Steampunk Festival. Lighting old ideas with new technologies

· 26.May.2015

A couple weeks ago Lee Varis (my husband and also a Fuji X Team photographer as well as an Adobe wizard) and I found out about the annual Steampunk Festival held in Waltham, MA. Both of us are kind of geeky and love that stuff, so we decided to try out the Profoto B2s with both the Fuji XT 1 and the Fuji XE 2 which is converted to Infrared. We scouted the town square the day before looking for angles and backgrounds and figured out how we could approach this fantastical event to make interesting and fitting images. We knew that the peaceful square would be filled with vendors and people so we needed to find backgrounds that would work no matter how crazed the scene. I wanted to light everything so that I controlled the direction and quality of light on the subjects.

Here’s the technical data. We decided that we needed to work quickly and simply so we only used the Fuji 16-55mm f 2.8, my new favorite lens, on the XT 1. This allowed me a variety of framing choices without having to switch lenses and I didn’t need the fast lens since I was balancing strobe and ambient light. I kept the 35mm f 1.4 on IR XE 2. Lee carried the B2 battery pack and we chose a 2 foot Octa for one head, with grids as a backup just in case we wanted a different look. Lee was my VALS or voice activated light stand!  For most of our lighting situations we placed our subjects in the shade or backlit with either the sun on or backlighting trees in the background. I pushed .the power output on the strobes up so we could light the people, overpowering the natural light, and shoot at  f 9-f 16 at the sync speed or 1/180 to balance to the background light. This would not be possible with a speedlight unless you used a highly reflective light modifier. I really wanted to have a beautiful and classic quality of light. The Octo is fairly efficient but still requires a lot of power to get to f 16. The B2s have 250 watt seconds and they certainly did the job. They are TTL if you use Canon or Nikon, so for the Fuji the exposure and flash settings were all manual.  Not a problem at all since all my shots were set up and Lee was a constant distance from the subject. All images were shot at ISO 200.

Our first subject was the clever, happy and quirky Isaiah who demonstrated the Tesla coil several times a day. I found a patch of shade and the shape of the tree branches behind him was interesting and little spooky. The lighting was placed to create a Rembrandt lighting pattern. F 16 1/180.

At the end of this article, Lee will explain how he did the processing to accentuate the “steampunk” feeling.


Next up was Jessica, also known as Queen Mercy, and she was being regal. Same settings as Isaiah. Because of all the activity and commotion, it was necessary for me to shoot from a lower angle in order to isolate the subjects from the chaos. In this shot it works to look up at The Queen making her seem more majestic as she rules her subjects. The light is more flattering, a Loop pattern, to give her great skin tone and nice shading.


I’ve totally fallen in love with the Infrared which was converted to the 720 filter so visible light still has an effect on the image, not pure IR. Straight out of camera there is some color to it, and Lee played with the processing to alter it in a variety of ways. This is Mariah, the Kitty girl, with bright fluorescent red hair that turned almost totally white in the IR. The building in the background is the rear of Waltham City Hall and the leaves have become so pale they are almost luminous. The light was placed in the butterfly position so it’s symmetrical. F 9 and 1/180.


When we scouted the previous day, we noticed this old building and thought it would make a great creepy background. The problem was that in the afternoon it was in bright sunlight so it would require a lot of strobe power to match the ambient light exposure. I walked around the festival trying to find the perfect person to place here and had the good fortune to find Morgane, with her edgy and scary Mary Poppins kind of look. She is in the shade and that building was bright so the exposure is F 18 at 1/180.



It gets better because her family showed up about 15 minutes later so I shot them in IR. Notice how the sunglasses become transparent and her black dress, which she made herself, get much lighter in tone. Lee played with the color.



There was a performance troupe called Dead Rabbit that we befriended and their leader was Captain James Lovelock. He was a jaunty and fun loving pirate and we decided to light him with a grid spot from the side, a much harder light source, which gave him an edgier feel. This location was the front of Waltham City Hall and the wrought iron towers with spherical lights fit right in with the entire Steampunk theme. This was shot at f  10 1/180.



Our final shot of the day was this clever and creative tinkerer who makes moving and Jules Verne like Steampunk Machines. He had been very busy all day and we only had a few minutes with him towards the end of the afternoon. This was with the Octa in the butterfly position, so the light is symmetrical. Since we didn’t need to balance with a brightly lit background, we turned the power down to f 7.1, still at 1/180 sync speed, so that we could have a more out of focus background.



Note on post processing by Lee Varis:

I originally thought to do all these images as sepia toned B&W, but Bobbi fell in love with the altered color of the IR images, so I kept everything in color! The “normal” images  shot with the XT 1 were de-saturated in Lightroom, and compressed a bit by negative Highlight slider and positive Shadow slider settings, topped off with a fair amount of Clarity, to give it a look somewhat consistent with the IR. The IR had an odd muted color, but the sky went warm, and I thought it would look better if it was more blue. The solution was to use Photoshop to swap the red and blue channels—this was achieved with a Channel Mixer adjustment layer. The final effect was the introduction of the organic chemical “film edge” frame. This was done with two frame images from a royalty free stock image source—one blended in “Difference” and the other in “Multiply” layer blend mode.

It’s always a good idea to be prepared for any shoot: scout your locations, do some internet image searches for ideas, write down things you would like to try, decide the final feel you want for the images, etc.  Concept is King, so make sure that your techniques match your ideas, both in the execution of shooting and post processing. If I just showed up at the Steampunk Festival that day with no planning, it would have been difficult to get images that weren’t snapshots. I’m very pleased with the photography results of the day and the models are, too, so there are more possibilities to work with some of these people in the future. And it was a blast!