The View Up Here

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Scissors Revisited

Posted by Tom Benedict on 30/05/2011

We’re doing a bunch of house cleaning in preparation of having family visit.  This is a big deal for us since we live on an island: it’s hard for us to visit them, and it’s hard for them to visit us.  Having family on-island is reason to celebrate.  It’s also reason to clean house like rabid weasels, but that’s another story.

In the process of cleaning my side of our room, I found the binder I keep all the film and developer data sheets in.  Inside that binder was my 18% gray card.  My room was torn apart, I had magazines and books sorted on a folding table waiting to be put away, and…

Of course I stopped work to play!

Back in 1996 when I had just finished building the large format camera my wife bought me for my birthday, I made this photograph of my grandmother’s Wiss sewing scissors:


This was inspired by an Ansel Adams photograph.  I think he used a different background, but otherwise all of the elements were lifted straight out of his.  It was a good exercise in focusing a large format camera, and also taught me a lot about how much flex my camera’s rear standard suffered from.  Still, it turned out well for me.

More recently I bought a Canon T2i for use as a kite aerial photography camera.  But when I got it I also knew I wanted to use it as my general purpose camera on the ground.  What better way to celebrate a new camera than to return to a traditional subject?

There were three pairs of scissors I wanted to photograph:  The first was my grandmother’s Wiss scissors: the same ones I used in the photo back in 1996.  The other two were my left-handed Ghingers and my Mundial snips, both of which I got after my wife and I got our new sewing machine.

In setting up the shot I realized how poor the light is in our house.  We have wonderful windows, but because of their relative size compared to the size of the room, they create a terribly directional light that isn’t flattering for horizontal subjects.  The light is great for portraits, but ill-suited for this.  I set everything up in the bathroom instead.

Before going into what went right and what went wrong, these are the results:


Ghinger and Mundial

Ghinger and Wiss

I made all these without going back to study my original photograph, or the one done by Ansel Adams.  In retrospect I wish I had.  The thread is really too thin, and is short compared to the one I used in 1996.  When I saw how the photos looked, I remembered reading that Adams took some time and care in selecting his thread and length.  So clearly another session is called for.

The second problem I noticed is that the thread casts no shadows in my newer images.  This is integral to the image, in my mind, and gives it a sense of depth that is lacking in the new ones.  So clearly when the new session happens I need to put more thought into lighting.

Enough of the negative.  Time for some positive:

One of my main frustrations with 35mm gear is how hard it is to focus.  My eyes aren’t bad at long distance, but up close they’re next to useless.  I never could achieve critical focus with a 35mm camera, no matter how hard I tried.  So I relied on autofocus to do the job for me.  This is less than ideal since it means relinquishing all control over focus to the camera.  Technically, modern cameras are quite good.  But they won’t compose a photograph for you, and they may go off and focus on a part of the image you’re not interested in.  This is one of the things I love about large format cameras.  The modern digital SLR offers something closer to a large format camera:  Live view manual focusing with zoom.  I was overjoyed to see how much better the focus was on these than on my original 4×5 negative.

I really enjoyed processing these in DPP and Photoshop.  They were made as RAW images, so I got to play with all the tonal ranges in software rather than at the enlarger.  By the time I imported them to Photoshop, they were nicely tuned to use just the amount of dynamic range I wanted.

Not having to dust spot an image is a real thrill.  It took several hours  to spot the scan of the negative I made in 1996.  These didn’t require dust spotting at all.

So no, they’re not perfect.  But I know they can be better than my original image.  It’s time to play.

– Tom


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