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Remembered Today:

Did the Germans have better cameras?


GlenBanna

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Before WW1 the best British and American cameras used German lenses. However by the end of the war Vickers had established a lens making works using many ex workers from German factories (some probably POWs) to teach British workers the techniques and were producing lenses of equal quality.

One should also take into account the difference in quality betweem photos taken on roll film cameras (such as the Kodak Vest Pocket) and quarter plate cameras. Whilst today reasonably good photos can be obtained from the former this is due to the vast improvement in film quality and during WW1 with very grainy roll film poor photos were obtained (the difference between a mobile phone camera and a DSLR in today's terms).

The Allies tended to use roll and the Germans stuck to quarter plate.

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Ccenturion has hit on an important difference, if the Germans used plate film and the Allies generally roll film. The latter has a serious problem with the film both lying flat and also at the precise place where the camera assumes that it will be, in order to actually have sharp focus. I can only add that my father, then 12 years old, was taught photography in Germany in 1908, and it was with a plate camera. I know that because the first step that he had to learn was to make his own film; it would be totally impossible to make roll film in a home darkroom; whereas making emulsion and coating a glass plate would be possible.

In 1914 plate photography was a technology over 60 years old, and was (photographic emulsion on a glass plate, very stable, very flat and "plano-plano") a well-developed and simpler technology; whereas roll film was a recent and inherently more difficult technology only used (I think) in smaller, cheaper cameras. There were ways to allow quick multiple photos with the correctly constructed plate cameras.

Not that long ago there was a trove of the work of a major US Civil War photographer, a rival of Matthew Brady, there were 250,000 glass plates; someone bought them, scraped off the developed emulsion to recover the tiny amount of elemental silver in the image, and then used the glass plates to make the little windows on natural gas meters that you look thru to see the dials and meter readings, for our blessed gas utility company.

Bob Lembke

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By the GW would 'plate' cameras still have been using glass plates or had film technology progressed by then to have superseded glass for the larger formats as well? regardless of material used, was the size of the roll film used by the allies comparable with that of the 'plate' size used by the Germans or smaller? (my understanding is that roll film - not necessarily during the GW though - used to be available in much larger sizes than the better known small sizes such as 35mm and similar which were the norm for most 'amateurs' before the advent of digital photograpy) A larger negative will obviously mean less enlargement is needed for the same size print with far less distortion etc on the final image due to the quality of the enlarger lens in the same way as for the camera lens on the initial image on film.

NigelS

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By the GW would 'plate' cameras still have been using glass plates or had film technology progressed by then to have superseded glass for the larger formats as well? I have a friend who may still use plates, or at least 4" by 5" sheet silver-based film, for better quality, although then his later processing is digital. I had a friend who used to shoot 8" by 10" for superb quality. Plates of glass was eventually supplanted by sheet film in the same sizes; this is a film base, but a lot thicker and stiffer and flatter than roll film. I'm not sure of the timing; there might still be a bit of glass plate film used; I have two cameras who could use it. regardless of material used, was the size of the roll film used by the allies comparable with that of the 'plate' size used by the Germans or smaller? (my understanding is that roll film - not necessarily during the GW though - used to be available in much larger sizes than the better known small sizes such as 35mm and similar which were the norm for most 'amateurs' before the advent of digital photograpy) Largest size I remember was 120 or 620, which would be used for 2 1/4 ' by 2 1/4 ' or 2 1/4" by 3 1/4", and some other sizes. It is 2 1/4" wide. There may have been wider roll film. A larger negative will obviously mean less enlargement is needed for the same size print with far less distortion etc on the final image due to the quality of the enlarger lens in the same way as for the camera lens on the initial image on film. Yes, of course. The camera lens is probably more important and demanding, design-wise, than the enlarger lens; but I used a very good enlarger lens, from Nikon.

NigelS

Bob

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Cellulose-based films don't have to be on a roll. There are sheet films for use in large-format cameras in the same way as glass plates, using a different carrier in essence. Were these available in WW1?

Keith

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Cellulose-based films don't have to be on a roll. There are sheet films for use in large-format cameras in the same way as glass plates, using a different carrier in essence. Were these available in WW1?

Keith

That is what I was wondering. I know the technology, but not the time that different technologies came in. Glass plates were still used for some critical work not that long ago, I believe. Multiple shot devices for sheet film would certainly be smaller or have much more film if sheet film was used. Some people have WW I aerial photo negatives and they seem to be sheet film.

Bob

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Roll film (and cut sheets) had the advantage that they didn't break as glass plates would (a serious matter in WW1 conditions at the front) and an exposed roll film could be slipped into a pocket or bag until one could get it to a dark room. In terms of portability a quarter plate camera was about equivalent to a modern medium format film based camera. Any larger and you were into tripod time. However to get a film for a roll film camera that was fast enough to use in a hand held camera during WW1 one had to accept a very grainy emulsion from which it was impossible to make good enlargements from. So if you were using a small portable roll film camera (like the Kodak Vest Pocket) which used 127 film this was good enough for "Nobby and Fred in front of the dugout" for the home album but to get the quality in the OP you'd probably need to use a good quality quarter plate camera (which would also have a good lens). I've got one which although just post WW1 was produced from about 1911 onwards, the plate holder can be swapped for a cut film magazine which made taking multiple shots easier but at the cost of quality

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With the usual caveats, this from Wikipedia Click which gives the dates of introduction of various film sizes should be of interest; unfortunately it doesn't give the dates of introduction of the various sizes of 'single image' sheet films, but I would have thought that if large Roll sizes such as the 112 (7"x5") were available as early as 1898 that single sheet sizes of the same size (or larger) would have been available at around the same time - albeit at a price. I'm also wondering when large film sheets for x ray applications were first introduced.

NigelS

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There also was a type of film called "film pack", in which a package went into a third kind of film carrier, and which contained perhaps 12 sheets of cut film, perhaps more flexible than individual sheets of cut film; each one had a paper tab about 5' long; you would take a photo with the sheet of film in front. Then by pulling that sheet's tab you would pull it down and then back and then up behind the last sheet of film. I think you then tore off that sheet's paper tab. The next sheet of film was then in position to be exposed, and in its turn it would be pulled to the rear of the 12 sheets of film. Plates or sheet film or sheets from the film pack could be individually developed in a tray (if orthocromatic film)with a red inspection light, so you could correct each shot somewhat for incorrect or uneven exposure in development, as well as in the enlargement stage. I started my own development of negatives and enlargement of prints when I was 12, about 1951.

The observation that glass plates were fragile is well-taken, but breakage was usually not a problem, but the much greater weight of a bunch of plates was. There were contraptions to take a bunch of glass plates, expose one, drop it into a chamber and advance another, etc., but these were bulky and heavy. In photography from the air you would often want to take a lot of photos, and the weight and complexity was a problem.

Bob

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Evening all.

From my reading of Royal Flying Corps Handbook (Peter G Cooksley, Sutton Publishing 2007), Thornton Picard plate cameras were the mainstay of RFC aerial photography until at least 1917. After that, they moved to the Williamson Manufacturing Company's P6 and P7 both of which used automatically fed plates while their E1 model (the 'Aerocam') with automatic feed roll film was used predominently in Mesopotamia and Palestine (presumably testing comparatively new technology away from the main battle lines). Whether they were better or worse than the German versions is probably moot as the emulsions used by the aliies based on gelatin from cattle fed on grass mixed with mustard seed and which allowed a finer grain structure may have minimized any differences in lens technology which, at the time were not so far apart. The roll film would have been based on standard movie film stock which at the time was, I believe, predominantly 70mm (or 2 3/4 inch). Based on the fact that a bigger negative can collect more information than a smaller one, I can't see that they would use anything smaller than that. It is the equivalent to 120 roll film which gives a 60mm (2 1/4 inch) negative size. I hope this helps.

John.

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E1 model (the 'Aerocam') with automatic feed roll film was used predominently in Mesopotamia and Palestine (presumably testing comparatively new technology away from the main battle lines).

The emulsion on glass plates used to melt in the heat which is why German Rumpler C Is operating in Palestine had to abandon photo recces. The roll film was more resistant but the Germans didn't have any in Palestine.

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The emulsion on glass plates used to melt in the heat which is why German Rumpler C Is operating in Palestine had to abandon photo recces. The roll film was more resistant but the Germans didn't have any in Palestine.

Thanks for that info Centurion, it makes good sense. I still feel that, practical reasons apart, the E1 was 'new technology' and as such would be used in a less demanding area of operations than the 'tried and tested' plate cameras that worked admirably well over the western front. It never ceases to amaze me the quality that is apparent in the photographs that were taken by all sides from the air with the limited technology (especially the emulsions) available within photography at the time.

John

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The emulsion on glass plates used to melt in the heat

Just been looking through a book on the history of photography to see if there was anything given on photography during the GW - disappointingly, there wasn't, however, the work of Roger Fenton during the Crimean War is mentioned. He had problems where his wet collodion treated glass plates, which had by necessity to be both coated and developed on the spot, were drying out 'even as the pictures were being taken' because of the heat (dust was, of course, another problem). To allow his battlefield photography Fenton used a specially built 'Photographic van' - horse drawn of course - which, as well as carrying all his camera gear and the materials necessary for treating & processing the plates, also included special shock absorbing storage crates for carrying 700 glass plates safely. This must have been one of the earliest examples of such a vehicle being used on battlefields.

NigelS

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Just been looking through a book on the history of photography to see if there was anything given on photography during the GW - disappointingly, there wasn't, however, the work of Roger Fenton during the Crimean War is mentioned. He had problems where his wet collodion treated glass plates, which had by necessity to be both coated and developed on the spot, were drying out 'even as the pictures were being taken' because of the heat (dust was, of course, another problem). To allow his battlefield photography Fenton used a specially built 'Photographic van' - horse drawn of course - which, as well as carrying all his camera gear and the materials necessary for treating & processing the plates, also included special shock absorbing storage crates for carrying 700 glass plates safely. This must have been one of the earliest examples of such a vehicle being used on battlefields.

NigelS

Don't forget though Nigel, that Roger Fenton was under strict instructions from his sponsor Thomas Agnew "...to avoid portraying the ravages of war". Hence his images (some 360 of which survive) are very clean. He can be considered the first photographer to work in a war zone (if one accepts that because the images taken by Karl von Szathmari were lost, with the photographer, during a storm at Sevastapol therefore do not count). The photographers working for Matthew Brady a few years later during the American Civil War are much closer to what we now understand as 'war photographers' and used similar vans. There are of course many images, still and moving, from the GW period but no 'star' photographers were allowed to appear (on the allied side) like their named predecessors or Robert Capa and Lee Miller of WWII (to name but two). Aerial photography is perhaps the only area where genuine advances were made over the course of the war and therefore it gets an occasional mention in photographic histories.

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The starter of this thread highlighted lenses, and this area of the discussion has not been covered in any detail - although the film and camera information been fascinating. As a keen amateur photographer - and by no means an expert - I have collected a number of Great War pictures. What strikes one about those taken on, clearly, large format cameras is the wonderful edge definition of the p[ictures. I once asked a camera expert about this and he was quite unoquivial in stating that the best lenses made after the 2nd World War period in Britain had an extremely high reputation for their quality.He felt that they certainly matched those made in Germany. Experts discuss and advise please!

Best regards

David

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Thanks for that info Centurion, it makes good sense. I still feel that, practical reasons apart, the E1 was 'new technology' and as such would be used in a less demanding area of operations than the 'tried and tested' plate cameras that worked admirably well over the western front. It never ceases to amaze me the quality that is apparent in the photographs that were taken by all sides from the air with the limited technology (especially the emulsions) available within photography at the time.

John

In very hot climates roll film was the only technology! The problem was not in the air but before and after flight.

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The starter of this thread highlighted lenses, and this area of the discussion has not been covered in any detail - although the film and camera information been fascinating. As a keen amateur photographer - and by no means an expert - I have collected a number of Great War pictures. What strikes one about those taken on, clearly, large format cameras is the wonderful edge definition of the p[ictures. I once asked a camera expert about this and he was quite unoquivial in stating that the best lenses made after the 2nd World War period in Britain had an extremely high reputation for their quality.He felt that they certainly matched those made in Germany. Experts discuss and advise please!

Best regards

David

Hello David

A quick trawl through a 1958 copy of The Ilford Manual of Photography shows British/German lens technology pretty much on a par around the turn of the 20th century. In 1893 the Cooke lens was introduced by Taylor, Taylor and Hobson. It was a triplet design using three elements (individual pieces of polished glass with two internal air spaces). Nine years later the Zeiss Tessar triplet with four elements came out with the rearmost two elements stuck together to make it a triplet (so still two internal air spaces). Light gathering capacity was similar with the British lens being about 1/3 of a stop faster (f 4.5 against f 5.5 for the Tessar). Angle of view in each case is 53 degrees. Both lenses control aberrations and distortions equally well, each being rated 'Good' across the board. I hope this helps a little.

John

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Given that Vickers went to the trouble of acquiring men who had worked in the German lens industry to enable them to set up a lens making facility it would suggest that Germany had the edge at the beginning of WW1

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Given that Vickers went to the trouble of acquiring men who had worked in the German lens industry to enable them to set up a lens making facility it would suggest that Germany had the edge at the beginning of WW1

Hi Centurion.

There may simply have been a dearth of British specialists and that those available were already fully occupied. British lens technology remained at or very close to the forefront (with companies like Ross, T,TH and Wray) into the 1950s. This is not trying to belittle Zeiss or Leitz who were turning out leading lenses too (and continue to so do). Where Germany probably did lead was in the use of compound lenses (using elements glued together) to control aberrations and distortion.

John

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In very hot climates roll film was the only technology! The problem was not in the air but before and after flight.

Once black and white film is exposed, the "latent image" on the exposed film deteriorates much more rapidly than the unexposed film would in a situation of high temperatures. I generally kept my film in a refrigerator, despite the temperate temperatures in my neck of the woods. In Mesopotamia you had 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. I imagine that there was little or no refrigeration (I think that the first mechanical air conditioning in the US was about 1905, but it must have been rare) in Mesopotamia, and if there was a bit, there would have been fierce competition for space with medicines and some general's quinine water.

Bob

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Once black and white film is exposed, the "latent image" on the exposed film deteriorates much more rapidly than the unexposed film would in a situation of high temperatures. I generally kept my film in a refrigerator, despite the temperate temperatures in my neck of the woods. In Mesopotamia you had 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. I imagine that there was little or no refrigeration (I think that the first mechanical air conditioning in the US was about 1905, but it must have been rare) in Mesopotamia, and if there was a bit, there would have been fierce competition for space with medicines and some general's quinine water.

Bob

In 1916 large refrigerator barges were introduced into Mesopotamia in significant numbers and plied up and down the Tigres and Euphrates delivering fresh food to the troops - so not that rare.

BTW the first compact refrigerator was invented by Carl Von Linde in 1876, commercial production started in 1877.

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In 1916 large refrigerator barges were introduced into Mesopotamia in significant numbers and plied up and down the Tigres and Euphrates delivering fresh food to the troops - so not that rare.

Very interesting. I doubt if the Turks/Germans had that luxury.

BTW the first compact refrigerator was invented by Carl Von Linde in 1876, commercial production started in 1877.

Didn't know that, but I know of von Linde; Linde Gas is still a major player in industrial gasses in the US, like delivering oxygen to hospitals. I think that, in 1915, von Linde developed (or applied then, developed earlier) the methodology to make Germany's explosives out of athmospheric nitrogen. (In 1914, on assignment from the Ministry of War, my grand-father, a Feuerwerk=Hauptmann, tore about Belgium looking for explosives; he literally found the Belgian national stockpile of nitrates hidden underground with his trained nose (As an explosives expert he knew the smell of decomposing nitrates), this was, I believe, 1200 car-loads of nitrates, enough to tide Germany over till the Linde process nitrogen explosives became available.

(I know, I know, I always talk about my father and grand-father, but they did interesting things.)

Bob

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Bob

You were talking about film (as opposed to plates) and the Germans (and doubtless the Turks) used plates for photo recce so I assumed you were referring to the British use of film in Messpot and Palestine. As I mentioned before the Germans had to give up on photo recce because the heat was melting the emulsion on the plates. The German general in command of the Asia Korps used to have an airstrip marked out beside his command car so that the Rumplers could land and the crews brief him in person on what they had observed.

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Thanks - so my man was about right. The Germans did not have much of an edge on lense made in the Uk. We do like myths as a nation like the supposition that German lenses were the best - abit like the myth that we do not manufacture anything - I think we are about 6th or 7th in the world still in manufacture

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