The Eye of the Needle


I recently took part in a Photography Scavenger Hunt that challenged us to create photographic images based on ten different themes without using any post processing or editing. Everything had to be created in camera. Once it was established that in-camera double or multiple exposures were permitted, I started to think about creative ways I could utilize this technique. One thing was for certain. I didn't want to recreate that tired old photography trope of a head on a white background with some landscapes trees or leaves in the hair. In the back of my mind I felt certain there were more interesting uses for this technique than we are typically used to seeing.

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At first, my idea for illustrating the word "needle" was quite different. I imagined a beautiful portrait of the back of a woman, her hair scraped up into a messy bun and with a necklace of needles running down her spine. I also thought about creating a border to the image out of dozens of needles. I sat on this idea for a couple of weeks, mulling it over in my mind and performing many internet searches for suitable knitting needles, but in the end it didn't quite speak to me enough to take action.

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Then, one day, another idea sprang into my mind. I think it was inspired by the rise of the pejorative "Karen" in the summer of 2020; usually white women caught in public saying entitled things they should not be thinking, let alone verbalizing, usually to BIPOC (black, indigenous or people of color). I imagined these women wishing they'd kept their mouths shut... and the idea of the lips sewn closed started to form.

I sat on this idea for a while. Wondering how I could achieve such an effect in-camera. I googled prosthetic makeup techniques and temporary tattoos, but looking at pictures of the results created and shared by others online, it felt too messy and the results were usually more gory than I had envisioned for my portrait.

Then I had the idea of doing it with a double exposure. I did a quick test and realised it was absolutely viable and would give impressive results. 

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I have a Canon 5D Mark III which has multiple exposure functionality and several different options for blend modes which they call Multiple Exposure Control Settings.

One Setting included is called BRIGHT which, in their guide,  Canon describe like so: "This mode gives exposure priority to bright objects so that they will retain their brightness even when combined with a dark background. When dark areas such as night skies, buildings, and trees overlap, their brightness will not increase."

In the context of what I was trying to achieve for my needle self portrait, I thought of the process more like this:

• Create a regular base portrait with range of values from dark to light. 

• Create the stitches and needle as a second layer with as much contrast as possible, so the background (black) is as black as possible and the stitches and needle are as bright/close to white as possible. Alignment is made easier by using live mode so you can see how the two images look together before clicking the shutter. Unfortunately, however, double exposure mode does not work with my trusty Camranger. 

• Then, when the two images are added together with the in-camera double exposure algorithm, anything that is pure black will not affect the portrait layer at all and anything that is pure white will cover the portrait fully. (Anything that is somewhere between black and white will show up over the portrait  at some level based on its grey scale value [brighter things – less transparent, darker things –more transparent). 

Clear as mud?

It's not dissimilar to a mask like you'd use to create a layer composite in Photoshop, although in this instance think of it as if the photograph containing the stitches is both the mask and  the image being masked all rolled into one. 

behind the Scenes of the NEEDLE Shoot


I created the portrait in  front of a dark painted backdrop using one key strobe light and a V-Flat for fill. Knowing that I wanted the white stitches to show up well over the portrait, I was careful for it to be well exposed but without being too bright. I had a pink gel on the strobe light to add a flush of colour  to the skin.

behind the Scenes of the NEEDLE Shoot


In contrast to the pink on the subject I chose to give my background a yellow color by gelling the speedlight I was using to light it. Yellow has been a color I have learned to love a lot more in 2020 and I am particularly fond of it when paired with pink. Yellow feels positive and cheerful and we all need more of that these days (and especially if we are about to have a needle inserted into our eyeball!)

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Piercing isn't just for needles, the eyes can have it too. Facial expression for this shot was important. The purpose of the portrait wasn't simply about showing off the stitching technique. I wanted the portrait to feel uncomfortable to the viewer. As I was posing for the self portrait I was channeling an imposing, unsettling stare designed to  emphasize the diminishment of my voice. Once silenced, the only way left to communicate is with a look, a piercing stare. 

behind the Scenes of the NEEDLE Shoot


As mentioned previously, in order to achieve the double exposure stitching effect, I needed as much contrast in my stitching layer exposure as possible. I chose to use white thread on black velvet, because velvet is better at absorbing (as opposed to reflecting) light meaning it will look blacker to the camera than other fabrics.

You only have to look at the  behind the scenes snapshot of the stiches set up, to see how effective the velvet is at absorbing light. Nearly everything in the scene is black, the camera, the tripod, the black painted canvas underneath the fabric – see how much light they all reflect. Only the velvet piece looks truly black black.

I decided to go with natural window light, but was careful to position the stitching so the window was on the screen right side and I purposely twisted the hanging thread a little so that is would self shadow itself to further tie in with the lighting and shadow direction on the portrait layer.

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The main challenge I had in creating this shot was in making the needle white enough to be solid. I considered painting it white only to find I didn't have any white paint in the house. Because the needle is shiny and reflective, it was reflecting some of the darker elements in the room meaning its value was less than bright. This resulted in the needle looking slightly transparent in the final image. In earlier tests it looked quite a bit more noticeably transparent than you see in my final result. I solved the issue as best I could by shining a flashlight (English: 'torch') on the needle whilst the shutter was open. This brightened the needle and made it look less transparent but also  had the unwanted side effect that it also brightened some of the dust particles on the velvet which is not ideal, but is barely noticeable when viewing the final image online. I figured the overall impact of the resulting image had much stronger weight than these minor issues which I could easily rectify if I was able to use Photoshop. 

In case you thought this looked impossible SOOC (straight out of the camera) yes, this really is the RAW (CR2) file (as screen grabbed from Lightroom)!

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Once I got over myself and accepted the fact that I was going to have my un-retouched middle-aged skin on display for all the world to see, I was super happy with this portrait.  An idea for combining photography with stitches had been percolating in my mind for several years and I was glad to finally have the impetus to try it out. I fully intend to do some more experimenting around this in the future. 

I'm not going to Photoshop this now, I have learned to love the rawness of it, but if I did, aside from removing the dust particles and increasing the opacity of the needle, I would also experiment with painting in some shadowing on the thread at the 'hole' points where it enters and exits the portrait. 

I hope you enjoyed this explanation. Please do let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. You can check out all the other Scavenger Hunt entries on the subject of NEEDLE at this link.

  • Sam Breach

    on October 28, 2020

    Thank you Tammy, Angela and Mayaan! I appreciate you stopping by to leave a comment!

  • Tammy Bøgestrand

    on October 24, 2020

    This is so amazing I’m so many levels. The concept, execution, and the wonderfully disturbing final image.

  • Angela Marotta Migliore

    on October 23, 2020

    Sam, this is just a fabulous shot! I l always love to see what you do next. Thank you for the details in this blog as it makes me want to experiment more to be better. ♥

  • Maayan Windmuller

    on October 23, 2020

    This is simply stunning, Sam! Thank you for giving us some insight into the creation of this shot!

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