Friday, September 30, 2016

Daguerreotype Photography - My New Obsession

  Well, I have not posted here in a WHILE, but that's because I've been waiting for something worthy and I think by now there's something ready.

  Over the past few months, along with shooting a lot of wet plate work of course, I have been delving into the wonderful world of daguerreotype photography.  It has been a rough ride, but persistence is in my nature when it comes to photography, so I pushed on despite many failures.

  First a few brief details for those unfamiliar with the history and technical aspects of daguerreotype photography.  
  Daguerreotype was THE first truly successful photographic technique and it is of course named after it's inventor, a Frenchman Louis Daguerre.  He worked it out in mid to late 1830s and on August 19th 1839 disclosed the secret to the world after the French government agreed to purchase it and in return gave him a lifetime stipend.  The whole concept of 'photography' took the world by storm of course and daguerreotype technique became popular very fast.  It remained as the only commercially viable method of making photographic images through 1840s and into early 1850s - at that point it was overtaken by the new wet plate collodion method, which was faster, easier, cheaper and also let multiple images to be printed by allowing one to make negatives on clear glass.  In historic writings one can find the way photographers of the time spoke of daguerreotype images.  Even though the image is somewhat hard to see, due to the highly reflective nature of the plate, a lot of contemporaries write with deep love about little silver plates and sound nostalgic for the uniquely beautiful and almost dimensional look those images possess.  Due to that some daguerrean artists remained true to the craft even into 1880s and 90s.  Very few people practiced daguerreotypes through the 20th century and even today there is probably less than 50 people worldwide who work with the true method on any sort of regular basis.
  Briefly the technique of making a plate can be summarized as follows.  A plate of pure silver is polished to as near mirror surface as possible.  Traditionally copper plates were covered with silver by cold-cladding, today electroplated method is also used.  The plate is then first exposed to fumes of iodine, then bromine and then iodine again.  Side note - originally Daguerre used only fumes of iodine, but within a few years American photographers discovered that bromine fumes made the plates much more sensitive to light and also gave a more pleasing contrast. After fuming the plate is placed in a camera for exposure - exposures of many minutes when only iodine is used turn into seconds or even less when bromine is introduced.  After exposure the development is carried out by placing the plate over fumes of hot mercury (nasty stuff and one of the reasons not too many folks play around with this amazing technique).  The way the mercury acts upon the halides of silver is still somewhat of a mystery (at least to me for sure...), but it draws up those particles exposed to enough light and creates a silver-mercury amalgam, which basically is what makes up the final image.  Next step is to remove the rest of the silver bromides and iodides and that is done with good old sodium thiosulfate (commonly known as Hypo).  The last step is to gild the plate.  Gilding is done with gold chloride and heat and acts upon the image in a few different ways: brightens the highlights giving them a warmer golden tone, deepens the shadows, minimizes oxidation over time thus making the image much more permanent and also physically toughens the surface, before gilding the image is extremely fragile and a light swipe with a soft feather will take it right off the plate.  Finally the plate is sealed in an air-tight enclosure (under glass with a mat to separate the two) to restrict air from coming in contact with it, again to make it last longer without oxidizing. 
  Small note - there is such a thing as Becquerel daguerreotype technique, which differs both in procedure and outcome.  There the plate is only fumed with iodine (light sensitivity of those plates is A LOT less), exposed and then covered with red glass or plastic and placed outdoors.  The action on UV light when passed through the red filter acts to bring out the image (form what I know this part is still completely unexplained by science).  Though safer and easier (and because of that actually most people who make daguerreotype plates today use this method), Becquerel plates lack in tonality and have extremely high contrast with much fewer shades. Both high contrast and extremely long exposures make it almost unsuitable for portraits, scenes too look rather odd...

  Aside from being extremely curious about this historically important and visually stunning method of image-production my love for daguerreotypes was really sparked in 2012, when while being on my first cross country trip aboard The Photo Palace Bus I had the extreme pleasure and luck of meeting Rob McElroy in Buffalo NY.  You can read about that incredible adventure and see some images HERE and then a followup HERE.  Aside form being simply an amazing human being, Rob is one of the very best in the world when it comes to this form of art and I was truly astounded by his work and the whole process.  The bug got it's bite and since then I have been reaming about making my own plates.  Daguerreotype equipment though is extremely expensive - the safety that must be factored into mercury pots and low demand leading to very small number of people producing this stuff both contribute to the cost factor, and that's not even to mention the plates - pure silver isn't cheap...  So my desire to become a daguerreotype artist seemed far off and nearly unattainable.  
  At that point though I wasn't even doing wet plate....  Well in 2013 I learned to worked with collodion, got acquainted with the community and lo and behold - one of the folks who was living right in San Diego did both collodion and daguerreotypes!  Race Gentry is now a good friend of mine and we hang out as often as his busy life and school schedule lets us.  He has been kind enough to let me use his equipment to start learning and also shared a wealth of knowledge that he accumulated over the years both from experience and by reading historic literature on the subject.  Right now I'm in the final stages of gathering up all my own equipment, but I know that Race and I will be friends regardless - he's just too much fun to hang out with.

  So, with Race's help I started making becquerel plates last year.   I made some good ones rather quickly as it's not all that complicated of a technique.  Here are couple of my early Becquerel plates.
 4x5in (staining on bottom right from gilding)

24x36mm (35mm format)

   The lack of fine tonality and long exposures (25 seconds on the plates you see above) made me become rather bored rather quickly.  Don't know why I took so long after that boredom set in to start pursuing success with real mercury daguerreotypes, but I only really dedicated myself to this task a couple of months ago.  During that time there were periods when I made multiple images a day for a week or two straight and then there were times when discouraged I took breaks only to return with more force later.
   I'm not going to try to make is sound like obtaining a decent-looking plate is the hardest thing in the world.  I'm sure climbing Mt. Everest to the summit, running 100m under 10sec, truly understanding women or making a mentally challenged squirrel be able to teach calculus are all things that are harder.  However daguerreotypes have their challenges and quirks and overcoming (or at least sidestepping) them have proven to be quite a feat for yours truly.
  First there's buffing - that darn plate must be so perfect and so clean and so much like a mirror that sometimes it seemed that I'll never get it...  Then there's fuming - it's done by visual inspection and there's only a small window of particular hues of pink that works best and to top that off the proportion of iodine to bromine that is used in achieving that hue reflects on both speed of the plate and contrast of the final image.  Next there's development - that's relatively straight forward, one just have to find an optimal combination of mercury temperature and development time that doesn't go too long and lets mercury globs to accumulate in the shadow areas (like the ones you see in the below image of a box camera in the center - that one's under-exposed so in vain I tried pushing development, something that you just can't do with daguerreotypes).  OH, and then, after you might have gotten the best results you have seen in your plates you have to gild that thing and THAT is one conniving and malicious step I tell you!  The most perfect plate can go to being absolute garbage right in front of your eyes literally in a span of a few seconds and there's not a single thing you can do to stop that once it starts happening...  To top it all off almost every single practicing daguerreotype image maker I have asked seems to have their own unique workflow that works for them - sometimes steps vary only slightly from one person to another and in other instance it made me wonder if they are even working on the same technique....  All advice was taken with stride and a grain of salt.

  OK - time for some images.  
  All 5 of the good (and in the eyes of some that may be a stretch of the word 'good') images you see below are copied after gilding.
  Here's a an image I did yesterday - I believe it's my best mercury plate so far and I was extremely excited when gilding didn't ruin it completely (some back spots in the sky did show up, but I have a faint hunch about what may have caused that, so let's see if in the next few sessions I can prevent them from occurring again).


  Now let's quickly compare the above plate to just a few of the plates that I deemed worthy of copying with my phone camera during the long and windy road of learning the craft.

  Progress is evident, no?  Here's a few more recent images made after last week I for one reason or another had what seemed like a breakthrough.  This was the first one I made that wasn't awful - as I said above, it's about a full stop or maybe even two underexposed and I tried correcting that by pushing development time past where it should have ended, but in real life now it actually looks not too bad thanks to the amazing Carillo Method of brightening gilded images - this method was discovered very recently by Daniel Carrillo of Portland OR and if it works it does wonders to dull images.  Let me assure you though it doesn't exactly work perfect every time though, at least it hasn't for me...


  Here's is the first portrait I was truly happy with - even the gilding spared it from irregularities.  To top it off this is the first daguerreotype plate that I sold, so thank you very much Robert Matheson!

 2.75x3.25in with vintage mat and preserver

   Oh, and of course here's Fred - the wonderfully patient man of kind temper who resides across the stairs form my darkroom.  In the compilation of failed images above you see how many times he posed  for me and not once was he reluctant to do soHe is a true gentleman and a scholar. It is unfortunate that during gilding the stain on bottom right decided to appear, but otherwise I believe it's a solid plate in all respects.

2.75x3.25in with modern mat

  And here's a still life composition - my little homage to the old-times, the photographers who came before me, the tools they used and the people who passed in front of their lenses. 

3.25x4.25in with vintage mat and preserver

  I would like to extend my deepest gratitude to not only the people mentioned above as being instrumental in shortening my learning curve, but to all those who may or may not read this, but have patiently helped me along the way by providing tips and sharing their methods online.  There are too many of You to mention and I'm not even going to try for the fear of forgetting some of You, but I believe You know who You are - THANK YOU!

 Things I now look forward to include but are not limited to:
• Transforming my portable wet plate dark box to be safe for daguerreotype production and going on location with this technique.
• Generally improving consistency with which my plates turn out to my satisfaction (for now I'm attributing the fact that 5 out of 7 of the last plates I did turning out well to some sort of a fluke wave of luck...)
• Taming the gilding step
• Possibly receiving commissioned work to sustain myself and the pursuit of the above three goals as all three require financial input...

Thanks to my readers as well!

Anton Orlov

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Petzval Lens Sharpness Test - Voigtlander vs. Dallmeyer vs. Scovill Peeless vs. C. C. Harrison vs. Darlot

Petzval Lens Test – C. C. Harrison vs. Dallmeyer 3B vs. Voigtlander vs. Darlot vs. Scovill Peerless

There’s been some online discussions regarding quality of Petzval lenses and it prompted me to do this little test.  Some people were saying that this brand is better than that one based on how many of them were made and how much they were selling back then for (basically that cheaper lenses were worse).  Others were vehemently defending their lenses saying they’ve been happy with images for years.  I’m not in one camp or another, so for the sake of my own knowledge and to confirm or deny my own suspicions about which of my personal lenses are actually sharper than others I devised this little test.
            I would like to say that I’m aware of quite a few factors that make this optical quality test subjective and also of some factors that surely stand true in matters of collecting lenses rather than using them:

  Lenses were hand-made back in the day and thus a piece of glass made on a Monday might have been better than a lens made on Friday because the guy polishing and inspecting it just couldn’t wait to finish up that day and go have a pint of grog at the local pub.

• Glass quality improved through the years and so a Petzval from 1880s should in theory be better than one from 1850s (let’s see about that….)

• Lenses get sharper when stopped down a few stops below wide open, that’s a given.  However these days people like Petzvals for their shallow depth of focus when they are indeed wide open and so I’m choosing to conduct my test with all my lenses devoid of stops.  Lenses in this test are all about f3-3.6 so it should be a fairly fair test in tat regard

• Collectors – they are a different breed of Homo Sapiens.  Nothing is going to convince them that this brand or another is worth less because others are sharper.  This test is geared toward active users of these lenses.

Here are the lenses tested:

Control in front) Fujinon W 210mm f5.6  - this is the sharpest most corrected modern lens I own that is around the same focal length of other lenses in the test.  I’m throwing in this lens as a control to see exactly how sharp I can make my target appear.
Left to right on top:

1) Voigtlander (1865): FL 9.7in, glass diameter 3in, f3.2

2) Dallmeyer 3B (1875): FL 11in, glass diameter 3.325in, f3.3

3) Peerless Tangent dive (1872): FL 12in, glass diameter 3in, f4

4) Peerless Radial drive (~1878): FL 11in, glass diameter 3in, f3.6

5) C.C. Harrison (~1859): FL 10in, glass diameter 3in, f3.3

6) Darlot Full Plate (~1875): FL 10in, glass diameter 3in, f3.3

7) Darlot Extra Full Plate (~1878): FL 13in, glass diameter 3in, f4.6 This one is the odd-bird.  Not  only is it the slowest and longest, but it also has a small crack in the glass smack in the middle of the rearmost element – someone obviously put those elements in wrong and applied too much pressure when screwing the retaining ring back on.  Thankfully they didn’t break the glass completely…  In either case – I wanted to test it because it’s the newest one in my arsenal.

            Above parameters were not taken from each lens’ catalog listing.  Instead I focused each one on infinity (luckily, above the horizon, there were excellent fluffy clouds today!) and measured distance from the ground glass to Waterhouse slot.

            Here’s the shot of the poor rear element of the 13in Darlot with that annoying crack in it…

            I wanted to test the center sharpness of each given lens, not the curvature of focus, bokeh, contrast or other characteristics.  I just wanted to see how sharp my test target will appear under rudimentary magnification and with all things made as equal as possible.

Wet plate collodion technique here for a number of reasons.  First off it’s actually cheaper than film and is a lot more immediate in feedback.  Secondly collodion’s resolution is higher than any film base provides.  With it though come certain uncertainties, which I have tried my best to eliminate or diminish.  The biggest uncertainty being that from my understanding with prolonged development the size of silver crystals increases, thus reducing apparent resolution in my final scans.  I have tried to make my exposures vary as little as possible (while taking into account different speeds of lenses I’m using) and keeping development time consistent and timed via a Gralab timer.

I used an 8x10 Zone VI with a 4x5 reducing back.  As you can see below, while shooting the slightly varied focal lengths lenses I am filling the frame with the test target.  In my mind that is providing us with test of the ‘sweet spot’ of each lens.  The center test is obvious and I’m doing the corner clippings to see how much possible aberration set in there with each lens and how much curvature of field of focus they may have.  Now, some lenses I am testing obviously have a larger field of coverage than other (see lens-by-lens description), so in the ones with a larger image circle we can expect the focus filed to curve less within the test area.  Take that as caution.

I used a ground glass focusing loupe to make each plate appear as sharp as a given lens would allow.

Front and rear standards have been made to be as vertical and parallel as possible by using a bubble-level.  The target is on a wall, which I assume to be of vertical orientation (it’s an old building though, so who really knows, right?).

Final plates have been dried, not varnished, and photographed on a Polaroid MP4 copy stand using Canon 5D Mark II camera with a 100mm macro lens.  Fill 4x5 plates were shot at JPEG-small setting to make them manageable for import.  1:1 macro copies out of the center were shot using RAW setting.  All plates were gives same exposure while re-photographing.  JPEGs of full plates were imported into Photoshop and given an Unsharp Mask filter (100%, 1 pixel). RAW files were imported into Lightroom and sharpened 100%, radius 1, detail 25.  Then they were exported as JPEG at 100%.  Then (back in Lightroom) a tight center crop was made and again exported as 100% JPEG.
I know I'm gonna hear ALL SORTS of feedback on this post.  "Oh, you should have done this" and "Oh, you must have done this wrong".  Honestly - I did my very best to focus and let the camera settle after taking off the cap before exposure.  I used the same plate holder for all plates and plate holder was indeed in all the way on every shot.  If any of my critics would like to present their own test that would be great.  On the other hand that will really make no sense - as I said above, one Dallmeyer may be better than another.  So that eager critic might want to come over to San Diego and do the test on my lenses - I'm completely open to it.

            Here are the images of the middle section:


3)Peerless Tangent

4)Peerless Radial

5)C. C. Harrison

6)Darlot 10in

7)Darlot 13in

8) Fujinon 210W

            Here are 1:1 center images:

1) Voigtlander

2) Dallmeyer

3) Peerless Tangent

4) Peerless Radial

5) C. C. Harrison

6) Darlot 10in

7) Darlot 13in

8) Fujinon 210W

            Here are crops from 1:1 center images:

1) Voigtlander

2) Dallmeyer

3) Peerless Tangent

4) Peerless Radial

5) C. C. Harrison

6) Darlot 10in

7) Darlot 13in

8) Fujinon 210W

            And it seems that the winner in the center-sharpness category is the 10in Darlot!  It seemed to even outperfrom the Fujinon control lens.  Followinc closely in second place and matching the Fujinon is the Dallmeyer 3B.  I was honestly expecting the Harrison to come out on top, but it actually seems like it’s in the 4th place behind the 13in Darlot (the one with a crack in the glass!).

            I don’t know what this proves to anyone.  My conclusion is that my little Darlot is just as good as any other Petzval and I love it even more now.  It was actually my very first brass lens – this beauty was rescued literally from a dumpster by my college friend who heard that a photographer passed away and “all grandpa’s junk went to the dump”.  I’ll continue shooting them all because they all have a different bokeh, a test of which may or may not come in the future.  One thing is certain though – not all Voigtlanders are as sharp as others and not all Darlots are bad either like some people would have you believe based on their original cost and the mass-produced factor.

EDIT - 5-28-2016 

  So I thought that something must have been awry there in the original test - it seemed very odd that a Darlot would outperform a Harrison...  Some people pointed out that chemical focus may have been involved (this is when blue end of the spectrum is focused by a lens behind the plane of visual focus - I don't think that's the case with these lenses as I have never had images come out softer than they looked on the ground glass..., still, possible), others noted that at such close distance from lens to target any slight movement of the focus plane can throw off the results by a lot, someone else suggested that  I could have saved myself a lot of time and effort by doing the test digitally.  Armed with these suggections I decided to redo the test.
  This time I strapped my friend's Sony A7r to a 4x5 reducing back on my Kodak 2D in a following crude yet efficient manner.

  Using the nifty little 'focus assist' feature I focused on the right side of the electrical post you see in my crops.  The camera was set to ISO 50 and all exposure times were the same (I think about 1/200sec), which actually lets you see rather clearly how much (or how slightly) one lens is brighter than another.  Resolution was at finest JPEG setting. I also used a self-timer on 2sec setting, so after I pressed the button the camera had time to settle.  It was rather windless today, so I don't THINK camera shake was an issue.  COULD it have been an issue with a couple of themTotally possible!
  After shooting I exported the files into Photoshop, cropped to the point where the focus was and gave them all 100% unsharp mask filter at 1pixel.
  Since I could not move closer to the subject the pole did appear slightly bigger in the frame with longer lenses, so more pixels were devoted to it, but differences were pretty minor except with the last Darlot.   Also I did add a lens that I just received in the mail a couple days ago and was able to mount today - a 16in Wollensak Vitax.  It's also a Petzval design and of a wonderful f3.8 speed, really stoked to have this lens.

  With this method the test took about 15min instead of the previous  2 hours or so. Yes, digital IS faster than wet plate, go figure....

  One thing I totally missed - I forgot my control lens at home, so maybe some day I'll once again use that A7r and just shoot with a 210 Fujinon.  

  Here's the full frame as seen by the Sony through the Voigtlander.

  And here are the crops.
 1.  Voigtlander
2. Dallmeyer 3B

3.  Scovill Peerless Tangent Drive 

4. Scovill Peerless Radial Drive

5. C. C. Harrison

6. Darlot 10in

7. Darlot 13in

8. Wollensak Vitax 16in

  This time, as I suspected - Harrison seems to take the cake (take a look at the detail in the High Voltage sign).  Followed closely by Dallmeyer and Peerless Radial (which was made by R. Morrison who worked closely with Harrison himself, so no surprise there).  The 13in Darlot also looks great (and remember, that's the one with a crack in the rear glass).  Surprisingly my favorite 10in Darlot looks like dreck - I'm gonna write it off to camera shake, I mean c'mon - take a look at the first test results!
  As suggested to me online after I posted the first results - unless a given Petzval lens has been severely messed with throughout the ages - they are ALL GOOD.  What this test proves to me personally is that there's really not THAT much of a difference in sharpness between a coveted Dallmeyer 3B and a good Darlot.  
  Anyway, I feel rather tested-out and will now concentrate on more fun things to do. 

Anton Orlov