Meanwhile, in a parallel universe…

By the start of 1944 the Royal Air Force was faced with unacceptably high losses in Bomber Command. De Havilland’s answer to the problem was the DH98/II Deerfly, built by De Havilland Canada and powered by four Packard Merlin engines.

Using technology perfected in building the pre-war DH91 Albatross transport and using local Canadian timbers, the Deerfly was rushed into production. The aircraft carried a crew of two or three in an enlarged fuselage, and could carry the same bomb load as a Lancaster over the same radius of action, but 60 mph faster and at a higher altitude. The Deerfly needed no defensive armament, being fast, with an excellent rate of climb, and being very difficult to see with radar due to its wooden airframe.

(This image has been extensively modified from an original classic photo of a Mosquito bomber taken by the great Charles E Brown. I wish I had the chance to take a Mossie photo of my own, but alas! The breed is almost extinct in Australia. Ah, De Havilland!)

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For the moment I’m pretty much Steampunked out. I originally made these images back about 2004, before I had even heard of Steampunk. I always thought I was the only nutcase who felt that the world had lost something grand when steam power was replaced by the infernal combustion engine. Very happy to have been proven wrong.

Unfortunately, images created on a 10gb IBM with bugger all RAM and a teensy CRT screen sometimes don’t hold up all that well on a modern computer; so they all needed more or less re-editing. Especially the last image, which came from a pretty crappy photo taken on a camera I picked up at a junk sale, combined with a 1970s-era Agfa colour print of a traction engine. The only way to salvage the image was to remove the background – a bunch of decaying sheds – and replace it with a decent digital image; then fix the rest  up, bit by bit. In the process I learned things I hadn’t needed to know before about using Paint Shop Pro, so that was a plus.

Anyway, having finished the job for the moment, I thought I’d put together some guidelines that I use for creating digital artwork by photo-editing. In fact they’re just as important for photography in general:-

1 – Take the damn photo. Don’t wait until the weather’s better, or until you feel “inspired”, or until you buy a better camera. If you miss the image, chances are it’s gone forever. And while it may take a lot of work to fix up a dud photo, it’s a hell of a lot better than no photo at all.

2 – Keep the image. Unless it’s totally garbage, almost any image is worth keeping, if only for reference. That means photos, negatives, transparencies or jpgs. And right now would be a good time to start scanning those old photos into digital format. Monochrome or sepia prints may last a hundred years, but some colour dyes are only good for a few decades, and the longer you leave them, the harder they are to digitally restore.

3 – Backup everything. Multiple copies in multiple formats (ie hard drive, CD, USB drive, hard copy…whatever) for finished art, saved progressive “states” for work in progress. And make sure you identify each state, so you know which is the latest working copy out of the two dozen plus in your folder. Otherwise it’s “What the hell was I working on yesterday?” LFMF.

4 – Don’t steal. It’s ok to use other people’s art for ideas or reference, but it’s not ok to steal their images. If you don’t have good enough photos of your own, take more. If you don’t have the skills to make an image, tough luck. Start to learn, or do the economy a favour and pay an artist. Exceptions – if the photographer is happy to agree, or if the image is way out of copyright, and if you make it obvious that you’ve altered somebody else’s original image and are not claiming it’s yours… well, at least you’ll be more honest than lots of others on the internet!

5 – Don’t get frustrated. There are some brilliant freeware image editors on the ‘net, including the GIMP, Image Analyzer, Picasa, Irfanview etc. There are also heaps of specialist free programs and plugins for effects that you can’t figure out by yourself. Neat Image, Sqirlz, Novamatic… just Google the effects you want and start looking.

6 – I found it very helpful to do a basic art and photography course at the local college of  Technical and Further Education. One disadvantage of being self-taught is that you don’t know what you don’t know. A professional teacher will help you far more than you realise.

7 – Probably the hardest lesson I haven’t quite managed to learn is the need to actually get started. Once I’ve worked out the details of a picture or story in my head, I have a tendency to consider the job done. But the job isn’t done until it’s inside somebody else’s head, put there by viewing the completed work.  The biggest obstacle to creativity, at least in my case, is plain old procrastination. But I won’t let it beat me. I’m going to something about it. Real soon now…

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Steampunk – the final triumph.

As the Great War drew to a close, Dr Throg decided to capitalise on his outstanding military success by creating a new, multi-purpose vehicle. His “Amphi-trac” was intended to combine the towing abilities of a traction engine with the hydrodynamic qualities of a steam yacht. The machine was fitted with full-time four wheel drive, plus twin screws for water travel. Dr Throg had retained his preference for a wood burning boiler, regarding coal as merely a degraded form of wood and unworthy of consideration. He had also, with an eye for potential military use, made the Amphi-trac’s hull and running gear of armour plate.

This did make the Amphi-trac rather cumbersome, but he felt that the added safety more than justified the extra weight. In mid-July 1919 Dr Throg successfully concluded his tests of the vehicle’s cross-country abilities, and made his way to the local beach. He carefully chose a gentle gradient to the water’s edge, selected Forward gear and Screw Drive, and steamed boldly into the surf.

At this point the front wheels of the vehicle entered a large patch of quicksand. With the small front wheels passing sand to the rear wheels, which in turn passed the sand to the screws, the vehicle rapidly proceeded to bury itself . As the bow plunged into the water, Dr Throg realised all was lost and hurled himself over the side. All may have ended badly for the good Doctor, but he was fortunately rescued by a passing group of beach fishermen, whose massive rods and reels soon winched him to safety.

The Amphi-trac was lost from sight within seven minutes and thirty seconds; the only sign of its passing being a small fountain of damp sand. Some say that the rusting remains of its smokestack may still occasionally be glimpsed at low tide.

Dr Throg returned home in a pensive mood. It would not be true to say that he doubted himself or the potential of steam power. In his opinion, the combination of genius and high pressure steam would eventually win out. On the other hand, these large scale efforts did tend to have ruinous effects on the bank balance. After a period of contemplation, the Doctor came up with a solution – he invented a small, efficient, steam-powered contraceptive device.

His device was, admittedly, expensive. But when sold “under the counter” Dr Throg’s Patent Preventative found great favour amongst a certain class of people, and this success soon allowed the good Doctor and his long-suffering wife Florissa (nee Butthocks) to retire in a modest degree of comfort. Dr Harold spent the rest of his days collecting and breeding his colourful tropical ferrets, while his nights were spent in the company of his wife “Flossie”. Together they spent their twilight years frequenting the local nightclubs, where many of their 17 children played in the family jazz band, the internationally renowned “Throg’s Sprogs”.

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I have one more installment to finish the Dr Throg story, but the last photo is proving to be a pain. I might have to put it aside for a few days until I can scrape a few more brain cells together. Creative photo-editing is great when it works, but like any artwork of this kind it helps to have a fairly clear vision of what you want before you start, and a fairly clear idea of how to achieve it.

Ideally, the final image (for my purposes) should look as though it is genuine. Not too crude in effect, but not “hyper-realistic” either. Real photos are rarely perfect, and older photos are often victims of time, poor cameras and chemical inconsistencies. Even the difficulty of scanning the roughly circular grain of traditional photos into a computer in the form of square pixels can lead to problems. I find when scanning old photos into our museum computer, for instance, that 300dpi is usually adequate, 600dpi is better, but sometimes even 1200dpi doesn’t give a good enough result.

So when trying to simulate one of these old images, I have to try to scan my reference pictures as close to “digital” quality as possible. Then comes the editing with Paint Shop Pro 7 – using the Clone tool and Cut-and-Paste, inserting and editing parts from other images, then aiming for consistent colour, tone, contrast and “blur” to give a homogenous effect. After working on the image in Paint Shop Pro, I reopen it in Irfanview and check it at different sizes, then go back and play around with some other effects for a while. I usually work in bitmap (.bmp) format, which prevents losses while saving, and I save every major edit.

Sometimes I’ll have a whole desktop full of bitmaps in various “states”, and scroll through them to see which I like best; and occasionally I’ll try a couple of different .jpg resolutions, to see which will blog best. Once I’m satisfied, I’ll often chuck all but my favourite versions into My Documents, then sleep on it until the next day. If I can’t see any glaring flaws then, I’ll reduce the image to a reasonable size and save it as a .jpg for uploading to my blog.

For photo work I always try to work to the same standard – the image should be photographically plausible. It should look like a real photo – even if it’s a pretty crappy one – rather than a super CG image. The digital effects should also be as invisible as possible.

I also try to be as honest as possible. If you repair or restore an image back to the way it should actually look, there’s no need to trumpet it to the heavens. But if I’ve altered a photo for some reason (to remove clutter, for example) and it’s not an obviously “arty” or fantasy image, I always make a note to that effect.

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