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“It’s kind of cool that this thing, which was used to document death and destruction, is now being used to photograph bubbles and as a teaching tool for kids,” says Pat Brownewell. Pat is truly something special, and we know this from our previous feature! After honing his digital techniques to be flawless, he went back to large format film. And he’s done that with wedding photography. With the pandemic being what it is, wedding photography dried up, but Pat continued his craft by teaching. And now, he’s showing high school students how to get it right in-camera.
The more time you spend behind a computer for silly mistakes, the fewer shoots you can squeeze in, which equates to real lost income.– Pat Brownewell
What’s it like teaching these kids about some very old school photography?
The kids’ reactions are really fun. A couple kids helped me dial in our ambrotype lesson, which meant that we poured and did test shots 10-15 times only to have the photos fail. When it came time for the actual lesson, everyone had a good time pouring their plates and developing. However, in the end, there was so much light variation and development problems that only two out of 25 photos came out. Kids still laughed and had a good time, but most were happy that digital is a thing.
The 8×10 macro camera was over their head. It’s intimidating because of its size and how different it is. Then, there’s the math involved. I also didn’t have any examples of what the camera could produce when giving the lesson. All in all, I’m pretty sure that it went over most kids’ heads. I’m counting on a couple of them to go out and find a tutorial on photographing snowflakes, see the bellows or extension tubes, and then have the lightbulb go off in their head.
“Because it’s ridiculous! I bought it six or seven years ago to shoot hummingbirds in flight at 2:1 reproduction ratios.”-Pat Brownewell
Do you feel it makes them have more of an appreciation for the art of photography? You know, the whole not photoshopping thing?
I’m not certain about the art of photography but certainly the process. I stress the importance of getting it right in camera because of the costs involved. The more time you spend behind a computer for silly mistakes, the fewer shoots you can squeeze in, which equates to real lost income. For our ambrotype project, when you screw up, you have to cut the glass, pour the plate, let it dry, etc. For the 8×10 camera, it’s $27 per frame and a 10-day turnaround.
Why this camera specifically? And the lens? Please tell us about the lighting too.
Because it’s ridiculous! I bought it six or seven years ago to shoot hummingbirds in flight at 2:1 reproduction ratios. I think I have 16 Vivitar 283s wired up in a box in my garage for it as well. The 2:1 version was simply because that would fill an 8×10 sheet of film with a hummingbird. I cut it in half and added another plywood sheet to it, and now it shoots 4:1. That reproduction ratio was settled on because it’s just absurd.
The lens was chosen because of it’s focal length and price. The focal length was important because I needed it to allow me to have the hummingbird rather far from the camera at 2:1. It’s a 610mm Bausch and Lomb that I picked up on eBay for $70. It was originally used in WWII for reconnaissance and as a telescope after that (it came with this cool housing with a T-mount that I still have). I added a Nikon shutter to it by using the camera’s iris to hold the shutter in place. That way, I could use it for the hummingbirds, and it would have a PC port for flashes (I didn’t use it for this, though). It’s kind of cool that this thing, which was used to document death and destruction, is now being used to photograph bubbles and as a teaching tool for kids.
The lighting is provided by two Photogenic Powerlight 2500s, which can each produce 1000 w/s. Then, I used a homemade diffuser (white plexiglass on a wooden frame) to shoot both lights through the same diffuser and have that diffuser be inches from the subject. These photos were taken at a nominal aperture of f32 and an effective aperture of f181. That maxed out the lights for our Porta 160 film. To take the photo, we turned off the lights, removed the dark slide, fired the flashes, and put the dark slide back in.
“I try to stress the art side, like composition and posing, more than the technical side because I think the art takes longer to learn.”-Pat Brownewell
Why this subject matter? It’s pretty cool and fun!
Honestly, it’s because a kid in class said, “why can’t we do something fun like photograph bubbles?” That sparked my imagination. Knowing that this was in my garage and the sheets of film on my desk weren’t getting any younger, this thing was born.
This camera only has 1mm of depth of field at 4:1 magnification, so we started simple. The flowers and light meter were pretty easy test subjects. The shell was a bit tough to focus on because it’s such an organic shape. The bubble was a whole different beast. Trying to focus on something that is there for no more than 30 seconds, with 1mm of DoF is challenging. Any movement, and it doesn’t work. Out of the six photos of bubbles that I took, only two came out with the bubble clearly visible, and only one of those came out in focus. (the other is close enough that it could be printed, just not at the 8×10-footprint that it could have been capable of.)
“The kids’ reactions are really fun. A couple kids helped me dial in our ambrotype lesson, which meant that we poured and did test shots 10-15 times only to have the photos fail. When it came time for the actual lesson, everyone had a good time pouring their plates and developing.”-Pat Brownewell
What do you feel high school kids really try to figure out more – the artistic side or the technical side?
High school photographers are just like adult photographers. Some have an artistic vision but need technical skills, and some are the opposite. I try to stress the art side, like composition and posing, more than the technical side because I think the art takes longer to learn.
What are you doing to have them connect both sides of their minds? As you know, that’s pretty tough to do.
I’m only in my fourth month of my teaching career, so that’s a great question! It’s tough to teach creativity because it’s an abstract skill that you can only grow through practice and facing challenges. My goal is to give them the toolset to solve problems that they may encounter or create the art they want to create.
All images are being used with permission from Pat Brownewell. Visit his wedding photography website for more and check out the Elkhart Area Career Center. Got a series to share with us that doesn’t involve Photoshop? Show us,, find out how by heading to this link. Even better if it’s all in-camera!