Orthochromatic Film & The Powder Blues BandTuesday, December 17, 2019
|Tom Lavin circa 1981
Most of the photography magazines these days feature wildlife pictures, pristine lakes that reflect dramatic skies and mountains or natives in doorways in Mexico or Afghanistan. Perhaps the reason for this is that modern digital cameras are designed for photographers who like to shoot on automatic. Shots of the above if taken RAW are fixable if there are exposure mistakes.
The ideas of filters (on camera lens) not in a phone or camera program, is all but forgotten. This for me makes it astounding to find out that the venerable film company, Ilford is coming out with orthochromatic film.
Most of b+w film that is stil available these days is called panchromatic. This means that the film is sensitive to the colours of our spectrum (in whites, blacks and grays). But by now we should know that film (colour or b+w) video and digital sensors are more sensitive in the ultraviolet side of the spectrum and less sensitive to what our human eyes notice first, which are the colours on the yellow, orange and red side of the spectrum. We notice these colours more and that explain why fire engines are red (I have been told that in Surrey they are green). This non-human sensitivity to UV is why many cameras have built-in UV filters and the reason why photographers of my ilk used to use skylight filters.
The one film that was the exception to the above was Kodak B+W Infrared Film and their Extended Red Sensitivity Technical Pan (both, alas! discontinued) which had sensitivity beyond our human red. These films which had a red sensitivity made the colours red, orange and yellow lighter. They eliminated freckles and made redheads blondes. Because blue skies feature a color (blue) on the opposite side of the spectrum, these skies were rendered dark. Slipping a red filter on his movie cameras is what John Ford did to make white puffy clouds in jet black skies.
The 1931 film with Frederick March, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was obviously shot before the special effects revolution of the late 20th century. In order to transform March from normal to horrific they played with makeup and used orthochromatic film. This film had sensitivity to blues and greens and rendered the reds, oranges and yellows very dark. Thus Hyde is rendered monstrous when filmed with orthochromatic movie film.
In my time as a magazine photographer orthochromatic film was no longer available except at Kodalith which was used to make high contrast positives and negatives. When I photographed interesting older men I would slip a deep green filter when using b+w film. My resulting exposures maximized “manly” blemishes and resulted in portraits that had that extra “manly” character. No photographer would have dared use those green filters to photograph women.
I wonder then why Ilford is launching orthochromatic film which will render blue skies lighter and the same for green vegetation?
The photographs you see here I may have taken around 1981 of Tom Lavin and his Powder Blues Band. I know for sure that for Lavin’s portrait I used a deep green filter. The green filter was one of Karsh’s tricks.
I understand that the Powder Blues Band will be performing in 2020. It would be interesting to reprise Mr. Lavin either with b+w film and a deep green filter or to try Ilford's new film.