The Black Dog – behind the scenes

Last week I published a picture entitled The Black Dog, which was a reflective piece on the subject of depression. I’ve had a few people ask how it was done, and while a magician never reveals his tricks, fortunately I am a photographer rather than a magician, so here goes.

In order for this idea to work, I needed the largest negative possible so I chose my Horseman 45HD which takes negatives 5×4″ in size. I wanted to shoot with the aperture wide open for a softly-focused image. I also needed motion blur for the picture (moving my head to obscure my face) so it was important to keep the lighting relatively low to allow a long exposure. I used normal room lighting in the bedroom. I chose a Schneider-Kreuznach Symmar-S 150mm f/5.6 lens which is about “normal” on the format – similar field of view to a 50mm lens on a full frame SLR or a 35mm lens on a crop-sensor DSLR.

I needed a plain, middle grey background for the picture. We’d just redecorated the bedroom – the walls were a pleasant, warm shade of pale brown and all the furniture had been removed so I had space to work. Without autofocus, you can’t focus on yourself so I placed a light stand where I would stand and focused on that. Critical focus is not important – I wanted the finished result to be soft.

Focusing on a light stand
Focusing on a light stand

The Horseman 45HD does not have a self timer so the only way of taking your own picture is to use a shutter release cable. I used a pneumatic bulb so I could step on it with my foot to trigger the camera.

Shutter release
Shutter release

To take the picture, I set the shutter to Bulb mode, removed the dark slide, stood in the place marked by the light stand, started shaking my head, stepped on the bulb release for two seconds, and replaced the dark slide.

Then it was a matter of developing the film. To achieve the “hole in the heart” effect, I burnt a hole in the negative with a small chef’s blowtorch. It’s easier than a lighter because the flame is narrower and doesn’t move around. The film burns quickly and easily so you have to apply the flame in just the right place and then blow it out before the flame spreads. The film curls up rapidly when burning, and I ruined one negative which screwed itself up. On the second attempt at burning, I held the film flat in a large format negative carrier.

Burnt negative
Burnt negative

On this occasion, I decided to scan the negative in with an Epson V700 scanner and tint it blue using a digital cyanotype effect. I could just as easily have made a darkroom print and used iron blue toner to achieve the same effect. The vignette is a natural side effect of shooting a large format lens wide open.

Finally, here is the finished picture.

The Black Dog
The Black Dog

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