Been there, done it best

Tourists planning to visit the Valley of the Kings and Luxor, plus the Sphinx and pyramids while in Cairo often ask for camera advice. But any possible advice is restricted by the imposed specifications: the camera must be tiny, have a zillion pixels and a 50x zoom, and it must operate in fully automatic mode under all conditions. Oh, well.

Spare a thought for Francis Bedford, the official photographer on the Prince of Wales’ tour of the Mediterranean in 1862. Bedford set out with a 10-inchx 12-inch plate camera, a portable darkroom, glass plates, chemicals, tripods and lenses. He prepared his collodion wet plates in the darkroom, rushed out to the camera while they were still wet, made his 10-12 second exposure, then popped back to the darkroom to develop the image.

The resulting photos were for the prince’s collection of souvenirs, but they were also exhibited in London, causing a sensation. Although Bedford’s photos of the Middle East were not the first, they were the best.

Publisher Thames & Hudson has done him proud with Cairo to Constantinople: Francis Bedford’s Photographs of the Middle East ($70). With a page size of 28 centimetres x 26 centimetres, the reproductions are almost the size of contact prints from Bedford’s negatives, printed in the sepia tones of the original albumen prints.

These pictures overwhelm with the feeling that as far as photographing these ancient lands is concerned, it has been done and it will never be done better, no matter how many pixels we have.

The wet collodion process used by Bedford is demonstrated in a video by American photographer Todd Vinson. He shows how the development process is done by inspection as the developer fluid runs back and forth over the plate. The photographer stops the process when it looks right.

Owners of iPhones can use an app called Koloid to simulate the developing phase of the process and finish up with a photo that has something of the ethereal look of the real thing.

With Koloid, you take the photo then ”develop” it in the phone by tilting it this way and that to run the simulated developer over the image. As with the real process, you judge by eye when the image looks right then stop jiggling the phone and press the ready button. You might not use it often, but for $1, it’s fun to try, and a lot easier for us than it was for Francis Bedford.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.