Better than now? Maybe? Different from now? Certainly!
November 18, 2013 6:42 AM   Subscribe

Awhile ago, a friend of mine on Facebook posted this picture of John Kennedy and friends in some kind of control room. I commented about how photographs from the 60s had a certain quality about them that I tried to find words for. I came up with 'hyperclarity' in that stuff in the background and foreground are blurry as usual, but when an object is in focus, it is in FOCUS! What makes this happen? The film? The equipment? Photographic technique current at the time?

It's evident in a lot of photos from NASA (like this one, this one, and this one). All the photos being shown these days in the run up to the anniversary of Kennedy's assassination (like this one) have piqued my curiosity once again and I would really like to read the knowledge of the shutterbugs of Metafilter. Thanks!
posted by Fukiyama to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Isn't this just DOF?

Unfortunately, newer cameras nowadays, particularly camera phones and point-and-shoot cameras have very short lenses. The result is: massive regions are in-focus.

If you tried shooting with a longer lens (e.g. 300mm? Heck even my 16-85 exhibits this at the longer end, or when close focused on the short side.) you'll easily see this effect.

You could also fake it in post...
posted by TrinsicWS at 6:46 AM on November 18, 2013 [7 favorites]

It's still a fairly popular technique today. I can get this effect reasonably well with my non-super-fancy Canon G12 by shooting with a larger aperture (f2.8), but as noted above, it's tough with phones and the cheapest point-and-shoots.
posted by jalexei at 6:51 AM on November 18, 2013

It's the camera. As noted above. When I was in high school I used the Zeiss-Ikon camera my Dad brought when he was in the Army in Germany. You had to twiddle it quite a bit, set the f-stop, focus, etc. Also, you just had to have a feel for it. How much sun, what distance, etc. You didn't get a preview of what you were shooting, you'd only find out if you were successful when the film was developed.

I used to get amazingly clear pictures from it. Great camera.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:06 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm not entirely clear what you're thinking is different from today. It's a mix of good glass, shooting medium (or larger) format, rather than 35MM, and being mindful of your aperture. Plus now, people rely on the camera for AF, metering, and/or exposure, blast off 17 frames a second and hope for the best.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:08 AM on November 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

What Admiral Haddock said, plus the possibility of a certain brand/speed of film, and the contrast designation during printing. I think what you're sensing as a certain "look" is just kind of psychological-- lots of news magazines used certain types of lenses, cameras, and film (and the settings for all three), and now we look back on it as a cultural marker that "looks like" an era. You could totally recreate that look today, and people do.
posted by Rykey at 7:15 AM on November 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think it is a few things - it's surely the depth of field thing, and the narrow DoF goes in and out of vogue. It had a big heyday in the 60's. I think it is also Kodachrome - a now obsolete film and film processing technology that had a very specific look. For me there's something that happens in the blues in Kodachrome shots that is peculiar, and it is absolutely present in the Canaveral picture above. Take a look at Kodachrome on GIS and see if maybe that is part of what you are seeing.
posted by dirtdirt at 7:20 AM on November 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

Think about cameras, lenses, and the difference between film and sensors.

This photograph was shot with a 35mm film camera with a telephoto lens (let's say 200mm), using film from the 60s. Kennedy is in focus, but the areas nearer to and further away from him are out of focus. The tones skew to orange and blue. We know that this didn't look precisely like reality.

Also, consider how few people shoot with 35mm film, especially for professional journalistic purposes. Of the relatively few who are still shooting with 35mm film, they are usually shooting in a self-consciously loose, youthful, informal, Lomo-inspired way. These people typically shoot to emphasize the difference between film cameras and digital cameras. This means lots of off-the-hip shots, with exaggerated grain and shallow depth of field.

The camera was designed around a 35mm film frame. This frame size creates a specific field of view. At the same focal length and same distance from subject, the 35mm FOV is wider than that of an APS-C camera, but narrower than that of a medium format camera.

If you wanted to fake the same shot with an APS-C camera, then you would have to use a 133mm lens to get the same field of view. However, 133mm lenses have wider depth of field than 200mm lenses, so you are effectively being forced to always use wider DOF than you would with a 35mm camera.

However, you can control this by adjusting the aperture. Close down the aperture, you get wider DOF. Open the aperture, you get narrower DOF. An APS-C shooter can in this way compensate for the difference in apparent DOF at a given focal length. However, there are limits to this. A long lens like this probably wouldn't be faster than f2.8 or f4, which means than an APS-C shooter couldn't ape the same shallow depth of field if the 35mm shooter was already wide open.

In addition, as you go "longer" with lenses, there is more apparent compression of the image. Things look closer together. Image compression will be more pronounced at 200mm than at 133mm. What this means for us is that, even when we "adjust" the focal length to get the same field of view, we're still looking at a different image, which has a different character.

Now, let's talk about film.

For one thing, different films have different characters and tones. Chemists work day and night to standards films with varying, pleasant curves. Check out VSCO, which emulates a wide variety of film stocks.

For another, remember that digital sensors are not like film. RAW files from a camera are meant to be neutral. This is good, because we want the cleanest signal possible, but it also changes how we do our digital darkroom work. There is no reason why a digital shot has to look like any particular brand of film. This is especially true in journalism, where twiddling with the tones too much will be considered outright unethical.

Most importantly about film, film is slower and grainier than pro-level digital sensors. Digital sensors are much more sensitive to light than film ever was. This means that, if you're shooting indoors, a film shooter would necessarily have to work around more limitations. A film user would typically have to shoot wide-open indoors. However, we live in a different era now. There is typically no need for somebody with a professional DSLR to shoot wide-open indoors. Journalists will often close down their apertures, because they'd rather have their shots be in focus.

Also note how this photograph doesn't perfectly look like reality. Much of this comes from the fact that it was shot with grainy high-speed film, with unrealistic tones which we already contextually relate to a previous era. It looks like a photo from the 60s, because the technology wasn't there to make the shot look realistic.

Contrast your photo to the famous photo of Hillary Clinton hearing the news that OBL has been killed. It's a great shot, but it looks realistic (read: flat), and everybody's in focus. It was shot with a wide lens, with modern technology which had no problems with the fluorescent lights.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:29 AM on November 18, 2013 [63 favorites]

Yes, I'd agree with the film/ISO and processing plays a big part of it. dirtdirt's comment rings true to me (re: kodachrome)
posted by k5.user at 7:30 AM on November 18, 2013

Correction: maybe that shot was with medium format. MF has even larger FOV, and therefore it has shallower apparent DOF for any comparably framed shot.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:31 AM on November 18, 2013

Response by poster: Everyone, thank you so far for all the great answers. I'm not well educated in the ins and outs of photography, so there's a lot here for me to dig through and learn about!

For those of you who recreate the effect in the present, do you have any examples you'd care to share? I'd love to see them. Thank you.
posted by Fukiyama at 8:05 AM on November 18, 2013

Here's the Shallow Depth of Field group on Flickr.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 8:11 AM on November 18, 2013

Just a side note to mention colour. The images you list are heavy on the black vaue and saturated. The skin tones are warm, a few are vibrant. This can also contribute to the image seeming punchy. We are also looking at them on a fairly high-res screen, clean and removed from context, not a yellowed newspaper from the 60's. These things might contribute to the impact you mention. You might enjoy Googling "tilt-shift" btw.
posted by 0 answers at 8:20 AM on November 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, the JFK/LBJ at Cape Canaveral photo has unusual light that contributes to its sense of clarity. There is a large light source, probably overhead, creating a soft even light without hard shadows.
posted by conrad53 at 10:05 AM on November 19, 2013

Also note, press cameras were still common in the early 1960's. This isn't APS-C vs. Full Frame - this is APS-C vs. a piece of film the size of a postcard. The cast of the lighting indicates that no flash was used, which means that very grainy high-ASA film was used and push-processed. Yet the photo is a =little= grainy, but nowhere near as grainy as a 35mm or even medium format image would be under the same circumstance - so probably a photographer with a Speed Graphic and a fast lens, maybe the 178mm f/2.5 Ektar.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:39 AM on November 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

The flat look of digital exists when one is photographing virtual things. Here's an article about the lengths the makers of WALL-E went to try and get the look of imperfect film into their movie: Hello, WALL-E!: Pixar Reaches for the Stars: Bill Desowitz talks to DP Jeremy Lasky and Directing Animator Angus MacLane about making the new look old in Pixar's latest animated masterpiece. It talks about creating virtual cameras and having them not match what actual cameras would do, and what they had to do to get images that looked like real cameras took them.
posted by artlung at 12:10 PM on November 20, 2013

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