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An Old Lesson Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

3 November 2015

Any picture is worth a lot of words. But this one can tell a few stories too. We're telling you just one of them today. It's the first lesson we ever learned as a photographer. And that makes it an old lesson.

At that time, we were in the habit of taking a vacation each year. And this particular year was the first time we'd visited Joyce's family in Rochester, N.Y.

We no sooner got there than we were driven south to the east shore of Canandaigua Lake where the family had rented a large barn-red cottage.

We remember it like it was 20 minutes ago and just in the next room. It's actually been over 37 years, though.

Joyce was on the couch with our new nephew Tommy. Nine year old Whitney was just out of the frame on the right bringing a new diaper. Everybody else was probably in the kitchen getting coffee or making breakfast. A few, no doubt, were still in bed.


We had cocked the shutter on our first 35mm camera, an Argus C-3, which we'd loaded with Tri-X, Kodak's black and white film whose speed was ISO 400. At f3.5, the 50mm lens was wide open. And the best we could do hand-holding the camera was 1/60 second.

There's no meter on that Argus.

But we knew the darkened living room didn't have enough light for a decent exposure. Don't waste the film, we warned. There's no light.

We saw something we wanted to see forever, so we snapped the shutter.

It wasn't, however, the room we wanted to capture. We tossed caution out the window, fired the shutter and hoped for the best.


We flew back to San Francisco a couple of weeks later and processed the film in the washroom of our downstairs flat, the window blacked with plastic. Not until the next day were we able to make a print to see just what we had.

What we had has turned out to be one of our favorite images.

The baby held aloft into the soft morning light of the living room window, Joyce's head tilted back into the light to see Tommy's face, the day just beginning to glow in the background on the porch.

All because we didn't pay any attention to the darkness. We ignored our technical understanding. We saw something we wanted to see forever, so we snapped the shutter.

The print hung in our long dark hallway until we were forced to move after 28 years when new owners took over the building. Our new home is not a flat with lots of wall space, so it has stayed in the cardboard box in which it was packed.


But while going through our negative archive the other day, we ran across the original. This afternoon we took a break to scan it and play around with the scan a bit.

We made the scan using Canon's ScanGear on the CanoScan 9000F, scanning the negative as a 16-bit channel grayscale saved to 8 bits. That gave us the best dynamic range ScanGear could manage.

We opted for the easy-to-use ScanGear over both SilverFast and VueScan this time. ScanGear does a surprisingly good job.

The RC print we made years ago was, in contrast to the grayscale scan, rather harsh. But we converted the scan to RGB so we could warm it up a little in Photoshop and give the shadows a little more depth with 24-bit color.

It was subtle, but it was an improvement.

We could have scanned in RGB but we didn't want to introduce a color cast and there wasn't much information on the negative to start with. This way we got everything the negative had to give and could warm up the monochrome treatment precisely.

We thought of using the Upright Tool in Camera Raw to correct perspective but we shot the image with a 50mm lens held straight on. The perspective didn't need any correction, as the parallel lines in the windows show.


We thought about a different crop, too. Which was brave of us.

We're so familiar with the landscape version from years of admiring it as it hung in the hall that anything else is disturbing.

We even like being able to see the distractions in the rest of the room. They're reality. The reality of a vacation rental contrasting with the life in those two faces.

And we like seeing how the baby is tossed toward the light. The pair are off center, yes, but still centered in the dark space beyond them. The room becomes a stage with the drama on stage right.

We weren't tempted by a portrait-orientation crop. It would have cropped the window awkwardly and made the TV too prominent. Because the image is so dark, it might even have made you wonder where they were.

But we tried a square crop and we really liked it. There is enough window and enough wall to set the stage. And it simplifies the story. Just two generations enjoying each other.

It may be a more formal composition but it's also a more intimate one.


Whenever we've thought of this image over the years, we remember how close we came to never firing the shutter just because the room was so dark.

But the important things in the image -- the faces -- were sufficiently illuminated by the window light. And using the slowest handheld shutter speed, fastest ISO and widest aperture to capture as much light as possible, we have been able to enjoy that moment for 37 years.

We may not have realized at the time how exposing a small part of the image would be enough -- but that old lesson has never been lost on us since.

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