A vintage Leica advert

Every now and again you come across a photograph that makes you go “Wow!”. Most times it is the content, the subject matter or the artistic attributes that take your breath away.  Occasionally, it is the superb technical quality.

These days of Facebook, phone pics and Photoshop tomfoolery, photographic quality has definitely been relegated to the back seat.  The digital revolution has bombarded us with  imagery. Fun, instantaneous, exciting imagery.  Everyone is a photographer.

Actually, maybe photographer is the wrong word.  For although photography is a word to describe someone who takes photographs, over the years it had become the generic term reserved for professionals or keen amateurs.  The family man with an instamatic was more of a snap-shooter.  Snapshot is not a term you hear much these days, so let’s call the new breed “Phoneographers”

The majority of phoneographers wouldn’t know a good quality photograph if it slapped them in the face.

B-25 bombers at North American Aviation, Kansas City. Picture by Alfred Palmer

I digress.  Over my time as a professional photographer and before that as “serious” amateur, I watched photographic quality improve with the advent of newer equipment and materials.  Higher resolution lenses, coupled with finer-grained film and high acutance developers that increased edge definition resulted in sharper images, and smoother truer tonality.

The glassware and the chemistry are only part of the story, however.  Right from the early days of photography, the major factor influencing the quality of a photograph has been the man or woman behind the camera.  Having an understanding of light and composition, and most of all knowing the capabilities and limitations of your equipment, and then using them to their maximum potential.

Click here to explore the full resolution image

It was this photograph, taken in Kansas back in 1942, of B25 bombers being prepared for war, that brought the whole photographic quality thing into focus for me (pun entirely intentional!).

Alfred T. Palmer in 1942It was shot by Alfred T. Palmer, a prolific American professional photographer of the day whose work simply oozes quality as well as superb composition whilst documenting life at that time.  Head over to the website dedicated to his life’s work.

It is amazing to think a photograph of this quality was taken over seventy years ago.  No Photoshoppery. Apart maybe for a little recent tweaking of the contrast and colour saturation, I would say that this is as-shot.

It is an exceptionally well executed professional photograph exposed on transparency film. Probably Kodachrome, which was way ahead of it’s time, exhibiting exceptionally fine grain and superb quality right from when it was first introduced seven years before this photograph was taken.

It was never a “fast” film, so the exposure here would have been quite tricky. Notice the depth of focus from the step ladder in the foreground right through to the far end of the building. This would have required a small aperture and a mathematically calculated hyperfocal distance to ensure this depth of field.
The only unsharp part of the entire image was a little movement around the head during the long exposureAs a result, the relatively low light level would have required a longish exposure so the camera would have been mounted on a very sturdy tripod. The shot would have been completely stage managed with the personnel remaining perfectly still for what was quite likely to have been an exposure probably at least a couple of seconds or even more in duration.  You can see by the enlarged section of the full resolution file that everything is sharp, save for a little fuzziness around the heads of the two men caused by slight movement during the exposure.

All in all this is a fabulous photograph from over 70 years ago.  Any modern day photographer would do well to learn from this and master the basics of photography.  Strip away all those bells and whistle and get it right in the camera first.