Lens lengths used by 19th century photographers

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I admire the work of such 19th century landscape photographers as F. Jay Haynes, Carleton Watkins, and Darius Kinsey, and have been trying to figure out how to achieve a similar look in my own work. It was not hard to learn that the film they used was orthochromatic, not panchromatic; this explains why (for example) the sky in many old photos is completely washed out. Information on 19th century printing techniques is not hard to find. Their compositional techniques are readily susceptible to analysis (they are the same as those used by painters and watercolorists at the time, and anyway are intuitively obvious). My difficulty lies in recreating their equipement.

I have read books about these photographers, and studied their photos, but the books I have read focus purely on the photos, or the historical context . . . none that I have read describe the equipment they used in any detail.

I understand that 19th century photographers used a variety of cameras, including (but not limited to) half–plate and full plate cameras, and I know that a relatively long lens on a 4X5 camera (for example) can be a short lens on an 8X10 camera (if it has the covering power). I'd like to know what lenses these photographers used for any particular camera; then I may be able to estimate which lenses are approximately equivalent for the 4X5 format.

I realize that I will only be able to approximate the equipment used, since I do not plan to go to the trouble of getting antique equipment (which is probably better left in museums, for the most part). Furthermore, many of the landscapes they photographed have been changed. As I said, I only want achieve a similar effect. Thanks in advance for your suggestions.

-- Erec Grim (guivret@yahoo.com), March 04, 2001


I've also been re-thinking the work of 19th century photagraphers and, in part, attempting to incorporate some of thier approaches. It seems to me that it's a question of materials, equipment, presentation, technique and subject matter. Older processes may help acheive the look your searching for. There are several photographers who work with wet-plate materials and have acheived some very interesting results (see, for example, http://www.cwreenactors.com/collodion/equipment.htm). You have identified the ortho v. pan approach and it might be worth looking into the use of filtration to recreate an orthochromatic look and standard film. You can also experiment with ortho, but you will have to work on contrast controls though developer/film choices.

On equipment, check out Kingslake's work "The History of the Photographic Lens." It's thick reading but you may be able to tie a specific type of lens design to the period you are considering. Many pre-1900 lenses had abberations that show up in pre-1900 photographs. See especially early meniscus designs, the Petzval portrait tens type, and the rapid rectilinears.

Beyond equipment and materials, presentation seems critical. Sepia toner is pretty obvious, but also consider vignetting to mimic the coverage limitations of old lenses. Also, you might consider the incorporation of other visual clues to suggest age: dust spots, hairs, scratches? Beyond that, photos can be embelished with all kinds of presentation elements ranging from deckled edges to mounting pictures on small cabinet-style cards.

Ultimately the success of 19th century photographs is tied to the subject matter itself. This is difficult in 2001, but may be acheived with careful selection of sites and scenes.

Let me know if you have other though

-- Dave Willison (dwillisart@aol.com), March 04, 2001.

Hi Erec, a composition book I read on early pictorial photography recomended a ten inch lens for 4*5. I've had good luck with Ilford Ortho Plus developed in Rodinal. Experiment with yellow filters for the sky. Best, David

-- david clark (doclark@yorku.ca), March 04, 2001.

Watkins actually used very large glass plates often (11x14" and larger--in the days of wet-plate photography, formats were very unstandardized), and remarkably got them to the location and back without breaking them. I would guess that he used wide to normal lenses that just covered the format, since there would not have been too many other options at that size.

Using a blue filter (80A, 80B or thereabouts) with panchromatic film will give you an orthochromatic effect.

-- David Goldfarb (dgoldfarb@barnard.edu), March 04, 2001.

One of the better volumes on Kinsey is "Kinsey Photographer" by Bohn and Petscheck, published by Black Dog and Leventhal, NY. 1978.

There are a lot of nuggets on equipment and technique scattered through the book...a very nice photo of Darius Kinsey with equipment appears on page 300.

While I did not see any references to focal lengths...it is apparent from the pictures and other descriptions that he favored relatively high viewpoints. Note pictures looking down on loggers sitting on huge logs, etc. Also of note...his wife Tabatha did 50 years in the darkroom developing and printing his efforts!

-- Fred Leif (frederickl@aol.com), March 04, 2001.

Back to the film type for a moment. Orthochromatic film is sensitive to blue *and* green light. The great 19th century landscape photographers were using "color blind" plates, that is, an emulsion sensitive only to *blue* light. It did, of course, produce very light skies, but rendered foliage quite differently from orthochromatic emulsions, which came later.

BTW, to duplicate the effect of "color blind" emulsions with modern panchromatic film, use a 47b (deep blue) filter on the lens. It will cost you three stops.

To duplicate the effect of orthochromatic film with modern panchromatic film, use a 44a (blue/green) filter. About 2.5 stops, as I recall.

James Meckley

-- James Meckley (jmeckley@pegasus.cc.ucf.edu), March 04, 2001.

From The Artistic Side of Photography by AJ Anderson 1910 -- this book is manditory to understand pictoralists. A 10" lens is to be used on a 3"x4" plate (pg 109)

It seems the standard of the time (and today) was a 5" lens and he, an others despised it. He quotes M Carey Lea's "Manaul of Photography" from 1871: 5" lenses "They make pretty pictures, but these are wholly incorrect, as many must have noticed. A garden becomes a park..."

He further writes: Only the other day I ordered a new quarter-plate camera with a ten-inch lens. "But we always fit five-inch lenses to these cameras, sir" protested the shopman. "I require a ten-inch lens," I replied wearily. "Perhaps you reiquire it for some special purpose," sugessted the shopman, brightening. "Yes, for pictorial potography." "But we always fit --" Then the shopman paused and looked at me with pittying eyes. I was clearly a lunatic. (Anderson 112)

It is basicaly the same question as today, do you want a 120mm wide angle, or a 240 portrait? still the same question. Dean

-- Dean Lastoria (dvlastor@sfu.ca), March 06, 2001.

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