Tag Archives: technology

Painting with dark: books of night-themed art to inspire the high ISO photographer

Photography means “painting with light.” But how much light? Today, cameras are more light sensitive than ever, with ISOs up to 400,000 or even 4,000,000. Some have described cameras that can take video by the light of a candle as “painting with dark.” After discussing these advancements at a photo event yesterday, I found myself thinking about how that affects an image. If light is the exception rather than the rule, what kind of images could I create?

So I visited my bookshelf! And I found two art books themed around darkness and nighttime. In a future post, I’ll have to see how these inspiring books guided me. After all, it’s a great time of year to find guidance in darkness.

The Night Life of Trees by Bhajju Shyam, Durga Bai, and Ram Singh Urveti

This book is from Tara Books, a company that does beautiful and imaginative books. I also recommend Waterlife by Rambharos Jha, which I wrote about in a previous post. Both Night Life and Waterlife are silk-screen print books, which gives the colors and ink a life that other printing methods don’t match. Both books also smell amazing. (This sounds weird, but they just do. I don’t know whether it’s the ink, the paper, or both.)

The Night Life of Trees is full of illustrations depicting just that—trees at night and what goes on in them. The images are screen prints on black paper, allowing the book to “paint with darkness” in a way that other books just can’t. Check out the beautiful images below.

160118-books-9437160118-books-9439160118-books-9438


The House in the Night
by Susan Marie Swanson

A children’s book with awesome art. Sometimes kids books have the best art because they keep it simple. This book is literally about light at night. I don’t think that needs too much explanation. Just check out the art, which incidentally mimics the woodcut style that I discussed last week.

160118-books-9440160118-books-9441

Technology and art in the rail photography of O. Winston Link

If you are interested in rail photography, or if you’re like me and really never gave it a thought, the O Winston Link photography museum in Roanoke, Virginia is a fascinating visit. O (short for Ogle– I think I’d go by the initial too) Winston Link photographed steam locomotives in the 1950s, at the very end of their widespread use. The Norfolk and Western rail lines he snapped ran through Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and other parts of the coal belt of Appalachia.

In his photographs, Link captures the end of a powerful technology, but he also captures life in 1950s Appalachian rail towns. People play in a pool twenty feet from a roaring locomotive. People read in their living room with a cat sleeping on their lap as a train passes the window. Folks chat on a porch as the N&W rolls past. In the image below, the train passes a drive-in movie.

Hotshot Eastbound, by O. Winston Link.

Link captured images with such technical precision that they would still be difficult shots today, barely possible without rare equipment until very recently. Link was a civil engineer, hired out of college as a photographer; during World War 2, he used his scientific and photographic backgrounds at the Airborne Instruments Laboratory.

Link’s railway shots rely heavily on both science and photographic techniques– in order to better control the lighting and thus the composition of his photos, he often shot at night. Because, he said, “I can’t move the sun — and it’s always in the wrong place — and I can’t even move the tracks, so I had to create my own environment through lighting.” This required the use of flash bulbs, one-use bulbs that burned metal to produce brief, intense illumination. According to the museum, one of his shots alone used illumination equivalent to 10,000- 100 watt light bulbs, although that light only lasted for a moment. Reading that, I wondered what the experience was like for the train conductor, driving through nearly black rural Virginia, when light so bright it might as well be lightning flashes. His first power source was too unreliable, and so he designed his own power source. Link invested $25,000 into the unpaid project, closer to $125,000 in today’s currency.

As someone who dabbles in photography, the difficulty of Link’s task and the quality of his work (60 years ago!) deeply impressed me. Bear with me as I explain some technical details of modern cameras to convey the awesomeness of Link’s work. Today, we might just be able to reproduce such shots without flashbulbs due to advances in digital photography. Flash bulbs (using combustion) are still brighter than any modern flash (using capacitors). A single flashbulb produced about 1 million lumens (the unit that measures the brightness of light) while a modern camera-mounted flash produces about 100,000. Many flashbulbs may be used at once, so the flashbulb is great for extreme illumination. Only one manufacturer of flash bulbs still exists. Their photo gallery is pretty neat.

Today, we have cameras that are more sensitive to low light, called high-ISO cameras. Camera speed, whether digital or film, is measured in a system called ISO-sensitivity. In this system, a film with double the ISO requires half the exposure time; a two-second exposure with 200 ISO film would take 1 second with 400 ISO film for the same level of exposure. In the 1950s, the fastest film was ISO 400-640. The Sony Alpha 7S, releasing in July, has up to ISO 409,600, 1024 times  faster than ISO 400. A shot requiring 30 seconds of exposure on ISO 400 would require roughly 1/30 of a second on ISO 409,600. This is really new technology; as of 2013, no ISOs above 10,000 existed.

So, in short, Link’s work is a beautiful hybrid of science and art, a testament to their combined power. Link’s scenes of rural 1950’s Appalachian life are beautiful, and remind us of the era of the man behind the lens. New advances behind the lens are happening today. What new wonders will they capture?