Special Effects -The Magic Lantern

Pure Photographic 'Special Effects' Without a Computer or a Darkroom!

by John Neville Cohen


Projected Images
The discovery of this technique was the result of an accident.  The chance projection of a slide without having the screen in place resulted in a portrait appearing partly on some fabric and partly on the wallpaper.  The curved fabric distorted the image and when the picture was clearly focused the weave and texture of the materials forming a type of screen became part of the portrait.  This result was sufficiently intriguing to leave the projection as it was and to study the possibilities of this occurrence.

If this effect could be photographed, then one can photograph projected images on other textures or even on other objects.  This proved to be the basic approach to gain full control of all images.  Providing a completely new way of superimposing and controlling every aspect of photographs.  Obviously if one can see it, one can photograph it!

The projector however offers so many more possibilities than the darkroom enlarger to create pictures. Take any image on any film; it is just as easy to project negatives or transparencies in colour or black and white on to what ever is desired.  Consider the potential when projecting an image on to; fabrics (not always flat), textures, or even on to other objects, then try bouncing the projected photograph off a reflective surface and focus it on to a screen, or have a look at what happens if a crystal is placed near to the projector lens (behind the lens as well as in front).  Colour filters can be used, or parts of the image can be masked (again compare the results obtained in front, as against behind, the projector lens).

With more than one projector it is possible to combine and superimpose with perfect control more than one image.  By projecting these images, one on top of the other, and then masking away the overlapping parts of each image, that are no longer required, a totally new picture can be formed.

These are the basic principles, which with infinite variety are used to mould, form and relate at will, all that has ever been photographed.  It is in fact the projector that provides all the magic; such is the diversity that can be achieved with it.  The older type of projectors are often of more use than the modern automatic ones, as it is then likely to be easier to gain access to the space behind the lens.   That facility is of great advantage with these techniques - so one should look out for cheap second hand ones!

Adding Texture
The easiest way to begin is to experiment with the projected image, try projecting a favourite portrait on to a selection of textured surfaces, to be used as a screen.  An enormous variety of textures are possible to use, they do not always need to be white, nor do they always need to be flat.

There is likely to be an element of distortion, as it is not possible to have the camera lens in exact alignment with the projector, but do not worry about this yet, distortion can be useful as described later.

The use of a texture in portrait work is particularly attractive, some of the beauty and character found in painted portraits is lacking in photographs.  But the realism of the photograph becomes more abstract simply by adding a texture and this can bring out more expression or character than was evident before.  This does not mean that one is copying paintings as totally different images are created from those ever painted, but that this abstract quality that so enriches portraits, can also apply to photographs.

The only way of avoiding distortion is to project square on to the choice of screen and to rephotograph the image with a plate camera. Then one can correct the angle of view with the lens movements as used for architecture or perspective correction.

However, more often than not, distortion can be a very interesting effect if used carefully.  It can even be a very dramatic tool.  Any image can easily be elongated and stretched, or squashed and made wider.  It just depends on the angle of the projector, or the camera, to the screen.

So far it has been shown how an image can be influenced by; the addition of a texture, the effect of distortion, the use of colour filtration, and the use of negatives or black and white films.

Another fascinating way of manipulating a projected image is to consider reflections.  The principle involved is basically to rephotograph a projected image as seen in a mirror, or bounced off a mirror. But instead of using a mirror, there are many other options.  Try a piece of acetate film as this material allows one to bend or twist it, and so distort the image seen, by forming a flexible mirror.

There are two quite different effects achievable even with the flexible mirror in a fixed position and the same image projected.  The first method is to project the image on to a screen and to photograph the reflection seen.  The other is to project the image into the flexible mirror, so that it bounces off it, on to the screen; it is this new image that is then to be photographed.

There are many reflecting surfaces that can be used.  They do not always need to be smooth, a highly polished old silver cigarette case, with a machine finished pattern as an over all design, has been used to advantage.

All photographs including those techniques already described can be made into patterns rather like a kaleidoscope by the use of mirrors.  By positioning mirrors at right angles to each other, with the image projected on to a choice of screen in such a way, that the reflections are repeated in the mirrors will then form a pattern that can be photographed.  The possibilities of scale and size are no problem when projecting images, the biggest building in the world can easily be projected between a couple of small mirrors or on to a small object!

Crystal Patterns
Spectacular patterns can be created by the use of crystals or prisms.  Apart from the special effect types available for use on the camera, remember these can be used with the projector too, it is also interesting to use old crystals designed to form a chandelier.

Experiment with different crystals placed in front of the projector lens, not always square on, and see how the image scatters according to the cut.  The best results are often found to be with a fairly small image within the transparency frame.

Quite a different pattern will be formed, by moving the crystal behind the lens.  Obviously as these crystals are not optically perfect, the projected image will lose some definition, but it can still be useful as a background image.

Colour, Black and White or Negative Images
Photography has the advantage of instantly reproducing an image in a number of ways.  Just by the selection of film the image can be in black and white, colour or in either of these choices it could also be in negative form.  All these can be projected!

Negatives can be unusually beautiful in themselves and they should not just be regarded as the means of obtaining a print.  The choice of projected images should not be restricted to transparencies but include film in all its forms.  Black and white images positives or negatives can be projected and used. Colour can still then easily be added to the black and white projected images by the choice of screen, as well as by the introduction of colour filters.

Many filters are available for the camera, and these can be used with the projector too.  But any bits of coloured cellophane can also be used with the projector.  There are hundreds of colours easily available, as one only needs such small pieces.

Even if they are not optically of use with the camera, if used between the projector condenser lens, and the film, they can influence the colour of the projected image, without any optical problems.  With care it is also possible to change the colours of specific parts of the projected image.

Make the Subject the Screen
It is not difficult to move on to other objects that can do more than just act as a screen.  These are items that become an important part of the subject of the new photograph just as essential as the projected image.

For example an original portrait was projected on to a clamshell, amongst other shells, and the contours of the shell influenced the projected image.  With careful masking using a diffused mask behind the lens, allowed light to illuminate other parts of the scene too.

There are a number of other objects that have been used in this way; a butterfly with a river scene, an orchid, a ball of wool and a Siamese cat, a coin, or a decaying holly leaf.

Even a highly reflective surface can be used such as coins.  The camera was directly in front of the top coin, so that the projected image from the projector was to the left of the camera.  This meant that the camera lens avoided the very bright reflection.  Even the edges of the pages of a book have been used.

It can be fascinating to take your projector for a walk!  Use an extension lead and just project a selection of slides on to everything in sight.  By focusing on to a wide range of objects, you will be able to see what happens - expect to be surprised at some of the possibilities that will no doubt come to light!

Masking is best achieved by using black card that is stiff enough to stay upright; yet is easily cut into whatever shape is required.  It works well in front or behind the projector lens.  If masking in front of the lens it will quickly become apparent that the nearer to the screen the mask is placed, the sharper the shadow cast.  The ideal is to always use a soft edge shadow so the mask will not be very far forward of the lens.

If it is possible to work behind the lens, then the nearer to the film, the sharper the shadows edge will be. It is then simple to perfectly blend different images when working with more than one projector.

There have been times when instead of masking with black card a transparent opaque plastic has been preferred, this avoids a black shadow forming, especially if the second projection is not adding much in that particular area.  Tracing paper has been effective for this purpose normally placed behind the lens near to the film.

Before considering a second projector, with just one, there are now an amazing amount of possibilities that can be achieved with the projected image.  However with two projectors the additional special effects are quite sensational.

Double Exposure - Projector Style!
The first option with the projector is to mount two pieces of film, sandwiched in the same mount, and project the combined images on to a screen.  By focusing on one of the images, the one in true focus will dominate and soften the other.  Much depends on the slide carrier used, but if there is room to insert more than two mounts in to the carrier, then the more space between the two films the greater the effect of one image dominating the other.  Should both images need to be in focus then the closer they are to each other the better.

When sandwiching films in this manner it is possible to insert one or the other upside down, on its side, or the other way round. But there is little more opportunity with this technique of controlling the end result, so it is only a little bit better than double exposure as at least one can see what the result looks like first.

Two Projectors
This method involves using two projectors, but one has then an exciting way of blending any two previously created pictures, with far more control!

The technique is simple; just project both images separately on to the same choice of screen.  However, these images can now be positioned whichever way one might wish, one image could be much larger than the other, or by masking parts of each image, a different blend of the two pictures can be created.  This is how any parts, of any picture, can be blended together and all the time one can see exactly what is to be photographed.

Ideally, two identical projectors should be used, if possible with zoom lenses.  Should this prove impractical then variations in performance of the second projector can be allowed for, by masking the brighter of the two, just in front of the lens to achieve the same brilliance from both projectors.

To enhance the quality of the results one can achieve with this technique, there is an advantage in obtaining a screen designed for rear projection.

Image Blending
Once the full potential of using two projectors is realised, there will be a need for quite different types of images, these are what are referred to as background shots, in the advertising world.  A completely new stock of photographs will have to be taken, with blending potential in mind, no matter how many pictures are available from the past.

Now each image can be simply modified: The brightness of one image, as against the other, can be controlled.  By masking and shading just parts, of each image, can be blended.  Colours of certain areas can be altered with filters.  The position of each image, relative to each other, can be adjusted.  Or even the size, of one image as against the other, can easily be altered.  One of the images could be distorted, reflected, or be changed in to a pattern by the use of a crystal.  The possibilities are quite staggering!

Best of all, the combined images are there to be seen all the time, until the desired result is formed. There is no need to rely on guesswork, as so many other special effects seem to demand, with these methods so no film really should ever be wasted.

With two projectors it becomes possible to mix film effects together in a way not possible before.  It is so easy to blend negative images with transparencies, in colour or black and white.  Instead of transparencies in both projectors, one of them could be projecting a black and white negative or a colour negative just as easily.

Plate 3
'Spirit of Spring' is a well-known award winning study that won much acclaim for the author.  This transparency of a portrait was projected over; a second projected colour negative image of a red tulip.  A variation of this concept is plate 59 (Poetic Portfolio) where another profile of Susan was blended with a colour negative of the centre of a tulip. (See this and other photos in the author’s 'Poetic Portfolio' link below).

More Projectors
There are no reasons why more than two images should not be projected all at once, providing the projectors are available.

There have been a number of occasions when four projectors were in use together.  However three have been the most that have normally been used, with the fourth one occasionally; simply projecting the author's signature in to the scene.

Rear Projection
There are some valuable advantages in having a rear projection screen especially when owning more than one projector.  The first advantage that comes to mind, after the obvious one of avoiding distortion, with at least one of the images, is the opportunity to add a light coloured background when photographing projected images on to other objects.

Should the rear projection screen simply be used to provide a background scene, often expected to be in a softer focus, an expensive screen is then not needed.  Even tracing paper will do!

Inspired Accidents
Hoping that readers having reached this far will agree that the possibilities described, offer photographers working in colour so much more than simply recording reality.  Trusting readers will also agree that this form of photography really justifies recognition in the art world, as it has certain qualities that are quite unlike those of any other media.

This has been published with the hope that photographers will not just create strange pictures or gimmickry, but produce works of true artistic merit.

The most satisfying time spent is without doubt in the creation of the work.  Frequently regardless of the medium used, if an artist is truthful, the end result obtained is not always exactly as initially conceived.

Often the author has decided on a theme, or it could be just a thought about a pattern or composition that exists in the mind, in an abstract way, as yet unexpressed.  Perhaps the last portrait taken inspires the desire to do more with it.  Whilst considering and projecting certain images, to blend with such a portrait, something can suddenly be seen that fires the imagination.

At other times an idea occurs and a clearly defined image forms in the mind.  However, whilst trying to create this picture, it is not so unusual that one strays across a certain amount of accidental inspiration.  This can be the chance blending of two images in a way never thought of before, that looks just too good to ignore!  The best thing to do then is to be prepared to change direction, and pursue the new study, rather than the original concept.  The first attempted creation can always be tried again later on.

The excitement and pleasure one feels when inspired in this way is hard to describe.  So even if one starts with just a vague concept, it is worth spending some time experimenting.  Think of it as being the stage where the artist is selecting and mixing the paints on his palette, still unsure of what he might paint, but just feeling the need to make a start.  Whilst thinking of the various possibilities, surprising relationships can develop, that might well become the basis of the final picture.  It is only really by actually making a start that you create the opportunity for something exciting to happen.


John (now retired) was an international top award winning photographer that created new techniques of 'special effects' without any darkroom or computer!

"...regarded as one of Britain's most original photographers." The Times

"To Cohen, the impossible in colour merely takes a little longer..." Photography Year Book 

To see the Poetic Portfolio please visit: -

To see other articles, with photographs, please use the following link:   http://www.jncohen.net/antiques/articles.htm

John Neville Cohen:  Became a well known Asian antiques collector and an enthusiast of Jensen British classic cars.  He has been a very keen collector for many years in helping to create ‘The Cohen collection’.    Please have a look at: - http://www.jncohen.net   


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