.

Scanned images are the best.

What tools do you use?
These are all Photoshop tools. Other programs will probably have an equivalent for most of them. Also, I'm on a Macintosh so I use the Option and Command keys instead of the Alt and Control keys you have with Windows.

1. The Lasso tool. This is where I start. I use the Lasso to carefully outline the heads and/or bodies of the characters and select them. (If you hold the option key while you point and click, you can outline a shape by clicking carefully around the edges.)

2. The Feather command. This is under the Select menu. I use this after I've selected part of an image. Feather by 2-5 pixels (depending on how big the image is) to soften the edges where you're going to paste the pictures together.

3. The Despeckle command. Under the Noise option of the Filter menu. Great for removing graininess from screen captures or scanned images. You can use it more than once, too.

4. The Blur tool. Looks like a drop of water on the tool palette. Use this for smoothing edges, blurring backgrounds, etc.

5. The Smudge tool. Looks like a finger that's fingerpainting. Essential for smoothing particularly nasty grainy spots or rough edges where you've pasted pictures together.

6. The Levels dialogue box. This is a biggy. Learn to use Levels, because it is the best tool for making skin tones and lighting match. You can adjust color, midtones, highlights and shadows of each layer of your image separately.

7. The Clone tool. Looks like a rubber stamp. Allows you to cover up or fill in areas of your picture with the texture from another part of the image. Hold the Option key and click where you want to clone from, then just rubber stamp over whatever you want to cover up.

8. Unsharp Mask. Under the Sharpen option of the Filter menu. Use this whenever your image needs to be crispened up. (Is that a verb?)

What about if I want to reproduce my images in a zine?
This is the toughest part. Why? Lots of reasons. First of all, zine production is sort of a lowest common denominator world. We're generally relying on small, local printers who can reproduce these things for a price we can afford. Generally, that means xeroxing. And xeroxing means wildly varying color levels and/or brightness and contrast levels from copier to copier.

In addition to the copier problem, we are also often dealing with a situation where artist and zine publisher are thousands of miles apart, and one or both may be unable to supervise the copying process first hand. It can be very frustrating, if not near-impossible, to get the finished images to look like your originals.

These are just some basics from my own experiences that you might want to follow to minimize the chance of problems:

1. With black and white art, print your originals on a laser printer with the line screen (an option in the print dialogue box) set between 65 and 85 LPI. This is the range that newspapers use for halftones, and they can generally be copied well by a good copier.

2. With color art, try to keep color evenly balanced across the whole image. Big spots of intense color can throw off the calibration.

3. Most copiers tend to go a bit darker than the original. Make sure you consider that.

4. Do your best to make sure that someone is present when the printer runs the first copies. That way, you can stop them and ask to have the prints lightened or darkened a bit. It's no trouble for them to do that, usually, but once the whole zine run is finished, it's too late.

What's your secret weapon?
Hey, if you read this far, you deserve a reward, right? I've got two words for you. Diffuse Glow. Try it, just trust me.


I hope these tips are of some use, and that you'll share with me when you find your own. I'm afraid it looks like I'm going to be playing at this odd little art form for some time to come.


 The End

Note: the image used above is a photograhic collage by Killashandra, inspired by Ladonna King's magnificent "Still-Heart"