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Martin Stranka: Seizing a Moment

By Scott Kirkwood

Self-taught compositing artist Martin Stranka creates images that appear to be stills from a film—one that walks the line between fantasy and reality.

Martin Stranka, a native of the Czech Republic who lives in Prague, was a bored student plodding through courses in business school when the unexpected death of a close friend led him to pursue photography as a form of therapy. That hobby turned into a passion and, eventually, a profession.

“At the time, I wasn’t connected to anything remotely related to art,” he says. “I just needed to express myself. So I bought a camera and started taking photos. At first, I didn’t think about style or concept—I just tried to capture the feeling of being wounded and alone. Years later, I find much more positive emotions in my work. Now my photos are like a personal diary where I attempt to describe all of my feelings and stories with a single photo.”

photo composite of a man in a windstorm, by Martin Stranka
photo composite of a woman with doves, by Martin Stranka
photo composite of a man standing on a cliff, by Martin Stranka

Images from Stranka’s series I Found the Silence.

Although his scenes appear to be meticulously planned, Stranka insists that he doesn’t sketch them out in detail; rather, he prefers to carry the ideas in his head until he must take a photo to empty his mind.

A COLLECTOR OF IMAGES

Unlike many compositing artists, Stranka shoots all of the photos he uses.

Martin Stranka’s Until You Wake Up composite, featuring an image of a white deer and a crashed car.

“My photography is my own creation,” he says. “People often ask me if the animals in my animal series are real animals, and all of them are. When I created the components of Until You Wake Up [shown here], I went to a nearby animal refuge and took photos of white deer with my 70–200 mm lens.” (Stranka reveals more of the process behind Until You Wake Up at the bottom of this page.)

So wherever he goes, he collects images of grass, forest, clouds, sky, and sun from nature, knowing he’ll eventually find a use for the right one. “Some people collect stamps,” he says. “I collect trees and fields.”

composited image of a man with a deer, by Martin Stranka
composited image of a floating woman, by Martin Stranka
composited image of a man with a stag, by Martin Stranka

Images from Stranka’s series I Found the Silence.

When he sits down at the computer and opens Adobe Photoshop, Stranka approaches each image as if he’s sitting before an actual canvas—although he insists he can’t draw or paint to save his life. He generally spends up to 100 hours on a single image, working on it for up to a week, before putting it away and returning to it after a few days with a fresh eye.

He relies primarily on a basic round brush with the highest-possible softness setting, often at a low opacity of 15 to 20 percent, to ensure smooth transitions between light and shadow. Consistent light sources lend realism to each piece. Another trick is desaturating each component and then adding colors and tones on separate layers to create a consistent palette.

A NEW BOOK

Stranka’s dreamy, transportive photography has been commissioned by cultural institutions such as the National Theatre in Prague and the Czech National Ballet. Dozens of his images have also been used by New York publishers for the covers of mysteries and thrillers—genres he believes his work is perfectly suited to.

A photo of Martin Stranka
a photo of Martin Stranka's book

A photo of Martin Stranka (top) and images of his new book, which will be published in the fall of 2017.

“My photography style seems to be quite perfectly suited for book covers because I explore themes of solitude, nature, tranquility, and love, which are so common to all of us,” he says. “And, of course, I use a lot of negative space, which leaves room for typography.”

Now Stranka’s images will appear not just on a book’s cover; they’ll fill the pages as well. Funded by a successful Indiegogo campaign, his first retrospective, 10 Years, is scheduled for release later this summer (it is currently available for preorder). Once that project has been released, he’ll return to his series featuring animals and car crashes. Like the piece Until You Wake Up, these images capture the moment pure nature clashes with the human world.

And how does Stranka know when he’s done, considering that he spends dozens of hours constructing a single image?

“It is really hard to say exactly—I just feel it,” he says. “Just like when you know that you should eat, or when you’ve fallen in love. But technically, it is the moment when nothing can disturb me—when I feel calmness and balance in every detail. If I step away from a photo for a few days and then return to it, and I still like it just as it is, then it really is done.”

GOING BEHIND THE SCENES OF ‘UNTIL YOU WAKE UP’

Stranka outlines the process behind his image:

1. “The white deer is one of two central components of this image, shot as if it were part of a film. I had been planning this scene for a long time, so I photographed the white deer in the summer using a Canon 5D Mark III with Canon EF 70–200mm zoom at f/4,0 L USM. I removed the white deer from the background with the lasso tool, pixel by pixel, which took a really long time, but it helped me to retain as many details as possible.”

photo of a white deer

Image 1

photo of an upside-down 1971 Jaguar XJ6

Image 2

photo composite of a 1971 Jaguar XJ6 against some snowy mountains.

Image 3

2. “I knew that shooting the scene indoors, in a big studio, wouldn’t capture the freezing atmosphere, so we decided to go out. It was really cold—5°F (–15°C)—but the cloudy sky created amazing soft and diffuse natural light. I was able to borrow a 1971 Jaguar XJ6 from a friend who restores old cars. Then we rented a crane to flip it over and create the scene.”

3. “We shot this scene close to Prague in the Czech Republic, but I wanted to simulate a mountain location, so I added mountains from a photo I’d taken in Vysoké Tatry, Slovakia, and veiled them in fog.”

image of a car in snow, with mysterious footprints.

Image 4

first composite of a deer and a car in Stranka's how-to

Image 5

the same composite of a car crash, with skidmarks added

Image 6

4. “I needed to add real, disturbed snow beneath the white deer, so I took many photos of holes in snow, and put them all together in the area where the deer is standing.”

5. “Next, I added the white deer from the first photo. At this point, its coloring and lighting are different than the scene itself, but these will be adjusted later.”

6. “To make it appear like a real car crash, I added the image of tire skids that I’d taken before, and integrated it into the scene with an overlay and the soft eraser tool.”

next step in Stranka's composite: falling snow added to the composite.

Image 7

next step in Stranka's composite: lights added.

Image 8

final image

Image 9

7. “We were happy with cloudy sky that day, but unfortunately we couldn’t plan a snowstorm to provide a more dramatic look. I’ve collected my own components like falling snow, which I tilted and blurred a little bit with a Gaussian blur. Then I decreased the opacity.”

8. “I added few light sources from above, from the left, and from a few other angles, using brushes that I’ve created to simulate lights; I always used soft edges and the soft eraser tool at a low opacity.”

9. “Once I have all the components in place and the snow is looking just right, I need to breathe in the atmosphere and the mood, which usually means selecting the right color. I worked a lot with selective colors, hue saturation, and color balance, and I used levels and exposure to edit light and shadows for the final touches.”