The Photographic Novitiate (Advice on Photographic Technique from 1908)

In 1908, George S. Smallwood advised aspiring photographers on technique in an article for Camera Craft. Over 100 years later, the technology may have changed, but Smallwood’s central message still applies today—the photographer makes the pictures, not the camera. Additionally, Smallwood’s advice that one should not be discouraged after technical failures so as to give up their photographic practice is good, timeless advice as well.

The purchaser of his first photographic outfit carries home his camera and the necessary paraphernalia with considerable pride in the thought that he is about to launch forth as the producer of pictures—pictures that will, no doubt, delight both himself and his friends. He fails to realize that there are a few pitfalls that will disclose themselves along his path to photographic success. Difficulties are liable to crop out at unexpected moments, and he should understand that those who succeed are the ones that do not become discouraged at mistakes and failures, but turn them to advantage by learning a lesson from them. Even the advanced amateur and the skilled professional have their differences to overcome. It is all too common with the beginner to imagine that photography is so easy that all he has to do is to follow the instructions in the little book that goes with his camera. Excellent as are these little manuals, they must be made rather brief, and the best chosen words do not mean the same thing to all readers. The beginner should not feel above taking advice from an older worker. Much can be learned, and no little material saved, by making the first few exposures under the guidance of an experienced camera-user. Possibly you, my reader, have exposed a few films with poor success and lost interest in your camera. Perhaps your outfit has been stored away, despite your promise so confidently made to your best girl, that you would portray her with all her wealth of beauty and attractiveness. Try again, and I will see if I can help your with a few suggestions from my own experience.

Brothers and Sisters. Photo by the author

Do not attempt to make a portrait with your subject in the open and the sun beating down upon her face. The best outdoor portraits are made in summertime, late in the day, say at 5pm or later, on the east side of a house where there is enough shade so that the sun will not shine into the lens or on the sitter. If you are in the park or woods, adhere to the same rule and have your sitters in the shade and facing the north. In “Brothers and Sisters,” which is reproduced herewith, you will notice that the light was screened out by the heavy foliage, the sun was low in the sky, and the top light was subdued by overhanging branches. The result is that good modeling was secured in the faces, although, of course, the arrangement of the group might have been improved upon. This was made four years ago with a 5x7 Bausch & Lomb rapid rectilinear lens, stop U.S. 32, one and one-half seconds exposure, on a Cramer Crown plate. Development was done with the pyro formula then recommended by the makers of the plate. The emulsion has since been changed and a smaller amount of alkali is now recommended.

Porter-Palmer Castle. Photo by the author

Now, I would like to advise the beginner not to blame his lens, his plate, or any other part of his equipment, if results are not satisfactory. While some lenses are a little better than others, there are none that are bad. All of the plates on the market today will give good negatives if rightly used. Remember that it is the man behind the camera, and blame yourself when the pictures are not the desired kind. Use care and neatness in your work. To get good pictures the lighting must be right and the exposure fairly correct. Correct exposure will give density in the highlights of the negative that can be seen at the back of the plate when development is nearly completed. Under-exposure only skims the surface of the plate, and consequently there is almost clear glass in the less bright portions of the negative. If a negative turns out thin and lacking in detail in the shadows, throw it away and go to the same spot and make another exposure, giving about twice or three times as much time. You will then agree with me that it requires full time to secure detail in the shadows. Of course your developer must be about sixty-five or seventy degrees temperature and the room not more than seventy. Too warm a developer will give the characteristics hardness and lack of detail of under-exposure.

In making street views it is always best to use either the front or back combination of the lens alone if possible. The resultant pictures are much more pleasing on account of the longer focus employed and consequent less violent perspective. The two pictures herewith will illustrate the point. “Potter-Palmer Castle” was made with the back combination of a 5 x 7 lens, stop U.S. 32, two seconds exposure in good light. “The Speedway” was made with the full combination of only seven and one-half inches focus. The reader will notice the violent perspective of the last and also the apparent running together of the lines as they extend into the distance. In the first, the angle is less pronounced and the perspective correspondingly more pleasing.

In Jackson Park. Photo by the author

“In Jackson Park” shows a type of subject that appeals very strongly to the beginner, and a view which he is almost certain to under-expose. Although this was made on a bright June day, an exposure of one second with stop 16, the shadows are not brought out as they should have been. A longer exposure could have been given and a better sky would have been secured. While a cloudless sky suits the subject, a little more color would have been better. The necessity for a longer exposure arises from the fact that the non-actinic green of the trees forms such an important part of the picture. The beginner fails to realize that most greens are the same as black to the photographic plate or film.

At the Derby. Photo by the author

Just to show the reader that I am not a crank on long exposures, I introduce herewith a picture of a group of ladies at the American Derby. It was made with a Graflex camera, Plastigmat lens, one two-hundredth of a second exposure, light good but not strong. Here we did not require detail in the grass and trees, but only in the white dresses of the ladies. A longer exposure would have been better, but there was danger of motion showing. The companion pictures is one that may interest some of my readers, as it is a portrait of Highball, the winner of the last American Derby at Chicago. It was made immediately after the finish, and shows Jockey Fuller in the saddle.

This essay by George S. Smallwood first appeared in Camera Craft, July 1908