Poor Santa Claus the day after Christmas. (the backstory to the composite)

Poor Santa Claus the day after Christmas.

Poor Santa Claus the day after Christmas.

Sometimes I have a well thought out plan about a composite image. Maybe I have to make a portrait of an athlete, let’s say a football player. So I know the background is going to be a sports field or a locker room and this will be very much cut & dry as to what the end image is going to look like.

Then there are those times when I have no idea what is going to happen or for that matter, no idea what is going on. I start to get kind of lost in what I’m doing and actually “lost” is not the right word but I just see something in a background that resonates with an image I already have in my library and then I will run down a rabbit hole in Photoshop. The whole process could take hours or it could take minutes, but if it starts to come together and it “gels” then I can’t leave it alone until I get it finished or almost finished. I say almost because I have learned that as I’m approaching the so-called “finish line” on an unplanned image, I really need to sleep on it and revisit the image the next day. Maybe the dodge & burn was a little over the edge or the sharpening was too much. The finishing touches have to be done with “fresh eyes” as I always say.

So while shooting Santa Claus photos at the local children’s play gym I captured images of the Santa that were kind of different. I was getting the lights set up and taking test shots while Santa was sitting and thinking about his upcoming Hawaiian vacation. When I viewed the images in post I saved a few thinking they could possibly be used in a composite. Santa looked kind of “washed out” and “far away” and that just stuck in my head.

Then the background image really resonated with me. It looks old yet it has these rays of light coming in, the room is so basic and screams of negativity to me. I think because it is mostly an empty room with nothing happening other than sunlight. I loved the leading lines on the floor and somehow I got the same feeling of despair looking at this room as I did seeing the washed out Santa. Soon I’m opening Photoshop and the creativity starts to happen. Santa is in the wrong kind of chair so I used an image of the posing chair I use for model shoots. My chair, although you only see the legs seemed more “time period” appropriate for the room. As for Santa, he is timeless so he works, but he did require a little “Puppet Warping” in PS to make his hands fit the scene. You have to know unlike most composites, in this example Santa was not photographed to be used in a composite. The camera was at f/8 and ISO 50 and there is studio lighting, however the masking out of the Santa from the original scene was not a walk through the park by any means.

So to put the whole scene together Santa needed some serious dodge & burn to put him and the chair into the window light of the room. And it is around this time that I start conversion process to black & white. It does not mean I will use the black & white image, but for all intent purposes I like to make both a color images and a b&w. I have posted in the past about my processes for b&w conversions (I have several) but this one was accomplished using Nik (Google) Silver Efex. All my b&w images first start with a fully edited color images and then go to b&w. Most of the way I edit came to me several years back by way of the two books “Welcome to Oz” and “From Oz to Kansas” by Nikon Ambassador Vincent Versace. These two books are great reading for the intermediate to advanced Photoshop user and have to be read in the order as I have mentioned.

In the end I decided to go with the b&w image although I then have to decide will it be tinted towards the bluer side or the yellower side. Realistically there are only two tints to use other than straight & pure b&w. Blue implies coolness, cold or it could imply night, dark and moonlight. While yellow implies daylight, warmth and heat. Although not a realistic image by any means, I mean we have a mythical Santa, the images is not in color and Santa was never in that room or even in that chair, but we still have to give the viewer a sense of the time of day or some sort of ambiance and I chose an ever so slight “coffee” tint. I do this final tinting in Silver Efex and I myself am more partial to a “brownish” monochrome image rather than a true and pure black & white.

So there is the backstory on the “Poor Santa” image. In the end I see Santa all wiped out the day after Christmas. For weeks he has been putting up with the entire Christmas calamity and now he’s done! Ready to catch a flight to the islands.

Poor Santa (It is a time when mother and father are everything to our little hearts and souls.)

Poor Santa Claus

Poor Santa Claus

Poor Santa Claus… The day after Christmas for him is akin to a 48 hour rave in the Red Light district. He is depleted of all energy, looking thin and disheveled he sits and tries to decompress. Thinking of a warm beach far away from everyone, battered from the non-believers, naysayers, and the elements of Mother Nature he just sits and stares. His mind drifts back to a time when life was harder but thoughts of Christmas were softer and filled with the joy of giving someone a gift and not a gift card. He knows full well if it wasn’t for children he would cease to exist. But he does exist, he beats the odds and returns each year, no matter how politically correct the world becomes and how much evil tries to topple him; For as long as there is a child with a smile a Christmas wish in his or her heart Santa Claus will return.

I have talked at length with Santa and the one thing that makes us both shed a tear is to see a child who is not healthy enough to enjoy Christmas. Christians will be celebrating their savior’s birth. But for all children Christmas is a celebration of innocence. It is a time of our life which we all passed through called childhood and it is supposed to be filled with innocence and to be oblivious to the cruel realities of the world. A time when mother and father’s love is craved and nothing could be greater. It is a time when mother and father are everything to our little hearts and souls.

So to see a child that cannot enjoy that holy innocence due to sickness or abuse or poverty really tears at my heart. Christmas is a time of the year when many people dig deep and give donations to charity. Please all Santa and I ask is that you help at the very least just one small child to have a good Christmas. Because when you make that child smile you breathe life to Santa Claus. Long live Santa Claus!

Black River & Western North Pole Express (Ah look Murphy is here, you know Murphy)

Final edit for 500px website.

Final edit for 500px website.

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So it was just four days after returning from a 3 week trip to Thailand. I was still suffering the effects of the 12 hour time difference from Asia to the USA and being back in the cold rainy snowy weather of New Jersey in December. I was pretty much all photographed out from all the shooting I had done on my trip. But on this day December 9, 2012 a Saturday, I was driving down the highway heading back home from my morning errands when all the sudden I heard that familiar howl of the local vintage steam engine. I could see the smoke shooting up from behind the tree line and I instantly knew “I got to get a shot of that train.” Asking myself; can it be done today? I start going through the checklist in my head of the photo gear that have in the van. Then the logistics of where to get the best shot in relationship to where I am at this moment; where can I do it? All of the sudden it became like one of those crazy question from a childhood math class. “If a train going 25 mph heading south and you are going 55 mph”… I actually started to laugh to myself. Now the last I knew the train had been out of service for a while due to repairs and I had never photographed this train, ever. I always wanted to photograph it but never really applied myself to make a plan. Now here I am racing to beat the train and set up a tripod & camera and get a great shot. We all know that these kind of shots need to have at least a little thought put into it. But I’m here, the train is here, so I got to try.

Toad Lane! That’s it; Toad Lane is a crossing where there will be nobody. There are fields on one side and a tree line on the other side this will make for a nice shot. I have my wife with me and I tell her of our little detour and she is game for it. She would like to see the old train up close. So we turn on to Toad Lane and drive up to the crossing. This area always brings back special memories because my dearly loved childhood babysitter’s driveways was located right next to the railroad crossing and I can remember riding bicycles up there to see the trains pass by. Well my babysitter has long since passed on and boy did Toad Lane crossing change.

Ah my old friend Murphy decided to show up. You know Murphy, we all no Murphy and his god awful laws. Murphy is in charge of the placement of power lines, signs and getting passersby to ruin every photograph you’ll ever think about taking. He’s good, oh he’s real good.  The open fields are not open any more. There is a parking lot and a miniature train station in my open field. So I park on the roadside, flashers on and get my gear. There is a nice rise (about 15 feet) on the opposite side of the road, somebody’s yard, but I don’t think they’ll mind. Then more people start to arrive. You know it is those darn people with… cameras. And they’re all in my way. Don’t they know I was here first? Don’t they know I’m a photographer and they are in my way? What is wrong with these people? And then… is that? Oh great rain! Now it is starting to rain with a little snow mixed in. So I start to rethink this whole plan. If I did not have the umbrella I would have nixed the whole thing. But the umbrella kind of made it somewhat bearable and I was able to keep the camera dry.

So what was first thought to be a quick and doable plan is quickly turning into “snapshots” in the rain. But I’m here and so is everybody else, so let’s just make the best of it. And now I hear the train approaching, I can see the smoke and hear the chuffing. The train approaches very slowly, it looks as if the train was maybe having a problem. It moves forward, stops then moves again and stops at the little platform. Now the rain is increasing to the point where an umbrella is not doing too much for me and I am barely able to keep the camera dry. Now this whole time I am composing and shooting, knowing it is all in vain to have any chance of capturing a good shot. See my first thought about this whole plan was “a wonderful” photo of the train traveling across the farmland. Not happening today.

Now the train is starting to increase smoke and then a steam release, it is getting ready to proceed and pull away. All of the sudden I notice there are a lot less people standing around, they all left, just a handful. Turns out there is a society of people that chase the train to each crossing or stop and set up, photograph, and pack up and move on down the line. Not my cup of tea, I’d rather sit in one spot, plan and get one good shot. As just as the train pulls away I toggle between shooting video and still shots, the train is moving very, very slow and it was during this sequence that I captured the shot that I ended up editing and making into the finished photograph of the North Pole Express.

So about the edit; Of course when I get home I am not really expecting too much, but I do see one photo that may have potential but it will take some good ole Adobe Photoshop to rid the photo of people, power lines, electrical boxes, R&R crossing lights and more. But even with all that there is the rain. There is no removing rain from the photo. At the period of time that the photo was shot I was really hooked on the 20”x16” crops. It makes for a nice wall hanging; it is big but not too big. And big is good, Scott Kelby once said take a photo of an empty ketchup bottle and print it as a 36”x24” canvas and people will be amazed. Amazed with wonderment maybe but it will look great nonetheless. Ever see those big blurry photos of food or fruit on the side of a big truck? They are really blurry when you’re up close, but they always look great when you step back.  Anyway… The original edit was cropped for a 20”x16” print and the print was put on Fuji pearlescent paper and mounted on matte board. The print arrived; I framed it and never put it up on the wall. Due to the lack of space I chose to put up another photo in place of the train photo.

Second edit; In October of the following year (2013) I was contacted by a Flemington councilman and asked if I would let him use the photo on the historical website to promote the upcoming North Pole Express train rides. I was honored and I agreed. Then the interest in the photo really started to increase. I started to receive emails asking if I sell copies of the photo. When I asked what size, the replies are all for large size three & four foot wall hangings. Ok. So I steer people to www.500px.com I have a gallery there and they will make the nicest large prints on paper, canvas, acrylic, birch wood and more. You receive it shipped to your door ready to hang. So for 500px I revisited the photo to see if I could improve the edit. When I received my print it was at that time I realized how much impact the rain had in making the photo have a vintage appearance. I see it when viewed on a monitor but it is more felt when viewing a print in person. So in the second edit I just went all out with the rubber stamp tool in Photoshop, nixing power lines and other junk that I had just cropped out in the first edit. This let me keep the little train platform in the photo and I felt it improved the overall feel of the photo. It is hard for me because normally for me to call it a “great” photo, it should not have to be touched with a rubber stamp tool. A great photo just needs the normal color & contrasts adjustments and maybe a slight crop. So maybe now it moves from “photo” status to “artistic photo” status. Yeah that’s it.

For those who need to know the photo was captured with a Canon T1i using an EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM lens. Settings; 1/125 sec at f/4.5 ISO 200 55mm.



Black River & Western Railroad Christmas Train from Richard Smith Jr on Vimeo.