Monday, September 12, 2016

Clearing Up the Victorian Backlog

Since I had such a blind spot when it came to Victorian pencils when I wrote The Catalogue, that’s been an area into which I’ve worked to expand my horizons over the last couple of years.  It’s also the area which has pushed me most to hone my photography skills, since the details you need to see to appreciate them are rarely visible to the naked eye.  I’ve been frustrated with my limitations as a photographer, and the drawers of new acquisitions in my printer’s cabinet were getting crowded with Victorian pencils awaiting some decent photographs – or a decent photographer.

Here’s some of the “before” pictures, from the days when I was still fumbling around with a camera and doing the best I can, of a few magic pencils:

Photography is always tradeoffs – if I put this against a darker background, the colors would pop more, but the shutter would stay open longer, making it harder to stay in focus.  To let in more light, you can open up the aperture more, but then you lose the depth of field.   It was driving me crazy.  The closeups were good enough to convey the information, but that’s about all.  We’ve got a Kurtz & Moneghan:

A couple “Mabies Patent Oct. 3 1854":

An “A.G. Day”:

An Edward Todd:

and finally, an unmarked piece with an interesting finial:

I had plenty of readers cursing the darkness of my pictures (and my photography skills), but none were stepping up to light a candle, other than the vague and unhelpful “get better lighting” comments.  Then, after I posted one unfortunate picture, my friend Daniel Kirchheimer used a couple magic words that changed everything: “spot metering” and “aperture priority.”   “Spot metering” is a setting on a camera which allows you to measure the light – and therefore set the exposure – at a certain point in the frame, rather than having the camera gauge the overall light in the picture and average things out.

“Aperture priority” is a setting on your camera which allows you to control how open or closed the opening is – the smaller the aperture (higher the setting), the more depth of focus you have.

Put these two together, and you’ve got better colors up close with better focus.  So instead of that first picture:

I can get this:

When it comes to getting in close for the imprints, though, another issue emerges.  On the Kurtz & Moneghan, I was able to get a nice shot of the imprint using spot metering on the aperture priority setting, because the reds didn’t darken up the picture so much that the shutter needed to stay open forever and a day:

But when I went to zoom in on the Mabie Todd, using spot metering on a black object that close meant that most of the pictures came out blurry – even with a tripod – and the one that was passable doesn’t even look like the same pencil:

However, when I shot it in automatic mode without a flash, the picture was way too dark:

Here’s where the third tool in my new arsenal came to good use: Lightroom, a photo editing program.  Using Lightroom, you can very easily adjust the level of exposure, lighter or darker, to adjust for these issues.  This trick only works, however, if the digital information is present in the original shot to start with: since my spot metered shot registered nearly all of the cap as just “white,” even when I backed off the exposure significantly, the detail in the cap just wasn’t there to enhance:

However, the shot done on automatic settings, when increased by about a stop and a third, was exactly what I was trying to capture:

Note that there’s not as much depth of focus, but the imprint is crisp and the colors are correct – that’s what I’m looking for, so I’m happy with this.  So I used all the new tools in my bag to reshoot the remaining images.  The A.G. Day is truly almost gone, so there wasn’t much more to catch, but the rest of them turned out much nicer than I was able to do before.

Now that I’ve finally been shown how to get the photographs I’ve been trying to shoot for years, I felt ready to take on that backlog of Victorians I’ve been meaning to tell you about.  That starts tomorrow . . .

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

great post! thanks