What defines this late 70s early 80s photographic style?
February 7, 2017 3:21 PM   Subscribe

There is a style of photography that was super common on record covers in the late 70s / early 80s (examples below). To me, it looks like longer than needed exposure times and harsh flash, but I'm pretty untrained. Is it a specific technique or use of certain equipment? There's a certain common quality to the images that I don't really see done anymore. I want to try and ape it as accurately as possible but I don't know how to go about it.

Are these images similar or is this just in my head?!

The back of the first Cars album

Albert Collins - Ice Pickin

Sparks' No. 1 in Heaven - this one in a little different since it's in a studio, but there's something in common I'd say

Also if you get the look I'm going for and have more examples from fine art photography or fashion or whatever, please send them!
posted by tremspeed to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The late 70s was when electronic flashes became more mainstream. Before that time, the cameras readily available to consumers used flash bulbs. Each flash of the camera used up a bulb (there were multi-bulb flash cubes / units, but they still were a finite resource). To be honest, I was barely alive then, but maybe the spontaneity of these photos was a product of the excitement of having unlimited flash opportunities!

If you want to try original equipment, This site has some late 70s cameras for cheap, as do many thrift stores.

The first photo appears to combine flash with a long exposure. You can tell because they appear to be frozen in place but there is also movement / ghosting on the edges. This article describe this technique. Your camera phone probably doesn't have shutter control, but decent point and shoots might, and a dSLR definitely will.
posted by beyond_pink at 3:46 PM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

With the ones shot at dusk, you put your camera in manual and set the exposure for the sky (or a stop or two darker) and when the flash goes off, it will try to illuminate your subject so it matches that exposure (and thus the background).
Otherwise, if you are just in auto mode, the flash usually is much stronger than evening sky and it just ends up very dark in the background.
posted by starman at 3:54 PM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the replies. I do have a 35mm Canon rebel. Is that too "modern"? I've taken some decent looking pictures just experimenting. Do I want to get an external flash (it just has the pop up one)?
posted by tremspeed at 3:58 PM on February 7, 2017

You should install some of the film emulation plugins, and play around with them. Reduce the contrast, reduce the vibrance, reduce the clarity in Photoshop too. That will get you part of the way there.

The lenses help make that feel too. I would buy a Canon dSLR, an m42 adapter for Canon cameras, and some m42 lenses. That will get you part of the way there.

Finally, I think you're just going to have to shoot a bunch of photos and figure out the light. Both the Albert Collins and Sparks' No. 1 in Heaven look very carefully lit with multiple flashes. The Cars shot looks like a single on camera flash to me.

One last thing to consider is that those photos have probably faded over the last nearly 40 years.
posted by gregr at 4:02 PM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

You can shoot stuff like this with a Rebel (all the better if you have a true 35mm film Rebel). Yes, you'll want an external flash (or multiples, as gregr mentioned). You'll want to learn manual exposure and how to balance flash with ambient light, if you really want to emulate those results. Control ambient exposure predominantly with shutter speed (and film speed/ISO), control flash exposure with aperture, flash power setting, and flash distance from subject. It takes a bit of practice, but it's not rocket science.
posted by primethyme at 4:22 PM on February 7, 2017

If anyone else is curious about this particular look, I just checked out the Discogs page of the guy who shot the Sparks cover. He's done a LOT of covers during that time with the look I'm talking about:

Moshe Brakha
posted by tremspeed at 4:36 PM on February 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

"Front curtain sync" and "rear curtain sync" aka "first curtain sync" and "second curtain sync" are terms relating to syncing the flash to various points during the shutter opening and can be used to create the effects you're after.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 8:09 PM on February 7, 2017

Thanks for all the great tips, everyone. I totally get the near-subject flash without making the background black. I just wasn't seeing that at all, and this is lots of stuff to look into. Awesome! Thanks!
posted by tremspeed at 8:28 PM on February 7, 2017

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