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Letters on Photography, Episode VI

Published September 1902

1902 DIY photography
image  DIY vintage photography. Acknowledgement to Athena on Pexels for image.

Dear Ethel,

Time Exposures

I told you in my last letter that the next points I would touch upon would be instantaneous and time exposures. Instantaneous work is, of course, synonymous with snapshot work. Time exposure photography means giving an exposure of anything from one or two seconds up to as many hours or longer. It sounds very pretty to hear young photographers talking about very small fractional parts of seconds and about over exposure and under exposure when using hand cameras. I have enjoyed many a quiet laugh at the assumedly serious manner in which tyros have discussed the degrees of rapidity of exposure. Well, my dear girl, you need not worry your soul about these matters. You will do better to give attention for the moment to time exposures.

It is not easy to calculate mentally a second, and it is not always convenient to keep one’s eye upon the second hand of a watch, but I can give vou a little "wrinkle"—that mischievous young brother of yours will tell you what that word means if you don’t happen to know—how to calculate a second near enough for general purposes.

If you say to yourself as quickly as you can, Onem two, three, four, five, six, that is about a second. It may be a shade under or more, but with a little practice, by taking five or ten seconds at a stretch, you will be able to get at the proper degree of speed, so that when you move the cap from the lens or squeeze the ball of a shutter and then count you will attain to an accuracy which will materially promote your skill in exposure.

I cannot impress upon you too much the utmost importance of correct exposure. You look at a finished print and admire it both for its sharpness, tone, and general excellence. Working backwards, let me say that it is impossible to get a good finished print and pleasing tone unless you have a good negative, and you cannot get a really good negative unless you give a proper exposure. Thus you will see you must hark back to the exposure as the first cause.

1902 Kodak Bromide Papers advertisement
image  1902 Kodak Bromide Papers advertisement

To attain perfection you must carefully study the various degrees of light at different hours of the day, in different months and seasons of the year, always making due allowance for clear open subjects, and others that may be partially shaded or imperfectly illumined. No amount of book learning can secure for you this knowledge. It must be gained in the field and only from practice and close observation. Burton's tables, actinometers, exposure meters, etc., will help you if you use them intelligently, but to rely upon them would be fatal.

What we call the actinic qualities of light are always greater at the seaside than inland, and water scenes require special consideration. By studying these varying conditions and embodying in the study your knowledge of the stops and their relative values you will master the exposure question and place yourself on the high road to a fair measure of success at least.

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Taking Photographs

Now as to your first serious attempts. You will find more often than not that amateurs as soon as they get a camera inflict themselves upon their parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and the whole circle of relations. If there happens to be a best girl attached to the family, why, of course, she ccmes in for the first honours. The results are, of course, very charming—at least, the sitters say so, lest they should give offence or hurt your tender feelings. It is an excellent thing to keep these early efforts for reference, and in days to come a peep at them may cause a smile—perhaps, too, the owner of such ghastly productions may be induced to ask whether there is any truth in the oft-repeated remark that the camera cannot lie.

Let us assume that the first effort has been to take the family group. More often than not the result will show that father or mother has been deprived of the feet, that some of the heads will be placed in such a way that a door post or the edge of a brick wall or a fruit tree would be growing straight out of their heads, that the hands are placed in a most awkward and unconventional manner, and should it happen that any of the male members of the party are afflicted with unduly large understandings, it will be sure to happen that those particular portions of one’s anatomy will form a striking feature of the picture.

1902 advertisement for Repusse Metal Work
image  1902 advertisement for Repusse Metal Work

Then of course there will be the mother trying to look as delighted as she can upon the skill and ability of her darlings, and even father may plead guilty to a similar weakness and allow his face to become the mirror of his inward feelings. The sons and daughters and the friends of either sex who may be there are of course all upon their best behaviour, and put on smiles and assume attitudes over which it is best to throw the mantle of charity.

Instead of torturing you with these details, I will give you a safe way out of the difficulty, and that is, when you first start photography leave portrait taking severely alone. You will find considerably more enjoyment by taking your camera down some quiet little lane, round by the church, dowm by the side of a stream, or even in your own pretty garden. When you have set your camera up, do not be in a hurry. Always remember that however pretty a scene looks to the eye, and also however charming it may appear upon the focussing screen, its rendering upon the sensitive plate may cause you some disappointment because of the absence of colour. If you bear this well in mind you will save yourself many a bad quarter of an hour.

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Adjusting the Camera

Let me suppose that you are going to take the church with its fine old lichgate and its fourteenth century tower. Possibly you wall place your camera dowm at a spot which takes your fancy; but when you have developed the negative made from that particular place, you will find that the lichgate appears as though it were a part of the tower. Thus you have a fiat and unprofitable picture. Or, if you avoid this mistake, you may find that you get only a portion of the tower; and some of the sarcastic spiteful people about youwdll tease you unmercifully. You may say that, although you half elevated the camera tripod to its full height, you are still unable to get in the top of the tower Your up-to-date camera will enable you to get over this difficulty by raising the panel that carries the lens. This elevating the front, as it is called, will cut off a portion of the roadway or the churchyard, but the probability is that you will be able to take in the whole of the, tower and thus complete the picture.

But I ought to tell you that you can get the same result by moving your camera further back. By doing so you extend the angle of view, but very often when this is done you have to take in an undue amount of foreground, and that would be objectionable. I cannot possibly enter into the why and wherefore of this, nor can I laydown rules for your guidance, because this is a subject upon which a whole volume could be written.

Or take another case, in which you may find reflected on the focussing screen too much of one side and too little of the other and a wretchedly ill-balanced picture. All this can be set right by a single adjustment of the camera, moving it to the right or to the left, as the case may be. Or, perhaps, you may find it more advisable to shift your camera entirely from one spot to another, backward, forward or sideways, until the picture is composed to your liking. So, my dear Ethel, let me say again, do not be in a hurry. Take your time, never mind if your friends ask you if you have taken lodgings, or if you are going to be there all day. If they are not willing to wait for you, then go your photographic walks by yourself, or in company with some kindred soul.

1902 advertisement for Henry Zilles & Co.
image  1902 advertisement for Henry Zilles & Co.

Now, having told you these things, which you may possibly think is something like putting the cart before the horse, I shall leave the question of plates, developers, and other like matters to my next letter. Meantime, ponder well these little details, and if you have an opportunity of a practice with the camera of some interesting friend, don’t hesitate to avail yourself of it. You will find that the preliminary time thus occupied will be an invaluable aid to your serious work the very first time you go out with loaded slides.

Goodbye, dear, your loving friend,

Phyllis

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This article is a reprint of an existing article, published in The House, September 1902. It is the intent of this website to present this article in human and machine readable form. Format and editing changes have been made. This article is provided for the purpose of enjoyment only.