Sunday, December 27, 2015

Selecting A Portrait Lens With Correct Focal Length

           I know this topic is covered here and there and everywhere: in school and online, in workshops and lectures, on street corner posters and graffiti under freeway overpasses…  However, one way or another this topic seems to either elude a lot of photographers entirely or perhaps they ignore it knowingly.  Either way, after continually seeing tight headshots done with lenses possessing an obviously incorrect focal length, my personal OCD has reached a boiling point and I decided to finally do this little post complete with a demonstration.

            First off – let’s talk about what I mean by ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ so nobody accuses me of being an old-fashioned-purist-photo-nazi.  Let me be the first to acknowledge that in this topsy-turvy world of postmodernist art in which we live in many traditional barriers are often broken for the sake of creative concept.  I completely understand that some camera operators may purposefully chose a lens that distorts facial features in order to communicate more clearly some bizarre concept they conjured up.  Maybe they want to create a series of portraits that make an unsuspecting viewer feel as a fly that is about to land on sitter’s forehead…  Perhaps the visual effect is to relate one’s closeness to the sitter and thus communicate the unbearable suffocation of an individual due to overpopulation…  Or what if the elongated nose is meant to show how many individuals stick that body part in other people’s business?  Surely any of those scenarios would be fine and entirely understandable provided a clear explanation.  What I refer to as being ‘incorrect’ are instances where eager image-makers hold portrait sessions for monetary reimbursement from their sitters and create Pinocchio-style head and shoulder likenesses by dozens at a time.  The gullible masses are often uneducated as far as technical merits of photography and, even when they see that ‘something isn’t right here’, are more often than not too polite to bring up the topic directly.  But I would wager 10:1 that most of the good folks that come in to have their portrait made would rather have it done with a lens possessing a proper focal length for the given camera format.  After all and understandably so – they just want to look their best and not be caricaturized.  With that said, let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of portraiture and lens selection.

            The rise of grotesquely distorted portraits in my little universe of large format photography can be most likely attributed to the following.  A lot of people are getting into the field on a limited budget and are influenced by seeing beautiful images done with 19th century Petzval lenses.  This is especially true for those who work in wet plate collodion medium – after all Petzvals are some of the fastest commonly available large format lenses and they also have a very specific bokeh that is favored by many, including yours truly.  However, the price tag on longer Petzvals goes up exponentially and so a lot of people get a lens they can afford and tout that it ‘covers my plate at portrait distance’.  Hearing this almost always means that the lens they have is too short for making portraits, but, yes, if they rack out the bellows to focus about 3ft away it will indeed cover their plate…  I don’t know what the remedy is for those who can’t afford a proper focal length lens – maybe just sticking with a modern lens for now until a vintage one can be afforded is the best course of action.  After all f4.5 or 5.6 is not THAT much slower than f3.6 or 4 and the sitter will only have to endure a doubling of exposure time in return for a much more flattering portrait.  Either way, just because your lens will ‘cover at portrait distance’ does not make it a lens suitable for portraits.  To top it off in the world of wet plate there seems to be a great tendency to create ‘passport photos’ – head and shoulders portraits, which showcase distortion in all it’s ugly glory.

I feel a small, admittedly simple visual explanation of why portrait distortion happens when using a lens that’s too short for a given image format would be helpful.   Described verbally it occurs simply because a lens with a shorter focal length, in order to create a head and shoulders portrait, will require a camera to be placed closer to the person than one with a longer focal length.  Hence whatever facial feature happens to be closest to the lens will take up more real estate on the film plane then those featured that biologically occur farther away.  The one unfortunate body part that most often bares the brunt of this inevitability is the nose.  In the drawing below you can see how the distance from lens to the nose vs. eyebrow changes with various focal lengths – the shorter the lens the greater the difference in those distances and the bigger the nose will appear in the photo.

            Rule of thumb – a portrait lens for tight headshots is a lens that is about twice the focal length of a ‘normal’ lens for any given format (longer is perfectly OK as well).  A  ‘normal’ focal length for any given format is equal to the length of that format’s diagonal.  Any lens shorter than that is a wide angle, any lens longer than that is telephoto.  For half body portraits one could safely use a lens with a focal length about 1.5x the focal length of a ‘normal’ lens.  Below is a small chart of camera formats with their ‘normal’ and ‘portrait’ lens focal lengths.


            Theory is great, but a practical test should help to solidify this concept visually.  For my test I used a traditional ‘quarter plate’ format – 3.25x4.25in.  For that format the normal focal length is a widely available 135mm (5.5in approximately).  For my model I employed my lovely and always cooperative girlfriend, whose facial features are very proportional and therefore will be easy to demonstrate my point upon.  I did not concentrate too much on lighting and posing and instead emulated the ubiquitous ‘passport photo’ cropping that dominates wet plate portraiture for some unbeknown to me reason.  I have also done my best as always to create the best possible wet plate image, but this was not a test of how clean I can make a plate, so don’t fixate on a few artifacts that are present.

Current average prices for vintage lenses do allow most people to find an affordable 6in Petzval (normal focal length for 4x5in), but when it comes to 10-12in ones it’s a bit harder to swing.  Moreover there is an abundance of Magic Lantern projection Petzvlas out there and those tend to be the cheapest.  Their focal length is often just 4-5in (sometimes even 3in or 3.5 as in the case of smaller Lanterns) and they barely cover quarter plate most of the time, but people buy them up, mount them on a camera, rack out the bellows to focus on a head and shoulders composition and become giddy when they discover that their 4x5 or 5x7 plate is covered. 

For the demonstration below I used: wide angle 90mm Nikkor lens, normal 135mm Laak Rathenow, slight telephoto 180mm Rodenstock and to finish it off with a strong telephoto a really nice 19th century Darlot Petzval that has a focal length of about 268mm or just about our ‘ideal’ – twice the ‘normal’ 135mm.  I used all the lenses at the aperture of f5.6. 

Wide angle vs. a lens with 2x 'normal' focal length 

 Normal focal length vs. 2x normal length

Slight telephoto vs. 2x normal length

              As you can see the difference is most noticeable with wide and normal lengths, but if you really look carefully it is also there in the last pairing.  If you were to do an even tighter crop in your frame than this you would see a greater difference.

            I do not expect my humble post to drastically change the landscape of modern portrait photography, but I had to get this whole thing off my mind and chest and now I feel better.  I hope my readers will find some food for thought and some of them may be convinced by the demo to start saving up for an appropriate focal length lens to use in their portrait sessions.

Happy shooting,
Anton Orlov

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Preapocalyptic River - Environmental Wet Plate Documentary Series

  I rarely work on a single series of images, so I decided to push myself creatively to do just that.  Living in a city of over a million people and being drawn to nature I couldn't help but to select a theme which is somehow connected to those facts.

  "Preapocalyptic River" is a series of 23 Ambrotypes documenting the San Diego River, or what is left of it.   I chose to focus on the mouth portion of it - the last 5 or so miles before it empties into the vast Pacific Ocean.  That portion has over time been completely overran by civilization and nearly forgotten by the local residents.  Hundreds of thousands of people zoom above it on highway overpasses and surface street bridges.  They are unaware that below them a fragile and beautiful environment is struggling to sustain existence and provide a habitat to a multitude of creatures. 
  To document the state of the river now I chose glass support to reflect the fragility of nature.  For many of these images I had to go well off the beaten path, though some of them were captured right from the bridges that dominate the landscape above it.  I used only 19th century lenses to echo the times when this river ran free and unencumbered.
  All plates seen below with a black border are 4x5in and those without the border are 3.25x4.25in.  I am open to exhibiting these plates or to a sale of the entire series.

Anton Orlov

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

World's Smallest Tintype - 8x11mm Wet Plate Collodion With Minox Camera

  Does bigger necessarily mean better?  What about all the good things coming in small packages?

  Faced with these questions I set out to have some fun and create world's smallest tintype today.  I have quite a few Minox sub-miniature cameras and so I decided to dedicate one of them to wet plate collodion (after silver nitrate is put through this or even 35mm camera it eats away at the metal surfaces and so working with film after that will be quite impossible).  These little marvels of engineering are astounding and I chose the first commercial variation - model A III from 1950s.  Along with a fast enough f3.5 15mm lens (which is darn sharp I must add) it has a flash X-sync and so I was able to connect it to a Photogenic 1500 monolight.   My dear friend Justin Edelman was available to be my model.
  For the support I happened to have some traditional japanned iron sheets done in classic 19th century way.  The best thing about that material is that it's extremely thin and I was able to slide it into the very narrow slot where would normally go.  The downfall of that support is that because it is hand-made it has all sorts of slight imperfections, bumps and so on - thus the final image is not as perfect as I would have liked it to be.  Nonetheless I think it was acceptably clean and so here are the very first and second plates.  Images are 8x11mm and I truly believe that they are world's smallest tintypes. 

 World's smallest tintypes - take one and two, next to the
camera they were made with and a penny.

 Plate #2 resting comfortably on my silver-stained finger.

  Making a good pour on such a tiny plate was fun - the first one had a coating that was a bit too thin for my liking, so that's why I did a second take, with that one I was really happy. To apply developer I used a pipette.

  To dispel any possible doubts about authenticity here's a 2 second video that Justin shot with his phone, which you can see in the first plate, while I was making the exposure.


  I'm going to experiment with this a bit more - for example I was to make some negatives and enlarge them. This camera is extremely sharp and so combined with collodion emulsions I should be able to make very sharp enlargements. 

 Closeup of the second plate.

  I encourage all of you to have fun and push the limits of whatever artistic process you chose to work with in any direction possible!

November 11 2015 EDIT

  First off let me say that it was brought to my attention that historically there were indeed smaller images created using wet plate collodionThe Stanhopes were 2x2mm and were viewed through a special magnifying device.  They were however created in multitude in a special camera that exposed dozens of them onto a single larger plate, which was later cut down.  So I still think these plates stand as being the smallest poured without cutting.

  Now onto the actual update.  I wasted no time in taking my little experiment one step further and today I made a negative that I subsequently enlarged onto regular photographic paper.  Because Minox has a special curved pressure plate in it that squeezes the negative into the focal field I had to use a material that is bendable.  I thought about it for only a second before settling on the simplest solution - a cleared piece of regular B&W film.   I cut a few strips so they would fit, cleared them in fixer, coated with collodion, sensitized and made three exposures before coming up with a negative that I deemed worthy of printing.  I did have to use an intensification technique in order to make them dense enough to be printable and, as I am the only one using this method to my knowledge, I will omit the exact details of that particular step.  I will say that most people who make wet plate negatives use a re-development method with which most of them get rather satisfactory results, but, after observing a few people go through the steps involved, I found that method to be too laborious and sometimes unpredictable with a possibility of staining ruining what could have been good plates.  So I experimented a bit and came up with a sure-fire solution with which I have made quite a few negatives by now and which never failed me yet.  Enough about that though - here are some of the illustrations of steps I went through today.

 Cutting negatives into 9mm strips

 Cleared negative strips drying on the camera

Exposed, processed and dried negative

Final 5x7 print treated with strong selenium toner to make it a little more interesting

  I think the subject matter and treatment are reminiscent of View from the Window at Le Gras by Niepce and I really like it for that reason.  The sun was almost all the way down by the time I made this exposure (I did spend a good part of the day doing a few Becquerel daguerreotype tests, which really do call for a lot of light and thus had to be done first) and my exposure was 1/20th of second at f3.5.  For once I actually love the spontaneous chemical artifacts.  Usually I'm a fan of clean well-executed plates and don't buy into the whole 'hand made therefore imperfect' philosophy that seems to be prevalent among collodion workers and admirers of today.  This however was a purely fun experiment with no preconceived ideas of how it needs to come out, and so collodion doing it's own thing was perfectly acceptable in my mind.

  A fun little moment during this ordeal was the floating away of one of the strips off the dipping paddle during sensitizing into the bottom of my bath and me chasing it out of there with repeated flushing using silver nitrate.  I chased it for a good couple of minutes pouring the liquid in and out at least 5-6 timesI think my determination may have positively affected the outcome as that was the strip that decided to turn yield the best negative.
Anton Orlov 

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Wet Plate Homage to Harold Edgerton and John Draper

  I haven't posted an update for a while ad tomorrow is my birthday, so I thought 'what the heck', especially since in the recent past I made a few plates that I think my readers might be interested in.

  Going from newest to oldest- here's three plates I did just a few hours ago in the spirit of Harold Edgerton.

Marble In Milk 1, 3.25x4.25in black glass ambrotype

Marble In Milk 2, 3.25x4.25in black glass ambrotype

Marble In Milk 1, 3.25x4.25in black glass ambrotype3

   This was a lot of fun to do.  I don't work in MIT like Mr. Edgerton and didn't have access to a highly specialized short-duration flash system or a laser beam for my shutter trigger, but the above shots show that it's possible to not only do this by eye, but also to use wet plate collodion (with it's notoriously slow sensitivity).  I actually did this once before in college somewhere around 1998.  Back then I used traditional color negative film, a Mamiya RZ 6x9 camera, Norman power pack and dripped black paint into a tray filled with yellow paint.  From the 9 exposures allowed by the camera for on one roll of 120 film back then I got 3 usable images (3 were too early and 3 too late).  This time I used my trusty Zone VI 4x5, 178mm Aero Ektar lens and White Lightning model 3200 strobe.  I dropped a marble into the liquid with the left hand and with the right tried to push the test button on the strobe just at the right moment, after the marble has gone under the surface.  The ratio of success in that are was just about the same as in college - I did about 13 tries and in 5 of them the correct moment was captured.  However, because had to shoot wide open at f2.5 and the depth of focus at that point is razor thin, two of those plates had the action captured in the soft are of the frame and they were not worth keeping.  Still, I'm glad to see my reflexes have not dulled over the past nearly 20 years.  Here is my setup for the shoot.  Notice how close the flash head is - that was done in order to get the most light with the lowest strobe power possible because flash duration actually decreases as the power goes down.

  Here is another few shots from the recent past that I consider of interest.  During the August night of the full moon I found myself sleepless and because there was nothing else to shoot I decided to point my lens towards our nearest celestial companion.  A widely known fact of which not too many are aware of is that for a proper exposure of the surface of the moon one needs to shoot it with the 'sunny 16' rule and just open up one stop - that thing is bright!  It's no wonder that as far back as 1840 John Draper was able to capture the first image of the moon using an even slower daguerreotype process.  Alas, I don't have access to a tracking telescope fitted with a special projection eye-piece.  However, with an ordinary 24in f11 Goerz lens on my Kodak 2D 8x10 I was able to have exposures in the range of 2 seconds and that's plenty fast enough to have the moon come out sharp.  Unfortunately that length of a lens only allows for the image to be about 1/4in in diameter.  I still really liked the tintypes and used vintage tintype cases with brass mats for presentation.  Here is one of them.  The plate is a tiny 1 3/8 x 1 5/8in with a 1/4in moon on it.

Full Moon, 29-8-2015, 1/16th plate tintype in vintage case

  Two of the three plates made that night were offered for sale on Etsy and were purchased within hours of them being posted.  Inspired by that success and pushed by the ever-present desire to do better I went at it again during the full moon of September 27th.  This time I used a vintage 1898 Zeiss Tele-Tubus IV lens outfitted with a 225mm Protar in the front and a 100mm dispersing negative element in the back.  My focal length was a whopping 1800 or so (still waiting to do a curve graph to figure out what Delta 11.1 would translate to on that lens) and my aperture at that point was about f22.  To my surprise (partly because I used ultra fresh collodion) I was still able to get away with the same 2-second exposure and on the second try I got the plate that you see below.  This time the moon is a solid 3/4in around and again I mounted the tintype in a vintage /16th plate case, so the plate itself is 2x2.5in.

Full Moon, 27-9-2015, 1/6th plate tintype in a vintage case

Setup used during the September shoot.

  The above is currently available for sale at my Etsy shop and I do hope it sells soon to allow me to build a special setup that I have in mind for another attempt where I will try to make the moon MUCH bigger on my plates.

  Well, that's about it for now.  Other than the images posted here I have been doing a lot of portraits and some landscapes.  I have also started to do more wet plate negatives with the hope of soon learning carbon printing.  My friend Race Gentry has also been tutoring me in the art of daguerreotype photography, but I'm very far from being anywhere near proficiency there...

  All the best to all who read this!

Anton Orlov

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Introducing CLERA - 1st Transparent Camera!

  The day has come my friends!  After months of being nothing more than a dream and concept, weeks of experimenting and building, and days of testing and working out the kinks today at San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts I will be unveiling what I believe to be first completely transparent and entirely functional camera.  I call it CLERA, short for Clear Camera, and without further ado here it is pictured against the clear San Diego skies. It is the first camera where you can actually SEE the image projected onto the piece of photographic material during the exposure!

#CLERA by Anton Orlov

  I came up with this idea while working in my dark box and developing tintypes.  Those of you familiar with my work know that for the past few years the medium of wet plate collodion has consumed my photographic endeavors almost entirely.  For those not familiar with the process I will briefly state that is involves coating, exposing and processing a metal or glass plate within the span ranging from a few minuted to maybe half an hour or so depending on meteorologic conditions and the emulsion is sensitive mostly to the UV end of the visible spectrum of light.  Due to the plate having to stay wet, a darkroom of some sort must be present wherever one chooses to make an image.  In my case I use a self-made dark box with red windows.  Quite often my box was positioned in such a way that during the 30 seconds of development sun was shining through the windows directly onto the plate and no light fogging was present in the final image.  That's when it struck me - why not make a camera out of red material that would filter out UV and blue light!?  Wouldn't it be cool to actually SEE the rays of light striking whatever light sensitive material one chose to capture an image with during the actual moment of exposure?  With that in mind I set out to experiment.

  First off I had to design something simple for the very first prototype - I didn't want to overdo it and not have it work (though after thinking for a while about it I saw no reason why it shouldn't work....  For that reason I chose a classic design of a simple daguerreotype box camera.  It's infinite simplicity is praise-worthy.  A box is made in a proper length for a selected lens to be able to focus on infinity.  The lens then provides the ability to focus closer via a rack and pinion system.  All you need to complete it is a ground glass focusing back that takes a plate holder and you're in business.  I hunted eBay for a while and found a great 19th century Petzval lens that was not too expensive and of a proper covering power.  The lens has no maker mark engraved on it, but upon opening it up to clean the elements I saw G & C written on the edges of glass making me believe it was made by a Parisian company Gasc & Charconnet.  The company was founded in 1850s, but this lens could have been made as late as 1880s, there's really no way of knowing this with any degree of certainty.  Lens is of an 8in focal length, f4 and lacks provision for Waterhouse stops because it was originally made for magic lantern projectors.  I had a spare 4x5in camera back kicking around my parts pile and painted it red to match the body it would go on.  I think the back came from a sliding back adapter for 8x10 cameras, but it might have come from any number of wooden cameras of 1900-1950s.

Gasc & Charconnet Petzval Lens and 4x5in Back

  There's a great local plastics manufacturing business near me where I have had many things build in the past, so I made a few trips there and tried out several transparent red materials and finally settled on one particular polycarbonate.  Unlike regular plexiglass it is nearly indestructible and also comes with a layer that prevents scuffs and scratches, so CLERA is going to stay intact and shiny for a long long time.  One of the employees there, Abraham, is especially kind and understanding of the plight of artists-experimenters, so he worked with me on this in a very accommodating way and for that I am forever grateful.  Here he is tapping the threads for the lens flange screws at his home workshop last Friday after work.

  I will spare you the details of all the testing I put the camera though and all the headaches and confusion I underwent before figuring out why some of the images were coming out foggy.  I will just say that after three days of non-stop experimentation and deductive empiricism it now works flawlessly in any conditions.  Here is the first tintype plate made with CLERA - featuring Abraham in his back alley right after the camera was assembled.  Pardon the reflections on the bottom.

First #Tintype from #CLERA

  Here is the last in the line of experimental plates - this one finally shows zero fog (the fog, by the way was being caused by light reflecting inside the lens barrel and not by the camera material).  It is not the most visually exciting composition, but I dare to say that this is the most tintyped back yard in America that doesn't actually belong to a tintype artist - it's the view from the stairs leading up to my darkroom and that's where I conduct any tests of new lenses and other equipment.  As you can see from the following pictures the camera was set up in direct sun with the sun actually shining on the plate through the top of the camera during exposure - no fog at all!

  Here are some more test plates made in the past few days.  Some of them are a bit fogged - this was all done before I figured out that the lens needed to be slightly modified in order to improve contrast.  As you can see I was shooting with the camera pointed up because intuitively I knew that it was something about that position which cause the fog, but it took a bit longer than it probably should have to figure out that the black coating inside the lens was not as matte as it should have been because it's not technically a 'camera' lens, but a projection one.

  As I mentioned above tintype is an orthochromatic medium (sensitive to a single section of light spectrum - the spectrum range in around blue and UV end).  There are other photographic materials that exhibit the same characteristics, some of which are daguerreotypes, photographic printing paper, lithographic as well as some regular films.   I had some direct positive paper in my darkroom so I decided to try that out as well.  Here is the result - a portrait of my neighbor Fred made on no longer produced Efke direct positive paper with ISO 2.

  I plan on updating this post after tomorrow - that is when I will do an experiment with using CLERA to make a daguerreotype and develop it with Becquerel method right in the camera!  I think it should work.  I will also test a few films in the near future and post results here.  

  For now I would like to offer anyone who wants me to make them their own CLERA to contact me by email:
  If you have a lens that you would like to use you'll have to send it to me so I can do the needed calculations.  If you have a back - that's great too.  If not - no worries!  I can find you a lens and back for the size images you'd like to make.  I am also working on CLERA 2.0 - a sliding box design that will allow the use of various lenses and provide shorter focusing distances (this design can focus from infinity down to whatever distance the rack and pinion mechanism allows, which in my camera's case is about 6ft).
  Approximate prices with YOUR LENS are:  $350 for 4x5 and smaller, $500 for 5x7 and $700 for 8x10.  You will have to send me your lens for me to measure it exactly and to custom make you your own CLERA.

  Prices without you providing me a lens will vary, but maybe as little as $150 more for 4x5 to as much as $1000 more for 8x10 - lenses vary widely in price range, so if you don't have a lens you'd like to use you can email me and we can discuss options as related to budget.


UPDATE 8-7-15

  Today my initial theory that this CLERA would work to both expose and develop a daguerreotype using Becquerel method was confirmed.  A local daguerreotypist by the name of Race Gentry came by the darkroom and helped make my first daguerreotype.  I will stress that this is my first daguerreotype and it is a technique that takes years to master, so don't judge the performance of the camera by my feeble initial attempt.  With Race's help though I think the plate came out rather well.  Becquerel method involves fuming a silver plate with only iodine and, after exposure, developing it by action of red light.  CLERA was set up in direct sunlight for the 1min exposure and then turned in such a way that sun was shining directly onto the plate for 45 minutes (which is a relatively fast development time from what I understand).   Here is the result.  Race, who has seen his share of becquerel daguerreotypes, said that the tonality is excellent and was thoroughly amused by the fact that the actual camera used for exposure was also used to develop the plate. 

Daguerreotype plate developing inside CLERA

Resulting 1/6th plate Becquerel daguerreotype with no gold chloride gilding

Thank you,
Anton Orlov