For those of you who follow this blog, yes, I do have a membership to the museum, and I want to tell you how much fun it is to shoot there.
First of all, the lighting is horrible, and I love challenges. The top floor (where the above photos were taken) gets plenty of natural light and has large fixtures hanging from the ceiling, also. But you can get in trouble–the second photo was horrifically overexposed due to the bright sunlight streaming in behind the skeleton. I had exposed for the shadows on the camera side of the skeleton, so this negative looked near black. But this is exactly what I was shooting for: lots of texture and grays and blacks.<!–more–>
Downstairs in the Discovery Room (for children), we had a normally-lit room with, again, crazy sunlight streaming in and making for some challenging light. In the end I knew that the highlights were going to rule but I still metered for shadows. The interesting detail, for me, is in the highlights, like on the child’s face above. It’s just too bad that you really have to look to see exactly what’s going on with his hands. Maybe I’ll ask my wife to start wearing a silver jacket and be a human bounce for me.
The shot above shows what the light was like from another angle. Great light, but given his activity, I would always be taking photographs of his back if I stayed on this side.
Another challenge: the rangefinder. I prefer rangefinder cameras, but it’s very difficult to frame photographs perfectly. Take our generously-tusked friend above: I framed him in the viewfinder, then moved just a bit to the left so that the lens “saw” what I had just seen a couple of inches away through the viewfinder. But it was a bit too much. I could use an accessory finder, but they’re not perfect either. I used to have a 50mm finder, but I never used it so I sold it. I can’t seem to justify getting a finder to substitute for the framelines I already have in the viewfinder, even if they’re always going to be a little bit off.
No biggie. I’ll bring an SLR one of these visits.
Another reason I love shooting here is because so much care was given to create narratives here. Even famously so, the skeletons and fossils and beasts mounted in dioramas are caught in the act of attacking, fighting, eating, living. Capturing these frozen actions connects me briefly to the vision of a curator, taxidermist, or paleontologist.
Deep within Mammal Hall, there is light in the dioramas, and that’s it. The negative here actually captured a lot of detail in the people outside the display, but it’s all about the bear, so I optimized the final output for that. You really have to work on finding interactions that are interesting and work to either capture a narrative or add to it—the interactions between people and the displays can be very interesting, but also difficult to capture up-close and personal without permission.
Another opportunity is abstraction. This is a favorite approach of mine in formal settings like this. Just as I would not go to an art museum and slavishly frame each piece of art for later perusal, I would not attempt a formal framing of one of these majestic collections of fossils. That’s what the postcards in the gift shop are for. I’m aiming for something that’s more uniquely mine but that also evokes the space and the artificiality of the whole experience. Museums are usually pretty weird places when you think about it, and capturing the strangeness is a lot of fun.
Finally, this stuff just looks great in black and white.
Let’s talk a bit about technique. This roll was shot with a Leica M4 with 50mm Canon f/1.4 rangefinder lens. The lens is screwmount, aka LTM (Leica thread mount), so I have an adapter that I use to mount it to my M-mount cameras. I was also using a Leica MP with a Voigtlander 25mm Skopar, but those shots aren’t in this post. I used Tri-X (Arista Premium 400) with the intention of exposing it at 1600 and developing it with HC-110. I’m quite fond of this combination. I metered with a Sekonic L-308S, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It is so much smaller than its larger cousins, and no frills. But it works well and slips easily into your pocket.
In each setting, I metered with the incident meter and set the aperture and shutter. I tended to keep the lens quite open, as is obvious above from the shallow depth of field in most of the photographs. When you’re shooting handheld, you don’t want to use a shutter speed that’s slower than the focal length (50mm) divided by two. So, given that there’s no 1/25 on my Leica, 1/30 was my bottom limit. I knew that if I had to shoot at 1/15 or slower, I might get a blurry shot from overly caffeinated hands. That said, if I can find good support (a wall or railing) I can shoot down to 1/4 when really necessary. The bear above was probably 1/4 or 1/8, handheld.
More importantly, I look around a lot. I let my son set the pace and lead—he’s obsessed with dinosaurs at this age—and he’s still little so he’s slow, and that’s great for me. I get time to wander around, looking for interesting angles and patiently wait for a position if it’s occupied by other museum goers. If I find something I like, I try to visualize what the final result will be. I know this film and developer and lens very well, so I can get pretty close to what I want. This isn’t street photography, where your technique involves having the flexibility to capture fleeting scenes, even though there are some interesting human interactions at the museum (it’s just too dark to capture a lot of them). Instead it’s a relaxed space full of interesting stuff to look at.
It’s interesting—I’ve shot Tri-X in this museum at 12800, 6400, 1600, and 120 Plus-X at 500, and they’ve all worked to a large extent. The lower the speed, the less grain, of course. But in the end it’s about getting the shot you visualize, and in some parts of this immense place, you just need more speed, whether in the lens (where you end up losing depth of field) or in the film.
Recipe for Tri-X @ 1600 in HC-110 dilution B:
Tri-X 135 (or Arista Premium 400 135)
HC-110 dilution B (18ml syrup + 562ml water for two rolls in a Paterson tank)
16 minutes total development
30 seconds initial agitation
3 gentle inversions every 2 minutes
1 minute stop bath
two drops LFN in last water, run film through this, hang to dry