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Reproduce 1800's "Civil War" style portraits

Joshua Farnsworth , Nov 04, 2009; 07:18 p.m.

I have searched all over for techniques to recreate old-style studio portraits, such as those from Civil War studios (see attached photo). I have a 4x5 field camera & lenses, plus studio lighting. It appears that I should use the 4x5 for tack-sharp images, large apertures, & some sort of chemical darkroom process. It also appears that soft boxes (high-key) will help. I'm also open to trying a digital approach. Any advice would be appreciated.
Joshua Farnsworth


Civil War Style portrait

Responses

Michael Axel , Nov 04, 2009; 07:21 p.m.

If you were going to use a LF camera, I would get an old crappy lens, like one that you might get with an Ilex shutter, so the contrast is low. I would go digital if you're doing it to make money. Maybe get a Lensbaby to give you OOF edges, then lower contrast in PP, and tint to sepia.

David Papas , Nov 04, 2009; 08:19 p.m.

Try using long time exposures to have the subject have to stay still, maybe try orthochromatic film, I think you can still get it by Rollei.
The old film use to have a low red sensitivity. Try and use a wide aperture. If you really wanted to get crazy learn to do tin types.

Tim Ludwig , Nov 04, 2009; 09:44 p.m.

Joshua,

Don't get so wrapped up in the camera/ lens and processes that you forget the most important factor which is the light. In this example, the light is coming almost entirely from nearly overhead as can be recognized by the deep shadows in the eyes and under the crossed arms.

Do your best to find illustrations of the old daylight only studios that photographers like Matthew Brady had to use and when you've figured out the directions of light that they used, then try to duplicate that direction of light and use of reflectors with your soft boxes and large reflector flats. Definitely use softboxes and make them the biggest you can possibly afford because this quality of light came from large and broad light sources.

You may be able to access this information from books on Brady, Edward S. Curtis, Alexander Gardner (who did much of the Brady photography), Timothy O'Sullivan and Margaret Julia Cameron. Also from the George Eastman House, The Smithsonian, The Library of Congress, and the Henry Ford Museum at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Also, possibly from the Photography Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City.

There are great photos of old daylight studios on page 51 of the Time-Life Library of Photography book, "The Studio"; page 60 in "Photographed by Bachrach"; and page 24 in "History of Photography" by Hanfield and Diedre Wills.

A more contemporary photographer to study would be Irving Penn who traveled the world with a portable tent which was designed to direct natural light into his subjects faces from various directions.

Also keep in mind that the stiffness of the poses was due to incredibly slow emulsions which often required a subject to try to remain motionless for several minutes. Head clamps on metal rods were used to lock the subject in place.

You might also access groups of Civil War re-enactors. There are people who do this kind of photography for some of those events and you might be able to locate and pick some of their brains.

After that, your own choice of historical cameras and or processes is up to you. Instant gratification is the order of the day with most folks, so learning to light and pose in the traditional ways of the period, but shooting and editing digitally may be the way you are forced to go by the marketplace.....sad!

Finally, find and buy a copy of "The Girl with the Pearl Earring", the story of Jan Vermeer, one of the finest of all the Dutch Master painters. There are scenes in this film that show the adjustments of shuttered windows, both vertical and slanted, to direct the light in his studio for how he wanted his paintings to look. Exactly the same principles used by the early daylight studio photographers.

Good luck.

Tim

JD Rose (Glen Canyon) , Nov 05, 2009; 11:06 p.m.

Old pictures have a certain look because of the apparel and because panchromatic film was not available. An old process like Wet Plate works really well for creating that antique look.

You want to use a process that is blind to red and a LF camera for that characteristic DOF.

I really enjoy Mr. Robert Szabo's work.
http://www.robertszabo.com/
(link)

Roger Porter , Nov 05, 2009; 11:31 p.m.

Don't forget the Tintype parlor kit from Rockland, http://www.rockaloid.com/products.html
Takes some practice, but easier still than learning how to do wet plate photos.

j nanian , Nov 06, 2009; 06:37 p.m.

get a box camera and put enlarging paper in it instead of film
it will be asa 6 or slower if you use graded paper ( try grade 1 ) ...
have fun,

john

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