When I look at the black & white legacy of great photographers like Raja Deen Dayal, the photographer to the Nizam and other royalty, or Nature Studies of Ansel Adams, I wonder how they achieved those effects with those old time-consuming contraptions and slow films!
My mother was fond of clicking family photographs with her folding Agfa
Billy camera. I started clicking at the age of 3, when my father gave me a
Norton camera (1936) whose body was made of gutta-percha. It took size 127
films. Later, I was given a Kodak Baby Brownie. Focus and timing were fixed,
whereas there was a choice of 3 apertures. The sensitivity of films was very
low 25, 50 and 100 ASA.
Todays digital cameras have speeds up to 4000 ASA and more! For shooting
under low lighting, one required a stand, and long exposures. I used to
curiously watch how the photographer at the studio would take formal portraits
or groups. He used to duck his head under a black cloth, to focus the image on
the ground glass screen. Then he would ask everyone to be still, remove the
lens cap and count 1, 2, 3
and then put cap back. I also enjoyed watching the
developing of films in the darkroom, taking prints and enlargement. The only
light in the dark room was a pink bulb, because the films and papers were not
sensitive to pink light.
Later, I improvised a darkroom in our bathroom. The passion grew and I had
to borrow from my friends their Rolleiflex cameras. With them, soon I started
shooting far better pictures. My moment of glory came when Hindustan Times in
its Sunday edition published my narration of our college trip to Bodh Gaya,
along with my photographs (1951). I got Rs 25 and had to treat the entire
In those days, apart from slow speeds, the other challenge was taking
pictures when it was dark. Flash had yet not arrived. In a holder stand, we
held a manganese wire and had to light it. When the wire burnt, we kept the
shutter open. What a far cry from today, when even our mobile phone cameras
have built-in flash! I used to enjoy taking pictures by candle light, or with
only a 60 watt bulb. The effects they produced are difficult to replicate
today. Also, the play of light and shade was a unique gift of B&W. Another
preoccupation of mine was to take silhouettes light against shade! The
accompanying photo is an example.