The Camera Club Chronicles #1

I am a member of Kelso Camera Club, which is, like most other camera clubs, almost exlusively digital photography focussed. I enjoy it from a social and inspiration point of view and it gives me some regular goals to aim for, which helps motivate me to make new work. Being interested in historical photography processes does go against the grain a little (or should that be against the pixel?) and a lot of the emphasis on fixing things in photoshop is a different direction from where my interests lie. But we all have photography in common and how you get to the end result doesn’t usually matter to the viewer.

Aside from the very different set of skills and hugely different workflow when you compare historical processes to digital photography, one thing for sure; the end results are really quite different too. It’s both the workflow and the end result that keeps me in love with anything and everything prior to digital photography.

At the camera club we have regular themes and competitions. The themes are judged by guest speakers who will discuss their thoughts and rank their top three photographs from the members’ entries. I try to create photographs for the themes using non-digital techniques and it can be quite interesting and sometimes amusing to hear the thoughts of the judge. I don’t expect to win any prizes; it’s enough for me to gain the motivation to make new work and explore different themes I might not usually photograph.

Last week we had our “Macro / Close-up Theme” judged by our guest speaker. I don’t think I’ve ever really attempted Macro photography before on digital never mind using a historical process. Not owning any macro lenses is the main reason, but of course with bellows cameras it can be possible to get pretty close to the subject with enough bellows extension.

We can submit up to two images each – one is usually a ‘standard’ or ‘safe’ image and the other one should be a bit more ‘experimental’ or ‘adventurous’. I chose a small (about 8cm tall) cactus as my first subject and used the Marion & Co 12×10 camera and 8.5″ Jules Vogel Petzval lens. I produced a few 5×4″ ambrotypes and tintypes (on aluminium) until I had one I was happy with (OK, I ran out of time and picked the best of the bunch!)

I sprayed some water on it too to add a little more, I don’t know, interest or something. Macro pictures often have water droplets, right?

“Cactus” on 5×4″ Glass (Wet Plate Collodion Ambrotype)

The judge started off his critique of our photographs by saying:

Now bear in mind that I’m not interested in photography, I’m interested in nature photography.

I knew my photos would be in for a hard time… πŸ™‚

Judge’s thoughts:

Very shallow depth of field on this one…

I like the background on this one, I’m not really sure what it is but it looks alright. Looks like a reflection of a cat or something [talking about the artifacts at the top right from my bad dev pour!], perhaps you skinned a cat and put it up there. [huh?]

I assume you’ve made it into a black & white once you’ve taken the picture, I think the black & white works well, almost like a sepia tone.

I think I would have liked to see more of it sharp though, rather than just the top bit, against the that lovely background.

Unfortunately I only have one waterhouse stop for that 130+ year old lens and so it’s still quite wide open. I really need to try fabricating some more, shame it’ll be too late for this macro theme. Oh well. I’m glad he appreciated the flaws in my collodion (I was trying to not get those though!) and glad he likes the colour of collodion images too (no Photoshop required!)

The good thing is that the other camera club members now recognise my collodion images and so listen to the judges’ comments knowing full well when my images are being misunderstood.


In case the collodion photo of the cactus wasn’t alternative enough for the judge I chose an even stranger subject. This is a birds nest I found in the kids’ playhouse, which included the remains of a baby bird that had failed to fledge (it died). I used my Sinar Norma 5×4 monorail camera with Schneider 150mm f/5.6 lens and maximum bellows extension (after adding a 6″ extension to the standard rail). The depth of field was super shallow and so in addition to stopping down to f/32 I used some tilt and swing to modify the focal plane. There is a lot going on in the composition, but I wanted the image to not be immediately obvious and for the viewer to take time before discovering the dead bird. I think I was successful in achieving this, but it wasn’t appreciated by the judge.

“Failed to Fledge” on 5×4″ Fomapan 100 Sheet Film

Judge’s thoughts:

This one took my eye a me a while to figure out what was going on, and then I thought oh, right, a nest and the remains of a dead bird

I’d imagine you’ve turned it into a black & white, which probably helps it.

I find it a little bit too fussy, I want my eye to settle on one particular thing. It took me a while to realise what it was.

Yeah, I wasn’t sure about that one.

I agree it’s too busy, I found it a tough subject to photograph and so that’s why I settled on the idea of forcing the viewer to search for what it is. It was a risky move. It was also risky to photograph a slightly morbid, dead animal, in black & white when the judge’s own work is pin sharp, colourful and digitally perfect nature photography. πŸ™‚

You can see the top three choices from the judge on the camera club website.

Until the next theme…

4 Responses

  1. Julian Higgs

    The judges comments are to me the entire reason to shoot the way you do. The fact that they think this is a digitally produced image speaks volumes of where mainstream photography is now.
    I love the feel of ambrotype colloidon images. They have such a 3D look. The transitions from light to shade are just superb. With the right subject I can’t think of much to beat them. I’d like to have a go at this process myself one day. Kee up the great judge confounding work.

    • James

      Thank you Julian for your comments, much appreciated. I agree that mainstream photography is very narrow and we have lost a lot of variety. I don’t mean to be overly critical of digital photography – it’s quite amazing and the results are technically better than ever… but for me it often leaves me cold and uninspired. Thanks again for your comment and for the kind words… I’ll keep going against the grain πŸ™‚

  2. simon

    “I’m not interested in photography, I’m interested in nature photography” I’ve no idea what that means but he’s obviously very serious about it!

    I love the cactus, looks great, the bird did actually take me a couple of seconds to see but look cool too, poor wee bugger. Personally, I don’t understand how the winning photo won.

    Look forward to more pics!

    • James

      Hi Simon, thanks. I think the judge is more interested in wildlife and collecting images of them. His wildlife photography is exceptionally good and he does strive to get something a bit different from the norm. But his interest in photography doesn’t stray far away from this, I think he meant, which means his interest in our non-wildlife photography will be limited πŸ™‚

      The picture of the dead bird was tricky and the technicalities of focussing so very close on a 5×4 definitely took time away from achieving a better photograph, but it was fun to try.

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