Photo: ...Descending...
Pinkham & Smith Visual Quality Motion Picture lens-- 75mm f/3, on Nikon D3


Here you will find information on my use of soft-focus and Pictorialist lenses, and my techniques for mounting, using, and processing images from these lenses in this very digital world.

In addition, I will expound from time to time on the subject of "The New Pictorialism", and the development of a reflective style in current circles. Topics from Google Plus posts will find a home here, and perhaps some relative permanence in the ever-renewing world of social networking.

--Bruce Hemingway

Friday, December 30, 2011

Pictorialism's roots

Venetian Canal (1894) by Alfred Stieglitz
The Flatiron (1904) by Edward Steichen

The birth of late-19th century Pictorialism was driven by many technological and social factors; of these,  two major developments in the evolution of photography in the 19th century stand out.

The popular view of photography, entertained by many painters and much of the public, was that photographs should not be considered "art" because they were made by mechanical means and by physical and chemical processes instead of by human hand and spirit. To some, camera images seemed to have more in common with fabric produced by the machinery in a Jacquard loom than with handmade creations fired by inspiration.

At the same time, many artists feared the replacement of painting. Paul Delaroche was one of the most successful academic artists of the mid-19th-century French Salon Realism.  Delaroche is reported to have said "From today, painting is dead" upon first seeing examples of the Dagurreotype process invented by Louis Daguerre in France in 1839. Indeed, painters of miniature portraits lost; in 1830 the Royal Academy in London exhibited over 300 miniatures; by  1870 only thirty-three. The Cartes-de-visite were small visiting card photographic portraits (usually measuring 4 1/2 x 2 1/2") which became immensely successful in the 1860's, selling by the millions, and spawning a huge commercial industry in production and support.

The introduction of the roll-film camera meant the loss of complexity in the photographic process. Consider this timeline:

1878 - George Eastman was one of the first to demonstrate the great convenience of gelatin dry plates over the cumbersome and messy wet plate photography prevalent in his day. Dry plates could be exposed and developed at the photographer's convenience; wet plates had to be coated, exposed at once, and developed while still wet, hence, the horse-drawn field darkroom:
Wagons and camera of Sam A. Cooley,
U.S. photographer, Department of the South
Between 1860 and 1865 [Library of Congress]
1888 - The name "Kodak" was born and the KODAK camera was placed on the market, with the slogan, "You press the button - we do the rest." This was the birth of snapshot photography, as millions of amateur picture-takers know it today.

  • Kodak Camera of 1888 
  • expose 100 Frames, send camera to Kodak
  • Kodak develops film and returns prints and the camera reloaded
  • "You press the button, we do the rest."
  • 1/25 second exposure
1889 - The first commercial transparent roll film, perfected by Eastman and his research chemist, was put on the market. The availability of this flexible film made possible the development of Thomas Edison's motion picture camera in 1891.  A new corporation - The Eastman Company - was formed, taking over the assets of the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company.

1891 - The company marketed its first daylight-loading camera, which meant that the photographer could now reload the camera without using a darkroom.
(Source: Eastman Kodak)

Photography was now in the hands of everyone. The reaction of some photographers was to adopt new techniques to counter both the overly mechanical and too accurate view of photography, and the fact that painting enjoyed a much higher status than this new mechanistic process. So was born the desire to make photography more "painterly".

These artistic photographers, or Pictorialists as they came to be called,  used many techniques to achieve their stylistic ends, such as the use of multiple image printing, heavy manipulation of negatives, soft-focus, and the use of techniques such as gum bichromate printing and post-tinting, all of which were intended to lower the detail and produce a more artistic image. Many of these techniques were difficult and complex, thereby running counter to the ease-of-use of the snap-shooters of the day.

In an effort to be artistic, many Pictorialists chose to resemble the art of their day-- Impressionism-- in both subject matter and to some extent in visual style.

"In effect, the term Pictorialism is used to describe photographs in which the actual scene depicted is of less importance than the artistic quality of the image. Pictorialists would be more concerned with the aesthetics and, sometimes, the emotional impact of the image, rather than what actually was in front of their camera." (from A History of Photography © Robert Leggat, 1996.)

Parallels with The New Pictorialism will be the subject of a future post. Stay tuned...

Elias Goldensky, (American, 1867-1943). Portrait of three women, ca. 1915. Platinum print.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pictorialism & Post-Processing: the making of ...Descending...

My banner image ...Descending... has elicited many comments and questions, so I've prepared a step-by-step example of my work, and hopefully, my thinking about the presenting of this image. The old Pictorialists used many techniques to achieve their stylistic ends, such as the use of multiple image printing, heavy manipulation of negatives, soft-focus, and the use of techniques such as gum bichromate printing, all of which were intended to  lower the detail and produce a more artistic image. My use of post-processing techniques seems mild in comparison...

Here is the my post-processing sequence:

1. Original Photograph, Pinkham & Smith lens,  Lightroom "Nikon-Neutral" profile
This original image is lovely, and can stand on its own, showing the look of the Pinkham & Smith Visual Quality Motion Picture lens, and the context of the scene with the windows and lighting fixtures. It has no post-processing added, being as neutral a conversion of the digital raw image as I can accomplish. Some viewers, for various reasons,  may prefer this image to the end result, which is perfectly fine.

 While I really liked the image, I was bothered by the question of what the subject of the image was-- is it the windows, the stairway, or the figure? I chose the figure as the center of interest, and cropped to an 8x10 aspect-ratio:

2. Contrast and black levels adjusted

Details seemed less important than Chiaroscuro, hence the adjustments of contrast and blacks. But the window line above and the step line below bothered me:

3. Added post-crop vignetting  to fade edges to dark
Some isolation at the edges solved those problems; now I wanted to emphasize the qualities of the light:

4. Split-toning warmth added
To emphasize the light, I added some toning. I chose to leave the image as color, just adding tone to it. Now the image looked "too close". I wanted to pull back and re-frame...

5. In Photoshop, increased canvas size, adding and offsetting image
I added negative space around the image and off-set it to use as a desktop background.

At this point, the image was too harsh and needed something else. I wished for some great shaft of light, like the wonderful light in Josef Sudek's St. Vitus Cathedral images. To accomplish that, I resorted to the use of Digital Film Tools' wonderful plugin, RAYS. Rays allows the user to move and manipulate a light source inside or outside the image boundaries, and control various aspects of the ray-traced light beams:

6. Using a plug-in called "RAYS" to add light diffusion
Here is my initial result:

7. First result using RAYS
After staring at this version for several days I decided it was over-done and the angle of the light was wrong. So I re-did the treatment:

8. Final result using RAYS; now the light comes from a better direction
Finally, I changed the crop to a square format:

9. Final square crop: ...Descending...

Comments are always appreciated. Too much? Too little? Is manipulation useful, or even appropriate?

What do you think?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Plasticca lens configuration

There has been a discussion on the Large Format Photography Forum recently about an exotic lens known as the Oscar Zverzina "Plasticca" lens. This has a meniscus lens element in front and a yellow filter element at the rear (mine has faded to nearly clear with age), and a fixed very open aperture. Some users have speculated that reversing these elements, placing the meniscus at the rear, would make the lens softer throughout the image.

I have an Oscar Zverzina "Plasticca" "Kunst objektiv" (Art lens), 210mm, which I haven't used much because it seems too sharp in the center for my purposes.

So, I tried an experiment, reversing the position of the meniscus. These images are the center 24x36mm of the image:
Oscar Zverzina "Plasticca", normal element position

Oscar Zverzina "Plasticca", elements reversed in barrel

Test Rig
I'll certainly use mine in the reversed position. Nice diffusion...

Friday, November 25, 2011

So what is "A New Pictorialism"? ...Part 1...

My interest in the period of photography known as Pictorialism began when I found a copy of the Taschen edition of Camera Work / The Complete Photographs 1903-1917 in a local bookstore. The question of why some of these photographs resonated so strongly with me became a quest for understanding of the styles and the context of photography at the beginning of the twentieth century. That in turn led me to study the birth and development of photography in its entirety.

My background as a musician and composer (in my youth) had given me some understanding of the development of styles within the context of prevailing social and economic forces.  Further, my background as a technologist has sensitized me to the dynamic relationship between a developing technology and its use by artists. My childhood love and familiarity with the Monet collection at the Art Institute of Chicago set a resonance with qualities I found in the work of the Pictorialists, particularly the work of Stieglitz, Steichen, Kasebier, Clarence White and Fredrick Evans, all of whom were exhibited as part of Steiglitz' Photo Secession.

So, in a series of occasional posts, I will try to articulate those aspects of Pictorialism that I am trying to use in my own work, as well as to mention those things that  do not transfer to A New Pictorialism. On the way, we'll look at some examples, both old and new.

Stay tuned!

Morning 1908
Clarence H. White
Camera Work 23

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Darlot Pillbox Meniscus lens

Darlot Pill Box Meniscus lens, circa 1860-1880, about 180mm

A. Darlot was a French optical company, founded in the 1850s as Jamin-Darlot in Paris. In 1860 it became Darlot. It made camera lenses, marked "Darlot, Opticien" or "Darlot Paris" and the initials "AD" of A. Darlot, the letters crossed as logo.  B.F. & Co. refers to Benjamin French & Company, who were the sole U.S. Importers of Darlot lenses for many years.

This lens is a Pill Box simple meniscus landscape lens, which Darlot manufactured from about 1860 to about 1880. This lens is probably from the latter production.

The Pill Box design uses diaphram washers held in by a retaining mechanism, allowing the user to change washers to stop the lens down. Invariably, only the installed washer has survived. However, pictorial usage of such lenses dictated that the entire end cap be removed, so that the spherical distortion could be appreciated for its diffusion effects. My copy of this lens has one washer stop, which gives me the following apertures (roughly estimated):

  • With the end cap removed: f/5
  • End cap on, no washer: f/11
  • Washer installed: f/20

Here are some example images:
Washer installed-fully stopped down

Retaining cap removed- wide open

wide open

wide open

six image stitched- wide open lens- CameraFusion back
in color
I also have the Darlot-manufactured Puligny Adjustable Landscape lens featured in another post, as well as a Darlot No 2 Hemispherique Rapide lens and a Darlot wide-angle landscape lens. The latter two are entirely too sharp for my tastes.

A smaller mount for old lenses

While using a Linhof as a shift-tilt camera mount for a Nikon D3 (previous post) is useful, it is also bulky and heavy, and requires a tripod. I came up with this setup to use the same Linhof III lensboards.

In making my Linhof setup shown in the previous post, I had bought two scrap Linhof III bodies for parts, along with many used lensboards and blanks. I was able to put together one complete camera from the parts, and had a front standard left over. I added an old M42 bellows unit, some extension tubes, and a Nikon mount adapter. I used a series of step-up rings to obtain a front opening large enough to accommodate the lens opening in the Linhof board holder and epoxied the rings to the board holder.

Detail of lens mount and bellows, with Darlot PillBox Meniscus lens, about 180mm


  • This setup is no harder to hand-hold than a 300mm f/2.8 telephoto lens, and can be dropped in a shoulder bag when on an outing.
  • It is quite sturdy, and accommodates lenses of at least 12" focal length. I can add more extension tubes if necessary.

  • Only the center 24mm x 36mm of the image area is available to the camera. Many of these old diffusion lenses vary in their lens qualities from center to edge, both in diffusion effects and in fall-off. The larger image area is the biggest advantage to the full Linhof-Camerafusion-D3 combination.
  • No shift or tilt. I was not able to include those parts of the Linhof front standard because of space constraints. The full rig gives me the Linhof lens movements. For even more movements and longer draw, I can use the Camerafusion back with a Cambo 4x5 body, with extended 35" draw, and Linhof adapter board. That rig will accomodate much larger lenses.
This simple rig has proved to be an excellent solution to using smaller classic and soft-focus lenses with my available cameras. Now, where did I put that Universal Iris Lens Clamp?

L-R: Pulligny Adjustable Landscape lens w. case; Imagon 200mm; Graf Variable 8.5-9.5"; Verito 7-1/4"

Using large-format soft-focus lenses with the Nikon D3

To use large-format soft-focus lenses with the Nikon D3, I have developed several systems. This one uses an old Linhof III body with a CameraFusion digital sliding back, made by This back allows the digital camera to slide in two dimensions, and obtain images which can be stitched together into a large image, roughly the size of a 4x5 film negative.
Linhof III, 240mm Heliar, CameraFusion sliding back, Nikon D3

240mm Heliar on Linhof III, wonderful portrait lens

CameraFusion horizontal position slider, in centimeters;  0 is center of 4x5 film area

CameraFusion vertical position;  50% is center of 4x5 film area
Rear view of CameraFusion, D3 in upper-right corner position of film area, lower-left position of image
I have used this with many different lenses as shown in other posts. I also use the CameraFusion back with a studio Cambo 4x5 and very large lenses, like the Wollensak Velostigmat  Series II F4.5 12"lens, the Kodak Portrait 305mm lens, and the Voigtlander Portrait Euryscope Series III Nr 5 f 4.5 14" lens.

 Wollensak Velostigmat 12" on Cambo SC with CameraFusion digital back and Nikon D5000. 5 rows, 11 images each row, stitched with Autopano Giga software. Full size 22307 x 7803 pixels, approximately 174 megapixels.

Original in Zoomify here:

Old lens: the Graf Variable

Left lens: Graf Variable 8.5-9.5" f/3.8-f/4.5

This lens can function as a sharp anastigmat lens working at f3.8 maximum or a diffusion lens working at f4.5 maximum.  The adjustment from sharp to diffused focus is by turning a calibrated control ring at the front of the barrel, moving the front cell in or out about ¼”.  When it is out, the lens is a sharp f/3.8 – when it is in, the lens is a soft focus f/4.5, and the amount of rotation controls the diffusion.  The lens is calibrated with two scales of f stops – one each for sharp and soft focus, and will cover a 5"x7" format. This lens works best with stitching on the CameraFusion sliding back.

sharp setting, wide open aperture 

soft setting, wide open aperture

medium soft setting, f/5.6 aperture

full soft setting, wide open aperture
I have two Graf Variables in my collection: the 8.5-9.5" shown above, and a smaller 7.5-8.5" lens which I use with a helical focus unit. They deserve to be used more.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

An early "ZOOM" lens

Adjustable Landscape Lens No. 1 ML Puligny. A. Darlot (A. Turillon) Paris No. 7574 circa 1897

This lens is a variable focal length (~ 180 to 360 mm) by changing the distance between the two lens groups with a rack & pinion. Another feature: this lens has two twelve-bladed diaphragms, outside of the two groups, one front and one behind the lens groups. These diaphragms are graduated from 5 to 20 millimeters. Puyo and Puligny published "Les Objectifs d'Artiste" Paris 1906, which outlined their designs for Pictorial lenses. The designs were made by several optical houses of the day. Puligny was the engineer. Charles Emile Joachim Constant Puyo (1857 – 1933), was a prominent french pictorialist photographer.

Charles Emile Joachim Constant Puyo - Apparition, 1910
I would add that this lens is extremely difficult to use. Besides requiring constant re-focusing for any focal length change, it is not corrected for chromatic aberration, which means that the apparent focal point is not necessarily what you see in the viewfinder or with live view. Two diaphragms, both of which affect softness and focus, add to the confusion.

Someday I'll figure it out. :) Maybe. In the meantime, I can look at Puyo's image above, and only dream...