Another in an ongoing series about commercial photography in the analog age. See other related posts: Making Waves, Making Tracks and Flipping the Switch.

What would you do if you needed to create a picture of someone standing on a mountaintop or in an arena filled with spectators? Well, you could attempt to actually take the photograph in a real-life setting, but this would likely prove impractical and/or prohibitively expensive. As I outlined in an earlier post, working in the studio affords a level of control that often can’t be obtained in the real world.

The obvious solution today would be to create the illusion using digital technology. Computer-generated imagery (CGI) has become the primary tool for creating sophisticated illusions in photography and cinema. The ability to blend “real life” imagery with artificial images has become a hallmark of today’s visual storytelling to the point where such visual magic has become somewhat blasé for a lot of folks.

It was not always so. In the pre-digital age, photographers couldn’t rely on retouching or post-production work to create artificial images. All you could do back then was put together an assemblage of real items in a controlled studio environment and photograph them. This didn’t mean, however, that some of these “real” items couldn’t be fake.

This is the essence of practical effects, where props and specially-created physical environments create illusions that are now often done with CGI. One of the more common practical effects we used back in the day was the painted backdrop. Back then, if you needed a specific background for your photograph, you could go shopping for one.

Years ago there were a number of prop shops, custom painting studios, and similar support businesses in the vicinity of my photography business. Need a six-foot-long fiberglass hot dog? A prop-maker could build one for you. How about fake food that won’t wilt under studio lights? Not a problem, in fact, you could “order” whatever fake side dishes you needed to create the perfect Thanksgiving table setting. For me, there were a couple of assignments where I needed to create the illusion of specific, custom spacial environments.

One of these was a mountaintop scene. The theme of the shot was “Reaching New Heights,” and the art director wanted to depict Dairy Queen business owners standing at the summit of a mountain peak. Not the easiest thing to create in the literal sense.

But we didn’t have to. A couple of blocks away there was a custom painting studio that employed talented artists to create all sorts of backdrop images on huge pieces of fabric. They had an assortment of backdrops for rent, and would also create custom scenes on fabric or on studio or soundstage walls on request. These scenes could range from forest vistas to medieval castles to dinosaurs browsing in primordial swamps—your imagination was limited only by timeline and budget. If you could imagine it, they could paint it.

As it turned out, they had exactly what we needed to create our illusion. We found a perfect painted “skyscape” complete with mountain peaks, along with an impressive array of painted Styrofoam boulders that we could use to complete our set.

Putting the shot together was relatively straightforward. After hanging the large backdrop at the rear of the studio and lighting it, the subject setting was placed a few yards in front of it. This accomplished a couple of things. First, it allowed me to light the subject independently from the background. Second, it meant that the background would be somewhat out of focus, which minimizes the imperfections in the background and enhanced the illusion.

color studio setup shot

Polaroid test shot of mountaintop set constructed in studio

Before the real photo shoot, I tested the setup with my studio assistant, adjusting the lighting on the background and subject and trying different arrangements of “boulders.” Once the tests were complete, it was simply a process of positioning the subjects and trying different poses and facial expressions to get the final image. Voilà, a photo illustration that, strangely, is both completely real and completely fake.

WofDQ mountaintop

Final magazine image

Such imagery could be easily created today using a digital stock photo and some Photoshop work. In video, the process would be done by recording the subjects in front of a green screen and creating the composite in post-production. To a certain extent, these modern methods are easier and can create more convincing illusions. But I have fond memories of the old ways and enjoy the more painterly effects achieved. Plus, it was always fun to see the expression on the faces of bystanders when you casually pulled a four-foot-long boulder out of your truck, hoisted it onto your shoulder, and carried it back into the rental shop.

It’s been a while since my last blog, and even longer since I’ve featured any pictures in this blog, so I thought I’d leave the realm of computers and reminisce about analog photography once more.

You might remember one of my older blogs where I described the operating principles of single-lens-reflex (SLR) cameras. These are cameras that use mirrors to direct the incoming image to a viewing screen for composition and focusing. Just before the exposure is made, the mirror flips out of the way, allowing the image to reach the film or digital sensor. The SLR is still considered to be the most ideal system for photographers wanting the most accurate framing and focusing, although the “mirrorless” digital cameras are getting better all the time.

When most people think of an SLR, they usually picture a 35mm film camera such as a Nikon or one of the popular digital SLRs. What many don’t know is that the SLR concept has been used in film cameras for over 120 years, often in enormous instruments that dwarf anything used today. Recently I got the chance to play around with one such camera, a Graflex RB Series B 2¼×3¼. This model was introduced in 1923 and was made through 1951. Judging by the metalwork and factory-coated lens, my example dates from after World War II. The particular specimen I obtained was purchased on eBay from a person who knew little about it. It came in it’s own custom leather case and looked as though it had hardly seen use.


What is it? Steampunk luggage? Goth music box?

At first glance, a Graflex SLR folded up for transport looks like some sort of steampunk luggage festooned with odd levers and buttons. Opened up for use, it looks like a box with a “church steeple” focusing hood on top and a lens emerging from a trap door at the front. Viewing is done by looking down into the tall leather hood at a ground glass screen. The image is right-side-up, but laterally reversed, which takes some getting used to. Focusing is adjusted via a knurled knob at the side of the camera which moves the lens fore and aft on its track. A bellows connects the lensboard to the rest of the camera, keeping everything light-tight.


Graflex Revolving-Back (RB) Series B camera.

As with other SLRs, there is a large mirror between the lens and the film that “intercepts” the light and sends it to the viewing screen on top for focusing and composition. When the exposure is made by pressing a lever on the side of the camera, the mirror quickly flips out of the way and trips the shutter, exposing the film. This gives the photographer the revolutionary ability to simultaneously track, compose, and focus on his or her subject matter up to the instant of exposure! Think I’ve gone nuts? Well, you have to keep in mind that when this sort of camera appeared at the turn of the 20th century, there were no other cameras that could effectively do that. If you used a traditional “view camera,” one that sat on a tripod, you generally composed and focused on the ground glass at the back of the camera, then closed the lens and inserted a film holder to make the exposure. During this time, your subject matter could move, spoiling your composition and focus. Cameras such as the famous Speed Graphic press camera of the time could be aimed at the subject matter, but models up to 1938 didn’t have coupled rangefinders, so the user had to focus by estimating the distance to the subject and setting the focusing track using scale markings (such cameras were called “guess boxes” by their operators).

The early Graflex cameras also introduced a shutter design that brought new capabilities to photographers of the day. Consisting of a long ribbon of black, light-tight fabric with slit openings of various widths, the Graflex shutter curtain was wound on rollers above and below the film plane of the camera. When triggered, one of the slits would traverse the film plane from top to bottom, exposing the film. By selecting combinations of slit widths and spring tensions, speeds ranging from 1/10 to 1/1000 of a second could be obtained. This made such cameras the first to be able to capture the action of fast-moving subjects. Locomotives, race horses, and early automobiles were captured in motion by early SLRs, along with sporting events such as football and baseball.


Curtain-aperture shutter of the Graflex. Shown partially-wound, you can see the narrow slit that exposes the film.

The way this shutter works at high speed imposes a striking visual effect on moving subjects. At the highest shutter speeds, only a very thin curtain slit moves past the film from top to bottom. Since cameras form their images upside-down at the focal plane, this means that the bottom of the image is exposed before the top (the slit exposes different places of the picture at different times). A well-known example by the French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue is below.


Motion distortion caused by the high-speed Graflex slit-shutter. Speeding car tires lean one way, stationary spectators lean the other. Photo by Jacques Henri Lartigue.

Here, the photographer was swinging his camera (panning) left to right to attempt to follow the speeding race car, but not quite keeping up. As the shutter slit began to expose the film, the bottom of car’s tire was exposed first. By the time the slit got to the top of the tire, the speeding subject had moved a bit to the right, creating the impression of oval tires leaning forward. Illustrations and cartoons of speeding cars often incorporate this visual flourish, an example of our visual literacy being influenced by the effects of imaging technology. In counterpoint, the stationary figures in the background appear to lean in the opposite direction.

Sports and action weren’t the only things early SLRs were used for. The ability to focus and compose one’s picture up to the moment of exposure made them the choice of early photojournalists. Lewis Hine, who documented child-labor practices in the early 20th century, used a mammoth Graflex that shot 5×7-inch plates.

Portrait photographers and those doing artistic “pictorial” photography also used SLRs like the Graflex. Many of Alfred Stieglitz’ most famous photographs were made with a Graflex, and Edward Weston and his son Brett used them extensively.

By the time my particular example was manufactured, the Graflex design was sixty years old and cameras like the newly-introduced Hasselblad SLR were making them seem somewhat old-fashioned and behind the times. Despite this, models continued to be made until 1963.

For fun, I decided to try some photographs with the old camera. Fortunately, my Graflex came with a rollfilm magazine, allowing me to load it with readily-available “120” film (2¼×3¼ cut film is no longer available, and I don’t have the proper film holders anyway). Here’s a selection of shots.

canoe OP

Overturned canoe in woods


Lazy cat snoozing in windowsill

pond scum OP

Broken reeds and pond scum

Compared to using any modern digital camera, taking pictures with the Graflex is a slower, more contemplative process. You have to keep lots of procedural details straight—Did I reset the mirror? Is the shutter wound to the right slit? Did I remember to wind the film, stop the lens down, and make sure the darkslide is removed? In working with the old camera, I gained lots of respect for the folks who used them years ago and were able to make great pictures.

The actual results are quite good, even by modern standards. The 127mm Kodak Ektar lens is excellent, and the large negatives produce images that can be enlarged to a high degree. It’s a fun camera to shoot, too, producing a klunk-fflak sort of noise as the mirror flips up and the curtain traverses the film. If there are people around, you’re likely to attract attention. And if any of these spectators has a fancy modern digital SLR around their neck, you can point out that, in a lot of ways, they’re really just the same.

Lately, we’ve been reading and hearing about a number of new computer hacking incidents. If you work for the US government, your personal data may have been stolen as part of the massive Office of Personnel Management hack last month. If you’ve enlisted the services of the Ashley Madison website to cheat on your spouse, you may be alarmed to know that your data was also stolen by hackers who are threatening to release this embarrassing information unless the site is shut down. Good luck getting any sleep.

If you own a smartphone running the Android operating system, you woke up recently to news of yet another vulnerability discovered in the operating system that runs 80% of the smartphones out there. And finally, if you own a late-model Jeep sports utility vehicle, you have no doubt heard that hackers can take control of your vehicle while you’re speeding down the highway.

These are just a few of the latest examples—I’ve been following this for years, and it seems to me a constant cycle of hacks, demonstrated vulnerabilities, patches, updates, followed by new hacks. It’s Keystone Cops meets Whac-A-Mole, only it’s not a game and real damage occurs. As more and more sensitive data is placed online and more types of devices are equipped to communicate over networks, the problem will only get worse.

Is there a solution? Information Technology technicians continually strengthen firewalls to protect their local area networks. Others advocate for stronger data encryption, even though governments and law enforcement warn that this could provide safe cover for terrorists and criminals.

I’ve got a low-tech solution: get as much of your sensitive data offline as  possible and keep it that way.

Sounds paranoid? I suppose it might seem that way to younger people who have grown up in the world of interconnected data. I’m not a programmer, IT specialist or data security expert. I am, however, responsible for the security of over 210 terabytes of data, so I have to err on the safe side.  So my starting position is this: Nothing is unhackable, so plan accordingly.

I can explain this with an analogy. The valuables in your home are likely protected by a door that has some sort of lock. Regarding such locks, my friends and I used to joke that, “it keeps out the honest thieves.” The understanding here is that a really determined thief with the right tools or skills won’t be stopped.

When the maker of a lock, be it for a home, a bicycle or even a huge safe claims that their product can’t be broken into, I just laugh. Such a statement is total hubris—it asserts that there’s nobody out there smarter than the lock’s designer. Inevitably, someone comes around who can pick or crack the lock because, frankly, there’s always someone smarter.

Continuing the analogy, it makes sense to me to assume that if the bad guys can get to the front door and stay there undetected for a long enough period, the lock will be picked or cracked. Not by everybody, but eventually by someone with the right skills. My solution is to not let anyone get to the door in the first place. The lock can’t be breached if nobody can physically get to it.

So how does this relate to the reality of digital security? The “front door” in our analogy is the firewall and other network security applications and settings employed to protect digital assets. The lock-picking thief is the hacker. The way that the thief gets to that door is via the network. Without the network to provide access, it doesn’t matter how skilled the hacker is—they can’t get to the “door” in the first place.

This is the basic concept of “air gapping,” a simple security tactic that involves removing all outside connections from a computer or local area network. This removes the conduit through which the hacker can get to the “door.” With this situation, the hacker has to obtain physical access to the computer to get the goods. In a strange twist to our analogy, the hacker would likely have to learn to pick locks!

At HMML, a complete set of our digital images resides on a huge server system on our local area network. This system isn’t on the internet, but since there are elements of the campus IT infrastructure that are connected to the outside world, this data is theoretically susceptible to outside security risks. Convenience is the trade-off; this set of images is far easier and faster for workers at HMML to access.

We have, however, planned accordingly. Another set of our images at HMML is air-gapped. In our microfilm vault, there are cabinets containing hundreds of external hard disk drives. The drives aren’t connected to anything and are not powered up. An air-gapped hard drive is even more secure than an air-gapped computer; proof-of-concept hacks have been demonstrated on the latter. The vault is behind several layers of digital card access security interspersed with mechanical locks. The whole facility has motion sensor and alarm systems. This set of images would be far more difficult for a hacker to get to. You can read about HMML’s data storage strategies in this issue of Illuminations magazine.

In my own work and personal life, I employ similar methods. Although I take full advantage of cloud services such as Google Apps, DropBox and the like, sensitive information is on external hard drives that are eventually stored in secure off-site locations. It’s very handy to have certain things connected to the world so that folks can collaborate on projects, share necessary resources and so on. But this convenience is always a trade-off with security. My motto has always been: Don’t put anything online or in an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the newspaper.

In our modern lives, we strike a balance between security and convenience that fits our comfort level. Having an ATM cash card is a security vulnerability, but it’s also convenient enough for folks to accept the risks. If a person’s credit card gets hacked, the cardholder usually isn’t held responsible for the resulting charges. Therefore, most folks don’t have enough at risk (or perceived risk) to get too excited about the threats that exist.

This will change. More folks are putting their digital assets on cloud service, where they tend to assume that their stuff is safe, even though it may not be. There is the up-and-coming trend of the “internet of things,” where appliances, home control systems, and other sorts of things that used to be standalone, “dumb” appliances will be connected to and remotely controllable via networks. People are going to have to make informed decisions about the level of risk they’re willing to take with so many paths leading to so many “front doors.”

As for myself, the convenience of being able to operate my home thermostat from my smartphone isn’t worth the risk of having the possibility of someone remotely turning the furnace off in the middle of winter. Others would accept that tradeoff—all I can say is, “Plan accordingly.”

And for all the folks who were on the Ashley Madison website who are now waiting for the hammer to fall, you’re on your own.