Photography, old school

small image of snow scene

Photography is so easy today; just take a picture on a digital camera and view your results in seconds. Usually, you get a perfectly exposed, pin sharp image.

Take for example the picture above. From seeing the picture, taking it, transferring to my computer, adjusting it in Photoshop and having it ready to upload to my blog took all of fifteen minutes. My tiny camera even has a ‘night time landscape’ option so there was no need to guess a long exposure.

Compare this to the days of film. I remember when I used to shoot on black and white film with a brick of an SLR camera. Everything was manual apart from the exposure meter which suggested the correct setting in reasonable light (it didn’t work in low light). This meter had to be first calibrated according to the film speed used in the camera.

Once I had taken a picture there was no instant review of images. I had to wait until the entire film was used up which sometimes could be several weeks as film was relatively expensive and I couldn’t afford to fire off an entire roll on just one subject. To see anything at all I first had to process the negative.

Patterson developer kit

This entailed hand winding the film back into its cassette and then transferring the film from the cassette into a developing container – a process fraught with all sorts of dangers. For a start it had to be done in total darkness to avoid fogging the film. In a house, this meant the operation was done either under the bed covers or in the cupboard under the stairs. Then the tricky bit was feeding the film into a plastic wheel with a one way transport mechanism. This was as nerve wracking and as important as an adolescent fumbling in the dark trying to unhook his first bra (worn by her, not him). The film could easily get caught on the transport mechanism of the wheel resulting in creasing or even tearing of the precious negatives. Once in the light tight developing tank, the wet work could then be done.

The chemicals used had to be mixed to the correct concentration and prepared to the correct temperature. This usually entailed setting up a lab in the bathroom with several spare thermometers to hand as almost invariably you were tempted to mix the chemicals with the thermometer itself and so occasionally break the damn thing. Then the development had to be timed (a complex calculation taking into account speed of film, temperature etc.) along with regular agitations of the film, stopped with another chemical, fixed with yet another chemical and then rinsed for twenty minutes or more in running water (luckily, this was in the days before I had a water meter). After that, you could take a peek at the wet negative. This was an exciting moment as it was only then that you discovered whether you had exposed correctly. If you had not, usually your entire film of thirty six images – the maximum you could fit in a standard SLR camera – were either ‘thin’ (under exposed) contrasty (over exposed) or just plain blank (fortunately this never happened to me).

You then had to dry the negative in as dust free an environment as you could manage, which was difficult to find in a domestic house, and so the bathroom was pressed into service again and the negatives would be hanging next to the tights. When I later encountered at art school special drying cabinets for films I discovered they eliminated a huge amount of dust noise.

And that was only half the process! Then you had to print the negs, a process which required a darkroom (a light tight room dimly lit by a reddish light), several chemicals, running water, special photographic paper and an enlarger which basically took the photograph again! Guess which room in the house got commandeered for this stage of the process. No wonder everyone in my family were filthy, they never got the chance to wash.

If you had a poor lens on the enlarger, the expensive lens on your camera was made redundant. Again, any chemicals had to be at the right temperature and an exposure had to worked out for the contrast on the negative and the grade of photographic paper which varied in ‘hardness’ to accommodate different contrast ratios in the negative. A contact sheet had to be made first so that you could assess which negative was worthy of being blown up. Generally, I was lucky to get one or two images out of thirty six that made the grade.

During the exposure of the paper, a certain amount of dodging and burning could be performed on the image. This is where the photographer would move a light blocker (sometimes specially cut to fit a required area on the image) over the paper to either emphasise of knock back a shadow or highlight. The length of time one kept the blocker over the image and how much ’shake’ one applied to it (to avoid hard edged emphasis) was down to experience. Dodging and burning was an art in itself. A dust free environment was also best for printing as dust motes were effectively light blockers during the printing process and would produce ’snow’ in the finished print.

Then the black and white prints had to be washed in running water and then dried. Finally you could admire (or despair) at your photography.

It’s weird I know, but I seemed to derive more enjoyment form the old process than I do today with the digital cameras. It is almost as if the amount of effort expended is proportional to the satisfaction gained. If something is too easy, it has little satisfaction to offer.

Its like mountain climbers. They don’t have to climb the mountain and they certainly don’t need to go on foot to get to the top. They could do it using helicopters or hang gliders but there is this concept that it doesn’t count unless they have expended a lot of effort to do it. This concept is purely arbitrary as it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

For example, you could argue that the only criterion that must be observed, if argued logically, is that climbers must attempt the mountain naked as any equipment is deemed to be using technology and makes things easier. And why just naked? For real enthusiasts, maybe they could agree that only one hand can be used in the climb or maybe blindfolded. It is really only about challenging yourself and reminding yourself that you are alive.

At the other extreme, the logical conclusion of business success is achieving everything that you set out to do. So once everything is achieved, you do nothing, sit back in the sun and… die basically.

Okay, I accept that digital photographer has allowed the photographer to concentrate more on the final image but digital photography doesn’t improve a photographer’s eye.

Here’s a thought experiment. What if they brought out a camera that had a ‘talent’ setting and which instructed you where to stand, where to point, when to wait for the best moment etc. and everyone took belting images. Then in Photoshop, there is also a ‘talent’ filter which processes the image into the optimum everything. At what point do we admit that the picture is not ours and actually belongs to the programmer of the software? At this point we might as well just let some talented photographer take pictures for us to enjoy. Would we admire the images less because we knew it required very little effort to achieve them? I think we would because we only admire that which we find difficult to do ourselves. It is the struggle that is important, the achievement is just the icing.

The journey is the destination.

3 Responses to “Photography, old school”

  1. So, this Talent programme – can I download it free from somewhere? Quite fancy that.

  2. Ivor Tymchak says:

    Yes Nev, the program is free but the manual, as they say, is priceless.

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