Camera Work: Evolutionary Moments in Photography.
Last week, for the first time in 37 years, the Triple Crown in horse racing was won by American Pharoah and of course, Sports Illustrated was there. The cover shot was produced by the deputy picture editor, Erick Rasco in a unusual but not unique fashion which you can read about here.
Now, this cover would never have been able to be produced in this fashion were it not for the evolution in photography bringing forces to bear, (along with a Hail Mary blind shoot attempt!) to this moment. The story triggered some thoughts about the evolution in photography from the inception: first photo to the present moment. I decided to tell stories about that evolution, of which there are many , and settled on one of my favorites, the coated lens. It’s a favorite because it pitted photographers against technological advances in a way that caused consternation and a revamping of technique, all because someone noticed something about problems with lenses that could be fixed. Fixing it precipitated a major change in techniques, not at all appreciated by the users.
The problem was flare.
Flare is simply the reflection from a glass surface which, when observed by looking at the lens from the film position, makes the lens look like a dull but noticeable light source, not producing any image, just a source of light. To appreciate this effect and the impact on image making we need to regress a moment to the overall problem in making a photograph of say, a landscape. That problem is that film cannot see the entire dynamic range of that subject, but only a small portion of the range of light, from shadow to highlight. The limit meant that in a great many cases, certain detail in the shadows which are dark will be missing, and certain details in the highlights will also be missing. This range from dark to light held by film is called the dynamic range of the medium. It is as true today with digital as it is for film. The challenge was, and still is, to increase that range so that in one shot we could have shadow detail which might include a black cat in a coal bin at midnight to the detail of the sun’s surface. I need not elaborate on the impossibility of that capability, even today. But we try anyway. And it turns out that flare helps.
But it also hinders, in that while helping to “open the shadows” the shadows do not have much detail.
Holding whatever information contained in the range of brightness values is the challenge to which film technology was devoted, including the constituent of the light sensitive material to the proper development of that substance. And there lay the rub. The flare caused by the lens added light to the shadows supporting the small amount actually supplied by the subject, but because the highlights were much brighter than the shadows, that small amount of flare isn’t noticed. Life was easier in the darkroom. Shadows had detail, highlights also.
Some folks were not satisfied and began looking into the causes of flare because while it showed detail, it did wash out that detail in the shadows; the detail was partial. Slowly the solutions revealed themselves to the patient observers, and implemented. The lens surfaces were coated with an anti-reflective coating. Voila! Now, the shadows have full detail. That should make everyone happy.
But it didn’t, because now, when the negative was developed, there were no longer any shadows. Crap! Now what?
We could get the shadows back and they looked great now but only by increasing the exposure to make up for the “fill light” that the lens flare provided. However, now all the highlights burned out!
There is a rule of thumb in analog photography: “Expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights”. Looking into the problem using that rule, the industry realized that changes, from the composition of the emulsions used for making the negative material to the developers and development process, needed revamping to take full advantage of the new coated lenses. Development in particular now needed tight, consistent control over all the parameters. Time, temperature, dilution of the developer and exhaustion of the developer’s power to reduce the silver to a visible image, all these had to be crystallized into one complete, repeatable process. No longer could intuition play a role in deciding how to develop a particular image.
Not all photographers were in favor of this change, and preferred to not adopt the coated lenses but continue using the older materials and processes. That eventually died out. The new, more realistic look came about. Ansel Adams took it another step, instituted additional methods to further control the variety of lighting conditions effects on films in the field and called it the Zone System.
My own view of this change is that the older photographers resisted the loss of their capability to produce their own pet look. The methods, from film choice, development and printing varied widely, and they foresaw that these changes will standardize the industry; great for commercial work, but not for the artist.
Today, all that falls to the science of sensors, with software provided that, with the swish of a digital slider, control is a simple mechanical procedure.
This is a simplified explanation of the processes, and for those who want to look further, you can find much more, including the rigorous methods employed by scientists and engineers so bring the control of flare into management. Here and here. As you can see, flare and it’s control is a problem for all optical systems, like eyeglasses.
A note about today’s photo. It is a photo of Mt.St Helens, in 1977, three years before the eruption. I miss the Fuji look of the mountain. It also illustrates what I am talking about here. The brightness of the snow peak along side the shadowed foreground is a good illustration of the problem and the solution. In this case, the image looks more as an image from the pre-lens coated days because while coating reduced flare, it didn’t eliminate it. I could not produce a satisfactory print from the negative until I digitized it and brought the might of all the available digital sliders to bear.
Today, I use at the digital process to revisit the various ways that a photograph might be presented, to break the standard look for a statement about what I observed and felt at the moment of exposure. The standard look is there, but no longer the driving force. You can find the photo on my website as well: www.hudechrome.com. It’s in the B&W Gallery, a good place to see it in context.
Photo ©1997-2015 Lawrence Hudetz All Rights Reserved