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Dumbing Down My Camera

Updated: Apr 4, 2020

Journey at Home Day 19

It's going to be a l o n g homeward-bound journey. By that I mean bound-at-home. I'm moving the "Journey at Home" titling to the subtitle!

I started a History of Photography online course this week through the Photographic Society of America-Worldwide. It has 16 lessons which must be completed within 16 weeks. Now that I'm home for the foreseeable future, I figured this is a good time to start the course. Each week has a writing assignment (short essay) and a photographic assignment. This week's photo assignment was challenging.

Make two black and white (B&W) photographs to demonstrate the problem encountered by Daguerre and all early photographers regarding the extremely long exposure and trying to capture people on the street.

I dialed in fully manual on my digital camera, as these photos would require a long exposure. I discovered that even in "manual" mode, the camera tries to be a helpful assistant and gets the focus i the ballpark. The early photographers had difficulty getting sharp, detailed images, so I really needed to get the focus soft. I had to turn of both image stabilization systems and then set the "manual" mode to truly manual.

Daguerre, Talbot, and others were exposing images up to several hours. The materials used to capture the images (and the subsequent processing) weren't sensitive enough for faster exposures. For an object to make it into the image, it had to be stationary for most of the time during exposure. Busy street scenes would appear empty because people were entering and exiting the scene so fast that their likeness was not captured. In one early photo, a man was having his boots shined. He fidgeted so much that this boots made it into the image, but the rest of his body did not.

Today, making a daytime photo with a long exposure requires a very high-stop neutral density filter. All I had was a 4-stop, which is typically use to capture cinematic video. To it, I added a polarizing filter and was able to get a speed as slow as 1 second.

In the first photo, I walked through the image quickly. You can see a "ghost" to the right of the picnic table. If the exposure was longer, you wouldn't even see that. It's the "missing persons" phenomenon. Early street photos show streets that appear to be empty, but that's due to the very long exposure times.

Note that I deliberately made the image soft focus because that seemed to emulate many of the old photos I've seen. Daguerre was able to get sharp photos or buildings using his process, but outdoors trees move. I assume a scene like this would have had movement.

For the second image, I set the self timer and stood with legs still but upper body moving. My head appears to be gone, my upper body blurry, and my legs more realistic. It's the "missing body parts" phenomenon that you'll see in early photographs where people have, for example, sat to get shoes shines or eat at an outdoor cafe.

Just for fun, I also made a "shadow graph" which is basically an image of an object laid onto photographic paper in the sun. This was a popular technique of early photography, but obviously didn't work for portraits or landscapes.

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