The Extremes of Photography, from Tintypes to HDR

Tintype Photographs Taken by Heather Curiel

Tintype Photographs Taken by Heather Curiel

I usually go to a couple of photography lectures on a given month. The CapMac Photo SIG (Capitol Macintosh Advanced Photography Special Interest Group) is one lecture that I go to consistently. My friend Alex Suarez runs the SIG and has done an outstanding job getting great photographers to come and share their knowledge. Something that struck me as the March SIG meeting ended is how wide and varied the lectures have been. Between the February lecture on HDR photography and March’s on Tintype Photography, there are 150 years of photo-technology advances that separate the two techniques. Indeed, Alex has helped us to explore the two extremes of photography in a span of just a month. Alex is quite a photographer himself and you can see his work here on his blog.

The February HDR lecture was given by Dave Wilson, an outstanding photographer that has a wonderful and very recognizable look. Whether photographing architecture, cowboy boots or landscapes, Dave manages to bring out a patina and texture that makes his work so outstanding. You can see his work here. While I’m fairly versed in HDR techniques, it’s always nice to pickup a few new pointers or see a different perspective to HDR processing. One such tip is the use of large numbers of exposures to create a HDR. When I say large, I’m talking about 8 – 12 exposures. I, however, have created 99% of HDRs using just 3 exposures. Dave says that when you use a large number of exposures set at 1 stop apart, the HDR software such as Photomatix does a better and more consistent job creating the HDRs. Noise is supposed to be reduced and there is usually less post-processing needed to clean up the image after the image blending. Also, Dave stressed the proper use of histograms during image capture. You should take enough images so that the darkest image should not have any of the histogram cut off on the right side. Conversely, your brightest exposure should not have any of the histogram cut off on the left side. If you use this simple rule, you can automatically know how many images to shoot, all you have to decide is whether you want to use 1 stop or 2 stop increments. In this way, if the scene does not have a wide dynamic range, 3 photographs may be adequate. If you shoot into the Sun, you very well may need 10+ exposures. I’m thinking of how to incorporate some of Dave’s techniques into my HDR processing. I have a bit of a different HDR style so I’m not planning to use the same exact techniques but I think it’s beneficial to use some aspects of what Dave has mentioned. Either way, its clear that Dave has honed his technique and it is working very well for him.

Jump back 150 years to the time of the American Civil War and you get to see the latest in photography technology from that era. This was the topic of the March CapMac presentation. Heather Curiel gave a fascinating presentation on tintype photography. Tintype is a wet plate technique where you coat a piece of flat metal (nowadays Aluminum is used) with some photosensitive chemicals to produce the “film” used to capture the image. Because the chemicals are wet, the plate must be used within minutes before it dries. The photosensitive plate must be created in the dark (with a red colored safe light), in a large box outside, near whatever your were planning to photograph. Once the plate is created, you quickly need to put his plate in a light safe holder and slip it into the camera. With the equivalent ISO value of less than 1, these plates take a long time to expose, even in bright sunlight. Heather said it usually takes several minutes or longer for the plate to be exposed properly. For every image, a new plate must be created, exposed and then developed within a span of 20 minutes all on site. Some years later, a dry plate technique was finally developed so that the plates can be made ahead of time, multiple photographs can be taken and then developed later at a lab. For someone like me that does not even use 35mm film, this ancient wet plate photography was a real eye opener. It had the feeling of being like a science experiment and art combined into one. Tintypes, however, were an advance from the previous technology in which glass plates were used. The interesting thing is, Heather is a young woman who is drawn to this old technique. She says she really likes that look and feel of these tintype images. You can see a sample here on her website. As an older guy that has completely embraced digital, I think it’s great for the younger generation to look back at times past. I’m left wondering if the younger generation, surrounded by all this instant technology, somehow longs for a slower and simpler time.

At the end of Heather’s presentation, she made a comment that I found amusing. She indicated how bummed she is if an image didn’t turn out properly since it takes about 20 minutes to create the image from start to finish. The funny thing is, for many people, to create an HDR with the latest digital technology usually takes longer than 20 minutes of work. Some of my friends take up to an hour of post processing to create a single HDR photograph. Sure, post processing digital files is different from mixing chemicals and exposing a tintype however, I still found it ironic that in the era of modern digital captures and powerful personal computers, the high-tech HDR still may take longer to create than a photograph back 150 years ago. If you are in the Austin area, check out the CapMac Photo SIG, it usually takes place on the 4th Thursday of every month. You can find information about up coming topics here. It a great group of people and I believe it will broaden your photographic horizons. It sure has for me.

6 thoughts on “The Extremes of Photography, from Tintypes to HDR

  1. Thanks for the mention, Andy, and thanks, too, for such an interesting contrast. We tend to think that digital is faster but, as you point out, if you factor in all the software work afterwards, the wet processes may indeed be quicker in some cases. That said, I still prefer not smelling of fixer all the time!

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