The Masters Of The Film Era Will Inspire You To Make Better Photos


Life has a remarkable capacity for giving you lemons. As a demonstration of this, the Sunday before I wrote this article, I should have been wandering the streets of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, shooting stock videos. Instead, I was trudging the streets of a very cold and wet Berlin in the knowledge that nothing I shot would look good. 

Defocused gemran flag through rainy window
What can you do on a rainy day in Berlin? By Francesco Luca Labianca on Unsplash.

Rather than waste the day watching Netflix from the warmth of my hotel room, I instead, randomly typed “photography” into my Google Maps search bar. I was not entirely sure what to expect but with Google’s help, I created some rather delicious lemonade in the form of a visit to the splendid Museum of Photography, some 300 meters from where I was standing. 

Exterior of museum of photography in Berlin. Home to the Windstosser collection
Visit the splendid Museum of Photography. By Jason Row Photography

An Undiscovered Maestro

The Museum für Fotografie (Museum of Photography) in Berlin is in a beautiful building. It has three expansive floors. The lower two are given over to the Helmut Newton Foundation and feature exquisite large format prints from much of his work and an interesting collection of his personal possessions including cameras.

The upper floor is occupied by Kunstbibliothek’s Collection of Photography. It features a rotating series of exhibitions of innovative photographers. On the day I visited, the exhibition was a vast collection of the work of Ludwig Windstosser. I had never heard of him, my photographer friends had never heard of him, yet I was utterly inspired by his work. So who was he?

A Brilliant Photographer You May Never Have Heard Of

It’s quite possible that Ludwig Windstosser is well known in Germany, indeed he does have a German Wikipedia page devoted to him. That there is no similar version in English suggests that he is not so well known outside of Germany. And that’s a real shame.

Born in Munich in 1921, Windstosser became an industrial photographer for the mining industry. He was also a member of the renowned fotoform photography group and was a key contributor to post-war avant-garde art. Much of his life and works can be read about in a translated version of his Wiki page here.

However, it was actually looking at his work, in print, in gallery conditions that inspired me to write this article. Let’s look at why the work of Windstosser and other well-known and less well-known film photographers can inspire you to better photos. Whilst, due to copyright issues, I cannot post any of his images here, I have provided a link to a Google Images search of his work, here.

Moody shot of machinery in  the style of Windstosser.
Windstosser was a superb industrial photographer. Image by Isis Franca on Unsplash

Getting It Right In Camera

We have talked about this before, how important it is to get the photo right at the point you shoot it. The masters of the film era knew this all too well. Even black and white film has a much lower tolerance to incorrect exposure compared to digital sensors. The great photographers of the film era not only understood how to nail the exposure, but they also knew how to do this for each and every type of film they worked with.

That keen understanding meant they could literally read the light, and set the camera accordingly. They might shoot to retain highlights or expose to reveal shadows but that understanding made them far more instinctive and effective photographers. This is something we can easily apply to our modern digital photography simply by dropping back to manual exposure, learning to read both the meter and the light, and gaining an understanding of how our sensor works with light.

Framing The Shot Well

If you have ever tried to crop a 35mm negative much more than 10% on a large format print, you will know how much image quality is lost. Even medium format film had a fairly low tolerance to cropping. These days we have such an abundance of pixels that we can crop 50% or more into the shot and still get an amazing image. The problem is, that can make us lazy when actually creating the shot. Rather than pulling out the longer lens or walking closer to our subject, we shoot away happy in the knowledge we can crop in later. 

Black and white landscape photo
Getting the framing right in camera is important. By Alex Padurariu on Unsplash.

The maestros of the film era had no such luxury. Not only did they need to nail the light and exposure but also the framing right at the moment on taking. This is no easy feat and requires dedication and practice. It can however be replicated in the digital era simply by thinking about your positioning and moving accordingly to perfect the composition. Speaking of which.

The Eye Of The Film Photographers

The thing that struck me the most about Windstosser’s work was his composition. So many of his images worked by combining multiple compositional rules. In particular leading lines with the rule of thirds and negative space with juxtaposition. His images work on multiple levels and really draw the viewer into the shot and into the story of that shot. He was equally at home in color and black and white and often used monochrome elements in color shots as a form of juxtaposition. 

Large format camera in front of classic landscape
We can learn a huge amount from the past masters of photography. By Rodrigo Soares on Unsplash

He is not unique amongst the film-based greats though. Look at any of the well-known film photographers and you will see so many levels and depth to their compositions. It’s something I struggle to see in modern contemporary digital photographers and it’s also something I struggle to understand why.

There are undoubtedly some great photographers around in the digital era but their work seems to get lost amongst a sea of striking yet ultimately mediocre work. The images that get seen the most are not the ones that have the most merit, they are the ones that are taken by the photographers who can shout loudest across social media.

That brings me neatly back to why you should learn and be inspired by film-based photographers. Many of them are now long gone yet their work continues to amaze. Not online in 1000 pixels or less but in places such as Berlin’s wonderful Museum für Fotografie and other museums and galleries. You would be doing yourself an injustice by not visiting such places. Not only will they inspire you to take better photos, but they will also inspire you to find out how to take those better photos, by truly learning the craft of photography. And that can only be a good thing. 

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About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

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