Bringing History to Life

March 01, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

 


 

The adage that a picture is worth a thousand words has probably never been truer. When complex issues are reduced to tweets which average less than 50 characters, it’s evident that

an image is far more likely to catch and retain the general public’s attention. One such that stuck out and did the rounds of social media recently was a wonderful Victorian photograph of a proud soldier, veteren of the Crimean War. Similar photos were familiar to photography buffs and historians but this one crossed into popular culture because it challenged the contemporary assumption that anything produced before the 21st century was necessarily dull and distant, like a forgotten and faded memory.

But in the middle of the nineteenth century, the newly invented camera was not an antique, it was cutting edge technology, a wonder of the age as for the first time everyone could see real images of real people and places that were not just paintings, and could be viewed not long after they were captured. And mostly importantly they could be reproduced  as copies at will, and distributed around the world. It was almost instant too, as the photographer would generally develop the negative himself on the spot. There were no processing labs or high street printers in those days. In fact the photographer would often make his own camera with bought in parts, a proprietary lens, a light proof box and a bellows for adjusting the focussing distance between the light source and the unexposed coated glass plate that acted as the film. 

The actual shooting was slow, there was no shutter as such, the lens cap was simply removed and held for a number of counted seconds before being replaced. 

No technical aids here apart from a head rest which was often employed to keep the subject from moving and ruining the shot. 

Not that Colour Sergeant William McGregor, 1st Battalion Scots Fusilier Guards, would have needed any help. He would have been used to standing ram-rod straight on the parade ground, and in the legendary Thin Red Line at the Battle of the Alama. McGregor was among  soldiers photographed later in Aldershot by Robert Howlett, a pioneering photographer who also shot the iconic portrait of Brunel in his stove pipe hat alongside the massive chains of the Great Eastern. 

Of course what makes the portrait so striking is that it is  not black and white as it was originally taken. It has in fact been painstakingly brought into full colour using very modern techniques in Photoshop, sampling exact historic uniform and equipment detail, to get as close to a real reproduction as possible - not a computer generated replicant.

This was only possible because of the amount of detail in the original, which should not have been such a surprise as despite its age, lens technology was well advanced at the time from telescopes that had been tracking the heavens for two hundred years, and although the film plate was no more than A5 in size that’s still a lot of potential pixels when scanned professionally. And of course this is an optical transfer of an image with no electronic compromise to interfere with its quality. 

As such it illustrates the perfect marriage of old and new technology, in fact the very latest AI tools for sampling and blending colour hues so that they look authentic and not artificially plastered over the subject. The lifelike tones of skin and hair are instantly recognizable to the human eye, as are the more subtle shadows and highlights cast when light is passed over fabric, wood and metal. The crude airbrushing of detail that was such a hallmark of early photoshop is thankfully banished to be replaced by something that is much more pleasing to the human eye. That's why the photo stands out as it looks as crisp as the day it was taken, not some obvious fake avatar. And McGregor looks as fresh and alert as the day he faced the Russian guns in 1854.

So this is partly due to the skill of Robert Howlett in the first place, and partly the power of Adobe Sensei intelligence, but mostly due to the expertise of Doug Banks who specialises in the restoration of historic military images. Doug not only carefully researches the exact colour of uniforms and equipment, but also subtle blends and tones them so they look as they would have been worn and used in action at the time, and not like some museum waxwork. The results speak for themselves.

How it is done can be explained in much more detail if you search on line but essentially it is using masks, layers and blending modes which have been explained in previous columns here as part of printing tips. What will become obvious is that to be done well takes time, and careful application. This is not the work of a few moments and a couple of fancy filters. Which brings me round to the reason for using this example as a rebuke to the often asked question of whether “something” can be done on the computer. It can be done, but miracles take a little longer and cost a lot more! 

However much the smug marketing people claim to have re-invented photography at the push of a button, you will still need the intelligent eye of a human composing the image if you want anything at all worthwhile that will pass quality control and the test of time. 

Along the same theme of frequently asked questions is just how large an image will go.

It’s not a simple answer, which is why an internet algorithm that simply counts the number of pixels is not a precise solution. How it is expected to look, even how far away it is expected to be viewed are some of the essential details hidden in the basic sharpness and clarity of any image whether analog or digital. While we tend to say that traditional film was relatively seamless there was a limit beyond which you would pick up graining by the nature of the chemistry involved. With digital it is more dramatic as there is a very clear definition between one pixel and another. The more pixels you have, the less difference there will be between them, but the mathematics are the same.

With film it was very obvious that a negative was out of focus when it was shot, and that nothing you could do with optical enlargement would make it any sharper, in fact quite the reverse. With digital it seems more obscure, hidden in the depths of resampling pixels and the mysterious art of interpolation which I will try and make more simple here.

In the early days of digital photography  cameras were only of 2 or 3 megapixels which was fine for internet use as the system couldn’t handle anything bigger. But when it came to 

printing, even filling an A4 with clear pixels was a challenge. So a number of software developers began working on mathematical formulae that would improve the performance of the limited dimensions of the digital files. 

In simple terms if you need ten pixels but you only have five, you have to fill in the gaps with the most likely clones. That’s the basics of interpolation. It’s just a fancy word for the computer making an educated guess, with all the potential for error implied the larger the guess was required.

Inevitably some outrageous claims were made for the potential of this digital magic so that a lot of people thought anything could be enlarged almost infinitely without any consequent loss of quality. But while some images would emerge from this mathematical manipulation relatively unscathed, others, especially people, were not treated so kindly. And it’s a very human judgement needed to decide what actually looks best.


 

You can see more of Doug Banks work at

 

https://www.instagram.com/dougbanksee

 


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