The Magic Window

Until the invention of photography, there was an absolute separation between seeing something with your own eyes, and seeing it through someone else's eyes in the form of a drawing, painting or sculpture. No matter how faithful any other rendition was (or is), it must always be filtered though someone else's perception and selectivity. But a camera has no perception or selectivity: it records what is in front of it. As long as the photographer is reasonably competent, we really can see as if through his (or her) eyes.

prayer flags


Sometimes, this perception seems unusually real. In some forgotten album, ancient post-card or antique guide book, we come across a picture that seems especially immediate. It is as if we could go through the surface of the print in the same way that Alice went through the mirror into Wonderland, and find the photographer's world on the other side.

These are what we call magic windows. They are windows in both time and space. The big difference is that the world on the other side of the photograph exists (or existed at some time): it was in front of someone's camera, once, and it was recorded. This is a module about attempting to record such windows in our own photography today.


Sherab Ling

The world on the other side of the lens must always hold the promise that we can go there, if not in reality, then at least in our imagination. Sometimes the place that was photographed will no longer exist in reality, but equally, sometimes we can be surprised. This Sherab Ling, the Place of Wisdom, was built in the 1990s by Tibetans in exile: we both photographed it in 1999 on Ilford film using Leicas and Voigtländers and we think Frances took this one on XP2 Super.

Roman ruins, Sanxay


We have all seen pictures like this a thousand times: pictures that could have been taken at any time since the dawn of photography. We can imagine ourselves as Victorian travellers, or even as being on the Grand Tour in the 18th century. The picture is timeless; there are no modern signposts, 'interpretations', guides, car-parks: it is as if we have walked there, and been shown something seen by few. Actually, it is quite a well-touristed archaeological site, not too far from where we live in France, and Roger shot it on Ilford HP5 Plus using a Leica M4-P and 35/1.4 Summilux. Frances printed it on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone and toned it in a home-brewed sodium sulphide toner.

sanxay ruins


snow & car


Although we know intellectually that a photograph is a record, it requires the bare minimum of imagination to re-create the whole world it records: could we not follow that path, feel that breeze, make snowballs of that dirty snow? What is it that lends these pictures their immediacy? We believe we have isolated some, maybe all, of the techniques that are needed.

Car and snow, Rchester, New York

Frances's father Artie shot this on 35mm Plus-X Pan film, then fairly recently introduced, in about 1940 We don't know what camera he used, but Frances made the print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. Obviously, you can never go back in time -- except in your memory, which is a very large part of what 'magic windows' are about. This illustrates many of the points made below, including 'dream space', composition, image size...

First of all, is foolish to pretend that a magic window -- ours or someone else's -- is totally objective. Where did the photographer choose to take his camera, and why? When (and why) did he press the shutter release? Then there are the inherent limitations of the media -- sharpness, shadows, depth of field -- and whether the picture is retouched or otherwise manipulated. Today, manipulations are very easy using digital media, but retouching and combination printing started very early, including such massively complex works as O.G. Rejlander's 1857 masterwork The Two Ways of Life, which was assembled from over 30 negatives.

None of it matters. Few 'fake' pictures such as Reijlander's (or modern assembled digital prints, for that matter) are magic windows. They are too carefully and obviously put together, too much a made thing: they tell us too much. Paradoxically, in being too fantastical, they are also too literal.

A magic window, on the other hand, relies on the viewer as much as the photographer. The viewer must see it, believe it, want to believe it, want to go there. It is this eagerness -- almost desperation --to share the photographer's vision that makes a magic window.

But how does the photographer persuade the viewer to enter into this conspiracy? To answer this question, we have to look first at what we call 'dream space'.


Weaver, Lijiang


'Ethnographic studies' were very popular in the 19th century. Limitations in equipment and materials necessarily meant that they were often very static and rigidly posed, but it is possible to borrow those conventions to advantage, as Frances did in China, shooting on Kodak Tri-X using her Voigtländer Bessa-T and 28/1.9 Ultron; the print is on Multigrade Warmtone.

weaver, lijiang


Dream space

A magic window is closely akin to reminiscing. Few if any of us can recall everything, perfectly, and as we struggle to remember all the details, we sink deeper into reminiscence. After a while, some of these forgotten details may come back to us, but equally, we know that some of them are going to stay forgotten. In the course of trying to dredge things up, all kinds of other ingredients are added to the mix.

koper skeleton

Graffiti and drainpipe, Koper (Capodistria), Slovenia

These include other memories from around the same time; things we were subsequently told (especially true of childhood memories); words we have read or heard, and pictures we have seen; even elements of out-and-out fantasy, or at least of wishful thinking. Once we have revisited a memory more than a couple of times, we may not even be entirely sure which ingredient came from where. The memory is just the skeleton of what actually happened, and possibly not even a complete skeleton at that. A magic window is much the same.

Or maybe it's like trying to remember a dream, which is even more difficult because there's no coherent narrative. Whichever it is, it requires a modest amount of effort, however pleasurable, to flesh out the skeleton.

lake, pruilly

Lake near Preuilly sur Claise, southern Touraine

Speaking of skeletons... Clearly this is a much less timeless shot than the others: the graffiti reveal it as something photographed in the last few years, as indeed it was, on Ilford HP5 Plus by Frances with her Voigtländer Bessa-R2 and 50/2.5 Color-Skopar, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. Its magic window qualities lie in its strange combination of the familiar (graffiti is all too familiar), the original (the huge cartoon skeleton is eye-catching) and the downright surreal (the bent drainpipe). This is probably about as far as you can push a viewer's imagination, and even then, for every one who imagines a weird city (and Koper is pretty weird), there will be another who cannot engage with the image at all.

Far more people are likely to be able to engage with this than with the Koper picture, simply because a tranquil lake is both more familiar and more agreeable: graffiti and general urban decay are something that many people don't even want to acknowledge, let alone dwell upon.

Like the picture on the left, though, it is one of Frances's, this time taken with her Bessa-T and 50/1.5 Nokton with a 2x yellow B+W filter. Again it is on Ilford HP5 Plus, rated at EI 500 in Ilford DD-X (the true ISO in this developer is 650 or better) and again it is printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Of course there are differences between a memory and a magic window. For a start, a photograph as magic window is a thing, a picture on the page or on the monitor or in our hand, not something buried in our brain. And, more importantly, there are two parties involved: the photographer and the viewer. The photographer provides the magic window, but after that, the viewer starts supplying all the other stuff.

This explains why a magic window must not be too literal, because it has to provide what we call the 'dream space' for the viewer to bring his or her own memories, experiences and fantasies to bear. Equally, though, it must have a good dose of reality in it: enough hard, graspable images to provide the armature for those memories, experiences and fantasies.

Graves, Verdun: VE Day 2007

This is perhaps as simple a magic window as you will find in the entire module. Everyone has seen war memorials; this plain, factual record is in the style of a tiny contact print in an old family album. How many of us have not lost ancestors to war? Frances loaded the MP with Ilford HP5 Plus and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone: the lens was the 35/1.4 Summilux.

graves, verdun


Because a magic window must be neither too literal nor too abstract, it is probably as well never to apply too many of the techniques described in this module at once. Any of them can be applied singly or in combination, but it probably would not do to apply all of them simultaneously. By doing so, it might be too easy to close the door on the viewer's imagination, forcing him or her to see exactly what is there, and nothing more. The aim is to leave enough (but not too much) dream space for the viewer to bring his or her imagination into use to interpret the picture.


montmajour, france



Varying imaginations and experience

Inevitably, no two people have the same imaginations, and there will be wide cultural variations: a Californian, to whom an early 20th century building is old, will not have the same appreciation as a Maltese to whom a building five centuries old is nothing especially out of the ordinary. But to mix architectural metaphors, a magic window can also be seen as a bridge between what is known, and what is not known. Nor should we neglect second-hand experiences: many people will have read about things they have not seen, or heard about them, or seen television programmes about them. These things are as much 'known' as matters of direct experience.


Abbey of Montmajour, near Arles

Whether or not you have personally visited many mediaeval churches, the chances are that you have a pretty good idea of the vastness of some of them. Frances used a 16-18-21mm Tri-Elmar on the MP for this shot, deliberately including a lot of foreground to emphasise the scale and emptiness of this church, sacked during the French Revolution. Of course, if you have visited many mediaeval churches, you will almost be able to smell the mustiness of the stone and feel the chill even in July. Film was Ilford HP5 Plus; the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Art concealing art

An important trick in making a magic window is composition. The photograph must appear either casual, or as a formal, neutral record. For the former, it must be a moment in time caught as if we had looked up from what we were doing, or turned a corner in a street, and noticed something: what the Germans call an Augenblick, an eye-blink. For the latter, it must be as if we have seen something and decided to Record It For Posterity, rather than Creating A Work Of Art. In short, the viewer has to be able to imagine being there.


Museum courtyard, Tarragona

You can imagine this picture in a guide book from the early 20th century. Often, this is precisely the effect you want. It was shot with a Leica M4-P and 15/4.5 Voigtländer Ultra-Wide-Heliar on Ilford HP5 Plus, then somewhat 'pulled about' in Adobe Photoshop to create the illusion of a rising front on a large format camera. A similar effect would have been possible, with more effort, with conventional printing.

The bottom of the picture was then cropped slightly, partly because it was just empty flagstones, and partly because the 35mm format is sometimes inconveniently long and thin. It would have been better to shoot with a true rising front and ultra-wide lens, such as the 35/5.6 Apo-Grandagon and a 6x8cm back on Frances's Alpa 12 S/WA, but we didn't have it with us.

taragona courtyard


Normally, the picture must not be too Arty, with a capital A, even though the viewpoint may well have been extremely carefully chosen, along with the precise moment at which the shutter was released. Excessively dramatic composition will normally detract from the picture, especially if it is too clearly formal, with bold tonal masses carefully balanced. But equally, the composition must not be too banal, or the photograph will be too much a snapshot: there must be enough there to engage our interest.


javier, 2 trees



Church, Javier, Spain

Just to show that all rules can be broken... Frances used a self-consciously 'arty snap shot' composition for this picture on Ilford HP5 Plus, printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. If it is run too big, it doesn't work at all; but run small, it creates the impression of a snapshot taken with a box camera by a photographer who wanted more than an absolutely literal picture. Quite often, a pseudo-snapshot will draw the viewer in: the appeal is something between 'I wonder what they saw in it' and 'I could do that', and of course we have all seen such pictures in our family albums.

Creating such a 'snapshot aesthetic' with a Hasselblad 503CX and 50/4 Zeiss Distagon Classic requires no small measure of self assurance. Why not use a real snapshot camera? Because while the Hasselblad can be used to create snapshots, a box camera is somewhat lacking in versatility when asked to do some of the tricks of which a Hasselblad is capable. Also, we had the Hasselblad on loan for review.


Detail is another secret of a magic window. We have already said that we must be able to imagine being in the magic world of the photograph, but we do not necessarily have to be able to imagine every detail. Rather, some of the detail is supplied by the picture, but in the same way that detail is supplied in the real world. Most of the time, we do not pay much attention to our surroundings: just enough to avoid bumping into things, or falling over them. But sometimes -- especially when we are taking pictures ourselves, though it can happen any time -- we notice one thing, and then another, and then another in a cascade of seeing everything as if for the first time. The texture of a stone wall; the sun backlighting a blade of grass; a spider spinning its web; it's all stuff that's there, all the time, but we don't normally notice it. Detail comes, however, in many forms.


taize dolmen


Dolmen, Taizé

This is a classic way to cheat at detail. We all know what stones look like; we know what their texture is like; we know that the sky is not, contrary to the appearance of this print (from Ilford Delta 3200), grainy. The main magic window tricks are repetition (of the stones) and a clever compositional variation: bringing the edge of the circle to the very edge of the image, to the viewer's feet, as it were, as though in another couple of steps he or she would stumble over the stones. Although panoramic formats are rarely successful as magic windows, we think this one is, not least because it emphasizes the emptiness of the surrounding countryside (though a water tower in the far distance was retouched out. Frances used a Voigtländer Bessa-T and 15/4.5 Ultra-Wide-Heliar.

Subject matter

Often (though not invariably) the most successful magic windows are those where there is plenty 'going on': plenty to look at, to notice. Here you see a tiny figure; there, a price-tag in some long-gone local currency, or a still-extant currency now vitiated by inflation. That road: where does it lead?

The scale of the subject can vary enormously. Some of the most intriguing magic windows are of old shop interiors; but others are vast panoramas, huge swathes of a city. Yet others may be a small part of a village street, or the interior of a grand state-room. All of these considerations relate to the next three: depth of field, sharpness and texture.


National Library, Malta

Big interiors like this call for larger formats than 35mm (or the vast majority of digital) but film location with 4x5 inch is such that the main benefits are in tonality rather than sharpness, as compared with first-class roll-film equipment.

With an 8x (!) loupe you can just about read the word 'Courier' on the fifth magazine from the left on the front table, but it's soft and you can't read any other titles: Roger might have done better to use Frances's Alpa 12 S/WA and 6x9cm rather than 4x5 inch Ilford HP5 Plus and a 110/5.6 Schneider Super Symmar on his Toho FC45X.

You can however read the inscriptions under the paintings on the far wall (again, with the aid of a magnifier): Ludovici Guerin de Tencin on the left, Hildebrandus Oakes on the right. If you were sufficiently obsessive you could also count the volumes on any open shelf.


malta national library


Depth of field

Every rule can be broken, if you are good enough or lucky enough, but as a general rule, the most successful magic windows are 'deep field' pictures, i.e. without any substantial out-of-focus areas in the background or foreground. The latter rule (foregrounds) may be easier to break if the foreground is substantially reduced to a silhouette or series of silhouettes; the former (out-of-focus backgrounds) may be easier if the degree of unsharpness is only slight, especially if it is in the far distance where we are accustomed to things looking hazy.

windmill, france


The explanation for this is, we believe, the natural accommodation of the eye, which is forever darting from this subject to that, refocusing as it does so. Everything is therefore perceived as simultaneously being in focus, even though we can demonstrate that it isn't by the simple expedient of holding up a finger at a distance of a foot or two (30-60 cm) from our eyes, and switching our attention from the finger to a more distant subject and back again, while remaining conscious of the sharpness of both finger and background in both cases. We shall return to the implications of this when we deal with image size and equipment.



This breaks the 'rule' mentioned above about depth of field, but even so, we believe it succeeds because the foreground is exactly the way it appears when you are pushing through trees and your attention is caught by something beyond the trees: you are aware of them, but you are also aware that they are out of focus. Frances photographed it using, as far as we recall, the Leica M4-P and 75/2 Summicron. At least, that was the lens we were testing that day (for a magazine article), and the perspective compression suggests this focal length, but we were also using other cameras and lenses and she just doesn't remember. The film was Kodak Tri-X and the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Open shadows

Just as we re-focus our eyes as we scan a scene, so do we constantly readjust the iris to compensate for varying brightness. This is, we believe, another important factor in creating magic windows. Small areas of impenetrable shadow will have no adverse effect, but larger areas just do not reflect the way that we see: like focus, a good example of the disparities between the way that our eyes see, and the way that the camera sees.

The easiest way to achieve open shadows with modern black and white materials is via generous exposure and (in the case of contrasty subjects) curtailed development, as described in the (paid) module about Negative Development. With a negative that is not too contrasty you can replicate the effect with a softer grade of paper.

Our ancestors, though, had another weapon in their armoury, namely, printing-out paper. Printing-out paper (which produces an image on exposure to light alone, without development) is inherently self-masking. As the shadows darken, they block further light, so darkening in those areas slows while it continues apace in the lighter areas (the darker parts of the negative).

pump, france



This is the old pump in the courtyard behind our house. Roger shot it on 5x7 inch Ilford FP4 Plus (using a Linhof Technika V and 210/5.6 Rodenstock Sironar-N) then contact printed it on Kentmere POP. Processing POP is a matter of washing (to remove excess silver nitrate); then toning; then fixing; then washing again.

With bright sun casting shadows like this, you might expect the darkest areas to be completely blocked up, but the self-masking effect has left them open.

A very small area like this is seldom a magic window, but it can be, if the subject matter is archetypal enough.



By the same token that 'deep field' is usually more successful than selective focus, so is high overall sharpness usually more successful than low overall sharpness. Top quality lenses; fine-grain, sharp films; and above all, bigger formats or a tripod, or both, all help. As ever, though, the desirability of sharpness is far from a universal rule. In particular, if overall sharpness is uniformly low, as with a soft-focus lens or even a pinhole, it can still be surprisingly easy to create a magic window.

st martin interior

With certain subjects, softness can impart a dreamlike quality; and as we all know, dreams can sometimes seem more real than reality itself.

These soft-image techniques (soft focus and pinhole) may be christened 'dream-conventions', in that it is unclear whether they are something we all experience, or something we have learned from movies. Of course, it doesn't matter very much: what matters, above all, is whether the picture 'works' or not.


Church of St. Martin, Noizé

This picture demonstrates both deep field and sharpness as well as texture (below). The deep field required a tripod and a small aperture; sharpness and texture can pretty much be taken for granted with any decent medium format camera. Roger used our KowaSix for this, with its standard 85/2.8 lens, shooting on Maco Cube 400, but our Pentacon Six TL, 80/2.8 Biotar and HP5 would have been just as good.

Lamp shop, Margate

Pinhole cameras -- Roger used a Rigby here -- are not famous for their sharpness, though as this illustrates, a well-made pinhole that is used to take a picture on a large-ish format (in this case 4x5 inch Polaroid Sepia) can deliver a surprising illusion of sharpness: no doubt this is aided by the infinite depth of field of a pinhole camera, so that everything, at any distance, is equally sharp or unsharp



The feeling that you could reach out and touch the subject matter is often a powerful tool in creating a magic window -- a matter of equipment and materials again, as described below -- but it is much more useful in some pictures than others. For example, a picture of the interior of an ironmongers is that much more of a magic window if we can imagine the hard, shiny surface of the tins, the feel of the rough sacking, the texture of sand-cast iron. But the key word here is 'imagine'. We may or may not have to spell out such details: as noted above, too much reality can constrain the imagination, which already knows what these things feel like.


well, malta



Well, Citadella, Gozo


The textures of stone and mortar are familiar ones, like the tin, sack-cloth and cast iron cited opposite, but film grain can actually give a 'free ride' on this one because the eye tends to read it as a texture in the subject, rather than in the picture. The same applies to a diverse range of other materials including, for example, sand and skin. A further boost to the magic window effect is given by the open shadows.

Frances shot this using a Contax with 35/2.8 PC-Distagon. The film was Ilford HP5 Plus and the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

Image size

texaco pump, alabama


As already indicated (not least by the size of the illustrations in this module) we feel very strongly that magic windows in black and white (colour can be different) are almost invariably most successful when they are not too big: quite possibly as small as the old 8-on-120 contact print, 6x9cm nominal, 56x84mm actual, and rarely larger than whole plate, 6½ x 8½ inches, 165x216mm. There seem to us to be at least two possible reasons why this should be so: we give the weaker first.

The first is that big pictures command attention for their own sake. A small picture is something we see every day: we do not think twice about it as a picture. In that sense, it is 'transparent': we see the subject, not the picture. Big pictures tend to be either Art or Commerce, both of which can do a perfectly splendid job of standing between us and the subject matter (and indeed much else).

Texaco pump, Alabama

One of the questions that is often raised by a magic window is "Why did they photograph that, in that way?" We frequently have to assume that there was some degree of unfamiliarity involved: something that the photographer had not seen before, or something they had not seen for a long time. Frances shot this on Ilford HP5 Plus with a Bessa-T and 50/2.5 Color-Skopar (with yellow filter), and printed it on Multigrade Warmtone.

Second, and closely related to the way that big pictures command attention, it is harder to sustain technical quality. Technical shortcomings can be a substantial barrier between us and the subject matter. If we notice the process before the picture, the magic window is less credible. This is true whether we notice grain, lack of sharpness, poor focus, shallow depth of field or anything else that becomes more obvious with a bigger enlargement size.

Under the magnifying glass

In fact, we would go further than the second reason above: whether or not you count this as a third reason is up to you. Many of the most successful magic window photographs we have ever seen or made are so finely detailed that they not merely invite the closest possible inspection, sometimes even with a magnifying glass: they positively demand it. One of the enormous attractions of a magic window is the illusion that there is as much detail in the image-world as there is in the real world.

Sometimes you can get around this with a dream-convention such as soft focus or a pinhole, but more often, you have to deliver incredibly fine detail. This is impossible to sustain with anything other than a contact print or a very small enlargement: we believe, no more than 3x. There is more about this under 'cameras and lenses', below.


Pont du Diable (Devil's Bridge) near Tarascon


We have photographed the Devil's Bridge -- a 13th century toll bridge, with the ruins of a mill -- many times with many cameras, but the best compromise seems to be medium format with a yellow or orange filter. This was our KowaSix with 85/2.8 standard lens and a Soviet-era 2,8x orange filter; we intend to go back with our 6x7cm 'baby' Linhof next time. As you can see in the foreground, depth of field was a problem -- but it was a worse problem when we tried shooting with an 8x10 inch Fotoman and 150mm lens. The film was Ilford HP5 Plus rated at 500 in Ilford DDX, as usual, and the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, again as usual.

devil's bridge


Two asides: monitors, perspective, and magic distances

We are somewhat handicapped in this moduke by the fact that this is all on-line, because even the finest monitors are extremely low-resolution when compared with a print, and on a site like this the images are at a low native resolution (the biggest ones are just 550 pixels high) anyway so you cannot zoom in and get more detail.

In the (paid) module on perspective we suggest that magic windows may be something to do with texture, as noted above, but we also talk about 'magic distances' at which two-dimensional representations seem to become uniquely three-dimensional. This, we believe, happens when the elements in the picture subtend the same angle as they did at the camera in the original scene. The 'magic distance' effect is a cocktail of format size, focal length, degree of enlargement and viewing distance.

por m silves


What is surprising is that while magic windows may work better at magic distances, this is not always the case. As far as we can see, too, magic distances become less and less important as print sizes diminish, until at 6x9cm/2¼ x 3¼ inches, it does not seem to matter very much at all; which brings us back to the monitor. The pictures here look about right to us on 17 to 19 inch monitors. If your monitor is smaller or bigger, some of the effect may be lost.

Silves, Portugal

Here, we used a classic trick to create the illusion of depth: a strong foreground, namely, the tree. The reflection also helps to create the illusion of depth: we know what sort of angle, and what sort of width of water, is required to create this sort of reflection. We shot this with both 35mm and roll-film: this print is from 6x7cm Ilford XP1 exposed in a 'baby' Linhof with 105/3.5 Schneider Xenar.

Monochrome or colour?

As you will have gathered from the illustrations to the module, we believe that we see magic windows most often in black and white (usually sepia toned, perhaps). After giving the matter considerable thought, we suspect that this is to a considerable extent conditioning: the vast majority of the magic windows we have ever seen from other photographers have been black and white, and often quite old, so we expect a magic window to be in monochrome. There are however at least three other reasons why black and white is so successful, so often.

The first is that black and white suppresses jarring detail. When everything is reduced to monochrome, there are no glaring colours to distract our attention. This is especially important with timeless pictures which are, we believe, the easiest subject matter for magic windows.


pump, woodpile



The second reason, closely related, is that black and white allows more 'dream space'. It doesn't matter that we remember a red dress, while the dress in the picture is blue; that the railings are painted in a particularly eyeball-aching viridian, when we are accustomed to a more faded green. Colour can have a lot of emotional impact, and can re-awaken strong memories in its own right, and by knocking out the dimension of colour, we concentrate attention on content.

The third reason is the point already made above, about open shadows. Colour can only be represented convincingly across a much shorter brightness range than is possible with monochrome: if the shadows are lightened too much, the picture often looks flat and unnatural.


Kitchen, Mision la Purisima

The main reason for including this is for comparison with the 5x7 inch contact print earlier in the module. You can see from the shadows that the light was much less contrasty here than in the other picture, but even so, the shadows are darker. Roger shot this with the Leica M8 and an old 90/2 Summicron.

We shot this with so many cameras, lenses and films that we are not sure what we used here, but Roger probably used a Leica M-series with 21/2.8 Elmarit-M and Fuji RFP ISO 50. Even when it is desaturated and lightened, we find that it has less 'dream space' than monochrome. As with the picture on the left, shadows are dark too.


Another feature we believe contributes strongly to magic windows in black and white is the remarkable tonality of contact prints or very small degrees of enlargement, at most 4x or 5x. The free module 'The Half-Tone Effect' explains this more.

Warm, faded colour

Generally, though as ever, not invariably, we find that if you are going to use colour for magic windows it is a good idea to desaturate it quite a long way, by whatever means are available. Years ago, the easiest approach was ultra-fast film (such as the much-missed Ferrania/3M/Scotch 1000D and 640T), plus, as needed, flary or even soft-focus lenses. A warming (Wratten 81-series) filter was generally a good idea too. Today, it is all easier to do digitally, which is not the same as saying that it is always as successful.

Paradoxically, too, although we believe that grain is generally to be avoided in monochrome magic windows, it is sometimes useful in colour, though with small pictures this is far less relevant.

The usefulness of grain, especially in big pictures, is probably related to the point we have already made, that too much realism removes the 'dream space'. Add realism in the form of colour, and it may be as well to compensate by removing realism in the form of added grain.

Another possibility is that memory is in a sense faded and grainy, and yet a third possibility is that it is once again pure conditioning, a cinematic shorthand for dreaminess and antiquity: another dream-convention.

zagorsk sacred spring


Sacred fountain, Zagorsk


The use of a 17mm lens (Tamron) on a Nikon F is perhaps a little too self-consciously photographic, but equally, the younger the viewer, the more easily they are likely to be able to accept ultra-wide-angle shots: photography has accustomed us to ever-wider views. In the 1930s, after all, people used to protest about the 'violent perspective' of 28mm lenses.

The colour, though, is timeless, and heavily desaturated from the original Fuji RFP ISO 50 transparency. This film, Roger's all-time favourite in colour, delivered next to no grain: the result is almost like a water-colour, which can itself often be a strongly nostalgic medium.


Big colour

The content of this module evolved as we were writing it, and we realized that sometimes, a big, glossy, in-your-face colour picture can be a variety of magic window. It works a different way from the subtle, small black and white, with its aura of something half-remembered. Rather, it slams straight at you, shouting THIS IS THE WAY THAT IT IS. Then you realize that THIS, whatever it may be, is universal too: you have not seen the same thing that was in front of the photographer's camera, but you have seen something that is close enough to it that it takes you straight back to when you saw it -- and along with that, all the other memories come back too.

grafitti & posters

Graffiti, Poitiers

We had not had the M8 long when Roger took this picture, using (as far as he recalls) our 21/2.8 Kobalux, equivalent on the M8 to a 28mm lens. The vast majority of graffiti is something we can very easily do without, but every now and then there is something special that is indeed a species of art.

Printing paper

Whether you use colour or black and white, silver halide or ink-jet, it is normally a good idea to use as unobtrusive a paper surface as possible. Ultra-glossy surfaces such as Ilfochrome Classic (formerly Cibachrome) again interpose the process between the viewer and the subject, whereas a more familiar surface is simply not noticed. Probably the most unobtrusive surface for black and white paper is glossy, unglazed (air-dried) fibre-base paper; in colour, its ink-jet equivalent. Then again, for 'big colour' pictures such as these described above, Ilfochrome Classic is probably the best possible medium.

Day and night

Surprisingly few successful magic window pictures are taken at night, and of those that are, most are probably taken at twilight rather than at full dark.

This was of course the traditional advice for shooting 'night' shots, because the brightness range of a true night shot is often unmanageably large, splashes of bright light against inky darkness. Even so, it is possible (though difficult) to produce magic windows at night.

yellow house


< -- The Yellow House, Arles

Frances, who took this picture, says, "It is as if you are walking back at night and you suddenly see the Yellow House as Vincent must have seen it" -- though of course he would not have had the road markings. She used her Bessa-T and 28/1.9 Ultron, shooting on Ilford Delta 3200.


Bicycles, Paris -- >

The contrast range here is about as low as it gets at night, and it's still pretty high. Even so, the depth of field of the 35/1.7 Voigtländer Ultron, plus careful framing, allows a reasonably convincing magic window. Roger loaded his M4-P with Ilford HP5 Plus; Frances made the print on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, toned in home-brewed sulphide toner.

bicycles, paris

Cameras and lenses 1: Film

From the above it should be obvious that you can use almost any equipment, but it should also be obvious that in many cases you want the maximum possible detail and tonality, so that you can examine the print under the magnifying-glass if you want, and still find more detail.

This necessarily implies either contact prints or very small degrees of enlargement. As we have said above, we do not recommend going much above 3x: the table below gives paper and actual print sizes for various formats.

In some cases the paper size will suit a little below a 3x enlargement, in some cases, a little above. In the first draft of this module, we also gave 4x enlargements, but decided to drop them: 4x really is bigger than we recommend.

boat on river


Boat on river


The tonality of the sky and trees is what makes this picture a modestly magic window, and you can do this with any format: this is 35mm Ilford HP5 Plus, shot with a tripod-mounted Voigtländer R3A and 90/3.5 Apo-Lanthar with orange filter. But in order to keep the 'magic' definition of the trees in the background, you don't want to go much above postcard-size.

Nominal size

Actual size

3x enlargement 

Nearest convenient paper size


35mm half frame


54x72mm / 2.1 x 2.8 in

6.5x9cm or 2-1/4 x 3-1/4 inch


35mm full frame


72x108mm / 2.8 x 4.3 in

Quarter plate, postcard




124x168mm / 4.9 x 6.6 in

13x18cm or 5x7 inch



168mm / 6.6 in square

As above, or as below



168x204mm / 6.6 x 8 in

Whole plate, 18x24cm  or 8x10 inch




168x252mm / 6.6 x 9.9 in

As above


(1)  Although 3x off half-frame looks absurdly tiny, it is almost as big as an old '6x9' contact print

(2)  Quarter-plate is 3¼ x 4¼ inch, 83x108mm; postcard is 3½ x 5½ inches, 89x140mm

(3)  Whole-plate is 6½ x 8½ inches, 165x216mm. With the bigger Linhof '6x7' format (56x72mm) a 3x enlargement gives you slightly over whole plate in both dimensions, and you will recall that this is the largest we recommend for 'magic windows'.


convertible & mision


Convertible, Mision San Antonio

This well illustrates the 'lost snapshot' aspect of magic windows. After full and frank discussions about a screwed-up car rental, the rental company apologized by giving us this Chrysler convertible for two weeks. This is no more than a snapshot, made with our old Olympus Pen W on Ilford Delta 3200, but it has the air of a moment carefully captured because it was important; part, we increasingly suspect, of many magic windows.

Delta 3200 stands up to overexposure magnificently -- the shortest exposure available with the Pen W is 1/250 at f/22 -- but its 25/2.8 lens still allows low-light shots under almost any reasonable lighting.

dharamsala state bank



A top-flight 35mm or medium format lens should give you at least 72 line pairs per millimetre (lp/mm) across the negative at middling apertures, and a 3x enlargement (assuming a perfect enlarger lens, which doesn't exist) drops this to 24 lp/mm. This is sharp enough to withstand examination with a magnifying glass. Even with a mediocre lens, or a good lens at full aperture, you should get 48 lp/mm across the negative (it should be better in the middle), allowing 16 lp/mm at 3x enlargement; this does not really allow much in the way of magnifying glasses, but is still very sharp indeed to the naked eye.


State Bank of India, Dharamsala

As well as the lens, a good deal depends on film flatness and the steadiness with which the camera can be held, especially with roll-film. The former is a matter of design, and some backs are much better than others: this is an Alpa-modified Mamiya RB67 back (on a 12 WA), which holds the film unusually flat across the 44x66mm format. For the latter, you can use a tripod, but if you want to hand-hold the camera, Zeiss tests have shown that the same lens (38/4.5 Biogon) gives better sharpness on the Alpa than with the Hasselblad SWC, simply because the Alpa is easier to hold steady.

Contact prints

As suggested elsewhere, these are a good solution, but apart from expense and inconvenience they also have one considerable drawback, and that is depth of field. Usually, you have to stop down quite a long way in order to get adequate depth of field, which in turn implies long shutter speeds which in turn implies a tripod, even though it is perfectly possible to hand-hold 4x5 inch and even 5x7 inch/13x18cm/half-plate. It also makes action-stopping difficult. For a sufficiently static subject, whole-plate or even 8x10 inch may create a magic window, but you may then run into multi-minute exposures to do it, especially with interiors.

On the bright side, superb tonality is comparatively easy, and even at f/64 you should be able to get around 25 lp/mm on the film with any half-decent lens. At f/32 you may well be able exceed 40 lp/mm if there are not too many focusing discrepancies: misalignment of ground-glass and film-holder, and 'bellying' of the film. This sort of detail is pure magic under the magnifying glass.

We particularly like 5x7 inch/13x18cm/half-plate (holders for all three sizes share the same external dimensions) because of the delightful-sized contact prints, though we have to say that we have never used whole-plate. We had a whole-plate camera once, but in those days, whole-plate film was all but unobtainable: it is good to see its return.

ruined windmill


Ruined windmill

Frances rarely shoots large format, but this is one of her 5x7 inch shots made with the Linhof Technika V and either the 168/6.8 Dagor or the 210/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar; probably the former, given the perspective.

The thing about a contact print is that pretty much any good lens made in the last 100 years or so will deliver more sharpness than any enlargement if you use it at f/16 to f/32. Considerations such as grain and acutance cease to exist, so you can choose your films and developers purely on the grounds of tonality. Our favourite films are Ilford FP4 Plus and Ilford Ortho Plus for alternative process prints, and Ilford HP5 Plus for conventional developing-out papers.

Cameras and lenses 2: Digital

It is impossible to equate pixels to film area at the best of times, and 'magic windows' are not the best of times because of the very high resolution figures which we believe to be important in so many cases. Nor do the anti-Moiré filters incorporated in so many digital cameras improve matters. Unless you go for the 'dream' approach with deliberately soft focus or big colour grain, or the 'big colour' approach outlined above, our own belief is that a 6 megapixel SLR may only be treated at best as full-frame 35mm for print sizing, and that even 10 megapixels will not exceed 35mm in quality. You would therefore be ill advised to go above postcard size. With a 39-megapixel Hasselblad, you could probably just about go to whole-plate, but you need special software, or at the very least, a top-flight photo-quality printer, if the image is to sustain close examination under a magnifier. Even then, it will break up long before a silver halide print.

The Bottom Line

It can be almost impossible to judge your own 'magic windows'. If they are any good, they are also flooded with your own memories, experiences, beliefs, hopes. This is why, we are sure, some people will wonder why we have incorporated some of the pictures in this module. On the other hand, we are reasonably confident that enough people will see enough of what we mean in enough of these pictures to make them want to try the same approach.

Café, Prats de Mollo

Yes, it really is called Prats de Mollo and it's in French Catalunya. Is this a magic window? We think so, because it's so typical of a particular kind of French hotel-bar-restaurant; or are we just deceiving ourselves? Frances took the picture on Ilford HP5 Plus using her Voigtländer Bessa-T and a 50/2.5 Color-Skopar with a 2x yellow B+W filter; the print is on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. 

Sometimes we wonder if we are over-influenced by the magic window prints we have seen in the past. On the other hand, they really are fascinating, and trying to re-create them is ideal if you are shooting for posterity. Postcard-size prints off 35mm or digital, or as much as whole-plate off 6x7cm, are within the reach of most photographers, and no individual step is especially difficult. It's a technique we enjoy, and we hope you may too.


prats café

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© 2007 Roger W. Hicks