How did they do it?

Discussion in '35mm Cameras and Accessories' started by snegron, Apr 22, 2007.

  1. snegron

    snegron Member

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    I purchased a book yesterday, "The Great Life Photographers" after looking through some of the most stunning, awe-inspiring images I have ever seen. It is a rather large book depicting the photographers of Life magazine and their images. Other than the great images, what caught my attention was the cameras these photographers used to create their images. Most of the photographers shown in this book were photgraphed holding a screw mount Leica rangefinder. Others had a Rolleiflex or Nikon rangefinders, a few with Nikon F SLR's. I did not see one photographer holding a light meter! How did they capture low light images, go from one extreme lighting situation to the next, and come up with perfectly exposed images without the use of light meters? I know that those old screw mount Leica rangefinders did not have built in meters, nor did the the other old cameras. Today many of us obsess over the quality of the built in light meters of our cameras, probably couldn't live without them. Many have opted for using handheld meters, but the end is the same. How did they do it?


    P.S. I am almost motivated to sell all my Nikon equipment and buy a Leica M6 or M7 with a couple of lenses in the hopes of minimalizing and focusing on image making instead of equipment fussing!
     
  2. Trask

    Trask Subscriber

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    I once (back in the 60's or 70's) read an interview with Cartier-Bresson, where the interviewer asked him just the same question. HCB replied that after years of experience, he just knew the correct exposure. To test him out, the interviewer asked him what the proper exposure would be to take his (the interviewer's) picture as he sat in his chair, sitting next to a lamp. HCB gave him two exposures -- one for the bright side of his face, the other for the shadowed side. Checks done with a meter after the interview showed he was very close if not spot on.

    The other aspect is, of course, the printing. A few years ago a French mag did a piece on Salgado's printer, in which he showed what a straight print from a selected Salgado neg looked like, then showed what one that the master printer had worked on. OK, Salgado got out and took the picture, but the wonderful image we saw -- its tone, etc. -- was in large part due to what the printer was able to create in the darkroom. Look at all the work other photographers would do to create their own prints and "look" -- Gene Smith, for example.

    But I'm with you in my admiration for these guys. I always wonder how they were able to use "fast" films at ASA 100 and come up with shots that I don't think I could create using an ISO 400 or faster film.
     
  3. snegron

    snegron Member

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    Did they do their own printing as well? If not, it seems like no credit is ever given to the lab person. The more I think about the equipment and film they had available to them at the time, the more I admire their stunning images. Today's film emulsions are much better than they were back then showing much less grain. The coating on today's lenses are light years ahead of what was produced back then as well, yet their images were sharp with almost no flare problems at all! It makes me think if we really need all of this advanced technology or if it is just marketing hype to get us to buy newer, more expensive equipment.

    I would like to practice that technique of determining exposure without an exposure meter. The ultimate test would be to use one of my FM2's without the battery and no other camera to check exposure. I figure it should take me about two or three hundred rolls before I get it right! :smile:
     
  4. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    Well, they weren't always perfectly exposed.

    On the other hand, practice can teach you an awful lot. I normally set the aperture and speed on my Leicas before taking a reading, and if I'm a stop out, I think I'm slipping. The Old Guard were right about built-in meters making you lazy -- they've certainly made me lazy.

    As for 'fast' ISO 100 films, remember that fast lenses were widely used by the great photojournalists, unlike the miserably small-aperture zooms of today. And, of course, ASA 100 before 1959 was ASA 200 afterwards, and 35mm and roll-film Tri-X appeared in about 1954, well after the sheet film.

    Also, practice enables you to hold a camera surprisingly still, even at 'infeasible' shutter speeds -- and almost everyone who has tried it finds that you can hold rangefinders steadier than reflexes. Why? Dunno -- but as I say, it's common experience. And Rollei TLRs are surprisingly easy to hold still, too. One theory is that continuous viewing helps.

    Finally, they all subscribed to the simple truth that if you don't play, you can't win. Shoot first; see if it comes out afterwards...

    Edit: yes, many (?most) were printed by very good darkroom technicians; comparatively few were known as great printers. In those says, printers were well respected by photographers, and sometimes quite well paid, but their input was regarded as fairly secondary.

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  5. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    What ISO were HCB's eyes calibrated for? I take these anecdotes with a grain of salt. The eye/brain combo compensates. The notion that the brain can deduce EV using the eyes, is a source of skepticism for me.
     
  6. smieglitz

    smieglitz Subscriber

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    Well jstraw, I'm usually within +/- half-stop outdoors. I haven't relied on a meter in a long time and I'd speculate most photographers (excluding zonies) might get more accurate exposures if they trusted experience rather than a meter.

    Also, interior lighting is engineered to be at certain levels and so experience could also be used effectively there.

    Easy enough to test personally though YMMV.
     
  7. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    What do you mean? Obviously he'd have stated what film he was going to use. I can judge exposures pretty accurately, and so can plenty of others. It's a combination of experience and how things look, obviously, but I learned very early on (within the first year of taking up photography in 1966) that 1/30 at f/2 with ASA 400 would give me tolerable exposures in our drawing-room, and it wasn't a great effort after that to make allowances for brighter/dimmer lighting, more or less distance from the light, etc.

    By the late 60s/early 70s I was shooting both colour slide and B+W with pre-war Leicas, and a meter would have been inconveniently bulky and slow, so I didn't use one. Sure, I had my share of wrong exposures, but the more I practised, the better I got. Until built-in meters made me lazy...

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  8. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    My wife Frances Schultz has just reminded me of a story Heather Angel told her about Jane Bown (now THERE'S name-dropping). Jane apparently looks at the back of her hand; turns it slightly; and knows the exposure. I don't think I'd be inclined to call any of them (Frances, Heather or Jane) liars...

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  9. snegron

    snegron Member

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    I can't think of any other rational explanation. After all, I don't think he had a handheld meter, took a reading, then took the shot. He would have never "captured the moment" at that rate.

    The indoor shots near a window or other light sources taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt were amazing as well. I think that the same would hold esecially true for Gordon Parks and his Rolleiflex!
     
  10. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    I'd be interested in performing a similar experiment with my meter and someone that claims they can do what HCB claimed he could do. I'm not going to argue over anecdotes and I'm not going to call anyone a liar. I'm a skeptic and I would enjoy being proven wrong through empirical, rather than anecdotal evidence, that's all.
     
  11. smieglitz

    smieglitz Subscriber

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    OK, Next sunny day take your meter and meter an outdoor average frontlit scene or meter the cloudless northern sky 45 degrees up. I'd wager you'll get 1/ISO @ f/16 +/- half-stop. The "sunny-16 rule" y'know? Should hold in Kansas though maybe a bit different in Colorado.

    For years people without meters have used exposure tables printed in film boxes, photoguides, and more recently on the internet to estimate proper exposure. It's simply a matter of perceiving the difference between a sunny and overcast day, distinct vs. soft shadows, a bright room vs. a dim one, the edge of a forest or the deep shade within, etc.

    St. Ansel also reports he used this sort of experiential "guess" based on his learned experience of the luminance of the full moon in his famous Moonrise, Hernadez New Mexico image.

    You can prove this "argument" to yourself easily if you take the time to attend to the situations you normally photograph in.

    It's very weird but since I started doing wetplate I find I'm usually very close on initial exposures even though they may run into the tens of seconds. Another anecdote, but myself and other wetheads also report being able to almost physically feel the exposures needed as the exposure is in progress. You sense enough light has hit the plate sometimes sooner or in excess of the original guesstimate.

    If only I could effectively apply this sense to the lottery... :rolleyes:
     
  12. ehparis

    ehparis Member

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    Seems to me you'd be a bit hypocritical having a built in meter. :D

    Those times preceeded the great SLR revolution which was to be brought about by the Nikkon F, otherwise you'd see more F's in use.

    Learning exposure via the Sunny 16 and experience route is a learned talent that is not all that difficult. And keep in mind that many of those images spent long hours in the darkroom with a dodge or burn tool or other printing technique.

    There is nothing new under the sun.
     
  13. jstraw

    jstraw Member

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    1/ISO? like 1/100 for ISO 100, 1/400 for ISO 400?
     
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  15. Nick Zentena

    Nick Zentena Member

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    Check the film box. Many still include an exposure chart that is simplified sunny 16.

    If the meter disagrees with me out doors I question the meter.:D
     
  16. snegron

    snegron Member

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    Being the obssessive compulsive person that I am, I'm sure I would end up buying extra gadgets for my Leica system and end up fussing over equipment (faster lenses, back up body, motor winder or no motor winder?, etc) just as I am with my current emarrassingly excessive Nikon system. :tongue:

    I might solve this if I go really retro and get a Leica M3 single stroke. Of course, what would I do if it breaks down? I'm sure I would need a backup body! And so the obssession continues...!


    On the other hand, I have been giving this topic some thought and I think I'd like to try an experiment next week. Just for fun, and honoring the memory of the past masters of meterless photography, I am going to load up a couple of rolls of film in my Nikon F, replace the metering head with my standard prism head for a day or two, and shoot images based on the sunny 16 rule or exposure recommendations printed on the film box!

    I just realized that there are no charts printed on my boxes of film (Kodak High Definition ISO 400)! Maybe this is because the boxes hold three rolls instead of one?
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2007
  17. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I've bought a Kiev 4a recently, and the first roll I shot was a roll of slide film (E200). It has no built-in light meter. I decided to go outside to take some pictures, so I took ONE light reading outside to make sure that my sunny f/11 (yep, it's f/11 for me in Montréal) rule was working.

    After that I just walked around town, and given that the light didn't change, why would I bother taking yet another and another light reading? If a subject is in shade, open one to two stops depending on how deep in the shadows it is.

    This shot: http://www.apug.org/gallery/showphoto.php?photo=23667&cat=502 was taken without having any other measurement than the initial sunny reading. It's not that hard.

    I went to Boston the other weekend, and carried my Kiev around. On slide film, I never even used a meter, and I must have missed maybe three shots on a roll, where the light was more tricky than my experience. On negative film, these shots would have been salvageable.

    Thinking in terms of incident light rather than reflected light is actually a very good shortcut to calculate exposure without a meter.
     
  18. Curt

    Curt Subscriber

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    Ansel didn't guess, he knew that the moon was 250 ft candles from previous measurements and calculated from there. The experts are guessing, an educated and fairly accurate guess sometimes but a guess none the less. Non experts who have success just got lucky. The back of my hand says it time for a cup of coffee, with cream and sugar. And it's never wrong, almost never.
     
  19. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I've had a similar impression on the few occasions I was taking night shots. I haven't made enough night photography so I'm not at the point at which this gut feeling works, but it was exactly like that!
     
  20. mcgrattan

    mcgrattan Member

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    I've been using sunny 16 quite a bit recently, or just metering once and then leaving the meter in the bag and adjusting exposure on the fly. I'm not great at it yet, but I seem to be getting usable results most of the time.

    I have a Zorki 2c and took it out last week with a roll of Pan-F in it. Using sunny-16 (or really sunny-11) and no meter. I scanned the negs, all of them produced usable images and some were taken in quite deep shade and others in bright sunshine.

    I'd say I was as much as a stop out a fair number of times on that roll, but nothing was so over-exposed or under-exposed that I couldn't have produced a print.
     
  21. KenS

    KenS Member

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    [QUOTE
    For years people without meters have used exposure tables printed in film boxes, photoguides, and more recently on the internet to estimate proper exposure. [/QUOTE]

    Well.....
    When I started, my mentor's (heavy) wood tripod and 'pack' containing the Ilford glass plates were not the only thing I had to humph from home, then scene to scene. I was alway responsible for making sure "I" had my copy of the "Ilford (film) Exposure Guide... an item then referred to as "our" meter.

    I was soon given the responsibility of "finding" the correct exposure. The Ilford 'meter' was a printed and folded sheet, from which the photographer had to make choices from 'options' such as latitude/longtitude, (country) month of the year, time of day within an hour or so.... direction (If I remember correctly) then film speed. Numbers, or rather numeric values from each 'section' were totalled to provide the photgrapher with a "value"... then at the end, f-stop and shutter speed choices from the 'calculated' value.. similar to EV numbers that some of to-day's meters provide the user.

    A few of the lenses had Waterhouse stops.. and only one lens had a mechanical shutter. The remaining lenses had their timed exposure given by removing the lenscap after the black, velvet lined bowler hat covering the front of the lens, the bowler "swung away..and back" before the lenscap was replaced.

    Due to my mentor's experience, I was never hesitant to accept his last minute "gut-feeling" modification of my calculated exposure.

    I still have an Ilford "Film Exposure Guide" in one of my boxes of "files and crap not-to-be thrown away until I'm blinded or burnded".

    Was this calculated 'value' always correct?.... no, but it brought someone like me, with a limited knowlege, to within spitting distance.... where one made final decisions with local application of "windage".

    After about a year, I was more than thrilled... I was PROUD... when I developed my first plate, to find that "my" first exposure, chosen all mybyself was well within the usual spitting distance.

    Ken
     
  22. HerrBremerhaven

    HerrBremerhaven Member

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    It is a good skill to know what to do when your exposure meter fails. Of course, if that meter is in a camera with an electronic shutter, then you just don't take any shots. Sunrise, sunset, or any fast changing lighting conditions are tougher. When I was doing nightclub photography on transparency films, I metered several areas representing different conditions. Once while on one of these assignments, another photographer found his battery to be dead, though it happened to be an exact match to the battery in my Nikon FM. So I gave him the battery in my FM, and just remembered to alter the shutter speed as needed for the various conditions; the entire two rolls were accurately exposed.

    Repeat any similar lighting situation often enough, and you will probably remember the usual settings. While it can be tougher indoors, or at night, it is still possible with enough practice. Daytime imaging is much simpler.

    Try walking around with an old folding camera sometime, and use transparency film. As long as your shutter is close, and the aperture markings are reasonably accurate, most of your shots should result in usable images.

    Another handy item is the Kodak Pocket Guide. This has a moveable paper guide wheel that you can set to find aperture and shutter settings by matching ISO and the type of lighting. Something as simple as this could get you within 1/2 a stop.

    Ciao!

    Gordon Moat
    A G Studio
     
  23. Michel Hardy-Vallée

    Michel Hardy-Vallée Membership Council Council

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    I sometimes use the Exposure-Mat, a great little sliding rule guide in the line of the Ilford or Kodak ones:
    http://expomat.tripod.com/

    Now THAT'S analog!
     
  24. Roger Hicks

    Roger Hicks Member

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    An interesting little experiment, which my wife and I did before dinner (barbecued rock lobster, with a salad of beetroot, walnut and sour cream, accompanied by a bottle of Vouvray, then strawberries and cream and a little peach brandy, after which all bets are off).

    We both guessed the exposure in an environment we had never had occasion to guess before, an open courtyard about 7-9 metres on a side (20-30 feet), surrounded by high walls. The upper part of the courtyard was lit by the setting sun.

    We were both out by more than a stop as compared with an incident reading using a Gossen Profisix (she was closer than I), but we both estimated on the generous side, i.e. overexposure. With black and white, this would have meant slightly reduced sharpness and slightly increased grain, though overexposure generally improves tonality.

    This casual experiment suggests to me that an ability to suggest correct exposures is based almost entirely upon experience, not upon light measurement by the eye -- which ties in perfectly with what everyone else (except jstraw) has said about 'guessing' exposures.

    Cheers,

    R.
     
  25. Jim Jones

    Jim Jones Subscriber

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    Yousef Karsh said he occasionally used a light meter, but if its reading differed from what his intuition and experience indicated, he ignored the meter. That served well in the fairly consistant environments in which he often worked. As previously mentioned, if one guesses first and then takes a reading, one soon can come close to accurate exposures without a meter. As in Adams' Moonrise, Hernandez photo, the ability to work swiftly and simply is valuable. Blindly relying on a meter also deprives one of powerful creative tools.
     
  26. David Brown

    David Brown Subscriber

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    Yes.