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  Vintage and historical lenses

Notes on equipment

I have been using large, bellows cameras more or less continuously since 2005. For my architectural photography, it is the go-to camera thanks to the fantastic subtlety of expression it offers. Naturally, in today's world, a high-spec digital SLR is also an essential tool. The latter are well known, so I thought I should write a bit about the other kit.

Bellows cameras use large sheets of film which mean, I can really extract the detail of my subject. The design of the camera where, unlike a pocket camera or SLR, the front and back move relative to each other, is another fantastic tool, because I can control the sharpness of my main subject relative to its context. I can build a story within each frame for an in-depth representation which rewards continued study.

My camera is a modern and more refined version of the wooden cameras of yore. It works on the same principles, but is just simpler to use in the same way that synchro-mesh is simpler than double clutching. For all my colour work, I use modern lenses which have outstanding optical properties and give sharp prints from corner to corner, with no distortion worth speaking of.

In the last two years, however, I have invested in a set of vintage lenses dating from between 1860 and 1960. They give the resulting prints a very distinct character. In the plane of focus, in the centre of the picture, they are almost as sharp as modern lenses. Moving towards the edge of the frame or away from the point of focus leads to a marked loss of resolution: lower contrast, darker tones, optical distortion. These are actually a valuable aid in creating a picture, by driving the attention towards the central subject.

I have used these older lenses to take pictures of architecture and cities, particularly elements of our heritage. I like the disjoin between the old feel of the picture and – to the viewer in the know – the fact that the subject is evidently shot in recent years. To me, this matters more than the engendered nostalgia, the warm glow of reminiscence.

My collection

I have a set of modern lenses from fish-eye to wide angle to moderately long – in full-frame SLR terms, 8mm, 17-30mm for the wide angles to 115mm at the longer end. They are nicely corrected to create a transparent medium and are direct descendents of lenses designed some 100 years ago. The first photography lenses in the 1840's were derived from astronomical viewing glasses – telescopes – and developed slowly from there as our understanding of optics grew and as new glass materials were invented. The large lens in the picture above is my oldest and is of a Petzval design, which first appeared in the 1840's. In the 1870's, the rapid rectilinear design was launched independently in Britain and in Germany. Then in the 1890's, there was a sudden spurt of creativity with two lens types, the double-anastigmat by Goerz and the triplet by Cooke. This was rapidly followed in the 1900's by the Tessar and Heliar designs. These last four designs are the bedrock of modern photography with most lenses of the twentieth century deriving from them in some way or another. Indeed, until the 1960's and the popularisation of colour film, many designs changed very little.

I am available for commissions to help you get the pictures of your premises or local village and naturally you may pose in the shot. Did I say these old lenses are perfect for portraits? There is nothing quite like a traditional photograph!

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