The Pencil of Nature

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Yesterday I had the rare opportunity to leaf through an original copy of William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1844 book The Pencil of Nature, the first book ever to contain photographs.

These are actual photographic prints made by Talbot himself, the man who invented the calotype negative process. These prints were made on paper coated by Talbot and his assistants, and contact-printed in the sunlight from the calotype paper negatives that he shot in-camera (this was within a few years of what is generally considered the invention of practical photography – at about the same time that Daguerre invented the daguerreotype, which only produced a one-of-a-kind image on glass, while Talbot’s paper negative allowed for multiple prints to be made from the negative – essentially introducing the negative-positive photographic process used for the next 150 years).

I don’t want to go into too much technical detail, but you can easily find all the detail you want online, as this is an important piece of photographic history. I believe these prints are “salted paper prints”, in which the paper is sensitized with silver chloride, requiring long exposures in contact with the negative under sunlight.  The negative shot in camera was a calotype (also called talbotype), which required relatively short exposures to produce a latent image on the translucent paper, that would then be chemically developed to bring out the full image.

A London publisher produced this book in six editions, in which Talbot’s actual photographic prints are glued into place on the pages. The six editions were sold separately, and as was apparently the custom at the time, the owner would have the editions bound together into a single book. The Elmer Andersen Library for Special Collections and Rare Books at the University of Minnesota has a bound copy of volumes 1 and 2, containing a total of 12 photographs (the 24 total photographs were split into six volumes – it is believed that there are only about 15 complete copies of this book still in existence). It is clear that these two volumes were bound together into one book, although little of the binding remains intact today. The cover for these two volumes is not large enough to accommodate the other volumes, so the original owner must have only purchased the first two, or decided to have them bound separately for some reason.

 

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Thanks to my friend Matt Newberry arranging for us to view this, I got to sit with him and browse through these very fragile pages containing some of the first photographs ever made. It seemed a bit crazy that we were able to be viewing Talbot’s actual prints so close-up and intimately.

Though the prints are severely faded, they are still sharp and show amazing detail. They’re beautiful.  It’s surprising that prints from such an early experiment in photography still look this good 172 years later.

My favorite image in these two volumes is probably PLATE X. THE HAYSTACK, shown at the top of this post.

Other personal favorites are PLATE II. VIEW OF THE BOULEVARDS AT PARIS, and PLATE VI. THE OPEN DOOR, below.

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Photography was so new to people in 1844 that he included a slipped-in “Notice to the Reader” that reads:

The plates of the present work are impressed by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil. They are the sun-pictures themselves, and not, as some persons have imagined, engravings in imitation.

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In the photo below I’m holding an original calotype paper negative (slipped in a plastic sleeve) believed to be taken by Talbot’s assistant Nicolaas Henneman sometime between 1843 and 1848. More info about this negative here

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The book is readily available online to read and see scanned images of the photos.  I highly recommend you give it a read.  Talbot seemed to foresee the future of photography both in it’s many practical uses and as a form of art.

The book can be read in full here:
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/33447/33447-h/33447-h.html

 

More information:

http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/Feb2007.html

http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/267022

 

Today Matt emailed me this photo below, showing Talbot and assistants contact-printing photos in the sun.  Perhaps the prints that we just saw were printed in these very frames.

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Snow, part 2

Just a few more snow photos from the second roll of film shot that same day.

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Rolleicord III, Acros 100, self-developed, camera-scanned.


Snow comes to Minnesota

A nice snowfall recently gave me the opportunity to take a walk and give my Rolleicord some much-needed exercise.

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Not terribly exciting photos, but it was fun shooting them and developing the film at home. I guessed at the metering using the sunny-16 rule, and it worked well. The film did a nice job picking up the subtle detail in the very bright sunlit snow (while remarkably still holding shadow detail as well).

Shot on Fuji Acros 100; home developed in Arista Premium film developer (1:9, 7  min @ 68 deg).

Camera scanned using same setup described in the previous post.

I just developed a second roll shot on this same walk, and that’s now hanging to dry. Will fire up the ‘scanner’ again soon.


Camera-scanning negatives

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I recently posted photos that I had shot on black and white 120 film, home processed, and ‘scanned’ using my Fuji X-T1 camera and an old Nikkor macro lens. I’ll detail a little bit of the  process below, because I think this holds great promise of being a quick and easy way to get some really nice quality scans.  Below is a screen shot of a detail area from the photo above, to give you some idea of the quality and resolution.

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When cropped square, these images are about 3100 x 3100 pixels.  The X-T1 has about a 16MP sensor in it, and the full image size is 3264 x 4896 pixels. I didn’t completely fill the frame with the negative, so I’m cropping in a bit (plus cropping square of course in this case, since they’re 6×6 negs).  I could make higher-resolution images of 120 film by getting closer to the neg and moving it around to capture several images, then auto-stitching them in Photoshop.  I’ve seen examples of this online that are stunning.  But for quick scans, these 9+MP images are pretty great.

So, how was this done?

First I bought a small light box to act as a backlight-source. I got a Logan 4″ x 5″ Slim Edge Light Pad, but I’m sure any would work fine. I had read that this model has a nice consistent brightness and color. And I wanted one for some other uses, anyway.

Then I had to figure out a way to hold the camera perfectly parallel to the light box. A tripod could be used, but it would be hard to align it perfectly, and to adjust height and repeat the setup. I tried this with a tripod in the past, and it’s a pain in the a**.  An old copy stand would be perfect, but I had a hard time finding one for a reasonable price.  So I decided that an old photo enlarger could be converted to a copy stand. I picked up an old Omega enlarger at a thrift store for $16:

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It seemed a shame to tear apart such a nice enlarger, but I found that it could easily be dismantled in a way that it could be put back together if I want to return it to it’s intended use.

I added a small platform of plywood, with a hole cut at the perfect size to hold the end of my Nikkor macro lens. This certainly wouldn’t work with all lenses, but the way this lens is built (and since the Fuji X-T1 is a very light camera), it works perfectly.  I used a level to carefully align the platform to be near-perfectly level with the base of the enlarger (fortunately, the enlarger had adjustment screws on the base that normally holds the neg-carrier, to make this adjustment easy).

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I used a neg carrier that I happened to have from a flatbed scanner to hold the negatives flat against the light box, and inserted the camera and lens into the platform:

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It may look a bit unstable, but the camera actually sits very steady, since the camera body is light, and the lens is heavy and has a portion that sticks out with nice straight sides, which slides into the hole in the plywood (I looped the camera strap around the top of the enlarger to keep it out of the way, but it would also catch the camera if it were somehow knocked off the stand).  The height of the stand was adjusted so the neg would almost fill the frame, then the lens was focused. The manual focus aid in the X-T1 helps a lot for this — it will zoom in on the center of the frame and show red highlights when edges are in sharp focus, as seen below in the bad iphone photo of the camera’s LCD screen:

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The room lights were shut off before shooting the actual photos, to eliminate any reflections off the film.

I tested the camera and lens combo by shooting several images of a couple negs from f/3.5 to f/22, and found that I got the sharpest images at f/3.5 to f/8.  Surprisingly, this lens actually seems slightly sharper wide open at f3.5 than stopped down a stop or two.  But to get a little bit of depth of field to help ensure the whole neg was in focus, even if it wasn’t completely flat, I shot them at f/8.

Here’s the lens I’m using:

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It’s a Nikon Micro-Nikkor 55mm f/3.5 – a great macro lens with extremely little distortion.  In these images of square negatives, there was absolutely no bowing of the edges of the images.  When cropped square to the image, the edges were perfectly straight.  I’m lucky that I just happened to have this lens already, so I only needed a cheap adapter to put it on the Fuji X-T1.

The camera was set to electronic shutter so there’d be no camera movement from the shutter, and set to ISO 200, auto shutter speed, and with a 2-second self-timer to eliminate camera shake from pressing the shutter button.  Next time I’ll set the shutter speed manually so that all of the exposures on a roll are consistent, as that will make later Lightroom adjustments easier to apply through the whole roll.

The negs had just been dried after developing, so they were still very clean, so I didn’t even bother blowing dust off of them.  The scans picked up a few dust spots, but not bad at all.  I slid the negs through by hand, and had to spend a few second on each one making sure it was aligned straight in the viewfinder, and that I wasn’t cutting off any of the image.  That’s where this process could really be improved — by building some kind of neg carrier that the negs could slide through and stay aligned in the viewfinder.  Even so, it probably only took about 15 minutes to shoot the roll, from setting the camera height and focusing the first neg to shooting all twelve images. (EDIT:  Now that I’ve done a few rolls this way, it’s even faster — I have the enlarger marked at the proper height, so setup is faster, and I can get through a roll in a few minutes)

Process updated: See NOTE at end of this post.
Then the negs were brought into Lightroom and adjusted.  Here’s what they looked like when first imported to Lightroom:

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In Lightroom there’s no easy way to invert the negs into positives (they should really add a simple checkbox in the tone curve panel to invert the image).  You have to grab each end of the tone curve and pull the bottom end up to the top, and the top end down to the bottom to invert the image (if you can’t get this to work, click the button in the bottom-right of the Tone Curve box — this change it to a ‘point curve’ and you can move the very ends of the line).

So you change this:

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Simple enough, but now all of your exposure sliders in Lightroom are reversed.  Increasing the Exposure slider darkens the image; decreasing the Blacks slider actually increases the Whites.  It’s a bit confusing.  I did this in Lightroom because I wanted to work with the camera RAW image, thinking that would give me the best quality.  But after some experimenting I’ve decided that the JPG images are just as good, so it’s easy to simply invert the images in Photoshop, then make all the normal adjustments in Lightroom.  Next time I do this, I’ll quickly invert all the images in Photoshop before importing them into Lightroom.   Process updated: See NOTE at end of post.

Another advantage that I discovered in shooting my own scans is that I can get the full frame with no cropping of the image. Here’s the first test image I shot, from an older roll of film.  You can see the actual edges of the frame of the film:

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And here is an overlay showing the scan that the lab did on top of my scan (tinted red). The red edges are the parts of the image that were cropped out of the lab scan.  That’s a pretty big difference.

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I’m looking forward to developing more film and experimenting more with this.  Next step: build a neg carrier to slide the 120 film through.  After that: Build a rig to slide 35mm negs through for the same kind of setup.

EDIT:
I’ve scanned more film using this setup and have changed just a couple things:

1) I’m setting my camera to record a B&W JPG instead of color to simplify it a little. I did some testing of B&W vs Color and JPG vs RAW, and found virtually no difference.  The dynamic range is very low, so there’s no need to shoot raw.

Note on dynamic range:  I’ve seen some online posts about camera-scanning, and people are concerned about the digital camera’s ability to capture the full dynamic range of the film.  Here’s my take: Relax, it’s not an issue at all.  The dynamic range of the scene was already captured and compressed in the film.  When “scanning” the neg, the dynamic range you’re capturing is only the difference between the blackest part of the film and the brightness of your light pad.  Unless your light pad is as bright as the sun, you’re not talking about much dynamic range here.  I don’t get any clipping of highlights or shadows.

2) Before importing into Lightroom I do a quick inversion in Photoshop to turn the negs into positives.  I created a Photoshop action ‘droplet’, so all I have to do is drag a folder full of images onto the ‘droplet’ on my Mac, and they will all be opened in Photoshop, inverted and re-saved.  It all works automatically and just takes a few seconds.  Then when they’re imported into Lightroom I don’t have to mess with inverting the tone curve.

I’ve built a nice rig for 35mm neg scans that I should show you soon.


Como Park Conservatory

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A few weeks ago we spent a nice evening walking around Como Park taking photos as a family.  My wife wanted to learn to use our Fuji X-T1, and my son was carrying my old Canon DSLR, so I went old-school and carried my Rolleicord.  After our picnic dinner on the lawn, I loaded a roll of Fuji Acros 100 black and white film, and we set off for the Conservatory.  We intended to go inside the conservatory and back out to the beautiful Japanese garden, but found that both were closed for the evening, so we just walked around the park.  With all of us taking photos, I enjoyed for once not being the one slowing down the rest of the family.  I had no trouble finding subjects for my 12 images on my roll of film, and enjoyed the slow process — if I would have been shooting digital I probably would have taken a hundred shots and ended up with about the same number that I liked.

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I developed the film myself the night before last, which was quick and easy since I had chemicals premixed and ready to go. This is the first time I’ve developed 120 film, and it’s even easier than 35mm because you don’t have to mess around with opening the film canister — you just unroll the film right off the spool (inside a dark-bag) and onto the developing tank reel.  I let the film hang to dry in an unused room where it’d be unlikely that much dust would be flying around in the air, then last night I “scanned” the images.  I say “scanned” in quotes because I actually shot photos of the negs using my X-T1 with an old Micro-Nikkor 55mm manual-focus macro lens.  The process was quick and easy, and the results are stunning. I’ll be writing a post soon about my process.

Details:
Camera: Rolleicord III
Film: Fuji Acros 100
Processing:  Arista Premium Liquid Developer, mixed 1:9, 7 min. @ approx. 68 degrees F.
Arista Indicator Stop Bath; Arista Premium Liquid Fixer; Kodak Hypo Clear; Water wash; a couple drops Arista Flow wetting agent; hang to dry with no wiping.
Scan:  Fuji X-T1; Nikon Micro-NIKKOR-P.C Auto 1:3.5 f=55mm (at f/8); Logan 4×5 light pad.


Into the Darkroom

We finally moved to the second part of my son’s photography project – printing photos the old-fashioned way. We’re lucky to have a large laundry room with some kitchen counters (we had a temporary kitchen down there while remodeling our kitchen a few years ago), so it makes a great darkroom.  There were only a couple of small windows to black out with plastic garbage bags and duct tape.  There were a couple of ceiling light fixtures in which we could replace the bulbs with my old safelights.  There were even two separate sections of counter so we could have a dry area for the enlarger and a wet area for the trays, which was very near the laundry sink.  In the sink we rigged up a makeshift print washer by simply setting a very large developing tray on top of the sink, running water into it and letting it run over into the sink.

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We started out by making contact prints of his two rolls of film one evening. I had some very old photo paper left from the last time I worked in the darkroom, probably 15 years ago or more. Turns out that unexposed photo paper doesn’t last forever!  The pack of 8×10 Kodak RC paper came out really dark with hardly any contrast, as if it had been fogged. I had a pack of Illford 5×7 paper that fared better, so we were able to piece together contact prints of all of the negs using several sheets of that. I ordered a new pack of Illford 8×10 gloss RC paper and we looked at the contact prints for a few days while waiting for that to arrive.

He settled on a couple of images that he wanted to enlarge, and we got to work. I had forgotten most of what I used to know about chemicals and the timing of developer, stop bath, fixer, washing, etc, so we had to do some research, but it all went pretty smoothly.  We spent a few hours in there to get good prints of two images, but they turned out great. The negs seemed a little low on contrast, so we used a fairly high polycontrast filter to boost the contrast of the images.

The first photo we printed was a close-up of a moss-covered tree with a blurred background of a small stream, shot in the Cascade mountains. We did a test strip to figure out the exposure time, and he decided he liked a pretty dark exposure.  That print went pretty quickly and we had a nice final print in just a couple tries.  I helped him set up the enlarger and focus, then he exposed the print, and I ran the timer while he worked the print through the developing, stop bath, and fixer trays, and into the wash tray.

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The second one took a little longer to get the way we wanted it. It is an image of Pike Place market, with sky at the top and the market below. He liked the high-contrast look we got using the polycontrast filter in the enlarger, but it resulted in a washed-out sky when we got the exposure correct on the lower part of the image.  This gave me a great opportunity to teach him about dodging and burning.  We burned in the sky by exposing it for a few extra seconds while I dodged the bottom part of the image, and the building canopy at the right edge.  A few tries and we had a very nice print.

He entered both photos in the 4H art competition at our county fair, and took home a purple ribbon for the Pike Place photo. Being in 4H is what prompted him to do this project in the first place — he thought it’d be a fun project to enter at the fair. Since he won a purple ribbon, he gets to exhibit it at the Minnesota State Fair at the end of the summer!

Aside: Even though the 4H building isn’t one of the most visited parts of the Minnesota State Fair, the fair itself is pretty huge — last year’s total attendance over the twelve days of the fair was 1,824,830 people!  Yes, 1.8 million people.  It’s a big fair.  So I think it’s a pretty big deal that he gets to show a photo there.

I think the print turned out great:

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It was a lot of fun, and now that I have some fresh paper and chemicals, I should get back in there and print a few of my own negs. A true silver-gelatin print is a beautiful thing!


Digital?

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Yes, this is still the Shot on Film blog, but in addition to shooting old film cameras, I do shoot modern digital cameras.  No reason not to enjoy both.  I recently bought a Fuji X-T1, and I know that a big part of why I fell in love with it the first time I saw one was because the design of it is so much more like a classic film SLR than any other digital camera I had ever seen. The shape, design and feel of it, the shutter speed dial, the ISO dial, the aperture ring on the lens (that’s one thing I wish they’d gone a step farther on — putting actual aperture markings on the lens).  Once the camera is set up the way I like to shoot, there’s little reason to ever push buttons or look at menus on the LCD.  I can just leave the LCD off and use the viewfinder and feel almost like I’m shooting film, except that the electronic viewfinder (EVF) shows me approximately what the actual exposure is going to look like (nice feature, I admit).

I shot some photos early one morning this week, and when looking at them in Lightroom a couple images struck me as looking like film photos. Film has a unique look and I feel like I can usually tell when a photo was shot on film. I follow a number of photographers on Tumblr, and as I scroll through the images almost nightly, I usually notice photos that I think were shot on film, and more often than not I’m correct.  Of course, digital images can be edited to look more like film, such as by using the popular VSCO film packs in Lightroom.

These images shown here are the two that jumped out at me for some reason as I looked through my images today. To me they look like they were shot with my Mamiya 645 on Ektar film.  Maybe it’s the rich brown tones that Ektar renders so nicely, maybe it’s the little bit of extra contrast that I added in Lightroom, maybe it’s the Fuji Provia camera profile that was applied when I imported to Lightroom. I think it’s probably all of those, but also one other thing — I started shooting very early in the morning, before sunrise, and to work in the low light I cranked the ISO of the digital sensor up to 3200.  Shooting at high ISO results in digital noise in the images, and with previous digital SLRs that I’ve used (Canon 40D, most recently), the digital noise was really unappealing – these multi-colored spots that just looked unnatural.  What I notice about these images from the Fuji is that when I zoom way in, the noise looks to me almost like film grain!  Perhaps that’s why I thought this looked like a high-res scan of medium-format film.

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Here’s a screenshot where I’m zoomed in at 1:1 on screen.  Click it to view full size:

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And zoomed in more.  Click to view full size:

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Don’t worry, I’ll be back with more film photos.  I haven’t gone completely to the dark side!