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Civil War Poker Game

Attempt 3 - Candle light
Of all the historical time periods, I’ve always been the most fascinated with the American Civil War. I grew up close enough to Antietam and Gettysburg National Parks that my family visited often, and I felt the most connected to that moment in history because of those family trips. I recently rekindled my obsession with Civil War paraphernalia and decided to use this extended time at home to challenge myself to making an accurate studio photo suitable for framing and hanging in your game room. Read on for the research I did and the lighting process to get the perfect shot.
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Cards on display at the Gettysburg Visitor Center.

Growing up, my favorite part of any destination visit would be when we’d go by the gift shop. I loved buying cheesy souvenirs, but I was the most fascinated by the genuine relics you could buy in Gettysburg. Items from the soldiers’ own hands would be dug up (or passed down through the generations) and now YOU could own a piece of history. I felt so disconnected from everything that’s behind glass, buying a piece of history you could touch made it more real, and exciting. There are hundreds of bullets, sabers, even full medical kits (with bone saws) that you can purchase. However I was raised a pacifist and never owned a gun or had sabers in my life. But playing cards were clutch. I play with playing cards all the time. I loved that everyday connection to a soldier, that we both played cards. So when we hit Gettysburg (with my young son for his first time) last summer, I set out to buy a genuine relic playing card.

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My genuine “King of Flags”
When I was young I could never afford more than a smashed bullet. They are plentiful in these relic shops. Legit vintage playing cards from the Civil War are pretty rare because back then if you played cards, you were gambling. In that era, gambling was considered pretty sinful. For shame! So when marching into battle and uncertain doom, the soldiers would toss their playing cards and dice into the woods. For when you’re killed in battle, they would mail home all your personal effects to your family and you didn’t want to saddle your mom with the dark knowledge that you were a gambler. Everyone did it, but you didn’t want that scandal placed on your family. Cards were not plastic coated, so for the most part they would succumb to the elements and so there aren’t that many surviving decks. There was a cottage industry where civilians would scour the battlefield for souvenirs, and decks of cards were a hot item if they found them. Anywhoo, I’m a professional now, with more disposable income than my younger self so it was within possibility I could purchase a card. I found a couple of options, but this single “King of flags” was perfect. When you’re playing any card game, and you see you have a King in your hand, there’s that little thrill… I might just win this thing after all! So I nabbed this one!

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The replica Union Cards deck that my son and I gently aged.

Now that we were in quarantine with nowhere to go, I challenged myself to taking a photo of a typical poker game that a soldier may play. I wasn’t be able to find (or afford) more than a small number of 150 year old cards so I purchased a replica deck. This particular deck was pretty popular with Union soldiers. It was manufactured in 1862 by the American Card Company and sold exclusively to Union soldiers. They knew that their customers would be constantly throwing them away and would need more. As I understand it they published and sold about a million decks in the 1860s.
After I tracked down this replica, I wanted to gently age their appearance so it would fit in with my photo. I carried the deck around in my pocket for 4 weeks, and my son and I would play Egyptian Ratscrew with them all the time. The constant slapping and grabbing helped escalate the natural wear and tear. The final step was rubbing our hands with soil and vinegar and just manhandling them. We wanted them to look well worn, but not 150 years old.

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Going on the theme of objects I am familiar with, I also purchased these era dominos, dice, and clay marbles. I love touching them and feeling a bit more connected to the soldiers that played with them. But I needed a bunch more stuff to fill up my still life photo, so I took to eBay to buy up a combination of relics and replicas. I also ran a heavy tab at more than one re-enactor supply shop. I took photos of each item I thought would be appropriate and asked the experts on Reddit’s /r/CivilWar board to help me verify that their inclusion would be appropriate. I’d hate to spend all this time perfecting the photographic process, and then find out I included a glass that wasn’t invented until the 1890s or something. In fact that exact thing happened, I have an 1860s relic ginger beer bottle, but someone pointed out that they would not have openly drank a beer from a bottle while in camp.

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I went to an antique postcard show and asked for some 1860s era tintype photos of pretty girls. I wanted to have give my soldier a photo of his sweetheart at home that he would be carrying around in his wallet.

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My original relic poker chips.

In fact I love speaking with historians and casual experts to get more info on the objects I’m pursuing. I found these large, gorgeous clay poker chips. I love the way they feel and roll around in my fingers. One gentleman told me that while those chips are indeed accurate to that era, soldiers would not typically carry around a big box of poker chips, they would be too heavy. They would dye and slice deer bone (the smaller chips above) or use flattened bullets (the two metal discs above) as markers. I loved learning that trivia, but after my purchase binge, I now have a bunch of things that I’m not going to use in this composition. Inspiration struck, and I’ll tell you more about those in a bit. But now that I have the composition ready, let me tell you a bit about the studio set up.

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The photo studio in my basement. Just a few weeks ago this was all He-Man and slime.

Here is the set up in my basement studio. I found some old planks that had been outside for years and were nicely weathered. I have the tripod fully extended so I can shoot straight down, I don’t need to worry about the background. I made the decision early on that I wanted the photo to at least appear lit by candle light. I thought with the subject matter, and the overall feeling I’m going for, straight-up studio lighting wouldn’t fit. I tried lighting the scene with nothing but candles (you can see there are a bunch to the right of the setup) but also tried mimicking candlelight with a flash.

Attempt 3 - Flash
The same composition but using a flash.
First I shot the scene with just candles. I wanted a reference for the shadows, the overall warmth, and the exposure. I really liked my first image, however I shot at ISO1600 and there was too much noise in the shadows. It might even pass ok online, but the goal from the beginning was to have an image quality that would be suitable for printing. Also, I didn’t want an easy or immediate solution. I had plenty of time and I wanted something I was ultimately happy with. So I shot the same scene with a flash, and then digitally replaced it with a candle I correctly exposed. While the image quality has improved, contextually, I don’t like it. The shadows are harsher and the tone is colder. I really like how it looked with candle light but I needed less grain.

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An alternate shot of “Solitaire Night”

I kept playing with it and found I could get the ISO down to 1000, which greatly reduced the noise in my candle-lit picture. And while quality was what I was ultimately going for, I really wanted to be able to say that the photo was lit exclusively with candle light. The real trick to this particular composition (specifically, including a candle) is to use a tripod and expose the scene for the way you want it to look, for me it was ISO 1000, shutter for 2 seconds, and aperture at f/5. A larger aperture would give me better light, but I needed this wide scene to all be in focus and I was shooting at a slight angle. Then I took another shot at ISO 1000 and aperture at f/5, but shutter at 1/30. It was nice that the shadows were confined to the metal box, so it was easy to blend my seams.

Attempt 3 - Candle light

Ok, here is the final composition one more time. I think this would be a suitable print for your game room, classier than dogs playing poker. I learned a lot about a soldier’s experience in the camps, as well as how to approach getting a difficult exposure. As for the experience, I loved how “kinetic” this experience was. I got a hands-on feeling way beyond anything I get at any museum. The feeling the cards in my hands, getting frustrated at not knowing which card was what without the corner indices, the taste of whiskey on my tongue and burnt matches in my nose. The wood is rough and untreated so we had to be careful not to get splinters. Peanuts were a popular snack because family members back home would ship care packages and use (real) peanuts for protection.

I got a lot of accoutrements (click to see the gallery) and a few more card decks, so I’m going to pursue a series of “game night” photos. These will be a lot more relaxed and don’t need quite the adherence to historical accuracy, and they won’t all need to look like they’re lit by candlelight. Stay tuned!


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