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Metering by Eye

Light is the basic element of photography, just as sound is that of music. A good photographer should be as familiar with light as the good musician is with notes and scales. Photography is, at its core, based on a very simple principle. An image of the world is captured by allowing a certain amount of light to fall on a piece of photosensitive material. Whether the photosensitive material in question is a silicon chip, silver film, glass plate or salted paper, this elegant little concept holds. Whether or not the light is shaped by the latest cutting edge in glass and coating technology, an old brass lens or indeed a humble pinhole, the same principles apply. The crucial questions of how much light reaches the photosensitive material and in what ways that amount may be controlled go to the very essence of photographic technique – the determination of exposure.

“Reading the light” or “metering by eye” can be easily mastered with a little practice, yet most photographers leave this cent…
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Van Dyke Prints: An Overview

For a little background to these overviews, see here.

History: Introduced in 1889 by Arndt and Troos, the Van Dyke print is part of a group of iron based processes which draw on Sir John Herschel's work on the Argentotype silver-iron process developed in 1842.

Negatives: A density range of about 1.5 is suitable.

Sensitizer: Part A: 9gms ferric ammonium citrate (green) + 35ml water
Part B: 1.5gms of tartaric acid + 35ml water
Part C: 12gms silver nitrate + 35ml water
In moderate light mix A, B and C (in that order) and age for a few days before use. The solution keeps well for about a year if kept in a cool, dark place. At times, owing to trace chemicals in various supplies of ferric ammonium citrate, the sensitizer may develop a muddy precipitate after about 2/3 of solution C is mixed. This can be allowed to settle and the clear sensitizer on top used, or adding about 2.5 gms more of tartaric acid can also dissolve the precipitate. The additional tartaric acid results in a fainter o…

Cyanotype: An Overview

As I explore a photographic process, I will post brief summaries of its essential technical elements. These summaries are not meant to be comprehensive or to substitute for books that deal in-depth with these processes. They are more field notes for myself and might be useful for a quick lookup while working with these processes. Remember that many of these alternative processes have been around for a century and a half and more and they have evolved considerably over that time. Remember, too, that these processes were not originally meant to be used with silver or even digitally printed negatives as most modern practitioners of alternative photo processes do. There are endless variations of formulas and techniques rather than one simple "right" method as my quick overview might imply to the superficial observer. But hopefully these summaries will serve as a quick reference or encourage you to read and explore further.

History: The Cyanotype was first described by Sir John H…

The Keepers of Light: Book Review

This book takes its subtitle - "A History and Working Guide to Early Photographic Processes" - quite seriously. It is as much a history of early photography as it is a practical guide to early processes. So, while most handbooks for these processes have a bit of history included for 'background' as a matter of course, Crawford dedicates the major chunk of the book to a detailed, sustained and quite insightful history of early photography. The practical guide to these processes is quite competent but it is almost an afterthought after the exhilarating tour-de-force of the first section of the book on the development of photography from its earliest days to well into the age of the silver gelatin print in the first half of the twentieth century.

I have always found most histories of photography to be quite tedious. They usually read like a long list of dates and developments and brief backgrounds of the persons associated with them. This approach is akin to history as…

Alternative Photographic Processes: A Bibliography

Here is a general bibliography on alternative photographic processes. I will keep adding to it as I come upon more resources and, over time, will put up more detailed reviews of titles I get to know well enough. If you have more suggestions to add to the list, please let me know.
Anderson, Christina. Alternative Processes Condensed: A Manual of Gum Bichromate and Other Contact Printing Processes. Self-published.Arentz, Dick. Platinum and Palladium Printing. St. Louis: Focal Press, 1999.Barnier, John. Coming into Focus: A Step-by-Step Guide to Alternative Photographic Printing Processes. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000.Blacklow, Laura. New Dimensions in Photo Processes: A Step by Step Manual for Alternative Techniques. 4th Edition. St. Louis: Focal Press, 2007.Burkholder, Dan. Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing. Bladed Iris Press, 1999.Coe, Brian. A Guide to Early Photographic Processes. London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1984.Crawford, William. The Keepers of Light: A…

Hacking St. Ansel: A Homemade Densitometer

If, like me, you are still holding fast and shooting some film amidst the digital deluge, chances are you have delusional visions about Saint Ansel going forth and spreading the the light of the pure craft of photography (the light, of course, is divided into zones neatly marked I-X). But pure or not, the craft of analogue photography requires quite a bit of exactness and repeatability to give optimum results and for this, testing film and developer combinations often becomes necessary. But the one thing that hindered me most from really testing my film and having sleepless nights over geeky things like N-1 development was the lack of - or rather the cost of - a densitometer. I know those things cost a lot less than they used to - a few hundred instead of a few thousand several years back - but they are still expensive and bulky beasts. But not to be discouraged from my vision of photographic nirvana, I managed to put together a kit that cost me all of $30 - and can conceivably be don…

DIY Quick Release Plates, or, How to Put a $5 Camera on a $500 Tripod!

If you have a lot of plastic and toy cameras and like me want to use some of them as pinholes or use them on bulb mode for long exposures, then you've probably tried to device ways of putting them on a tripod. If the tripod quick-release system you are using is something like the Arca-Swiss then the cost of plates at about $50 or more a pop can become a major concern - especially on cameras which usually cost under $5!

I used Bogen's clamp system for a while and now use the Arca-Swiss system. They both share the same basic design although the sizes vary widely. The only pieces of equipment I wont put on a tripod without solid metal plates are my 'real' cameras - the Chamonix 4x5, and ยต4/3 Panasonic. But for most of my other cameras (I never seem to shoot rangefinders from a tripod, somehow) I have devised a simple way of making my own plates - modeling clay!

It's available from most art supply stores. I recommend the kind that hardens on baking. Cut out a block that …

Albumen Prints: An Overview

For a little background to these overviews, see here.

History: First introduced by Louis-Desiree Blanquart-Evrard in 1850, albumen printing was the dominant photographic process for most of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Negatives: A density range of 2.0 to 2.5 is good.

Preparing the albumen: 500ml of egg whites (no yolk or white stringy bits) + 1ml glacial acetic acid + 15gm ammonium chloride + 15ml distilled water. Stir briskly until it turns into a froth. Cover container and refrigerate for 24 hrs. Remove the froth on the top and filter the liquid through cheesecloth. Age in refrigerator for a week or more.

Coating the paper: Coat by floating for 3 mins and hang to dry. To double coat, the albumen needs to be hardened. This can be done by steaming, heating to about 150F with a hot iron under a protective board, or dipping in a 500ml 70% isopropyl alcohol + 15gm ammonium chloride bath.

Sensitizing the paper: Either float, brush or use glass rod to coat with 12% silver nitrate…

Using a DSLR as a Shutter-Tester

What good is a DSLR if you can't test the shutter of your Holga with it? Ok, I'm kidding, but there is a fairly simple way to use a DSLR as a shutter speed tester for any lens that has a leaf shutter. In fact, with a little care, this method can be used to test practically any shutter. Don't expect pinpoint accuracy or rush to put your lab equipment on eBay, but this method should be accurate to within at least a third of a stop - certainly good enough for average everyday use.

Think for a moment what a shutter does. It is simply a way to block the path of light falling on the film/sensor and then to remove that blockage for a certain known amount of time to let light fall on the film/sensor. It's a pretty simple concept really - a mechanized and repeatable version of the old hat-on-lens technique. Problem is, shutter speeds go off - they slow down, they speed up and do all sorts of funny things. Often, as in the case of mechanical marvels like the Holga, they are simpl…

Where Have All the Flowers Gone, or, Why I Miss Closeups

Every photographer should try shooting nature closeups sometime! Outrageous, I know. Might as well suggest that it is the sacred duty of every budding shutterbug to make portraits of domesticated felines, or shoot oversaturated sunsets. But bear with me for a second. When I started doing photography seriously I had no interest in insects, none! Not even the more conventional interest in pretty flower shots. My foray into macro photography was the result of circumstances. I didn't have a car at the time, and I found that nature's grandeur was somewhat limited on the regular bus routes. But there was a meadow and a small lake nearby with lots of lovely plants ... and butterflies - pretty butterflies. So I tried shooting some pictures with my new zoom, but strangely not much came out. Admittedly I was a beginner all around, and my portraits or street photographs, too, were not likely to be mistaken for undiscovered Karsh or Cartier-Bresson. But y'know, if I took a shot of my …

Film: A Beginner's Guide

An old friend just asked me for a film recommendation. She got a DSLR recently, made a few nice photographs, converted a few to black and white, got to wondering what real black and white film is like, dug out an old family Minolta SLR - and here we are. I thought that a lot of people who have started out with digital photography and never experienced film might be in a similar position. The terminology surrounding various types of films, formats and processes can be a little confusing and daunting - it was for me when I started, even though it was before digital photography exploded on the scene. So here's a quick rundown for the rank newcomer to film. Any advanced photographer will, of course, find this full of generalizations and simplifications, and the beginner should note that the techniques surrounding film photography are a vast subject. It ranges from the extremely precise to the seemingly mystical but is always fascinating. I hope you will find this little write-up an ad…

Gearing Up: The Equipment I Use

Anyone who has done photography seriously will tell you that it's not the camera but the photographer that makes pictures. Why bother with a list of gear, then? For one, I have found that the equipment I have used has evolved to reflect the development of my photography. It is not always about the sharpest or the fastest, but often about choosing the most expressive tool for one's photography. I find that even though I have settled on my main kinds of equipment, the entire lot is constantly in a state of gentle flux - constantly being tweaked, having minor changes and adjustments made. In other words, my gear, like my photography, seems to be a work in progress.

So, on this page, I will try to keep a more or less current list of the equipment I use for my photography. Hopefully you will find it interesting beyond the mere specs and the sharpness count.

Over the years, I have tried to do a few distinct kinds of photography seriously. Consequently my equipment has evolved to suit …

Leica 40mm Summicron-C vs. CV 40mm Nokton

So, I was getting bored working at home but didn't have the time to go out to do any meaningful photography. So I decided to do the next best thing - some meaningless photography! a.k.a. lens tests. Since I had newly acquired a Leitz 40mm f2 Summicron-C, I decided to find out how my usual street lens, a Cosina-Voigtlander 40mm f1.4 Nokton MC, matched up against it. So I drew up a plan and shot off a roll of film and here are my findings.

I tested for the factors that I find important in how I use these lenses - i.e. handheld street photography. Of course, all the standard caveats of informal testing of photographic equipment apply - sample variation, non-objective criteria, do-your-own-testing yada yada - but I hope you still find the review interesting.

Camera was a Bessa-T, with TMax 100 film at EI 64 developed for 6.5 mins in HC110B (.1 - 1.35 density range). Everything scanned with a Nikon Coolscan IV at 2900 dpi. Minimal or no postprocessing applied. Where I have applied even t…