Look up, duck down: Stratum by Susie MacMurray at Islington Mill

Click/tap the image above to view a panoramic 360° view of the scene in your browser.

This installation, Stratum 2011 by Susie MacMurray is made up from around 80 kilos of feather down, carpeting the floorspace of the attic in Islington Mill in Salford in a dreamlike film of feathers. As you clamber up the steep wooden staircase, you emerge into a veritable cloudscape of soft textured down, providing a curious sense of weightlessness. Talk about having your head in the clouds. The contrast between the infinite bright lightness of the feathers, and the textured wooden beams, cobwebs and dark shadows around is incredibly powerful.

Feather and duck down everywhere

The piece celebrates ten years of Islington Mill as a cradle of creativity, performance and inspiration, and draws on MacMurray’s time as artist in residence a decade ago, when she created a similar installation. I’d originally heard about this when working at a client’s in the Mill late last year, and knew it’d make an amazing subject for a panorama. I’d already seen a short video by Ed Baptist, concentrating on the attic’s entropic decay and detail, so the prospect of shooting the exhibit in such surroundings thrilled me even more. I love capturing contrasts in texture and light in my panoramas.

It’s only viewable by appointment, so when found I had two food photography shoots in Salford booked on the same afternoon, with a spare half an hour between them, I contacted Shereen at Islington Mill to arrange a flying visit. I’ve since spent much longer looking at the photos than I had to drink in the detail in person onsite. A good thing, as I’ve since spotted a lot which I’d never have taken in at the time…

However I’d recommend arranging your own visit if you can… while this high resolution 360° photograph gives some idea of the scale, scope and otherworldliness of the installation, only being there and experiencing all the sensory stimuli can really capture the full impact of the exhibit.

Incidentally, one of my friends told me about him and a few others visiting the original installation a decade ago. Despite copious signage, and their protestations, they looked on in horror as one of their friends cast off her shoes and ran, barefoot, amongst the feathers. Obviously I did not do this…

Finally, I’m going to start sharing more of the technique and insight behind the image on my blog. So, to get things started, here’s the tech stuff. With only fifteen or twenty minutes between photoshoots, I had to set up my kit and shoot quickly. I metered the light levels (there was a wide dynamic range of around 15EV) and then shot a series of 14 exposures as quickly as I could. I wasn’t happy with the first series of images, watching my histogram on the camera, so went back and started again part-way through to better capture the light.

Kit & process. Canon EOS 50D & Sigma 10mm 2.8 fisheye lens; shot at F8, ISO100, 14 exposures between 1/640 and 13 seconds. 140 photos in total. Initial RAW processing in Lightroom 4.1, then 16bit TIFFs processed and tone-mapped in HDR Expose 2. Further tweaking in Lightroom 4.1, then stitched together as a large spherical panorama in PTGui 9. Final retouching, processing and grading in Photoshop CS6, before the definitive outputs created in Pano2VR 4.0b.

And here are a few samples of the same frame at different stages of the process. For me the texture and tonal variation in the scene was key, so I tried to bring this out in the final image with several different HDR and exposure stacking techniques. It’s a challenging photographic subject: the tonal uniformity and subtle complexity of the feathers; the textured, worn and weathered wood; and the details through the bright windows.

I used Photomatix at first, but found the tone mapping and exposure fusion options left me wanting. The colours were a bit aggressive. Next up, Enfuse, which handled the shadows pretty well, but blew out the window highlights a lot. Then I tried HDR Expose 2, which I’d hardly used since it was released, and found it coped much more admirably with the huge range between the windows and the interior shadows. This was the best ‘one shot’ approach, without the usual need for manually masking and stacking several exposures in post. As with most creative techniques, there’s more than one approach, and ultimately I was aiming to capture a personal, subjective view of the artwork. I’m pleased with how the final piece came out.

If you liked this, you may enjoy a previous panorama shot in Islington Mill back in 2008, during the Electrospective event with Greg Wilson and others.


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