May 2007


Fritz Pölking

Past & Present


Well, between 1955 and 1970 it was the greatest time for me and black & white nature/wildlife photography. The films were developed immediately after getting back from the heath or moor, in a daylight film tank which had to be tipped back and forth every few seconds so that the used developer could be separated from the film emulsion and to be mixed better.

If you had been taking pictures during harsh sunshine with a slight overexposure, you had to make the process of developing a little shorter so that the film gradation would turn out a bit softer. If you had been taking pictures without sun then you would be shorter on the exposure but a little more with the developing of the film so that the contrast would turn out a bit better.

In the evening you would put a wooden board over the bathtub, that way you could put the enlarger and the containers for the developer, stopper and fixing bath on top of it and fill the tub half full with water so that you could take the paper pictures out of the fix after a 10 minute bath and directly into the water in order to continue to process them.

The enlargement took place on 18x24 cm, high glossy paper and you had 6 different paper gradations available: extra soft, soft, special, normal, hard, and extra hard. Whereas you always tried to expose and develop using the gradation “special”, because that turned out the best nuances. You made the pictures in tonal values and cutouts exactly the way you imagined and had complete control of your photo from the take all the way to the final product.

You didn’t have to let your valuable negative go either because you just sent the 18x24 cm enlargement for print or archiving to the picture agencies, publishers, and editors. Those were the days…..

Starting with 1970 the triumphal procession of color photography commenced for home and for publishing. Don’t forget: a color photo 7x10 cm at that time cost exactly 1,- - DM in a photography shop and that at a time where the newspaper “Bildzeitung” cost ten Pfennig. A 36 color film with one print each cost almost 40,-- DM which was a fortune at that time. Today you can get 9x13 cm pictures starting at one cent…

Magazines like “Wild und Hund” (game and dog) or „Foto Magazin“ only had a colored title page at that time and the contents were all black & white up to then.  This started to change. A magazine called “Color Foto” came out and by its name alone heralded a new time coming.  Soon the drum scanner, which made it even possible to make great 24 x 36 mm film prints in color, came along. At first everyone thought that everything would go on in color just like in the B/W era. The photographers would take pictures on negative-film, then develop it, enlarge it – only in color instead of B/W – and the colored 18 x 24 cm enlargements would be sent to the agencies and editors. But that did not happen. It took too long, was too expensive, the photographers had big problems making sound color enlargements on their own and the results were too inconsistent. That is the reason why slides became more and more widely accepted as film material for the print industry.

Slide film was originally put on the market for the “few” photographers that wanted to give slide presentations but now it boomed even though it was completely unsuitable to use as a first print. Its range of contrast was vast and it was much too brilliant to be usable for print. If printed like this according to the slide, the depth was pitch-black and the lights completely eroded. You just couldn’t bring its contrast onto paper. That was the reason a “crutch” called blurred masking was invented: so that you could work with slides for print. With this, a B/W copy was taken from the slide through a contact exposure without stacking the slide and negative directly on top of each other with the shiny sides of each up, which would have resulted in a sharper negative, but the emulsion side of the slide with the base (shiny) side of the negative face to face that resulted in a slightly blurred B/W negative of the slide. That is where the name “blurred masking” came from and is still used in the Photoshop program today.

Now if you took the four-color set which was layered and put the color slide with slightly blurred B/W negative together with it into the slide frame you got a much lower contrast color slide which range of tonal value was such that you could print it. The slide film was actually only a “work-around” for the printers because there was no better solution or the ideal raw material for a lithograph. As photographer you weren’t very happy about this sudden change of direction with the slide films either and only because the printers wanted it that way. Principally you couldn’t just develop a slide film real quick on your own and you had to give up your valuable original for the print or send it to the agency.

Above all, the artistic freedom of the wildlife/nature photographer was suddenly and drastically limited. You pushed the shutter release and that was it.

If the slide was too light or too dark, if the color balance was off, if the cut out turned out to be catastrophic through the heat of the moment during an action take – endsville. You could do absolutely nothing about it. It’s a case of sink or swim.

Arthur Miller once called photography the crudest of all art and was in part right during this episode of slide photography because our possibilities of lay-out were dramatically more limited then with all other forms of art.

Now, with digitals we have regained the control we once had in our B/W photography and had so sorely missed during the interlude with slide film. We can set the contrast, sharpness, color balance and the cut out completely by ourselves and are certainly taking better pictures then was ever possible with slides. Slide film required exact exposure times and you really had no choice but to set the exposure manually, which needed a lot of concentration and time. Now, with the tolerant digital photography, I almost always use the automatic timer with which I am much more flexible and faster and I can focus my concentration more on the subject instead of having to deal with the exposure setting.

Another fantastic thing is the dramatically expanded possibilities. With the pc you can straighten out converging lines, subtly use a split filter, “scheimpflügen” and take panorama shots; all things you used to need a special camera for before. And we even have the test Polaroid with the SLR, digitally and for free, which during the time of the slide film was really only used with large format cameras.

I do see ONE big draw-back with digital photography: There are so many possibilities and ways that you can easily get lost and because of all the technology lose contact to the actual photography itself.

It would really be too bad if most of the wildlife/nature photographers would know how a RAW-converter works and where you use it in Photoshop-CS 25, but forget how to tell the difference between a black redstart and a common redstart.

Actually, my piece of advice is: acquire the basic knowledge you need to successfully photograph digitally but try not to drown in the flood of technology that sweeps over us every time a new issue of a photo magazine comes out each month…..

Just create your own, if possible, easy digital workflow for indoors and outdoors and forget all the technology, go out and take pictures of butterflies and autumn leaves.

Because wildlife/nature photography does not mean to celebrate technology on the seventh level of Photoshop……wildlife/nature photography means that you go outside to photograph nature.

I hope you will have great pleasure and a lot of success in doing just that.


Curlew in the Hüttrup Heath in the area of Greven, Germany 1955.
One of my first serious wildlife pictures.

Leica lllf, Telyt 4.5/200 mm with mirror box, ISO 100, camouflage tent, tripod.  



Black-headed Gull at Lake Dümmer in Lower Saxony, Germany 1962.

Taken from out of a camouflage tent that was put up on top of a moored fishing boat.

Edixa with Noflexar 5.6/400 mm,  ISO 100, Tripod  



Cheetahs in the Nairobi National Park, Kenya 1970

My first Africa-picture and one of my last B/W pictures (1970). At the time there still were cheetahs in the Nairobi National Park in Kenya . “Foto Magazin” in Germany even published this as a center spread photo in 1971..

Rolleiflex SL66, Zeiss Tele-Tessar 5.6/500 mm, 220 roll film, ISO 100, taken from out of the car.  




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