Behind the Scenes: Powdered Sugar Snowblower

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Like all Big Appetites photographs, Powdered Sugar Snowblower began with an idea. Many of my image designs are developed on-the-fly as I'm working in the studio.  But occasionally an idea will just come to me in a flash and I'll grab a piece of paper to make a sketch in advance.  This one happened that way.

The basis of this design was a man with a snowblower working through thick powdery sugar that was blown onto some nearby doughnuts.  I made a very rough pencil sketch on a scrap of paper on the morning of Monday, January 19th when I began to hear about the huge snowstorm approaching New England.  It had me thinking of some of the huge blizzards I experienced as a kid growing up in Massachusetts.  

It was a simple, clear idea so I expected it wouldn't be difficult to pull off.  I started with a bit of planning on what I would need for materials and then did some research for the figures.  Early on in the production of this series I was able to create my photographs with injection-molded, plastic figures made for model building.  But in recent years, as 3-D printing has improved, I've focused more on custom designs for all of my figures. Snowblowers are also fairly specialized so I expected they'd have to be created from scratch.  

Snowblowers are common in New England where I grew up but aren't really needed here in urban Seattle where we don't have much snow.  So I hadn't seen one in a while.  I found some images on the web to refresh my memory on some of their design details and then discussed the construction details with one of my designers who did the 3-D modeling.

From there the figures were fabricated in a translucent plastic that renders fine detail very well.  These figures are tiny but you can still see the texture of the tire treads.  It is impressive how quickly the field of 3-D printing is evolving.  Just a couple of years ago it was much more difficult to successfully print the kind of small details that are easy to do now.

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After a few hours of meticulous painting the man and his snowblower were ready to go.

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The diorama was arranged on a thin sheet of board with a roll of gray paper over it.  Once that was clamped at the top and taped down at the edges, a coat of cake frosting was spread over the surface.  This would provide a thick base that would help to hold the powdered sugar in place.  The sugar was applied using a cake sifter.  The doughnuts were arranged and then rearranged.  Then I used the square end of a thick chopstick to carve a channel through the "snow" and placed the figure.

The front of the snowblower was dipped into the sugar so that the blades at the front would look more realistic. Some more sugar was dusted over the scene.  I made some adjustments to the edges of the snow around the figure so that he was more visible.  The key light here is natural window light at the left of frame.  And then a large reflector is used on the right to bounce some light down.

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I'll usually try several different camera levels and positions and will run through a range of aperture settings so I will have choices later while editing.  In this case, about 75 frames were shot before I was content that I had it.

One of the last elements of this image was the sugar (snow) blowing out of the snowblower.  I had previously set up and shot this as a separate element that I planned to layer in later.  This involved blowing fine baking powder (as powdered sugar attracts water in the air and tends to get clumpy) through a drinking straw.

It is never fun to work with powders in the studio as fine dust and camera equipment are generally incompatible. This time was no exception. But sometimes you just have to do it to get the effect that you need.  Ultimately, it didn't work out as planned. I was never able to get the layers to work very well and ended up painting in a quick-and-dirty snow plume in Photoshop, which is fine for a low res image but will have to be carefully redone before this photograph can be added to my fine art catalog for collectors. Overall, I'm happy with how the photograph turned out and how it has been received so far.  The next step will be animating this image.