Friday 22 July 2011

Scratching at the surface

I feel like I am only beginning to scratch at the surface of the list of camera tricks I want to share. But I don't want to get fixed on any one camera or device - like the big 20x24 camera. And talking of scratches, scratching or damaging film has so many possibilities.

Here is one I did a while ago.

Life on the edge

This was taken with an old 35mm SLR film camera, a standard lens and one of those fish-eye converter lenses that you put on the front. (They used to be, and sometimes are still called semi-fisheye lenses.) That's what makes the horizon curved and higher in the middle (I was pointing the camera down.)

Semi-fisheye lenses

Semi-fisheyes or fish-eye converters are designed to be used in conjunction with another lens (this is why they are "semi-") but can in fact be used on their own. (That's something else for later.) They are also very useful as bits of glass for lens hacks (more stories for later). I have picked up several, mostly about a tenner a piece, at various camera fairs or on the bay. If you add to that a tenner or so for a film camera, that's 20 quid for a fish-eye camera that is ten times better than the fancy-priced Lomo fisheye camera that costs more than twice the price. Which would you prefer?

If you use a semi-fisheye you need to know that you must stop your lens down small (to f/16 say) to get anything like acceptable sharpness across the whole frame. Or you can use your lens wide open to get that dreamy effect with the centre sharp and the edges blurred. You won't get a 180 degrees circular image with a semi-fisheye on a standard lens. But you might with a semi-fisheye on a wideangle lens.

Using an ultrawide lens is great for candid shots. The people near me had no idea I was taking a picture of them, as it looked like I was pointing in a completely different direction somewhere at the distant horizon.

For the image above the light was bright and I could stop down. But I wanted to make the image soft and interesting in a different way, so I took some wire wool (very fine) and lightly scratched the negative before scanning it. A little goes a long way and if you want to try this start by scratching very very light with very very fine wirewool. Or you can use the sharp abrasive side of a washup-pad, or (gently) some abrasive cleaning cream on the non-emulsion side. Whatever you do it is bound to be creative and interesting. Try to make your scratches match the image - either circular, or all in the same direction.

I cropped the image to avoid the circular edges, and scanned. I scanned the black and white image, but told the scanner it was a colour negative. The scanner cave me nice colours which I manipulated in the Gimp. Sometimes scanners give two-coloured images when you scan black-and-white as colour, one colour for the background of the negative and one for the silver in it. It's often worth scanning as colour. (Even as colour slide.) You can always photoshop it back to black and white if you want later.

Distressing with bleach

There are other ways of damaging negatives to good effect. In the next one, the negative was damaged using common household bleach (sodium hypochlorite, or "thin bleach", not to be confused with what is sometimes called "thick bleach" nor with what photographers sometimes call "bleach").


This process was rather more random. It relied on a bit of luck: bleaching the negative until two of the negative layers were removed, but the third remained, and the way the scanner (and my post processing software) treated it. The bleaching effect was different near the sprocket holes in the film, which is what causes the painterly-like brush strokes in the sky.

Using auto-equalise

For those that use the Gimp or other equivalent photoshop-like programs, some very interesting mixed film/digital effects can often be got by taking a picture with almost no detail and post-processing it. You take your picture, by perhaps massively under- or over-exposing, or perhaps by removing much of the detail (as I did here distressing the negative), or you photograph using old film that's no good, or in some other way. Then you scan what looks like an appallingly bad negative. You might usefully scan it as if it were colour when it is in fact black and white, or as slide when it was negative, or both, and use "auto-equalise colours" in software.

The way it works is this. Your original has a little detail in the image itself but not much. And what it does have has been produced right on the edge of what the film was designed to do, so is likely to be much less than perfect. But there's lots more going on in an analogue negative: grain and grunge and whatever. What auto-equalise does is expand this detail to fill the whole tonal and colour range. It exaggerates all the tiny nuances on your negative, which are often scratches or blemishes, or poor tonal or colour rendition of the film that was already pushed to its limits, and makes them become amongst the most important features of the image.

Another way of understanding what's going on is that it is the combination of the digital and the analogue. The analogue processes introduce imperfections that are exaggerated by the digital processes. There is not much information from the image itself, but there is information in the analogue imperfections, so all this information creates a rich picture. On the other hand, if you digitally make an image with little information and then amplify it digitally, you still get an image with little information.

A lot of what I like to do is push traditional processes to their limit, possibly exaggerating them digitally or using an analogue way later. You'll find out that a lot of what is done in photoshop can be done in the darkroom too.

Remarks on bleach

Sodium hypochlorite isn't terribly easy to find in the shops nowadays. It is safe when used properly (and has been used for hundreds of years) but can be dangerous when mixed in a stupid way with certain chemicals. You don't mix it with thick bleach, or acids or strong alkalis or some other things like hydrogen peroxide. It isn't particularly environmentally friendly either. I get the impression that the powers-that-be (who think we are all stupid and are going to kill ourselves or do something criminal) are making it harder and harder to get. This is very bad. But I have some ideas of other chemicals to use instead, but that will definitely have to wait until I have done some more experiments.

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