Photography Moving Forward to the Past

10 Apr

San Diego -WAIT!!! Don’t go away, this is the right spot.  I just decided to change the look of it to something that better reflected me (at least in my mind)…

It is very strange to me that although I started this journal to deal with photography and education, the best hit counts I get are on the days, like yesterday, when I was off on a political discussion.  Oh well, I am still a photographer and professor of photography and this time I will deal with photo topics, specifically, some old photography.

In searching for some old family photos for a class project on restoration, I came across a professional formal portrait of my mother done in the 1950s. Shot on 8×10 with a Petzval designed portrait lens it really jumped out at me as being elegant and even dimensional in a way that today’s uber-sharp images are often lacking.  Of course in a push-back to digital stuff  many photographers have rushed into the past and adopted accessories like the lens baby and the pinhole camera.  Plastic cameras with plastic lenses and a lifetime supply of light leaks are also popular .  But the results are simply diffused or distorted with very shallow depth of field.  In looking at the old portrait i realized that it was not so much diffused as it was selectively out of focus and with a glow that is not typical of photos that are diffused with a net or similar modifier in the shot or in the darkroom.  In  researching the matter and looking at a lot of photos from such lenses as the iconic Rodenstock Imagon and the Wollensak Verito, I realized this is not a soft focus lens in the normal sense; rather it makes use of two characteristics.  One is that it uses spherical aberration to have the lens focussing on different planes  at the same time and also it uses drop in Waterhouse stops with a twist: around the central aperture hole are a ring (or rings) of additional holes which result in projected halation and subtle multiple images and that is where the glow comes from.

I have an old Cokin filter designed after those Imagon stops that gives a very similar result but not quite.  And in any case digital has spoiled me.  If I produce only a soft image then I cannot bring it back to a state of sharpness if I so desire.  But if I shoot it sharp I can easily degrade it at will.  So i searched for the procedure that would allow me to take a modern, tack sharp capture and produce an image that simulated the “look” of those old portrait lenses.  I also looked much further back in time than my mother’s portrait.  Of course, especially in the days of wet plate photography, not every shot looked alike in those days; for one the effect changed with aperture and focal length; and there was enough variance in the often hand applied emulsions.  Those same cameras and lenses were also used for more than portraiture back then.   So I needed an approach that was itself quite variable to achieve different results as my vision for the shot changed.  It took a while to work out but here are two shots using variations on this procedure.

The first is a re-edited photo of my great friend, Paul Spafford who was responsible for getting me into teaching in the first place at the old San Diego Photo Work Shop back when I was in law school, and also got me into City College where now, after he retired, I actually got his old spot.  This shot was taken originally in 2000 during a demo for one of HIS portrait classes.  It was shot with a Bronica C and Nikor 200mm  Lens with matching portrait diopter on T-Max 100 film.  Done with Norman Strobes the aperture was about f11 and  it is tack sharp everywhere in the original.

I also added some edge treatment and fungus to it to make it look even older.  Of course the clothing and soft lighting are a give-away to it being a modern shot but it is starting to regain some of that dimensionality I saw in the old shots.  There is much more experimenting to do and then it will be time for one of my infamous Data Sheets on the subject.

Also this weekend I took a drive down to the main harbor to see if any boat shots were there I liked.  I’ve been asked to produce some for sale and since that is not my normal subject matter I decided to go look.  Unfortunately the day was excruciatingly nice with little of the atmosphere that existed in my vision for the shots but I hate going out and being “skunked” for a shot.  There were three cruise ships at the docks like the three bears, Papa, Mama, and Baby bear, uh, boat.   For a while the cruise ships had left us due to the economy.  I don’t know if this signals a turn-around or simply was an anomaly but it was nice to see them.  I did the shot of the harbor below first.

The shot above was taken from Harbor Island next to the old Reuben E. Lee.  This was a restaurant in the form of a replicated Riverboat that has been closed for years always just on the cusp of being re-opened but never quite making it.  I was still thinking about the old time look so decided to try something other than a portrait and focused on the smoke stacks.  Of course a real shot from that period, using an orthochromatic emulsion, would have rendered the sky nearly white so I cheated a little to suit my own tastes.

Both the Cruise Ship image and this one were taken with a Canon 1Ds using a Canon “L” 70-200 lens and are very sharp.  Now I’m thinking it would be fun to do some period portraits, with the costuming reflecting the actual lifestyles or personality of the subject.


Posted by on April 10, 2011 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “Photography Moving Forward to the Past

  1. Kay Spafford

    April 10, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    Well, David, I’m not sure I like Paul’s photo being used as an example of an “old family photo.” But it’s nice to hear from you and I really enjoyed your rant about government spending…………

  2. ndking

    April 10, 2011 at 9:24 pm

    Hi Kay,

    I don’t think of Paul’s photo as an old family photo, I possibly misspoke but i meant that i found that the old lenses and techniques used to make my mother’s photo resulted in a picture whose elegance and dimensionality i really liked and wanted to see if i could duplicate. Modern crispy shots can sometimes appear flat (not in the contrast sense but in the 3-dimensional sense) and i found that many of those old gems were far richer. So I was looking for a shot i had to test it and thought that would also give me a great hook to try to connect with you guys.


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