The scariest book you’ll never read…

Usually you meet them at social functions, like weddings. You know the ones I mean: “Joe Photographer”.
He brandishes the like-new Gigapixel Whizzflex around his neck like a rap star’s gold neckchain, but he assures you that when the new model comes out later this year with five percent more pixels, he’ll be giving this to his 12-year old daughter so she can photograph her cat, which is all it will be good for by then.
If you’re really unlucky, you end up sitting at the same dinner table (“I put you two together because you are both into photography,” explains the bride). He goes on and on about how he discovered photography. In fact, you get the impression he may have invented it.
No, he confesses, he’s pretty sure photography got its start around 2001, but he didn’t bother with it until 2005 when it became worthwhile. He lists off the cameras he has gone through since then, and all the software he needs just to get the photos ready to post to his Flickr page. You get the impression he mainly photographs birds at his backyard feeder.
Then, just because you know this always happens to you at family functions and you came prepared this time, you reach into your suit jacket pocket and slip out this little book.
“You do make your own lenses, don’t you?” you quip, and await the astonished look on Joe’s face as he reads the title Lens Work for Amateurs.
I don’t care how hands-on you think you are as a photographer these days, unless you write your own digital image processing software (okay, that would be impressive), it is extremely humbling to realize how really little we contribute to the technology that drives our hobby.

Sure, you can marvel at the computer-optimized 13-element multicoated zoom you own. But can you imagine making even the most basic four-element lens in your home workshop?
This little book was in the collection of my grandfather. This copy was printed in 1949, but that’s the umpteenth reprinting of the 1931 fifth edition. Apparently the first edition came out in 1894, written by Henry Orford coming to the aid of the photographer, astronomer, microscopist, or anyone else who needed lenses and optics and you just couldn’t buy them off the shelf.
It starts off by explaining what tools you needed to grind optical glass elements, and how to make them. Then it moves on to what lenses ideally do, and how to design and eventually grind them to perfection.
Actually, it’s remarkable how far do-it-yourself books have come since 1894. This book is rather murky in its descriptions of procedures and materials. On the other hand, a lot has changed since the days when you could go down the road and buy “Stockholm pitch” by the pound  – “you can always tell the best by its browninsh colour and the prismatic colours it shows when freshly broken”.
For the record, pitch was used to attach the glass pieces to wooden holders during the grinding process. Very sticky, apparently, but you could snap the glass free when you were done. Being glass, your precious creations would sometimes break, so you had to be prepared to start again.
If that isn’t daunting enough, the book does go on to explain how to make barrels for your lenses, and even aperture mechanisms for camera optics – and how to turn the brass black with the use of scary chemicals in earthenware pots. Of course, in those days one simply asked for nitric acid at the local “chemist”, which is what the local pharmacy was called back then.
We might think we’re so knowledgeable these days, but this kind of thing was being done by the more dedicated hobbyists among our grandfathers and great-grandfathers in their garden sheds, and basement cellars.
All our role these days is just to be good dutiful consumers.. make use of these wonderful products produced by large corporations and then move on to the next model when our computer will no longer recognize the outdated software.
Yes, I don’t doubt that our photography is more far-reaching, accessible, and plentiful than what our grandfathers could accomplish. Still, I do wonder what it would be like to make an image with a lens entirely of my own making (no, I don’t count pinholes – they aren’t lenses. They’re just holes).
The reason my grandfather had the book in the first place is clear. He was an amateur astronomer in the 1950s. In those days you just couldn’t buy a decent telescope at the local shop. You might be able to order a custom made one, but it was costly and would take quite some time to arrive.
What many astronomers did in those days was make their own. Grandpa and his brother made a monster reflector telescope that was so large my dad, as a young boy, was slid into the barrel to hold the screws for tightening.
Grandpa did tell me of the hours and hours spent grinding the block of optical glass to the correct curvature for the mirror. The book details the painstaking tests you did to check for perfect curvature. He also had to silver plate it himself.
The chapters on camera lens design weren’t of much use to him, but they make for a fascinating read today.
If you want to read this book, you can do so with just a few clicks of your browser. Among others, the University of California has it on-line for free, since the copyright has long expired.
Read it if you dare.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on May 24, 2012.

One Response to “The scariest book you’ll never read…”

  1. What a great anecdote, I think I met “Joe” recently, ironically he was photographing a wedding and told me how he was experimenting with available light images at this particular event. When I asked how fast the lens was he was using he muttered something under his breath and left.
    The other item of interest was grinding lenses. Although I have never ground a lens, I did once grind a three inch diameter glass blank to make a first surface mirror for a reflector telescope. This was back in the early 1960’s in the UK. The glass blank was courtesy of a friend who worked at Rank Taylor Hobson, pitch was still readily available, as was lapping compound and jewelers rouge. After several weeks of work I was satisfied with my efforts, only to find out that I could not get silver nitrate from the chemists shop. I was told I had to get all kinds of security clearances in order to buy the small amount needed. I gave the ground blank to a an enthusiastic acquaintance and never heard if he ever got the thing silvered.
    I can appreciate the work involved when your grandfather undertook the building of his telescope.

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