Saturday, January 13, 2018

Learning Photography the Old Fashioned Way

My path for learning photography was a bit unusual. It started with a high school photography club that was taught by one of the school bus drivers, Ronald Thomas. He had learned photography while in the Army during World War II, and photography during World War II was extremely difficult and time-consuming as well as equipment-intensive. It's a miracle we have any pictures of that conflict at all.

So it came to be that I learned the basics of photography using a 4 inch by 5 inch sheet film camera called a Speed Graphic. This was the kind of camera that you see in the old newspaper movies of the 1930's and 1940's. The camera "opened" by unfolding a platform hinged at the bottom, pulling out the bellows extension along a rail, locking it into place and then cocking open the shutter.

You had to open the shutter because focusing consisted of looking in the ground glass viewer at the back of the camera. The viewer was accessed through a system of four folding flaps that covered the viewer (protecting it from damage when not in use), and then unfolding to make a shadow box around all four sides. That gave you a dark enough place to stick your face into so you could actually see the upside down image being cast by the front lens on the ground glass viewer.

Then, to focus, you twirled a knob on the front bellows extension, moving it back and forth along the track to change the distance between the lens on the front of the bellows extension and the ground glass surface and thereby, the focus. 

Once the image was in focus on the ground glass, then you grabbed your exposure meter and took two light readings. That involved actually going around the camera, walking up to your subject, taking a light exposure reading of the reflected light coming off the subject, and backing up a little, taking an overall light level reading on the meter. Through a complicated scale chart, you came up with the proper lens aperture opening setting, which changed with the shutter speed you had decided upon earlier. 

Shutter speeds had to be taken into account for proper focusing, since the size of the aperture determines the "depth of field," and depth of field was the zone of sharp focus. If you wanted a narrow zone of sharp focus, you needed the aperture to be as small as possible, so you needed a slow shutter speed to gather the right amount of light as indicated by the exposure meter reading. If you needed to enlarge the depth of the field of sharp focus, you opened your aperture up, and increased the shutter speed to even out the light level coming into the camera.

So that was the list of things to do to just focus the camera. Next came the loading of the film. The film came in 4 inch by 5 inch sheets that were loaded two each into film holders, one on each side. 

The unexposed film sheets were loaded into the film holders while in the darkroom in complete darkness. Slide covers fit snugly into both sides of the film holder so the unexposed film could be kept unexposed until the covers were removed.

Before the covers were removed, the film holders had to be loaded into the back of the camera. This involved pushing, rather forcefully, the film holder into the back slot of the camera, pushing the ground glass viewing screen backwards and placing the sheet film into the exact location (distance from the lens) that the ground glass viewer was situated. 

That meant the image you focused on using the ground glass was now precisely focused on the sheet of film in the film holder.

By this time you were actually getting close to taking a picture. You had to be sure to close the shutter that had been held open while you were focusing on the ground glass, and then you "cocked the shutter" that wound up the spring that would trip the shutter when you were ready to release it.

Next came the removal of the slide from the film holder, thus clearing the light path from the lens to the film sheet, and then, looking through a side "viewfinder" sticking up off the top of the camera, you took a breath, put your finger on the shutter release cable, and pressed the large silver button.

The shutter clicked, the film sheet was exposed, and you quickly slid the cover back over the top of the sheet film to protect it from any further light. Then you pulled the film holder out the side, flipped it over, and inserted it back into the film plane, pushing the spring-loaded ground glass viewer back out of the way.

And  a picture had been taken. 

Now during World War II, I'm sure a lot of pictures had been taken in less-than-favorable light conditions, with little time for exact focusing, and hurried film handling that might have caused some light leakage before the film sheet got developed. As I said before, it's a miracle the war photographers got any pictures at all. 

This camera was called a "Speed Graphic," because it was faster to use than other bellows extension cameras. Therefore it was a favorite camera for sports photography!

The other popular bellows extension camera was called the "Crown Graphic." About the only place you see bellows extension "large format" cameras nowadays are in professional portrait studios where large film sizes are required and they haven't heard about digital cameras yet. (To be fair large format cameras offer a large array of parameters that can be set according to the desired lighting effects, focus requirements, and shutter speed adjustments. Besides, shooting on film is not the same as shooting with digital cameras.)

Because I learned on this sort of camera, I have a fondness for them, sort of a feeling of nostalgia. I wouldn't want to actually use one to take a picture, I'm not that crazy, but they are magnificent machines.

Darkroom Procedures and Light Leaks

After learning how to take pictures with the Speed Graphic, the high school photography team then learned darkroom techniques. I won't dwell on the darkroom techniques, other than saying it was dark and mostly involved sloshing trays full of chemicals back and forth.After developing the negatives, you moved on to printing the photographs from the negatives.

Printing pictures in the darkroom was an exacting process, but at least you had a dim red lamp on to actually see what you were doing. Load the negative into the photo enlarger, turn enlarger lamp on, focus the image on the easel, turn lamp off, open the light-tight box with the light-sensitive paper in it, load the paper onto the easel, and, using a big hand-cranked countdown clock (or counting seconds in your head), turn the enlarger light on for a pre-determined number of seconds, then off. Put the sheet of exposed paper into the developer tray, slosh back and forth for a while, until you see the image reach the level of exposure you wanted, then immediately move it to the rinsing tray, slosh, slosh, and then the fixing tray, more sloshing. Five minutes later it came out the fixing tray, and the wet paper was set somewhere to dry. Hopefully it would dry without curling up on you. 

The developer tray chemical bath did not come pre-packaged. It was a powder you had to mix with water and store in light-protected bottles to keep it from going bad. The fixer tray chemical bath also came in powder form that had to be mixed and poured into the fixer tray. Both trays had to be refreshed with new chemicals after so many pictures going through them. The middle rinsing tray was just water. 

Knowing the exposure time to give a piece of paper using a negative and an enlarger was a developed skill. The exposure times had to be adjusted for the density of the negative (whether it was over-exposed or under-exposed) and care had to be taken there since a super long darkroom exposure time was just asking for light leaks to "fog" the paper before it hit the fixer tray. 


Darkrooms are dark, but they are not absolutely light-free. Speed in printing pictures thus was a helpful skill. It also helped that when the pictures were taken, several were exposed with a "bracketed" aperture setting. That meant that first you took a picture at your best calculated exposure setting based on light meter readings, shutter speed, and lens opening, and then you took three or four other pictures of the same scene using the next exposure settings up and down both sides of your calculated settings. That sort of gave you "insurance" that you would wind up getting a properly exposed negative somewhere in all those bracketed pictures. A well-exposed negative meant a faster print making experience in the darkroom, and thus less chance for muddy prints and/or the dreaded light leaks.

Muddy negative images could have the contrast improved on the enlarger by using a set of numbered filters between the enlarger lamp and the photo paper, and this was definitely a learned skill set. Figuring out which filter to use for how long was determined solely by experience. Photo paper was not cheap, so the learning process necessitated learning as quickly as possible. 

From the Graphic cameras, the photography club went on to 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 roll film cameras, a slightly faster way to take pictures. Negatives were created on a 2 and a quarter inch wide strip of film, advanced through the camera through a wind-forward knob. Take a picture, wind the knob forward to the next blank section of film, take another picture. We were using "twin lens reflex" cameras, and that meant focus was obtained through a downward facing viewfinder that bounced through a mirror out the front of the camera. The viewfinder lens was just above the camera lens, so care had to be taken that the frame of the picture being taken was close to what you were seeing through the viewfinder. 

A Twin Lens Reflex Camera
2 1/4 by 2 1/4

Our camera had a built in light exposure meter, a giant leap forward from the hand-held light meters, though not quite as accurate. 

Film was developed by putting the exposed camera roll into a light-tight loading device that spooled it onto a film-developing reel.  The reel held the film so that all surfaces could be reached by first pouring in the developing chemicals, then the rinsing chemical, and then the fixing chemicals. Same process, but it was taking place inside a developing tank instead of a darkroom. Printing the pictures was the same, except the darkroom enlarger had a film-holder for roll negatives instead of sheet film. 

I should mention that all of this was done for black and white pictures only. Color darkrooms were more expensive, three times more complicated, and color pictures required much more uniform lighting, meaning studio lights coming in from several directions. Black and white photography was more "artistic," we told ourselves, because one or two light sources were all that was needed.

I won't get into artificial lighting, except to say that flashbulbs were expensive, breakable, and extremely hot to touch. Burned a few fingers during that learning curve. Electronic strobe lighting was better, but the battery packs weighed a ton, and please don't get them wet. 

By the last year of the photography club we were moving onto 35 mm roll film cameras. They were easier to use, faster and had built in light meters. Some 35 mm cameras were known as "SLRs" (single lens reflex) because they had a mirror that swung down and enabled viewfinding that exactly matched the image hitting the film plane (and the negative film.) When you clicked the shutter, the mirror swung up out of the way, the shutter opened, light hit the film, and then the mirror swung down into place again. A little clunky when you come to think of it, but it reduced parallax errors and fewer pictures showed someone's head being cropped out of the frame. 

I resisted going to 35 mm for a long time, because the negatives were so small (when compared to 4 x 5 inch sheet film and even 2 1/4 by 2 1/4 inch roll film. I had become spoiled by the huge negatives and photographic detail offered by the large format cameras, and even the roll film camera had pretty good sized negatives. But 35 mm wide film was noticeably lacking in detail, especially when the films started coming out with faster light-gathering characteristics. A "film speed" of 125 was a good all-round film, but in less light situations, a film speed of 400 came in handy. It came at a cost in quality, however. Higher film speeds usually meant more grain in the film and that equaled less detail and lower image quality. 

Speed over quality, where have I heard that compromise before?

Anyway, I finally bit the 35 mm bullet, which was a good thing, since most of the thousands of pictures taken during my newspaper career were on 35 mm film, much of which I developed and printed myself. 

I dabbled in a few other formats, including 3D cameras which, for some reason, never did take off... sort of like 3D televisions.

Fast forward to today, and every one has high quality digital cameras... on their phones. Just saying that seems weird. There are high quality handheld digital cameras, of course, and people who know a lot more about photography than I do usually have one of those two thousand dollar digital cameras that does everything. Being retired like I am, I am happy with just my cell phone camera or, if time permits, my Canon digital camera that produces images good enough to pull into Photoshop and make something useful. 

So that's the story of my old-fashioned learning experiences in shooting, developing and printing photographs.