Alcohol, Ether and Gun Cotton

Ruined Manor Hampton GayEarly photography was not easy.  The wet- plate collodian  process used between the 1850s and 1880s uses a solution of gun-cotton in ether and alcohol and requires the entire photographic process including coating the plate, exposing and developing it to be completed within fifteen minutes.

These and other challenges faced by early photographers were brought home to me by the the recent BBC documentary ‘Britain in Focus’, produced in partnership with the National Media Museum and presented by Eamonn Mccabe.  The first episode covered the earliest period of Photography in Britain – from polymath inventor Henry Fox Talbot in the 1840s to Peter Henry Emerson in the last years of the nineteenth century.  The journey surveyed some of the greatest pioneers of early photography in their most famous locations: Fox Talbot in Lacock Abbey, David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson in Newhaven, Roger Fenton in the Crimea, Julia Margaret Cameron at Little Holland House, Robert Howlett in the Isle of Dogs and Peter Henry Emerson in the Norfolk Broads.

I am familiar with the work of most of the photographers in the program, but curiously I had not come across Roger Fenton.  I was hugely impressed by his images and a little research showed him to be an extremely important photographer.  Born into a wealthy banking family in 1819, he studied law at Oxford and painting in Paris before he took up photography, learning the early Calotype process developed by Fox Talbot.  Fenton was a founder member of the Photographic Society (later the Royal Photographic Society), the first official photographer of the British Museum and quite possibly the world’s first officially appointed war photographer, photographing the Crimean War in the first systematic coverage of a conflict in 1855. 

Alcohol Ether and Gun Cotton
Roger Fenton’s Wagon

Fenton’s connections led to his commission by the British government to photograph the Crimean war – a conflict that pitted the Russian Empire against a somewhat unlikely alliance of Britain, France, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia.  He took a photographic assistant, a servant and a large horse-drawn van converted from a merchant’s wine wagon to carry his cumbersome large format glass plate photographic equipment (see image, right).   The wagon offered a good target for Turkish artillery and Fenton also suffered from the high temperatures, broken ribs and cholera.  Nevertheless, and despite the long exposures and rapid processing required, he was able to capture 350 images, most of which were later exhibited across Britain and displayed to the British and French royal families.  Fenton was a technically accomplished photographer and his large format images from Crimea are striking.  They consist mainly of posed portraits and scenes and landscapes of battle sites including the iconic The Valley of the Shadow of Death.  Though he saw plenty of horrors during the conflict, he did not record any with his camera, most likely because his government patrons wanted the images that could be used as part of a campaign to counter reports of wide spread military incompetence in a war that was unpopular with both the press and the public.

The depth of field made possible by the large format, together with marvellous tone and composition make Roger Fenton’s work quite extraordinary.   In addition to his war photography he shot royal portraits, architecture, landscapes (such as those of Bolton Abbey covered in the documentary) and still life.   He regarded photography as both art and business and abandoned it entirely in 1863 to return to law when he saw its status was diminished to a craft – illustrated by the 1862 International Exhibition’s placement of photography in the section reserved for instruments and machinery.  He died only a few years later in 1869.

Large format film photography, and particularly wet-plate collodian images, have a unique look that can not be reproduced with 35mm cameras – the shot of Roger Fenton’s wagon clearly shows this.   However, the supporting image in this post is an homage to it.  The shot of the ruined manor at Hampton Gay (which burned down in 1887) gives the impression of a shallow depth of focus at distance using motion blur.  It was sepia toned and I added some grain and lens falloff in post production.  The shot was taken on a Nikon Df DSLR mounted on a tripod with a 40 second exposure at f13 using a black glass ND filter.  At some point I’d love to take a large format camera out to shoot the ruined manor, preferably a glass plate camera.  I doubt I will ever mange it, but if anyone in Oxfordshire has the equipment and expertise and is open to hiring both, I’d be very open to it.

 

 

The Windmill at Brill

The windmill at BrillOne weekend when the weather was cloudy with very strong winds I thought I’d try out my long exposure technique described in the blog post of the same name, so I drove out to Brill with my Nikon Df.  Brill is a location well known to photographers all over Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, and attractively perched on top of a steep hill, with an excellent view over the plain below.  The result is shown to the right, I was quite pleased with it.

The origin of the name of the village is derived from both the Anglo-Saxon and Celtic words for hill (Bre-hyll). In the reign of Edward the Confessor it was called Bruhella.  It is notable for its old post mill, the timbers of which reputedly date from 1685 and the clay pits were dug for the production of pottery and Brill bricks.   The clay pits were in use from Roman times until the last bricks were produced in the 1920s.   Roman occupation in the Brill area is highly probable as suggested by finds of tiles and pottery and the square earthworks believed to have been a Roman look-out.  The village is also close to the Roman road of Akeman Street.  It was a royal manor of the kings of Wessex in the Anglo-Saxon period and there was a Royal Palace at Brill until it was destroyed by the Parliamentarian John Hamden in 1643.  Edward the Confessor, Henry II, John, Henry III and Stephen all held court there in the 12-13th centuries.

Brill was the scene of a battle during the English Civil War. After the Battle of Edgehill in November 1642 a royalist force occupied the village. Parliamentary troops were sent to oust the royalists, and on January 27th 1643 the two forces met in the Battle of Brill.

The royalists had thrown up sturdy earthworks, perhaps using remnants of Brill Castle. The Roundheads launched a fierce canonnade, but called off the attack after several hours when the Royalists lit damp straw on fire, creating a wall of choking smoke. Residue of the Royalist defenses can be seen in the village.  During the 1830s an attempt was made to turn Brill into a spa town, as there is a spring between the nearby village of Dorton and Brill but royal patronage favoured Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa over the rather isolated village.

The Pheasant pub has outside seating that provides access to the view over a pint, which is very pleasant in the summer.  The site of the windmill is a popular spot for a picnic, with children and dogs often scampering about amongst the undulations of the old clay pits, and of course there are plenty of photographers…

The Beauty of the Long Exposure

Road to nowhere - the beauty of the long exposureI have seen some astonishing black and white photography that uses very strong neutral density (ND) filters such as the B+W ND 110 to blur cloud movement using a long exposure.  I wanted to get some shots with the same effect into my portfolio.  The B+W 110 is not for the faint hearted because it is so black the camera typically can’t meter or focus through it, but I’ve tried lesser NDs and they are just not strong enough for the full effect. The real full on long exposure effect can be stunning, and I obtained reasonably pleasing results on the shoot, so I’m going to keep going. The picture on the left is entitled ‘The Road to Nowhere’ and is a small road that runs just off the A41 between Aylesbury and Bicester towards Brill, where I also shot that day.  After some experimentation I found the following to work quite well:

  1. Ideally you should shoot on a cloudy day with strong winds so that you can capture the movement as a blur. The direction and speed of movement of the clouds is of interest as movement across the frame versus towards or away from you look quite different.
  2. Set up your camera on a tripod. Make sure it is really secure, especially if you are in a high wind. If you have a strap attached to the camera make sure it is not flapping about. Ideally you should be using a cable release or remote to release the shutter.
  3. Compose a test shot without the filter, in aperture priority mode – setting the desired aperture, which will typically be small (I mainly used f16). Typically you will want to set a low ISO, shoot using Raw and disable lens vibration reduction as it is not helpful on a tripod.
  4. Focus using auto focus and take note of the shutter speed.
  5. Next, screw in your B+W 110 10 stop neutral density filter, and switch to manual focus and manual mode.
  6. In Manual mode set the shutter speed to 1000 times the shutter speed of the meter reading for the test shot, keeping the same aperture setting and using the bulb setting if necessary.
  7. Take the shot and look at the result. Adjust the shutter setting as desired until you get the exposure you want.
  8. Take off the ND filter, flip back to aperture mode and autofocus and take a bracket of 3 shots that can be used with the long exposure to create a properly exposed image.