Not too long ago I was given a “vintage” photography book: The Amateur Photographer’s Handbook, by Aaron Sussman, first published in 1941. The copy I have was the 6th printing, from 1962. A lot of material is quite out-of-date, of course. In one section, the author compares images from a cheap camera and an expensive camera. His “expensive” camera was
selling for $50! Assuming 4% inflation every year since 1941, that $50 camera is a $900 camera today. His “cheap” camera cost three dollars. And it’s true that Kodak Brownie cameras in the 1940’s were generally under five dollars.
On the other hand, many parts of the book are still applicable to digital photography. The rules of composition haven’t changed, and the section on how to light people for portraits still works today. What I like best about this book is some of the quotes. From the author’s foreword: “People have often asked me how I happened to take up photography. The fact is, you don’t ‘take up’ photography. It takes you up. One day you’re walking around grim and growling, like Herman Melville just before an escape to sea. Then, suddenly, you have a loaded camera in your hand and all is well.”
In a chapter titled, “What Camera Shall I Get?” Aaron makes the point, still valid today, that it isn’t your camera that plays the biggest role in determining the quality of your photographs. He makes an intriguing claim: “I have a hunch there would be more Cartier-Bressons, Edward Westons, Ansel Adamses and Edward Steichens if we all had to start with a box camera and prove we could use that well, before we were allowed to touch another camera.”
Of course, only an antique shop will sell you a box camera these days. However, what you can do – and I think this is worth doing – is set your camera up to act like a box camera. Put on a 28mm lens, or adjust your zoom to 28mm. Set the focus to about 16 feet. Put the dial on M, the aperture to 8.0 and the ISO to 200 (or lower if you can). Set your shutter speed to either 1/25 or 1/50, depending on the light. Now, don’t touch the controls, and take some pictures. Keep your subject at least 8 feet from the camera; everything at that distance and farther will be sharp. Avoid very bright sunlight and dim indoor settings. Practice until you get an idea of what level of light gives you a good exposure. Then go take some great photos, with your “box camera!”
This self-portrait was taken with my Pentax K-7 set up as described above. I haven’t done any post-processing other than to crop it down.