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  1. #21
    MarkG's Avatar
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    Seeing What the First Leica Photographers Photographed

    Your question and line of inquiry regarding the first Leicas touches on the larger issue of how we "see." For me, this is an issue of both professional and personal interest . . . I am a Leica shooter and I design visualization software. Allow me to make a couple of observations/points:

    1) "Seeing" is a largely cognitive process that involves, among other things, the subconscious reinterpretation of a two dimensional representation on our retina into a three dimensional spatial scene. "Pixel count" is merely one factor that influences how the brain/mind accomplishes this task.

    2) As another thread contributor guessed (correctly), the mind constructs the image we see by integrating a series of "perceptive passes" over the field of view and knitting them together to form what we perceive as "what we see." As the eye is sweeping a scene, it is constantly adjusting the iris (aperture) to compensate for different light levels (think HDR only biological) as well as INCLUDING and EXCLUDING items that either meet or fail to meet what is of conscious interest to the viewer. You know the phrase: "I looked right at it and just didn't see it." Indeed. Visual cognition at work. (For more info on this process, take a look at this book: http://www.amazon.com/Visual-Intelli...4156047&sr=8-1)

    3) Viewing a photograph is actually done from a perspective that is two degrees removed from objective reality (that is, what a collection of CCTV cameras might record): first, you are seeing what the photographer has chosen to capture, in the manner s/he chose, with the tools s/he had available. Lots of subjectivity and exclusion at work here. Second, you are also bringing cognitive biases to bear on your process of looking at that image. If, for instance, you are looking at one of HCB's images, you might ask: is this a decisive moment? If so, how? Or perhaps you are hyper attentive to the sexual tension that suffuses Helmet Newton's work. Either way, you are subconsciously (and maybe consciously) filtering the scene, emphasizing some elements, while de-emphasizing others. And because of that, the moment of visual cognition and apprehension is ultimately personal and unique.

    So what does this mean for the early Leica shooters? And why was their work considered "great"? The early Leica shooters were using an instrument that was the first of a new genre of photographic tool: light, portable, high quality lens, virtually indestructible. For its time, the Leica was the best of its class. And the images that were produced were, for their time, some of the best.

    Best in what way? Well, the portability of the Leica enabled photographers to take a camera where it previously could not, the quality of the lens (and their speed) enabled them to capture scenes that had eluded earlier generations of photographers, and the ruggedness of the camera enabled them to capture scenes that would have literally destroyed other instruments. Put another way, they captured life in the extreme, on the edge, in the shadows. And before the advent of the portable, small camera (e.g. Leica) that was difficult if not impossible to do.

    And pixel count? However you equate pixels to a particular film's resolving power, the fact remains that the emotive and intellectual power of these images was not compromised by either the optics or the film technology of the time. How can I be sure? We still view those old images with wonder, we still perceive the moments the photographer sought to capture, and we agree --- however much technology has advanced --- that many of those images changed how we look at the world and indeed, how we photograph our world.
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  2. #22
    T42
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    Thanks, Mark.

    That is a very thoughtful and articulate explanation of how the early Leica photographers saw and used their new, simple, rugged, sharp photo instrument.

    I understand your points about perception, and how it is that we are still awestruck by images from that time. I thank you for sharing all that.

    But the question remains open. What is the least capable digital photographic instrument of this time that would have served those purposes to the satisfaction of those imagemakers of the time when the first Leicas began to capture images for LOOK, LIFE, and National Geographic?

    I'm guessing there is no way to know, and maybe the question cannot have an answer.

    Henry
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    Nikons F, F2, D700, Leica M3, & Kiev 4a

  3. #23
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    Quote Originally Posted by T42 View Post
    But the question remains open. What is the least capable digital photographic instrument of this time that would have served those purposes to the satisfaction of those imagemakers of the time when the first Leicas began to capture images for LOOK, LIFE, and National Geographic?

    T42,

    Here's another way to approach your question. I've selected an image (attached) of the first man walking on the moon, a pretty significant event in the annals of human history. This still image was captured from a video stream broadcast by the LEM to Houston, and then re-broadcast over network TV. As you can read in the accompanying wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_11_missing_tapes), this retransmission resulted in a severely degraded image. Nonetheless, this video was seen as meaningful . . . and still frame grabs from this transmission were printed in all of the magazines you mention in your original post.

    Now, what was the resolution of this final transmitted and printed image? It is 640 x 479 pixels, about VGA resolution. That translates to 1/3 megapixel.

    If you say, "well, that's all they had", I would offer two responses: 1) Yup, and the context of the image . . . the event it captured . . . shaped the viewer's perception of what is good, publishable, and meaningful. In photojournalism, megapixels and resolution are important ONLY when the meaning of the event is not successfully communicated. But even at this low resolution, the meaning of the event is both clear and powerful. 2) The astronauts had Hasselblads on board, used them, and those photos were later published too. But unless you have a book of those images (and I do), most don't remember those much higher resolution/quality images. The landing event had long passed by the time that film was developed and the impact had already been felt, communicated in part, by the grainy re-broadcast image.

    I would argue, at least anecdotally, that 1/3 megapixel is good enough . . .
    Attached Thumbnails Attached Thumbnails Apollo11D.jpg  
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  4. #24
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    Another "bad" image printed in Life magazine . . . :-)

    One more example where I believe context and viewer perceptions trumps pixels and resolution: Robert Capa, the famous Leica photographer and co-founder of the Magnum Photo Agency, exposed 106 frames on Normandy's beach on D-Day. All but 10 were ruined by the developer (tech) in the lab back in England. Those remaining frames, blurry and distorted, were printed by Life magazine.

    The "net information" content of the attached frame is probably no more than a 1/3 to 1/2 a mega-pixel. The tonal range is compressed and the contrast is low. Yet this image endures as one of the most powerful of its time.

    Why? Megapixels, resolution, or tonal range? I don't think so . . . which is why I honestly believe your question, while informed by the technical orientation of our day, misses the larger perceptual and cognitive issues that are at the heart of human perception of images.
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  5. #25

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    Hi

    Early Leicas were used to expand the environment that photos could be taken in not to do better quality photos.

    Barnack did the prototype in 1913 beause he was not able to carry a large plate camera hill walking, and take more then a few shots...

    Capa's 1944 photo of the Tommy wading for the beach had been badly damaged but still sold. (I suspect he used a ContaxII?).

    Photo quality was better before Leicas, but it was not as immediate, more like the war between the states photos post the battle, - v the shot of the US destroyer losing forward magazine in Pearl Harbour the latter brought the attack home.

    Six double dark slides and a Speed graphic limited one a little compared with a Leica II. Kodachrome was 10 ISO (or slower), the fast mono had grain sized like gulf balls...

    Digital today is more immediate the PJ can snap, sit down on pavement (sidewalk) and email his shot and short typescript to editor, with film he needs a motobike dispatch rider even in the centre of a metropolis. The editor is not gonna to worry about pixel peeping, he can get it in an earlier edition.

    Noel

  6. #26
    T42
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    Hello Noel and Mark

    Those are very salient observations.

    I also think of that image from Normandy of Robert Capa's often when this subject of "resolution requirements" comes to mind. I certainly agree with the premise that the strength of the message trumps all else. And that 0.3 Mpxl image from the moon certainly is valuable beyond measure.

    However, that 35mm image of Capa's pales technically when compared with the bulk of 35mm images appearing in LIFE in that time.

    Why? Megapixels, resolution, or tonal range? I don't think so . . . which is why I honestly believe your question, while informed by the technical orientation of our day, misses the larger perceptual and cognitive issues that are at the heart of human perception of images.
    Well, if I gave that impression, it's because I am having difficulty explaining what I want to know. Expressed in current technology terms, what is the minimum performance requirement needed to provide the majority of 35mm images appearing in LOOK, LIFE, or National Geographic in the mid 1930s?

    About a year ago, I went into a portrait studio in a shopping mall near to where I live. It was a quiet time, and I asked the manager if I could see the setup being used. There were the backdrops, umbrellas, props, and other gear one might expect. I noticed a Nikon digital body on a tripod. I asked about it and was told that it was a D2H. Most of their work was being done with 4.1 Mpxls. None of the work I saw there looked pixellated or otherwise objectionable. However, I don't know what they may have done after shooting with post processing.

    The answer I have been seeking seems as illusive as ever. So far, I would guess that the requirement to approximate those images from the early 30's is only several megapixels, plus an imagemaker who really knows what he is doing in terms of light, moment, and message.

    Last edited by T42; 01-07-2011 at 05:03 PM. Click to view previous post history. Reason: typo; add
    Henry
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  7. #27

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jim Jones View Post
    The early Elmar might not fare so well, but could make fine images. That's really the most important consideration.
    Absolutely. I'd suggest many 35mm photographers are not looking for the last word in optical resolution but something else, a hard to define character that some lenses have in abundance.

    There's a lot talked about the Leica look and the Nikon look but having studied photographs printed in the period they were taken, I'd suggest the films and papers of their era were equally as important in creating popular conceptions of quality. Some early Leica images are no great shakes in terms of resolution but have good tonal separation, especially when printed on the matt fibrous photographic papers of that era.

    As papers became glossier and more able to stretch the tonal range the demands of lenses differed and very sharp, very flat image rendition came into vogue. Old camera and enlarging lenses can offer some compelling results.

  8. #28
    Karl K's Avatar
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    I read an article by Erwin Puts which stated, in so many words, that a current 50mm Summicron stopped down to f/4 or f/5.6 on the M7, when used with an extremely fine-grained microfilm, can produce negatives which are roughly equivalent to what a 39MP sensor can render. I tried to locate the article, but it was published a year or two ago, and I can't find it.
    However, if we assume (dangerous word) that an old 50mm f/3.5 uncoated Elmar has half the resolving power of a modern Summicron, then 20 MP is possible with microfilm. Of course, nobody really shoots microfilm, so Puts' experiment is really not relevant to everyday photography.

  9. #29

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    Quote Originally Posted by MarkG View Post
    One more example where I believe context and viewer perceptions trumps pixels and resolution...The "net information" content of the attached frame is probably no more than a 1/3 to 1/2 a mega-pixel. The tonal range is compressed and the contrast is low. Yet this image endures as one of the most powerful of its time. . . which is why I honestly believe your question, while informed by the technical orientation of our day, misses the larger perceptual and cognitive issues that are at the heart of human perception of images.
    So, really, all we really need is a tin with a pin-hole and some photo-sensitive paper: the rest is just plain posing?

    Thank goodness, now I can relax with the gear I already have and get on with making pictures!
    Last edited by Galah; 01-12-2011 at 11:15 PM. Click to view previous post history.

  10. #30

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    Quote Originally Posted by Karl K View Post
    .... Of course, nobody really shoots microfilm, so Puts' experiment is really not relevant to everyday photography.
    As a matter of fact I do use microfilm for everyday photography and I use mainly Leica I, II, IIIc and russian rf's. You can check my gallery, if curious.
    Regards,
    Georg

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