I have long had a fascination with what’s known as the "highwheel" bicycle, a novelty from a bygone era. My first encounter with one of these magnificent bicycles was at a young age in the town of Minocqua, Wisconsin, where a local sports shop had one displayed in its front window. Last summer, 20 years later, I photographed that bicycle coming across an 1800s train trestle. After making the image, I got the bug to photograph more of these highwheels.
As I began scouring the Internet, soaking up as much information as possible on highwheel bikes, I discovered just how rare they are. I even began to look at websites such as eBay.com to purchase bikes on my own. Not a single highwheel was to be found.
One lucky afternoon, I came across an online community called thewheelmen.org. I posted a call for all wheelmen to come have their portraits taken by me. To my surprise, I received not a single response. So, I decided to contact my state’s captain, Paul Schmidt. He was skeptical, but helped me to get the ball rolling.
I made the decision to create "cabinet card"-style portraits of my subjects to match the period mood of the subject. I studied a few hundred cabinet cards featuring bicycle riders to help mold a cohesive idea and style.
Coming up with intriguing backgrounds was going to be incredibly tough, but with the help of Marc Hauser of Tamara Backdrops in Chicago, I got my hands on authentic period-correct backgrounds, some of which exceeded 120 years of age. I knew moving these delicate backdrops had the potential to damage them, so I decided to photograph them separately from my subjects.
To merge my subjects with the backdrops, I purchased a "greenscreen" sweep background on which to photograph them. I had never used a greenscreen for my work, as I prefer to shoot a single image rather than make a composite, but it was the best alternative due to the fragility of the backdrops. However, one advantage of this approach was that the only change between images was the rider and bike.
Lighting the greenscreen as evenly as possible is essential to making the Photoshop work easier. Keep an eye on your drop shadow. It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to strip out the drop shadow from the green backdrop. The shadow will retain some green value and will make your selection incredibly choppy. My suggestion is to completely remove your drop shadow and create your own with Photoshop.
To create a lighting pattern that would fit well with my photographic style, I knew I would want a lot of contrast and short lighting. A lot of my style relies on the use of spot grids, usually never exceeding 30º. These portraits were made with a total of five lights: three lights with spot grids are hitting my subject, and two lights with softboxes are evenly illuminating my greenscreen.
For even greenscreen lighting, both background lights were placed equidistant from the greenscreen and adjusted to the same power. Typically, my exposures were 1/125 sec. at ƒ/16 to ensure enough depth of field. The spot grids allowed me to precisely place the lights illuminating my subjects, and the dramatic falloff of light helped me create the atmosphere I like in my images.
To make the final composite, you need to replace the greenscreen with the background image. Using Photoshop’s Select > Color Range made it easy to quickly select the greenscreen background. Once a selection is made, the "marching ants" will show you if all of your green is being selected. You can use the Select > Refine Edge tool to improve the selection from there.
Once team captain Paul Schmidt came for his portrait at the studio, he helped spread the word to other members of the group. He was so kind to introduce me to a gentleman named Carey Williams who made this entire project come to life.
After I photographed Mr. Williams in his post-Civil War wardrobe, he quickly began helping me to promote the idea of these portraits to everyone involved in this community. As the project grew wings, Carey and I would be shooting as many as five bicycle portraits per session. Individuals came in from all surrounding states and some from as far as Colorado to have their portraits taken.
Luck would have it that most of our wheelmen owned their own wardrobe. It was a neat experience on set as my subjects were completely comfortable in their wardrobe—this is the way they truly like to cycle!
To see more of Britton Black’s highwheel photos and other projects, visit his website at www.brittonblack.com.