Monday, April 18, 2016

Experiment In New Method For Intensification Of Wet Plate Collodion Negatives

  Recently I started being more and more interested in making traditional prints from wet plate collodion negatives using such processes as albumen, carbon, salt and others.  All of these techniques have different response as far as contrast and they all require negatives with slightly (or sometimes drastically) different density range.  Carbon and albumen in particular though call for a very dense negatives and sometimes it's not easy to achieve that with simply more exposure and slower development. 

  Traditionally two methods were used in order to up the range of a wet plate collodion negative after development: redevelopment and intensification.  Redevelopment is much more gradual of a process and, if done multiple times, allows the photographer to build the density to a desired degree with a lot higher amount of precision.  It is done in two steps - re-excitement of silver with iodine and then building density via pyrogallol-based developer with some added silver in it.  If one wants to repeat that step they are welcome to do so.  I have witnessed someone doing it over and over and over and over again and their resulting negative was beyond the printable range of any process known to mankind.  Even if one doesn't go overboard, redevelopment can take considerable amount of time.  Intensification, done in a traditional manner, consists of bleaching the negative with copper sulfate and potassium bromide and then bathing the negative in a weak solution of silver nitrate and nitric acid.  Intensification is quicker than redevelopment, but it's still a two-bath process and I wanted to find a one-bath method that would be easier to perform on location and would require only one extra bottle of chemistry.

  I would like to right off the bat say that I am fully aware of the following factors that I am not taking in account with the experiment described below.  First off, there are several methods of working with thinner negatives to increase contrast in the final print - masking negative, printing them with various intensities of light and so on.  So in theory it is possible to achieve a good print with negatives which have not been reworked after initial development.  In my case though I just wanted a quick way to up the contrast of a negative to be able to make albumen or carbon prints without masking, retouching, printing longer in the shade or reworking the negative with traditional chemistry.  I also know that the albumen print shown below is very far from being perfectly coated - all I really cared about while making this test was that the center of the print is even and can show the difference I was after and I think I achieved that.  One more note - the negative I made was nowhere near as dense to begin with as it could have been given proper exposure and development.  Still though, what I was after was the difference possible - doesn't matter than the neg is a bit thin, all I'm showing is what is possible with any given negative.  If it was more beefy to begin with well then intensification would have made it denser to the same degree.

  OK, with that brief disclosure out of the way I can go on telling you about my experiment.  In the past, when first starting to make negatives, I used a certain chemical to intensify my negatives that I did not want to disclose to the world because it has been discontinued by Kodak over a decade ago and I didn't want to drive up the prices on those meager leftovers that may remain in darkrooms yet to be discovered.  However, after being asked repeatedly what I was using I decided to experiment further with another idea that occurred to me before.  I thought to myself - why wouldn't a regular silver oxidizer work for this?  It would make the silver black and also essentially add to the size of the molecules by adding oxygen to them...  So here's that I did.

  I went to a local jewelry supply shop and picked up a small bottle of Griffith Silver-Black.  A solution used to add patina in various degrees to silver and other metals.  This 1oz bottle set me back a whole $4.97 after taxes!  Oh, and it's way cheaper if bought in larger quantities.

  When I got back to the darkroom I made a quick negative on a piece of glass that I scored in two places so it's easy to split later.  Exposure was 2 sec at f16 in late afternoon sun.  I probably should have actually given it 1sec only, because after 1.5min of development I saw that the shadows are starting to have too much tone and stopped development.  If I would have given it 1sec exposure I could have carried development to the usual 3min and then the negative would be really nice and dense.  No matter though - as long as I had an even negative to start with it doesn't matter what tonality it was.  

  After fixing in 20% hypo I split the negative in three.  Left side was to be the control, middle on was intensified with Griffith Silver-Black and the right side was intensified with my 'secret-sauce' toner.  I then dried my little negative thirds and printed them in direct sunlight on (yes, rather poorly-coated) albumen paper.  I think results speak for themselves.

Negative after fixing and two types of intensification

On a light table - left side is straight, center is intensified 
with Silver-Black, right side intensified with 'secret-sauce'

Three parts being printed with albumen
Left becomes right due to having to flip it emulsion-down

Final albumen print - it's quite a bit brighter in the highlights in real life,
I mean the edges are pure white, so let that be your guide

  A few cautions and notes on possibilities.  Griffith Silver-Black is TOXIC - says it right on the bottle.  Use regular caution that you should exercise anyway with chemistry - good ventilation, gloves, handle with care, etc.  Griffith Silver-Black is supposedly capable of gradually oxidizing silver to various shades desired in jewelry.  When I use my 'secret-sauce' I use it in super-diluted form (like 10 drops to 100ml of water or even less).  When I went to do the same (actually started with 30 drops per 100ml) with Silver-Black I didn't notice any change after a minute or so, became impatient and just poured some of it undiluted (from a dropper) onto the negative - the negative turned black immediately!  There's no reason I see why in theory a well-washed negative could not be taken to various degrees of intensification by using Silver-Black in a diluted form.  Another little note - with my 'secret-sauce' intensified negative seems to have a cooler bluish look to it, while Silver-Black is very neutral black or maybe even slightly on the warm side, which should facilitate higher printing contrast because of UV-blocking properties of warmer color.  However as you can see in the last picture above if there is a difference it's absolutely minimal.  What is indeed evident in that last picture that a negative that would be way too thin for normal albumen printing could be made to work very well with a simple one-bath intensification using silver oxidizer such as Silver-Black by Griffith.  

  Oh, and let me say that I have no real experience or knowledge in the particular archival qualities of the final negative.  It does seem to me though, that once silver is oxidized there's nothing else that can happen to it...  I mean it's black already, so I assume that after a good thorough wash (and maybe even varnish to protect it from scratching during printing) it should be good for as long as your grandma's blackened silver bracelet....

Griffith Silver-Black - Says POISON right on it, so treat with respect
You can see how much I used out of that 1oz bottle - barely any

  Well, I hope this has been a helpful read for those of you who wish to skip the endless redevelopment cycles and get a nice printable negative with a single, affordable solution obtainable over the counter or on good old eBay.

Anton Orlov

Monday, April 4, 2016

Kodak 3A 122 Film Camera Sees First Use After 50-100 Years

  It's not every day that I don't get to use a camera that probably hasn't seen film in in for many many decades, so I think this deserves a quick post.

  A few years ago I was in Duluth Minnesota and happened to acquire a few Kodak 3A cameras from an estate of a collector who has recently passed away.  There were 5 of them and all but one were in great shape.  Too bad, I thought to myself, that I will probably never get to use these babies since 122 size film has not been made since well before I was born.  Recently I have seen some people use them to make tintypes, since you can literally put a plate right where the film used to go and you would have a 3.25x5.5in image without the need to for a larger camera.  I thought about doing the same, but then felt bad as silver nitrate would surely corrode all the metal and bellows beyond repair.   So I forgot about the stash of 3As in my closet until last week, when lo and behold someone on Facebook agreed to sell me 12 rolls of 122 film at a price I could not resist.   So today was the day for the first roll to be burned and here is the prettiest of the 3As ready to be loaded.

  Kodak 3A cameras were produced between 1903 and 1915, so we can be sure that this one is over 100 years old by now.  The reason I chose this one is because of the beautiful Volute shutter on it - those were an upgrade to the basic model and sold for quite a lot back then.  The lens is a B&L Tessar f6.3.  My choice of the prettiest shutter rather than the most reliable (ball-bearing) one might have turned out to be more vain than practical, but more about that a little later.
  122 size film was produced from 1903 until 1970.  Somewhere online I saw information that it was made until 1972, but that seems to contradict the writing on the seal that I found inside the package.  The film expired in December 1972 (the latest date in the batch I bought is summer 1973) and this is how the seal looked.

  I highly doubt Kodak would for some reason extend their date of discontinuation, so I think maybe the folks who thought it was made until 1972 went by the expiration date...  

  A couple of days ago I thought about this - if I shoot this, how in the word would I develop film of this format since I don't have a spool for it?...  Well, I dug around online and found a simple solution pictured below.  Actually the guy who's entry I found made it a bit more complicated than my solution.  His method is probably a bit more sturdy, but mine worked just as well and with minimal effort.
  What I did was this.  I took a double 35mm Patterson plastic developing tank (which somehow survived in my darkroom despite the fact that I loath those tanks and always use steel ones for my film) with two adjustable reels.  Both reels were pulled apart.  When that is done you end up with one half of the reel that fits nicely onto the central shaft and another one that has too big of an internal diameter.   That's where the second spool came in handy - the skinnier half of that one was inserted into the wider one from the first set.  In order to make them fit into the tank I had to break off those little flaps onto which the film is laid while loading.  A happy surprise occurred when I took a 122 film spool to measure how far apart the reel halves would have to be - one of those notches on the central shaft made the top 'reel sandwich' stop at just the right spot for the width of 122 film!   And so here it is - my simple solution for developing 122 film in a regular Patterson tank.

   I won't claim that the film went on there willingly...  After 48-49 years of being tightly wound on a spool it was rather resistant to cooperation and it took a bit of cajoling and convincing.  After a brief struggle it did oblige.

  I exposed this 125ISO film giving it about 1 stop more light than would be called for with fresh film.  There's not too much to shoot around San Diego - lots of suburbia, beach (mostly less than picturesque), freeway, back alleys...  And anyway I didn't want to try to find something extraordinary to shoot because I really didn't know how it would turn out.  Development was normal for Verishrome - HC110, 68°F at 4.25min.  I was very happy to see that I had something on there when I pulled the film from the fixer.

  Unfortunately, when I went to hang it up to dry after a wash, I saw that the negatives were rather thin.  I'm not sure why this happened. Development was obviously correct judging from the density of frame numbers and arrows that were pre-flashed there by Kodak.  So my thinking is that the shutter was running a bit fast.  Another theory would be that the film lost some sensitivity during decades of storage, but I'm less likely to believe that - I have shot Verichrome film dating back to the 60s with my Rolleiflex and have always gotten good negatives (although the amount of base fog varied according to age and conditions it was stored in).  So, I think for the next roll of film I expose I'll chose another 3A.  I will also make it a point to stop by our local camera repair shop and have them test the speeds on all of the shutters.  They can give me a simple table of how those shutters behave at any given speed and also see if they behave consistently.  Either way - there are the two shots I could pull out out of the 6 exposures possible.  Printed using filter grade 5!   Yeah, they're thin....  Nothing spectacular, but relatively exciting nonetheless seeing how it's likely that this camera has not been used in close to 100 years and knowing that the film was probably made in the year of Woodstock Music Festival!

  Oh, another quick note - the film dried a lot curlier than usual and so it's a good thing I have a 4x5 glass negative carrier.  

  I know what you're going to say - those negatives are 5.5in long and so there's cropping involved!  Well, first off this was just a test and I really didn't feel like firing up my 8x10 enlarger for these rather sorry-looking negatives.  Secondly, when I do figure out exactly which of my cameras gives me best possible results and have some decent negatives I will actually print them the way they were meant to be printed - as contact prints on AZO paper.

  Thanks for reading this or at least skimming through the pictures!
Anton Orlov

Monday, February 29, 2016

Single Transfer Carbon Printing Workshop - Dream Comes True

  Ever since I laid my eyes upon a couple of single transfer carbon prints, brought to a junior college I was attending at the time by one of the professors, I wanted to learn this technique and this weekend, almost 20 years later, that dream came to realization.  Why did it take so long?  Well, for a while I was too broke of a college student to take any workshops, then I started using 120 film rather than large format, and then life, as it always does, just put too much on my plate to be thinking of learning another historic process.  Last year though, I started getting more and more into sing historic printing methods from wet plate negatives and so the timing seemed right.  In November I got in touch with Vaughn Hutchins, one of the best carbon printers I know, and asked him to come down to San Diego from Northern California to teach his craft to me and a couple more folks.  He said that he was already planning on coming down this way to visit some family and do some shooting in the desert, so this would work out perfectly.

  Carbon printing was invented in 1855s.  By then, only a couple of decades after the inception of photography, the problem of print permanency came into view of those concerned with the longevity of their work.  Prints faded, cracked, developer stains and so on.  And so a call was put out for a more permanent method of photographic reproduction.  Along came Alphonse Poitevin with his brilliant solution - his solution was to use carbon pigments instead of metallic salts to make up the final image.  Carbon pigment is among the most stable substances known in the art world and, seeing how the materials used in a carbon print are the same as those we see in paintings dating to before Renaissance, the images are projected to last well over 700 years at the very least.  The question of whether or not the actual support on which they are presented will last that long is a separate issue that I will not go into right now.

  The basic idea upon which Alphonse based his invention wasn't new.  It has been known for a while that gelatin becomes insoluble after it has been sensitized with a variety of dichromates and exposed to UV light.  Adding pigment and working out some minor details was all that was left. 

  Aside from incredible longevity and extreme resolution, the part that I find to be most appealing in single transfer carbon prints that separates them from any other photographic process is a relief created by dried gelatin.  The final prints have an almost 3D look about them that is truly impossible to relate through a digital image, but here's an attempt in the form of a snapshot of a small area of one of my prints taken at extreme angle to show the raised texture.

Relief crated by layers of gelatin in the final print

  In a nutshell the carbon printing goes a little something like this.  Prepare the a solution of pigmented gelatin ('glob' - term coined by Vaughn and now widely in use), flow it onto the supporting tissue, dry well (takes up to a couple of days depending on humidity), sensitize with potassium or ammonium dichromate (caution must be taken while working with these chemicals as they are highly toxic), dry (a couple of hours is usually good), in contact with a negative expose the tissue to UV light, re-wet tissue briefly, join it with final support (paper of different kind or other materials can be used), place under weight and wait for gelatin to adhere to the final support, place into hot water for a little while, peel off primary support, develop the print in hot water, wash, dry, enjoy.  The basis of the process, as mentioned above, is the hardening action of dichromated gelatin when struck by UV light.  More of the gelatin gets hardened and made insoluble by light penetrating through the clear areas of the negative.  This action takes place at the top surface and continues downward - the clearer the area of the negative the deeper it does during exposure.  When the tissue is flipped that hardened gelatin comes in contact with the final support and adheres to it.  Then the remaining unhardened gelatin is simply washed off with hot water.

Print developing in hot water
as gelatin is washed off

   Now, there are a few variations of this technique that are worth mentioning.   There is a double-transfer method that was actually the most popular  historically.  One big advantage of that process is that the images have the correct left to right orientation (while in single transfer they are reversed).  The disadvantage is that is lacks the beauty of the relief.  Another variation, or rather an extension of a double transfer, is a tri-color method, where a full color print can be achieved by printing with separation negatives.  Those images look fantastic when seen online and I'm sure they are no less spectacular in person.  Tri-color method was very popular in the early part of 20th century up until the advent of dye-transfer printing.

  Any photographic process has variables and there are as many ways of doing things as there are artists creating work.  Carbon is no different.  The type and amount of pigment used, gelatin concentration, preferred negative density, water bath temperature - all vary from person to person.  Being a complete novice in this I will spare my readers the particulars as I don't want to mislead anyone into believing I know what I'm talking about there.  I will just say that the amount of dichomate used to sensitize the tissue as well as that of pigment in the glob contributes to controlling contrast.  The amount of pigment in the glob also dictates the depth of the relies.  One can also chose to mix up any color desirable - black, brown, warm cold, blue, green, you name it.

  Carbon printing is a relatively time-consuming procedure and does call for some specific tools not found in most regular darkrooms (though some of them can be omitted).  It is nice to have a magnetic stirrer to mix the pigment into glob evenly and without creating bubbles.  A hot plate or some other way of keeping a warm bath of water in which the glob will wait to be poured without coagulating is a must.  Many people nowadays resort to the use of digital negatives because with some amount of knowledge about those a desired consistent density range can be achieved, making the printing phase easier to standardize.  If you are using real in-camera negatives a densitometer should be helpful to have, but not necessary.  Here's a shot of an item in my working collection arsenal that hasn't seen much use ever since I got it.  A Kodak model 1A densitometer -made of Bakelite probably around 1920s or so.  Isn't it just darling?  Sure is handy and easy to operate.

 Kodak 1A densitometer

  A quick word about density range.  Apparently carbon can handle a rather wide range of negatives from normal range to something so extreme that if I ever would have pulled out a negative like it from fixer in the past I probably would have immediately tossed it as being unworkable when making gelatin silver prints.  To build up the most relief, according to Vaughn, contrast is key.  Thus his negatives exhibit an extreme tonal range that I have never seen before.  Below is a shot of 4 of his Tech-Pan 4x5 negs as they lay on a light table.  Vaughn brought a print made from the top right negative and it is simply stunning.  There is full detail in the shadows down to the most clear areas, those in the deep shade of redwood forest, AND sunlit leaves of plants and that log in the foreground are nowhere near pure paper-white either with subtle, yet very discernible tones.  According to my Bakelite Kodak friend this negative has a density range of 2.4 and that's not the widest latitude Vaughn has made gorgeous prints from.

 Now that's DENSE!

  The workshop was conducted in the following manner.  I met with Vaughn last weekend and we poured the tissue.  The pouring process is not as messy as one can imagine it to be, but neither is it a sanitary process - bits of black sticky gelatin end up all over the place and, while at first are kinda fun to play with, do become annoying rather quickly, so I recommend being cautious and methodical while doing this.  Once gelatin hits the tissue it cools and sets up fairly quickly, so one should move at a relatively high pace.  Since it needed a day or two to dry and is not spoiled by being dry longer we gave it full week, during which Vaughn enjoyed the scenery of Joshua Tree Park.

Glob on magnetic stir

Pouring carbon tissue (a clear plastic support is hard to see 
against black glass, but it's there)

 Tissue drying

  Following Saturday we were joined by two more students.  By the way, one of them came all the way from Chicago just for this - he has a specific idea, which, if it works out, will be a really amazing new photo printing invention, so I'm going to follow that development closely.  Early morning, prior to the arrival of others, Vaughn and I sensitized the tissue and left it to dry.  Unless frozen and kept dry sensitized tissue must be used within 24 hours (and preferably sooner) because 'dark reaction' (love that term!) takes place and gelatin hardens without exposure to UV.

 Ammonium Dichromate - please read material safety data sheet
prior to use, this stuff is nasty, but with care you'll be OK.

  By the time the two other students arrived the tissue was ready to expose and, after a brief chat about what's about to commence, off we went.    First there were the customary test strips.  Exposures are generally pretty long, so our increments were 10min each.  Vaughn brought a pair of 750w mercury vapor lamps with which he normally works.  I used an exposure unit that was home made an unknown number of decades ago, but apparently works like a charm (aside from being clunky and needing a separate ultra-heavy power supply ballast....).  My exposures actually ended up to be about 2/3 or even 1/2 of what was needed by others.

Tissue exposing in a contact printing frame

  After 15-20min of exposure comes a brief period of activity followed by the boring part.  First exposed tissue and the final support must be briefly immersed in room temperature water to start gelatin swelling and then, rather quickly, they must be joined together, placed on a glass sheet, squeegeed off and wiped dry and placed under some weight.  There they remain for a half an hour or so...  Time for coffee!

Tissue and final support under pressure

  A good workflow would probably be to start another exposure at this time rather than indulge in coffee and internet surfing for those 30min.  If one has 2 or even 3 exposure sources and can keep track of what's happening where, then multiple prints can be worked on simultaneously and the whole thing can be even more hectic and fun.

  After gelatin had a chance to permanently adhere to the final support it's time to develop.  The 'sandwich' is immersed in hot water for a few minutes and gelatin softens.  Then the tissue is peeled away and the blackness under it looks like nothing but a void of the gates of hell, with arms of black ooze stretching out through the water in all directions.  Patience and trust must be present - somewhere under there is your precious image.  With agitation more and more black soluble gelatin is washed off and a faint semblance of your image is revealed through the muck.  More agitation.  More black muck.  Maybe add a bit of hot water to keep the bath around 120°F (48°C).  Finally you start to see more and more of your image and less and less black gelatin emanating from it.  Probably not a bad idea to carry your print into a new clean hot water bath.  There you continue agitating until the you see no more black come off of it.  Time to put it in cold water for a few minuted to wash off any and all possible dichromate that may be lodged in the paper and then hang your print to dry.

Just after the tissue has been peeled off

  As excited as I was to be finally doing this I could see that the learning curve will be long and steep.  I tried to do two exposures and and both turned out too dark and muddy.  After everyone left I went to get a bite and came back to the darkroom determined to pull off something at least somewhat satisfactory.  Besides, we sensitized a lot more tissue than we used and it wouldn't be good the next day - I don't like waste and I don't like ending a day without accomplishing something I can feel good about.  I thought to myself that obviously even the negatives that I deemed to have very high contrast were too flat for this tissue and pondered what might I have that would be dense enough to leave a pure paper white....  Then I remembered that back in junior college we worked with graphic arts film called Kodalith.  This stuff is designed to give PURE bulletproof blacks and clean clear areas - no gradation at all.  With it we created outlines - the type that today can be summoned by one click of a mouse in Photoshop under Filters-Stylize-Find Edges, except it took us about 3 hours and 4 steps back in the 90s and it actually came out way cooler than what you get today with digital anyway.  Of course I still had those negatives taped together just like I left them, so I pulled this print from them and was very happy.

Kodalith outline with a negative/positive sandwich

  Sunday we met again and fine-tuned out prints.  Different strengths of dicromate were applied to new sheets of tissue because all three of us needed a tissue with higher contrast rendition.  While tissue was drying the other participants got a chance to pour new tissue and see how that works.  

 Vaughn Hutchins and Glob

  By the time that mess was over we could start printing on freshly-sensitized stuff.  This time I got two prints I was very happy with.  

 Photographer's Chair 2015
Wet plate collodion negative

 Mesa Verde Ruins, Colorado 2003
Polaroid type 55 negative

 Relief of the Mesa Verde print - I think it works
very well with this subject.

  Please do excuse my use of an iPhone to copy these 4x5 prints and any grammatical mistakes that may appear above.  These prints take a while to dry and they also dry with a slight curl to them, so I didn't want to wait that long to write this post.  Besides, only scanning would work to present them in their true rectangular fashion and I don't have a scanner (space on my desk is usually take up by things like magic lantern slide boxes, negative files, lenses, shutters, etc.  Also, it is almost 2:30am - due to residual post-workshop adrenaline that must be still flowing through me I'm still not sleepy, but who knows if any of the above will make sense to whoever is brave enough to read through it.  All I know is that there's more carbon printing ahead and there's tissue already waiting for me.  Now all that's left is to perfect my wet plate negative-making skills to the point where they will have the range required.

Anton Orlov

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Wet Plate Collodion Photograms

  Here’s a little something fun I tried recently and I think it deserves a little story.

  My friend Race Gentry stopped by in order to test out a brand new daguerreotype camera that he just received the day before.  I’m not going to go into details of exactly where he got it from or the particulars of why exactly it was atrociously bad, at his request I will hold my tongue until he gets a completely new camera made from the same maker.  Suffice to say the thing was a completely and utterly unusable $1.295.00 doorstop.  However, I am thankful to this little mishap because it inspired me to try something I have not tried before. 

  We were going to christen the camera with a little 1/6th plate ambrotype and so coated the glass and dipped it in silver before coming out into the light, taking a closer look at the camera and figuring out that there’s no possible way to use it.  Faced with the dilemma of having a coated plate ready to go I decided to run outside, pluck the first leaf I saw and try making a collodion photogram.  Photograms are made by laying an object on light-sensitive material, and exposing that combo to a directional light (generally though an enlarger).  The degree of transparency and length of exposure determines how much detail you will end up with inside the outline of the object.  The flatness of the object will determine the sharpness of the outline and the said details.  Generally people use glass to flatten the objects to the light-sensitive material, especially if your object is semi-flat already and just needs a little help, but that’s not really necessary – Man Ray did a lot of beautiful photograms, which he called Rayographs, with dimensional objects.  Of course you do this on a negative emulsion you will end up with dark areas where the light hits and light or completely white outlines.  Collodion being a positive process you end up with a dark outline on a light background.

  Outside the building I found a leaf that looked like it was pretty young and more translucent than others and plucked it.  With older thicker leafs it would be a lot harder to get the interior detail. The exposure was 90 seconds at f4 with a 75w bulb that comes standard in a Beseler 23c enlarger.  It was a total guess on my part.  I think my enlarger was cranked about half way up the column.  For some reason I thought there would be all sorts of artifacts caused by contamination of silver by dirt on the leaf.  To my surprise the very first attempt came out excellently and the shape of the leaf reminded me of a bat.  Since then people have suggested a resemblance to Batman…   I’m a lot bigger fan of pure nature and imagination than of popular culture, so in my mind it remains ‘Leaf Bat’ and here it is.

  Today, empowered by the success of the first try, I made a few more collodion photograms using other leafs from nearby plants.  As it turns out they all showed a very widely varied affects.  The more opaque fern didn’t show any detail as far as veins, but did yield a cool cloud-looking signature where the stem was.  The thicker rounded leaf made a very interesting pattern with plenty of tonal variation.  Another arrow-like leaf that I thought would likely come out similar to Leaf Bat didn’t want to show as much detail even when given 2x the exposure, but I do really like the delicacy of glowing veins on a much darker background. I think these little gems would be a great addition to the interior décor of anyone who likes nature and so they are now up for grabs on Etsy.

  In conclusion of this post I would like to once again encourage everyone to experiment and push your own creative boundaries whenever possible.

Anton Orlov

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Selecting A Portrait Lens With Correct Focal Length

           I know this topic is covered here and there and everywhere: in school and online, in workshops and lectures, on street corner posters and graffiti under freeway overpasses…  However, one way or another this topic seems to either elude a lot of photographers entirely or perhaps they ignore it knowingly.  Either way, after continually seeing tight headshots done with lenses possessing an obviously incorrect focal length, my personal OCD has reached a boiling point and I decided to finally do this little post complete with a demonstration.

            First off – let’s talk about what I mean by ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ so nobody accuses me of being an old-fashioned-purist-photo-nazi.  Let me be the first to acknowledge that in this topsy-turvy world of postmodernist art in which we live in many traditional barriers are often broken for the sake of creative concept.  I completely understand that some camera operators may purposefully chose a lens that distorts facial features in order to communicate more clearly some bizarre concept they conjured up.  Maybe they want to create a series of portraits that make an unsuspecting viewer feel as a fly that is about to land on sitter’s forehead…  Perhaps the visual effect is to relate one’s closeness to the sitter and thus communicate the unbearable suffocation of an individual due to overpopulation…  Or what if the elongated nose is meant to show how many individuals stick that body part in other people’s business?  Surely any of those scenarios would be fine and entirely understandable provided a clear explanation.  What I refer to as being ‘incorrect’ are instances where eager image-makers hold portrait sessions for monetary reimbursement from their sitters and create Pinocchio-style head and shoulder likenesses by dozens at a time.  The gullible masses are often uneducated as far as technical merits of photography and, even when they see that ‘something isn’t right here’, are more often than not too polite to bring up the topic directly.  But I would wager 10:1 that most of the good folks that come in to have their portrait made would rather have it done with a lens possessing a proper focal length for the given camera format.  After all and understandably so – they just want to look their best and not be caricaturized.  With that said, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of portraiture and lens selection.

            The rise of grotesquely distorted portraits in my little universe of large format photography can be most likely attributed to the following.  A lot of people are getting into the field on a limited budget and are influenced by seeing beautiful images done with 19th century Petzval lenses.  This is especially true for those who work in wet plate collodion medium – after all Petzvals are some of the fastest commonly available large format lenses and they also have a very specific bokeh that is favored by many, including yours truly.  However, the price tag on longer Petzvals goes up exponentially and so a lot of people get a lens they can afford and tout that it ‘covers my plate at portrait distance’.  Hearing this almost always means that the lens they have is too short for making portraits, but, yes, if they rack out the bellows to focus about 3ft away it will indeed cover their plate…  I don’t know what the remedy is for those who can’t afford a proper focal length lens – maybe just sticking with a modern lens for now until a vintage one can be afforded is the best course of action.  After all f4.5 or 5.6 is not THAT much slower than f3.6 or 4 and the sitter will only have to endure a doubling of exposure time in return for a much more flattering portrait.  Either way, just because your lens will ‘cover at portrait distance’ does not make it a lens suitable for portraits.  To top it off in the world of wet plate there seems to be a great tendency to create ‘passport photos’ – head and shoulders portraits, which showcase distortion in all it’s ugly glory.

I feel a small, admittedly simple visual explanation of why portrait distortion happens when using a lens that’s too short for a given image format would be helpful.   Described verbally it occurs simply because a lens with a shorter focal length, in order to create a head and shoulders portrait, will require a camera to be placed closer to the person than one with a longer focal length.  Hence whatever facial feature happens to be closest to the lens will take up more real estate on the film plane then those featured that biologically occur farther away.  The one unfortunate body part that most often bares the brunt of this inevitability is the nose.  In the drawing below you can see how the distance from lens to the nose vs. eyebrow changes with various focal lengths – the shorter the lens the greater the difference in those distances and the bigger the nose will appear in the photo.

            Rule of thumb – a portrait lens for tight headshots is a lens that is about twice the focal length of a ‘normal’ lens for any given format (longer is perfectly OK as well).  A  ‘normal’ focal length for any given format is equal to the length of that format’s diagonal.  Any lens shorter than that is a wide angle, any lens longer than that is telephoto.  For half body portraits one could safely use a lens with a focal length about 1.5x the focal length of a ‘normal’ lens.  Below is a small chart of camera formats with their ‘normal’ and ‘portrait’ lens focal lengths.


            Theory is great, but a practical test should help to solidify this concept visually.  For my test I used a traditional ‘quarter plate’ format – 3.25x4.25in.  For that format the normal focal length is a widely available 135mm (5.5in approximately).  For my model I employed my lovely and always cooperative girlfriend, whose facial features are very proportional and therefore will be easy to demonstrate my point upon.  I did not concentrate too much on lighting and posing and instead emulated the ubiquitous ‘passport photo’ cropping that dominates wet plate portraiture for some unbeknown to me reason.  I have also done my best as always to create the best possible wet plate image, but this was not a test of how clean I can make a plate, so don’t fixate on a few artifacts that are present.

Current average prices for vintage lenses do allow most people to find an affordable 6in Petzval (normal focal length for 4x5in), but when it comes to 10-12in ones it’s a bit harder to swing.  Moreover there is an abundance of Magic Lantern projection Petzvlas out there and those tend to be the cheapest.  Their focal length is often just 4-5in (sometimes even 3in or 3.5 as in the case of smaller Lanterns) and they barely cover quarter plate most of the time, but people buy them up, mount them on a camera, rack out the bellows to focus on a head and shoulders composition and become giddy when they discover that their 4x5 or 5x7 plate is covered. 

For the demonstration below I used: wide angle 90mm Nikkor lens, normal 135mm Laak Rathenow, slight telephoto 180mm Rodenstock and to finish it off with a strong telephoto a really nice 19th century Darlot Petzval that has a focal length of about 268mm or just about our ‘ideal’ – twice the ‘normal’ 135mm.  I used all the lenses at the aperture of f5.6. 

Wide angle vs. a lens with 2x 'normal' focal length 

 Normal focal length vs. 2x normal length

Slight telephoto vs. 2x normal length

              As you can see the difference is most noticeable with wide and normal lengths, but if you really look carefully it is also there in the last pairing.  If you were to do an even tighter crop in your frame than this you would see a greater difference.

            I do not expect my humble post to drastically change the landscape of modern portrait photography, but I had to get this whole thing off my mind and chest and now I feel better.  I hope my readers will find some food for thought and some of them may be convinced by the demo to start saving up for an appropriate focal length lens to use in their portrait sessions.

Happy shooting,
Anton Orlov