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  1. #1
    snegron's Avatar
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    How did they do it?

    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. #2
    Trask's Avatar
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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. #3
    snegron's Avatar
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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!

  4. #4

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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. #5
    jstraw's Avatar
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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.
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  6. #6
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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. #7

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    Quote Originally Posted by jstraw View Post
    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.
    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. #8

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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. #9
    snegron's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by jstraw View Post
    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.
    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. #10
    jstraw's Avatar
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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.
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