Behind the Lens: The benefits of improved shutter speed

AP Photo/Library of Congress.This photo credited to Alexander Garner from 1862 at the Battle of Antietam, pictures Allan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln and John McClernand. The stiff poses were necessary because of the long exposures of several seconds. Note how Lincoln's face is blurred from his head moving during the exposure.

AP Photo/Library of Congress.This photo credited to Alexander Garner from 1862 at the Battle of Antietam, pictures Allan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln and John McClernand. The stiff poses were necessary because of the long exposures of several seconds. Note how Lincoln's face is blurred from his head moving during the exposure.

Photographers take it for granted that we can stop action with fast shutter-speeds. We can freeze a basketball player dunking a ball or an eagle in mid-flight with a 1/500th-a-second exposure. It’s not unusual to see shutter-speeds of 1/4000th on some camera models. Shutter-speed improvements have come a long way since the first photograph.

An early nature photograph from a camera obscura in 1826, by French inventor Nicephore Niepce, required an eight-hour exposure. In 1839 Louis Daguerre captured the first-ever photo of a person in a daguerrotype. The scene was of a Paris pedestrian stopped for a shoe shine, and the exposure was several minutes. In an 1839 publication, Daguerre provided recommended exposures based on the season. He wrote that exposures should be from “five to six minutes in summer and from 10 to 12 minutes in winter.”

Early portrait photography was difficult because it required subjects to remain still for long periods. Photographer John Draper took a 65-second portrait of his sister in 1840 and wrote, “the indistinctness which may be detected in some parts arises mainly from the inevitable motions of the respiratory muscles.” I guess just being alive and breathing could ruin an image.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the Associated Press recently posted a collection of photographs of the war (1861-1865) from the Library of Congress. Two decades after the invention of the daguerrotype, exposures of 10-30 seconds were still required. So it’s no surprise that most subject matters in these images are posed group and individual portraits. Action photographs were captured from a distance, in a wide scene where subjects were small and motion blurring less noticeable. It’s hard to imagine the hardships that photographers like Alex Gardner, T.H. Sullivan and Matthew Brady worked under to get these images. As you view these images during this anniversary, consider how the extended exposures limited what was photographed and celebrate how far technology has advanced for the modern photographer.

Go to this column online at ljworld.com to view a selection of Civil War photographs.

— Chief Photographer Mike Yoder can be reached at 832-7141.

Comments

Matt Needham 10 years, 11 months ago

The shutter technology has changed. Many of my older cameras max out at 1/250th to 1/1000th, while all of my modern cameras go to 1/4000th or 1/8000th. But it's the process technology that has made the huge difference. I think they could have made 1/500th sec shutters for Mathew Brady. He just couldn't get emulsions for his wet plates or lighting that would allow a decent exposure in that short of time. Modern Daguerreotype photographers say they are working at ISOs of 0.05 to 0.0002. I don't know what collodion process ISOs were, but probably something similar. When film was first introduced in the late 1800s ISO 8 to 12 was considered high speed. In the early 20th century photographers were excited about high speed ISO 25 films. In the mid-century ISO 100 was high speed. In my lifetime (last third of the 20th century) ISOs of 400 and 1000 were considered high speed film. The progress of film technology seems to have leveled out about there. While you can find film boxes that claim ISOs of 1600 and 3200 when you actually read the fine print they are really ISO 800-1000. Now the latest DSLRs will take wonderful quality photos at ISOs 3200 to 6400.

When I first started shooting weddings and live music it was rare that I would load my cameras with anything higher than ISO 400 film. In low light I'd either live with some subject blur or bring my own powerful flashes. Now I crank my DSLRs up to ISO 3200, even 6400 sometimes, and I'm shooting in the dark. At least it seems that way! :) I love it.

ISO numbers represent the light sensitivity of the materials being used. Larger numbers mean more light sensitivity than smaller numbers. Each doubling or halving of the number means the amount of light required is half or double. For instance ISO 200 needs twice the light/exposure as ISO 400, or half that needed by ISO 100.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Film_speed

Mike Yoder 10 years, 11 months ago

Matt, did you ever shoot much Kodachrome or other low ISO film? Thinking back on that now, it's a wonder we got anything exposed right. Latitude was so limited you had to be right on the money with your exposure. I remember double-checking with a hand-held meter all the time, and to think you couldn't see your results for a week or more. Our staff will have an article Sunday Feb. 20th on the last days of Kodachrome and experiences with the film. It certainly was a good way to learn how to expose correctly and work with light.

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