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Tuesday, September 30

What exactly is the Vintage Look?

Photography forums are replete with people seeking that "old-fashioned" look in their photographs without ever really defining accurately just what it is they're after. The word "vintage" is bandied about to describe a certain look given by lenses, films and developers. But what exactly is it?

Old Leica lenses are supposed to impart "the vintage look" to negatives and then to subsequent prints or scans but there are claims that some old East German/Russian made lenses also have it. Where 35mm is concerned, it's usually rangefinder lenses that make the best case for the olde worlde charm. Some old large format British lenses are also said to imbue your photography with a 1940s air.

Then there are films that are supposed to contribute to the vintage look although they're fewer than they once were. Those that had thicker emulsions and were a little lower in contrast have traditionally been the ones to go for. In today's market we're reaching the stage where the choice will be similar to that which old Hobson once faced.

Think or Thin?

Which of the current offerings from film makers might be described as "old fashioned-looking"? Well, Adox have the loudest and longest claim for their old CHS 100 emulsion and its successor CHS 100 II. They say the emulsion recipe can trace its lineage back to the company's original 1950s film which was later also sold as Efke KB21. Strangely, the Adox film when introduced was amongst those with the thinnest emulsions which runs counter to the theory that thicker emulsioned films have the vintage look.

Are there any others? Some say Ilford's Pan F Plus and FP4 Plus have the look and so, too, can Fomapan 100. Others that ortho films can get you close. And developers? Rodinal is usually the preferred brew from what I can tell. Or pyro-based solutions.

Me? I doubt I'd notice the vintage look if it jumped up and slapped me in the face. The closest I think I've come to it is with Fomapan 100 when I shot some in the Rollei SL66E through an early 20th century lens cannibalised from an old folding camera. Here are a couple of examples. The limited depth of field in the second one is down to some reverse tilt on the Rollei's lens panel.

I've just been scouring some old photography books from the middle of last century to see if there's an identifiable look. Well, I think the look is possibly more to do with the reproduction of the photographs and their subject matter.

Take a look at some scans below and see what you reckon. Is there a recognisable look to these pics (chosen at random)?  Try to ignore the printer's screen that's obvious in a few of them. Unfortunately, with the exception of the last two which came from the 1951 Leica Manual, I've no idea what lens, film or developer was used.

50mm Summarit, Plus X

35mm f3.5 Elmar

Having thought about it so much that my head started to hurt, I've finally come up with what I tentatively think constitutes the look, as least as perceived by my eyes. For me, it's in the shadows and the highlights. Dark tones generally show some separation but it's very subtle. The result is that photographs can look quite dark but still show a full range of tones. With the highlights, there's a pearlescence and a subtle - that word again - rolling off of the brightest tones. Nothing clips too suddenly to black or white.

How might lenses, films and developers contribute to that? With lenses, it would be good to avoid very contrasty optics such as some Nikkor standard lenses and go for more moderate contrast such as provided by some of the older Leica Elmars, Summars and Summarons, amongst others. A soft-working developer, say Perceptol 1+3 or Barry Thornton's two-bath would be good at preserving those soft highlights.

Shoulders and Toes

Film? I'm not sure. Are there any films on the market whose characteristic curves would dovetail nicely with shadows that verge on the murky and subtle highlights? Plus X used to be a bit like that. We're talking about a longish toe with a gentle curve and a shoulder that doesn't flatten too quickly. Efke KB25 was another one like that if I remember correctly. And what about the lighting? Surely that has a major influence on things. Mirko Boddecker of Adox told me a while back that I didn't see the old-fashioned look in my photographs because I shoot a lot of low-contrast subjects in dull weather where it wouldn't be apparent.

He explained, "You can see this difference very easily if you shoot outside. Try FP4 and CHS 100 II next to each other on a sunny day with some clouds in the sky or in portraits of a light-skinned person - of which you should have plenty in Schottland :).

"The old-fashioned look is caused by the way the film is sensitised with the gap in between blue and red (green). This separates the clouds from the sky, the lips (and spots) from the skin, etc."

But the foregoing is just my view of what you need to get the vintage look. Are there any other "recipes" out there that you'd like to share? The best film, the greatest vintage lens, a magic brew? Or is this whole "old-fashioned" thing just a complete load of bollocks?


MartyNL said...

I can remember people saying that photographic papers were more "silver rich", in the past. Although I don't know how much of this is true it may account for a part of the "Vintage Look".
You also hear of those who process their negs for graded papers. So maybe MG papers are just too modern or too much of a compromise to deliver the results of graded...?

Joe Iannandrea said...

I start pondering many of these same questions whenever I think of the Contax IIa I used to have the twinge of regret I feel about having sold it. At the time I told myself it and its 50mm f/1.5 Sonnar weren't really giving me anything I couldn't get with one of my 35mm Nikons (this was also in the midst of my digital years) with the 50mm f/1.4 with much less fuss. I keep coming back to one particular photo from the Contax though - a shot of my cousin's boy who was around four at the time. To me it just has a feel I associate with something shot in an era when these were still state of the art cameras. It's a Tri-X negative done up in HC-110 which is classic-ish I guess, and as for reproduction to date it's only ever been scanned and viewed on-screen. It seems hard to think it would have the same feel about it if I'd instead used a Nikon, though the objective side of me has to wonder if I'd feel quite as strongly if I didn't know how it was taken.

Antonio Aparicio said...

I think it comes down to contrast and resolution. Newer lenses have higher (micro) contrast/resolution than older lenses.

David M said...

There's probably more than one answer, and they might depend on what you consider to be vintage.
The prints we see are the product of the materials of their day – film, lenses, cameras, paper and both kinds of developer.
Older films were blue-sensitive and this alters the rendering of colour. Is vintage pre-panchromatic?
It was once common practice to measure, estimate or guess the exposure and give an extra stop for luck. Development by inspection was once common – almost a necessity in the absence of reliable graded or multigrade papers.
AA describes how blue-sensitive films were better at recording shadows illuminated by blue sky rather than yellowish sunshine.
Extreme wide-angle lenses were not available until quite recently so vintage images have a more normal angle of view. They were uncoated, or at best single-coated and this affects the rendering of highlights, giving a sort of halo, sometimes called a glow. Thick emulsions can have minor haloes too. Some people believe that uncoated lenses give more shadow detail. It might be so...
Very wide apertures were rarer, so most vintage images would automatically have had greater depth of field, which is usually considered a benefit. Your church interior is an exception. The word bokeh is quite recent for us.
Conversely, until recently, when coal fires warmed us all, the atmosphere was full of smoke, increasing aerial perspective and reducing overall contrast.
The papers were different of course, and old darkroom lags, after a small lemon barley water, have to be restrained from banging on about the lost wonders of Unobtainesko. I'm never quite sure about these claims of a bygone print paradise, but there's often a difference of some sort. Is it just brownness?
Fashions change, and I remember when soot-and-whitewash prints, which we called Punchy, were popular. Many old prints are surprisingly soft to modern eyes, often quite different from the reproductions we see in books. Printers and plate-makers have their own ideas of what a good print should look like.
We shouldn't forget subject matter. Your man with a hat and newspaper has dateable vehicles in the background; I'm no export on boats, but I think that yachts don't look like that nowadays; men don't all wear hats and few of them have a folded handkerchief in their top pocket; even haircuts change. These are small clues that we will take into account, perhaps unconsciously, when we guess the date of a print.
As far as I can see on screen, the donkey and cat image, the seascape with a mudbank and the upward-looking staircase have no obvious clues.
In summary, I suggest that there's no single thing that produces the vintage look, but that it's a combination of many small factors, each adding to the vintagification. When the pile of factors is tall enough, it topples over into the a vintage look.
Presumably, there's an App...
Finally, I should repeat that the look may be different for different viewers' minds. My mind turns to Atget and Evans, but others may perhaps think of Weegee or David Bailey. When, exactly, does vintage end?

Folker said...

I can´t tell you what the Vintage Look exactly is.
I can´t tell you what exactly the "The Good Old Times"are.
Perhaps people´s longing for something that has passed away long ago?

Juha H said...

And vintage look by plastic optics, blurrines and bokeh-storms from box cameras.

John Carter said...

Maybe Juha H is the closest, if we could get a Verichrome or a Verichrome Pan today we would be there. But we are stuck with Kodak TriX, Ilford none Deltas, and possibly Formapan, or your traditional films with Spur developers. Still not a bad collection for films and developers for the vintage look.

Anonymous said...

Once in an exhibition they showed original prints from 1930s to 1980s and what came to my mind was that contrast and tone of the used papers made a leap in contrast somewhere in the mid 50ies or so. Maybe the introduction of modern papers influenced the trend of more contrasty prints and also the trend towrds cooler blacks, not owing to lenses and films but also to paper and printing technique...

Bruce Robbins said...

Interesting theory!

peter cooper said...

When I think back to using my Minolta xd7 and some of the b/w photos I have taken with it, I could probably get the same result as I did in the 1980's , same developer , same paper etc. I recently used a zeiss ikon 515 and got a look I was happy with using ilford FP4, the image was a little soft but had a 'feel' about it.
One thing we should be happy with is many younger people fed up with digital are now using older film cameras and this can only help keep the medium of film alive. I don't care what film camera I have in my hand as long as I have one, if it gives me a look that I am happy with then I have done my job. Very interesting article. And informative web site.