Why Are Old Photos Brown?

By Mark

Roger wrote about our very successful Photowalk in Harpers Ferry last weekend.  Since there was a huge Civil War reenactment ongoing, lots of our group have been processing our photos to look older.  I started thinking that we all know what images from then look like, but wanted to know why?   

Courtesy Library of Congress

Courtesy Library of Congress

Photography was still a relatively new art and science at the beginning of the war.  People had to sit really still for a very long time under very bright light for any kind of image to take hold.  The first “easily” replicated process was done by Daguerre in France.  A glass plate was coated with chemicals and exposed to light.  Mercury vapor then fixed the image.  It created a bright image, but only one.  There was no way to reproduce them.  Starting in the 1850’s they created the Ambrotype.  

It was easier to produce, but also used dangerous chemicals.  It too only could produce one image.  Finally a relatively inexpensive process which printed the image directly on to a metal plate-a tintype was introduced and soon everyone had pictures in their pockets.  These tended to be fairly dark, but were relatively stable

Tintype effect

Tintype effect

Now the great Civil-War photographers like Gardner and Brady used a different wet-plate process, which did produce negatives and could make prints. Gradually during the war, this process largely replaced the others for fine photography.  Unfortunately the prints made from these negatives had problems all their own.  The silver nitrates tended to crack and turn all black when exposed to sun.  Photographers discovered that they could use different chemicals which would replace the silver salts, and which would add new tones to the image, but preserve the relationships between the lights and the darks in a picture.

Cuttlefish ink, or sepia added to the image imparts a nice warm brown tone, while selenium adds a cooler bluish tint.  Because these colors are stable they became the standards for what we think of in old photos.   

It's fun to play with these and see the history come to life.  

From now looking back to then.  Reenactment Family at Harpers Ferry

From now looking back to then.  Reenactment Family at Harpers Ferry

Control Points

One of the challenges in learning to work with different photo editing software packages is that their control tools can be vastly different.  This month’s Viewfinders club topic is Black and White, and I’ve already covered the functionality of the great Nik Software package of Silver Efex Pro, but what I haven’t talked about is their unique and very helpful interface, which is standard across their entire product line.  Nik uses control points which can be dropped on any point on the image.  These points have an adjustable radius, which lets you select how far the effects spread.  The second adjustment controls brightness which does exactly what you would think. The third adjust contrast which controls the relative strength between the edges of the bright and light pixels.   The last slider control is called structure.  It is a very powerful localized sharpening tool that really enhances textural details in your image.  Each control point can be adjusted individually. You can eliminate the ones that don’t work just by dragging the icon in the control panel to the trashcan.  By applying these micro corrections, you can accomplish very subtle changes, very quickly.  I think that is a good cause to ring the bell---whoops.

Creative Choices

  It has been a really hectic week, and when I sat down to start writing, I really didn’t have a good idea in mind.   Hoping to kick start my limited imagination I went back through the last sets of pictures I have shot.  While we were visiting the New Orleans zoo, they brought this very lovely Indian elephant out and up close so that people could pet her.  It always amazes me how they can form such deep bonds with humans and with other elephants.  For me, elephants have such patient, old eyes.Elephant As they are so monochromatic anyway, and have such interesting textures, I knew this photo would look better in black and white.  Roger and I both have raved about Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro2 before (like just last week), and it really is such a great creative tool, it really allows you to change the mood of your images, and experiment.  I processed the photo three different ways to try and show a bit of what is possible.   Silver Efex is a plug-in and runs directly from Lightroom or from Photoshop.  It automatically saves what you have created as a new image alongside your original, allowing you to play with them forever.  Advice: delete the ones you don’t like.

High key is a deliberate technique to push the background to the highest possible brightness and emphasize the highlights.  This preset then adds a yellowish tint to the overall image. I think it works better on super models.

Full spectrum processing really tries to smooth out the differences in contrast between the darks and the lights; revealing a lot more of the fine detail in your image.  In my eyes, it leads to a fairly flat image.


The one I wound up liking the best, is a preset called “Wet Rocks”.  It brought out the detail in the elephant's skin, but kept the brooding quality of the shadows as well.  I did apply a slight yellow antique look as well.  Silver Efex lets you play around until you get yelled at to get off of the computer and do something useful.

Folks, I would greatly appreciate it if you commented on which hefelump photo you liked best.  We really are interested in your feedback.