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 ToesFilm? 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?