plain photography

This post is meant mainly for amateur and artistic photographers. Some of the comments I received on my last post, made me think that it would be worth while talking about my understanding of what this craft is all about. Photography has been a popular pastime since Kodak first advertised, ‘you press the button, and we’ll do the rest’ about a hundred years ago. Modern photography, with a permanent image on paper, or metal or glass, is almost 200 years old. But never has photography been as popular or as accessible as it has been since the invention of digital photography. And since this is a very commercial age, a lot of attention has been given to the different cameras available. In fact, there seems to me, to be too much of an accent on the tools and accessories, and applications which can help one in attaining beautiful or interesting images.

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Since I started working in this field long before the digital revolution, and had the pleasure of teaching the craft to students for quite a few years, I thought that some of my blog friends and readers might enjoy hearing a bit about my views and experience.

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Cameras have become very sophisticated. They offer automatic exposure, automatic focus, in camera artistic effects, stabilization, automatic recording of the time when the picture was taken, where it was taken, and what the aperture and the speed of the shutter at the time the photo was taken. When I started out as a photographer, all of these functions were part of the photographers work. The way to stabilization was usually with the help of a tripod. And if you wanted to take a flash picture because there wasn’t enough light, you had to use a separate instrument, and then calculate your aperture according to the distance from your subject, and then the bulb was only good for one flash. I had to carry boxes of bulbs when I used the flash. But even when photography meant a lot of work, it was still a lot of fun, filled with adventure and excitement.

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Cameras weren’t the most important thing about the craft. There were those of us who made their own cameras. I remember teaching many of my students how to make a camera in the most simple way… from a discarded coffee can, without even a lens. I saw some very beautiful cameras that were hand made, and equipped with fine lenses. Some of these cameras were made of metal, some of wood, and some of carton, and they all worked just fine. Most people had one camera that they used for years and years. And what mattered most, was the size of the negative. some folks liked large negatives, because they could absorb far more information. Others preferred small cameras that they could take everywhere without too much notice. They used smaller negatives. After WWII, the most popular cameras were 35mm, because they were easy to carry, and the films were relatively cheap, since the movie business also used 35mm films. I used to work with a 4×5 inch camera, which meant that the negative was that size or 10×13 cm. These negatives captured a lot of information, and one could blow up the pictures to very large dimensions without getting a lot of grain on the print.

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The illustrations in this post were made in the darkroom without the use of a camera at all. These photograms, as they are called, were made while working together with students. Photography does not have to be a mirror image of something we see around us. It can be the product of our imagination… it can be play, or humor or art. What is most important is the vision of the photographer. The tools are of secondary importance.

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When I first started with digital photography, I was given a very cheap digital camera by one of my sons who discovered it on the internet. It had a view screen but no monitor, so I had to wait to get back to the computer before I could see the pictures. And it created an image that would be considered very light by today’s standards (low in pixels). The lens was made of plastic. In fact, it distorted the image that passed through the lens. But I was able to make some fine pictures with that camera, which were later exhibited, and are still among my favorites. In the old days, we used to photograph through glass, nylon, and plastic, sometimes smearing the glass with a thin layer of Vaseline in order to distort the images on purpose. And on the other hand, I have had students who used a simple copying machine as a camera. What is most important is the imagination, and the ideas in your head.

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No matter what camera you use, it is a great advantage to learn the character of the camera and just what it can do and what sort of results you are going to get from it, before you use it seriously. Because each camera has its own personality, and you get the best results when you work together with your camera and don’t try to force it to do your will. Think of your camera as a happy little donkey, and try to play with it.

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A good modern camera has automatic exposure, plus the possibility of choosing an exposure according to your preference, or setting the exposure manually You can set the sensitivity yourself, or choose automatic ISO. The ISO is the sensitivity. Sometimes it is called ASA. If you set the exposure to A, you can determine the aperture you’re going to use, and the camera will automatically set the shutter at a speed that allows you to shoot a properly exposed picture with that aperture. If you want to determine the shutter speed, you can set the exposure at S, and then the camera will set the aperture to meet the demands of that shutter speed. Now if you want a very deep depth of field, you’ll choose the smallest aperture, which is found when using the highest number available on the aperture scale. If you want just a certain something in focus, then you’ll open up to the largest aperture. That’ll be the smallest number on your scale. But sometimes the speed of the capture is what is important. If you’re trying to avoid blur, and freeze motion, you’ll set the shutter to a relatively fast speed, 1/250 of a second. If you want to show movement in your picture, you’ll choose a slow shutter speed. Sometimes I’ve gone as slow as a few seconds for a shot; sometimes minutes.

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There’s so much to tell about the use of a camera, that this is just a little taste. But if there are enough interested amateur photographers out there, I will come back to this subject again. And of course, there is a great wealth of information available in countless books on photography, found in every library.

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83 responses to “plain photography

  1. I like the photos you used with this post! My father enjoyed using a large format camera. Thinking about it now, I’m guessing that the reversed and upside-down image in the view finder may have been an asset in finding a good composition. I also remember making a pin-hole camera in order to safely watch a solar eclipse. Thanks, Shimon. Once again, you have broadened my horizons.

    • Thank you, Ruth. I liked the large format very much. I had a lot of advantages, and one of them, as you say, was that the picture was upside down in the camera. And pinhole cameras are so simple, and yet are able to capture fantastic images. Thanks for your comment.

  2. Happy New Year Shimon! Amazing work as always.Looking forward to a great time of interaction.

  3. Very much enjoyed this post, and do hope you will come back to this subject to continue sharing your expertise. And I love some of the pictures. I’m presently watching the cine films my father took in the 50s.

    • Ah, it’s a pleasure to look at home films from the past. It does seem as if photography has changed a lot since then. Because it’s so accessible, there is a much wider range of experimentation. Glad you enjoyed the post, Gillyk.

  4. Fantastic post: very interesting to read and funny illustrations.

  5. Interesting look back at your pre-digital experience. Although technology has greatly change cameras, I still believe that it remains the skill of the one using the camera. The best photographers still shine above the rest. By the way, the next to the last image here is my favorite.

    Also, are you familiar with this site? http://munchow.wordpress.com/ … Otto is an excellent photographer and has much to share on his site … plus he’s very nice.

    • Yes Frank, when we talk about the art, there is no question that it’s the skill that stands out. But because it’s so easy now, there’s a lot of room for experimentation. And sometimes the product of serendipity is both charming and fascinating. I’ve seen very interesting work by children, and totally untrained photographers. And yes, I have seen Muchow’s site, and he has some very nice stuff there.

  6. wonderful sharing with us. I loved it so much. Thank you dear Shimon, have a nice weekend, love, nia

    • Thank you so much, Nia. I’m glad you enjoyed it. And may you have a beautiful week. I believe that you too have been enjoying snow in the last week. Hope it was good for you.

  7. I NEED you to come back to this subject, as I’m the world’s worst photographer! I love photography but have little understanding of it and your explanations have already helped me understand why so many of my pics are blurry. I find digital cameras so confusing as there are so many different settings, I also get lost in watching what I’m photographing and click on the last minute…..
    I love that phrase, think of your camera as a happy little donkey and play with it, well mine has played with me too long and now you’re giving free lessons the tables will turn!
    I had no idea that we could make our own cameras….I would love to do that!
    I’ve also never heard of photograms…and I love the images, especially the dove, the fisherman and the dancers.
    Thanks for this Shimon, there may be hope for me yet!xxxxx

    • Believe me, Dina, there’s a lot of hope for you as a photographer, if you enjoy the field. And I only wish I could help you face to face, get to know your camera and how it works. But I will relate to the problem of blurry some more. Glad you enjoyed the images.

  8. I loved these images and so appreciated your information and expertise. Thank you, Shimon! I would love follow-up posts on photography.

    • Glad you liked the post, Catherine. Unfortunately, there are so many issues in photography, that it is hard for me to get to them all in this sort of blog… but I will do another post on the subject.

  9. A very interesting post Shimon. I love the idea that you built your own cameras. The illustrations are lovely and as you said, show a great deal of imagination. I hope you will continue with this series and I will look forward to the next part.

    • Working with cameras that we made ourselves inspired a more intimate relationship to the process as a whole, which was continued in the darkroom, where we worked on the images till they were finished on the paper. I used to do my own color development and printing, so it was all a ‘hands on’ operation. But there was still something magic about it, as there is in the digital age. Thank you, Chillbrook.

  10. Interesting images. Nice work Shimon 🙂

  11. Very interesting post and LOVELY illustrations! I absolutely agree with you: “What is important is the imagination and the ideas in your head. (…) The tools are of secondary importance”. In my humble opinion it should be first of all the need to express our individual visions that makes us take photos (or create images), not winning prizes or earning money, or collecting a huge number of admirers…

  12. Excellent article Shimon and it took me awhile to figure out what your images were…photograms. I remember doing those when I took a film developing course in University.

    • I mentioned that these were photograms in the fifth paragraph, right under the illustration of the bird in heaven, Edith. Hope you enjoyed working in the vein. I loved it, and have quite a collection.

  13. i have been fortunate to often be at the front edge of technology, and that goes with digital cameras too. i had gotten hold of my first one around 1993. a teacher i admired was retiring, and the school had a special day of celebration planned. when he arrived that morning, i stopped him to snap a picture next to the welcome sign at the front of the school building. then i quickly uploaded the picture into my computer, printed it, and attached it to a commemorative booklet that we had made for his day. then, during a ceremony with the whole school, he was presented with the booklet and looked curiously at the cover. then he looked at me while pointing at the cover, and i could tell what he wanted to ask. i said, “i’ll explain it later.”

    • That sounds wonderful, Rich. I didn’t start shooting with a digital camera till 1998, which was five years later. But it was great fun to send samples of a job to a customer by email right away, and to get an okay to go ahead with the job. Before that we had used polaroids, and I had Polaroid backs that used to fit on the back of a couple of cameras so that I could show people exactly how I was going to do something.

  14. I would love it if you came back to this subject again. I love pictures, for me they are a gateway into the past.

    • Glad you enjoyed this, Linda. I do intend to write more about this, but there are a lot of different problems people encounter. If you have a specific question, you are welcome to ask.

  15. A lovely, informative post, so beautifully explained and illustrated. I am fascinated and inspired by the photograms!

    • It doesn’t surprise me that you liked the photograms, Lemony. They were very characteristic of work in the dark room, but photographers like to play with images in digital too.

  16. The new Nikon I just bought is SO stupid, I might as well be using the happy litte donkey you mention. 😉
    Creativity in a camera is simply wonderful.

    • You have me laughing, Bob, with your complaints about the new Nikon. But I agree with you that it really does take a while to learn all the ins and outs of a modern sophisticated instrument like that. I am waiting to see more of your fine photography.

  17. I really do enjoy your posts… I have worked with photographers for nearly 20 years and in the beginning using film was always a hit and miss affair. When digital came in I remember so many photographers growling at it’s cheapness and particularly detesting the lack of control. Or more to the point, the amount of input us Art Directors could have with the final image. Now, it’s a god sent… it’s efficient and time effective. I greatly appreciate the art of photo making and love your images. There are some amazing photographers that have foregone the digital age all together, other than to use it as a medium for showcasing their work. I’m attaching a link to one of my favourite local artists here in Sydney… have you heard of him?
    http://www.murrayfredericks.com.au/
    blessings to you… any recommendations on a good digital camera for someone with a good eye but not much of a technical mind?
    Adriana..

    • I don’t know what sort of photographers you worked with Adriana, but the real professionals knew exactly what was going to come out. As I just mentioned to Rich above, we used to work with Polaroids. I had a professional studio, and I would hand the Polaroids to the customer for approval before going ahead with a project. From my experience, the line that differentiates between professionals and amateurs is the ability of professionals to get exactly those effects they want. Thank you for the link to Murray Fredericks. I checked out his site, and found it quite interesting. As for buying a camera, I would have to know two things first. What you would like to do with it, and how much you want to pay for it.

  18. My husband is a photography teacher at our school and the students produce very similar work to what you’re showing. They also make their own pinhole cameras! I am not a photographer myself, but I find the whole thing fascinating.
    I love the pictures you’re showing on this blog. Thank you. 🙂

    • Thank you very much, Fatima, and how wonderful for you that your husband is a photography teacher. I am sure that he introduces you to many of the pleasures of the craft. So happy that you enjoyed the post.

  19. Thank you for the history and pointers, Shimon…I appreciate your consideration for the beginners of us out here….

    • It is my pleasure to share from my experience, Scott. I’ve met many amateur photographers who’ve done wonderful work which I’ve enjoyed a great deal. But one of the problems that keeps coming up, is that self-educated photographers sometimes have ‘black holes’ in their education, and are not completely aware of the possibilities. And the professionals don’t usually talk about these issues, because they are obvious mechanics for them. I’ve known people who’ve photographed for years without truly understanding depth of field. On the other hand, among professionals, there was a whole school of thought, lead by Weston and Adams on how to get greater depth in photographs.

  20. It is a treat to read the words of one so knowledgeable of cameras and photography.

    I think the number one thing I miss in the photography of today is slide photography! I also loved using black and white film that taught you to really look at something if you wanted a great image. I too think we must be careful not to let tools get in the way of creative vision.

    One of my friend’s gets incredible images by using a digital camera to shoot through an old box camera. The textures are mesmerizing! Great post!

  21. I really love this post, Shimon. You are so good at articulating an idea or an attitude (often that I agree with) and the illustrations are so charming. Thanks.

  22. Enjoyed both the creative photos and the information. Keep it coming!

  23. This is not an area I know about (so what’s new), but for me the second photograph (photogram?) was like reading poetry.

    • Well, none of us can know about everything… we pick up a little knowledge about those things that particularly attract us. I’m happy you liked that photogram. I identify the most with the first one, because I see the photographer as a sort of fisherman, waiting for the catch to come along. And it’s true, Rachel, that images can be very much like poetry.

  24. Very interesting. For me, the key phrase in your essay has to be “product of our imagination” 🙂

  25. Great post. Love those photograms!

  26. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    These are excellent, absolutely excellent – most especially the word white, silhouette. You’ve pulled another card out of your pack! You’re amazing, Shimon 🙂

  27. Thank for you this, Simon. I can see that you were (and are) a very good teacher. I look forward to more posts about photography.

  28. What an interesting post, and not the least, the pictures.

  29. Loved this Shimon, and the examples used, and knowing you taught the craft!!

    My first camera was my father’s old box brownie – I wonder what became of it..it had a wonderful leather cover I remember. As a teen I had a darkroom of my own at home, my father shared the passion so no doubt that’s why he encouraged me.

    Nowadays my photos are nearly all taken with my phone – no real skill and not great quality. I should probably revisit the art…

    • So glad you enjoyed it Annie. I remember those old cameras very well. I think I still have one around the house. It was fun to photograph with them, though most of the work was in the dark room. The same is possible with the phones today. You can use the computer to tweak the pictures till you get just what you wanted.

  30. My photograms never looked like this!! Fantastic exploration of photography. The other night, my memory stick got stuck in my camera and I pulled it out with pliers…things aren’t looking good right now. Like most things fabricated these days, cameras are meant to be replaced, not repaired. This makes me sad…days will go by when I can’t take photographs…and then, I will eventually have to come to some decision.

    • Yes, that is another annoyance, that things are hard to fix these days, and everything is impermanent. I have the same problem with these modern times, but on the other hand, material things are easily available. Sorry about your camera. I get attached to cameras.

  31. I didn’t realize you have such a long involvement with photography, but I’m glad to hear about your development as a photographer (okay, I couldn’t resist the wordplay). The ready availability of digital cameras—and good ones, at that—has quickly led us to a time when “everyone is a photographer.” Of course, as you implied, it’s not really the equipment that’s the most important, but the way the person taking the picture sees things. Ansel Adams, for example, showed what could be accomplished with a simple Polaroid camera.

    As for your admonition to “Think of your camera as a happy little donkey, and try to play with it,” I sometimes feel like an overburdened little donkey as I lug an increasingly weighty camera bag around as the result of getting a new (and heavier) body and lens a couple of months ago. That aside, I’m still playing.

    • Thank you for coming by, Steve. Yes, I remember well what it was like dragging a lot of heavy equipment with me to a shoot. Sometimes the physical work was more than the photographic work. And I agree with you, that photography has been opened up to serendipity. But it is always a great pleasure to see the work of someone who knows what he’s doing, and has something to say.

  32. Hey ShimonZ, here is a link to a photographer that I love following on WordPress, he has a lot of amazing ideas and is not a bit scared of experimenting.

    http://borutpeterlin.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/workshop-on-wet-plate-collodion-negative-with-misa-keskenovic/

    If you check it out let me know what you think.

    • Thank you for alerting me to his work, BoJo. It’s interesting, but I see this sort of activity as more nostalgia than art. The fine photographers who actually worked with these processes back when there were no more modern ways to photograph, reached much more impressive results. I have worked with out local museum here, to restore some of the early photography, and to print photographs from glass plates made more than 150 years ago, and much of it could compete successfully with some of what is called art in these days of self indulgent craftsmen.

  33. Now, you are getting around to me. I am following you here, Shimon. Keep going. I’m in desperate need of your instruction! I love the photograms. We forget how to communicate with simple images, I think, although the images we remember are always the powerfully simple ones. I enjoyed this post very much, and I anticipate more on this subject. Thank you.

    • I’m very glad you enjoyed the post, George. And it is an honor for me to share some of the information about the craft to new photographers. But if you’re really interested in the tricks of the trade, you can get some wonderful systematic instructions in any number of books to be found in every library. It’s worth sitting down with a book, and trying to do some of the exercises. Thank you for your comment.

  34. Wonderful post, Shimon. It’s interesting that no matter how modern and sophisticated the equipment gets, for some of us there remains a certain fascination with the basic process. I would like to learn more about making a camera out of an empty carton or coffee can. For most, I suspect, photography has become a lost art, or a never-appreciated one. Anyone with a cell phone can snap and transmit a picture without a thought. It’s convenient, yes, but something has been lost. Thank you for preserving a piece of that something.

    • You’re quite right, Charles. I knew photographers who ‘looked for something to photograph’ because they were excited about new equipment or trying out a new technique. And others who had something visual to share, and were willing to study, and invest a lot of money in the equipment, just to present the picture as best they could. I don’t worry too much about what has been lost. Most of the time, I’m enjoying the possibilities available at the moment. Thank you very much for coming by, and for your comment.

  35. I’ve enjoyed the illustrations that come with this post, Shimon! Are they your work? Out-in-the-sun exposures, perhaps? If so, they’re very good!

    • Thank you very much Jim. These were made together with some of my students. Not in sunlight, but under enlargers. Glad you like them.

      • I’ll forgive you, just this once….

        PS: I would have thought all ‘art’ is self-indulgent, by its very nature, being one of many forms available to express what we love or are compelled to express.

        PPS: I see others are calling your illustrations ‘photograms’. Never having created any, I Bing-ed and found some most edifying information. I think I would have enjoyed doing such creative things with the enlarger! 🙂

  36. A great post Shlmon, and I find these images really interesting too – particularly the second – I’m assuming it is parts of plants?

    • Oh, we used just about everything to make such pictures, Cath. Plants and paper, and cotton wool, leaves, and feathers too. It was really a game of imagination.

  37. Great post – and fantastic images.

  38. WordsFallFromMyEyes

    Shimon, this is a magnificent post – utterly rich with art. Love the light/dark the women talking at the stairs. Excellent stuff. WONDERFUL post 🙂

    • So glad you enjoyed this post, Noeleen. Now that photography is available to anyone with a telephone, we sometimes take it for granted. So it’s good to check out the possibilities now and then.

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