All Things Photography: Episode Two: asphalt xuma owner twain

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In this episode I describe the what and how of the earliest known photograph, which still exists, chat with Joe Wojcich, owner of Tempe Camera, examine a small light for your smartphone, give Mark Twain some ink, and suggest you put your camera some place other than up to your eye (with a photo of a cute toddler to illustrate).

That's the short version. Here's the deeper dive…

Joe Wojcich

Tempe Camera is one of the older full-service camera stores in the Phoenix area, and it might be the only one still in existence. Thanks to Joe's ability to expand his offerings from repairs to sales and rentals, film processing and large format printing and framing, plus classes and events, while others have withered his business expanded. In my conversation with Joe, I learn his history, his passion, and get some inside info on the industry, from factory to sales floor.

Here Joe is looking back into the mists of time (okay, back to 1973), when his crew was smaller and his hair was darker.

Before Selfies

The desire to directly render a scene as an image on some medium had been pursued for a couple decades when Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce found the solution. Well, he found one solution, and it wasn't very practical, but the year 1826 definitely goes down as the year that photography was invented. (Unless Niépce did it in 1827, or maybe it was someone else, a decade earlier in Brazil, though no proof exists of the South American claim.)

So, unless conclusive proof emerges in the future, the year 1826 (or '27) is considered the founding date for photography. His process, though, did not survive in practice, being both extremely slow in capturing the image (the first might have taken 8 hours, or possibly 2 or 3 days), and the result being nearly indecipherable.

Here's that first known photograph, which captured the scene from a second-story window looking out on a courtyard with other buildings. The long exposure meant the sun travelled across the sky and, thus, shone on the structures from all angles, kinda screwing up what we would expect, shine-and-shade-wise.

As I explain in the podcast, the image was captured by coating this polished pewter plate with Bitumen of Judea, basically a naturally occurring asphalt; the plate was inserted into a box with a lens (I'll describe such contraptions in a future podcast), and where the image that was projected onto the plate was bright, the bitumen hardened more, and where the image was dark the bitumen hardened less. After the exposure, a solvent was applied to strip away the less hard areas of the coating. Below you can see the image made more recognizable by emphasizing the contrast. Still not ready for an appearance in Town & Country magazine, but at least we can make out some of the structures.

Monsieur Niépce was introduced to another Frenchman through the man who was providing each with lenses for their respective development work, one Louis Daguerre, and if you recognize that surname as part of the photographic technique called Daguerreotype, you're ahead of the rest of the class.

The two men had different goals for what we now term photography, but their similarities were obvious and they formed a partnership to pursue a method for capturing an image onto a permanent medium. Unfortunately, Niépce passed away just a couple of years into that partnership and, though his son took his place, ultimately it was Daguerre who succeeded with a process that shared almost nothing with the earlier one.

Still, pride of place goes to Joseph Nicéphore Niépce for the first known photograph. Vive Niépce!

His goal, by the way, had been to create a method for etching images onto printing plates, at which the Bitumen of Judea process worked fine, and was adopted, so from his standpoint he succeeded. (And with his brother they developed the first internal combustion engine — he was a smart guy.)

It Ain't Magic, It's Just a Little Light

I tried out the XUMA LED-200B light and found it to be a reasonable little accessory, pairing a useful amount of illumination with a selection of included mounting options, all for not a lot of money.

As you can see, the light includes a filter (explained in the podcast) and that collection of mounting options. This next image shows the light on edge, which highlights its mounting rail, and those mounting gadgets, which is a key to this light's utility.

You can suction-cup, hot-shoe, headphone-jack, or just clip-it on/in whatever you need. And don't be mislead by the headphone jack mounting gadget — the light has a built-in battery and never draws power from your phone.

Here are some comparison photos, with and without the light running. You can see various levels of improvement, depending on the space and the ambient light, and even the magenta flowers are brightened up a bit despite being photographed outdoors in open shade.

Notice, if you will, how the unlighted shot of the photo albums is not only dark, but blurry, from my iPhone exposure being longer than I was holding still. And lastly, this threesome of a Winston Churchill coin demonstrates the advantage of having a light that can be moved around, not tied to the camera: the light can be directed from whatever angle provides the character and level of detail you desire.

Listen to the podcast for my review, including how the light performed in terms of running time.

Always the Twain Will Meet

He is one of my favorite authors and he might be mentioned multiple times over the coming years, so I won't explain who Mark Twain was, but here's one of his quotes I share in this episode (he had experience with the medium, that's for sure): "A photograph is a most important document, and there is nothing more damning to go down to posterity than a silly, foolish smile caught and fixed forever."

Shoot From the Hip Tip

I suggest you place your camera at your hip, or knee, or someplace low like that, and shoot without gazing at the screen or viewfinder. Why? The images will be from an angle you probably never see or shoot from, and the results might be more than unexpected, they might be better! For example, here's my grandson, Griffin, looking up at me while my camera looks at him from his level. If I'd taken this photo from my eye level, his smiling face would be smaller in the frame and the background would be sand and whatever detritus or toys gathered around him, in focus and detracting.

By putting the camera on his level, the result is a more personal portrait of a cute kid, and because the background is much farther away, it is out of focus (more noticeable when the image is viewed larger).

What About Me?

I won't cover the details about me here, but I spend a few minutes at the end of the episode telling you about myself — mostly about photography, without all my stories of alien abduction, dining with the queen, or jamming with The Who. Still, you might enjoy knowing something about the guy doing most of the talking, right?

Thanks for reading and, especially, for listening. Subscribe on iTunes, leave a comment here and a rating there.

11 episodes available. A new episode about every 6 days averaging 87 mins duration .