ISO Assignment

When I first started working at Delaware Camera back in the early 90s, I actually didn’t know there was such a thing as “film speed.” In fact, other than a vague understanding of shutter speed, I had little knowledge of what the word “speed” meant in photography at all. I would’ve guessed at the meaning of a fast shutter speed, but the idea of a fast lens or fast film was new to me.

So, naturally, a crash course on the subject was in order, courtesy of my childhood friend who’d hired me to work with him, and who had a BFA in Photography from SUNY Oswego.

Kodak, which, back then, was still the world’s leading photography powerhouse and trendsetter, had quite the variety of film brands to choose from, each with its own niche in either the consumer or professional market, and, once I had my mitts on my sister’s hand-me-down Canon AE-1 Program SLR, I was eager to try them all.

I was particularly fascinated by the extreme ends of the spectrum. There was Ektar 25, an exceptionally slow-speed film, usable only under bright light with slow-moving or stationary subjects, but which delivered colors and detail that seemed to pop off of a well-rendered print. There was Ektar 1000, which was grainy, but able to hold up its colors admirably when shooting fast-moving subjects under less-than-ideal lighting conditions. When shooting black-and-white, I loved TMax 100 for it amazing contrast and clarity, and I loved, with equal measure, the outrageous power of TMax 3200, which let me photograph, without flash, subjects such as musicians playing in a dimly-lit club, with graininess that enhanced the documentary feel of the prints.

And I learned to print black-and-white photos by hand, laboring long into the night in my friend’s basement darkroom, always fascinated by the results. I learned the real-world application of techniques that, these days, exist mainly as tool icons in computer apps like Photoshop, such as dodging, burning, and tricks to increase contrast and clarity.

And one trick I learned was something called “pushing,” which meant to slightly increase the development time of a roll of film (with slightly warmer chemicals, perhaps) and thereby effectively double or quadruple its effective ISO. We would actually shoot the film at the higher ISO and then mark the film can as a reminder to “push process” the film when it came time to do so. This would, of course, increase the graininess of the images, but would allow for taking photos in conditions that would be otherwise impossible to shoot.

I find it interesting that DSLRs and other digital cameras still make use of the ISO model, allowing the digital photographer to take control of the sensitivity of the camera’s sensors in a way that mimics the process of choosing a roll of film to use for a shoot. Of course, as my attached photos demonstrate, this can be done from one single image to the next, another of the digital camera’s major advantages over the chemical processes it has nearly replaced.

Now, without any further ado, here’s the link to my example photos. The lighting looks slightly different in them as they go along, most likely because a good deal of the light is coming from outside. This lighting can fluctuate as clouds pass overhead. Without the ability to close any blinds and light the painting artificially, I was at the mercy of these changing conditions. The change in the quality of the image from the first to the seventh is not terribly obvious unless one looks very closely. So to give a better impression of this, I duplicated two of the images, the first one and the last one, and in each I cropped in very closely on the figure in the painting just to the left and below the center. I’ve placed those side-by-side in the album to show the tremendous difference in actual clarity between the ISO 100 and ISO 3200 settings on the camera.

ESC assignment 1007 – ISO
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