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I'm seeing a lot of old picture from probably 19xx till 1970 which have such a clean perfect look. For a better explanation, I added two examples. As in the comments mentioned, the second one is probably a painting. But sometimes those pictures are in color.

I have seen similar pictures in a technical museum. They really looked like "photographs" to me. And I cannot imagine that all those pictures got painted for a brochure of a product that wasn't sold in mass production. Some of the pictures also have an amazingly good perspective and "too much" details.

The third picture is from a brochure of the same machine in picture one. There are also some shadows visible which might underline the already suggested solution (Alan Marcus and Olin Lathrop) that it's (as often ;) ) that it is just about the "right" lighting.

If so, I'm interested in the lightning technique.

Brochure Picture of old machine1 Brochure Picture of old machine2 Brochure Picture of old machine3

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    I'm pretty sure both of these are actually drawings. Look at the shading on the milling cutter in the first example, and the leadscrew (below the knee) in the second. – Sebastian Lenartowicz Jun 10 '18 at 17:54
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    These may in fact be drawn images, or they may be airbrushed on a photograph – joojaa Jun 10 '18 at 17:55
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    I would like to add that often, a photograph of the object would be traced by an artist who would then paint it, to obtain the style seen in the second image, of a highly accurate drawing. – salmonlawyer Jun 12 '18 at 7:59
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I've seen pictures that resulted in that look by what the photographer called "painting the back with a lightbulb". The camera was put on a tripod and the shutter opened in manual mode. A lightbulb at the end of a extension cord was the waved in a raster pattern behind the camera. This pattern would extend up to 45° to either side of the camera from the subject's point of view. You keep the lightbulb always behind the plane of the camera so that the light never gets into the lens directly. This might take a minute or so. Close the shutter when done.

The net effect is that the subject is illuminated with a very wide light source. Note that there are no point reflections in the pictures you show.

Additional contrast management and sometimes manual dodging during the printing process were used to create the final images. Back then, a print was the final "camera ready" original that was used to make ink-printed manuals and the like from.

I saw this technique in action in the early 1970s, and was surprised at the time how it could create the look that you show. I tried it myself on some machinery with intricate parts, and it really worked.

  • Was the light bulb on in most of the time (probably otherwise there would be more "spots")? – TimK Jun 11 '18 at 18:58
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    This pretty much agrees with my own guess. Note that there are some distinct shadows in the first picture, but they are very light. This would result from the moving light source being in one spot (the starting position?) for a bit. There's a similar situation in this image, which was lit using a diffused LED flashlight very similarly to how you describe (using the Olympus "live composite" mode, a more forgiving way to play with any kind of "light painting" technique). – junkyardsparkle Jun 11 '18 at 19:30
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    @Tim: Yes, the bulb would be on the whole time. It does help to think out the pattern you're going to "paint" with the bulb before clicking the shutter, though. If there is little other light, then you can open the shutter, then turn on the light bulb when you're really ready to wave it around. A little longer dwell in one place and less in another doesn't matter much, as long as you follow a pattern that results in roughly a "wall of light" after all the individual traces of the bulb are integrated by the film. – Olin Lathrop Jun 11 '18 at 20:41
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Commercial photography was and is a subset of photographic specialties practiced by professional photographers. The product is illumined by several lamps. These can be continuous or electronic flash. Lighting products like machines and merchandise is an acquired skill, lots and lots of practice. In that era, likely 4 X 5 inch sheet film was used. however, roll film works also.

After the picture was taken, the film was developed and printed. Careful attention was paid when printing on photo paper to get an optimum print. Optimum means a print with the proper contrast for what follows.

The finished photographic print was sent to the printer. At the printers, they used a razor knife, like a scalpel, and cut around the image. This cut-out was pasted to a white paper background. This past-up, with other images was taken to a process camera. This is a special camera that features a finely lined screen etched on glass that hovers a millimeter or so above the copy film. An alternative was to use a special copy film that has a built-in screen.

The purpose of the screen is to break up the continuous tones of the image into a halftone. This process makes a halftone negative image that consist of dots. The size and spacing of each dot is proportional to the various shades of gray on the original print.

The halftone negative is then exposed onto a zinc plate coated with a special photographic emulsion. When developed the emulsion on the plate is present or absent in proportion to the halftone dots. The plate is now immersed in an acid bath that will etch the plate. The result is a relief image that resembles a rubber stamp. The plate is locked into a printing press and inked. The inked plate is pressed against printing paper. The ink transfers to the printing paper and the result is a printed catalog ready to be mailed to perspective buyers. This process falls into the category of what is loosely called “lithography”.

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    That cut-out work must have been pretty tedious... was it ususally done at a fairly large print size compared to the final print? Also, any chance you could expand a little on the lighting techniques, and maybe on the "optimum print with the proper contrast" as well (did this generally involve things like dodging the shadows?) Given that the halftoning isn't really visible in the images, I suspect that part isn't so much what's being asked. – junkyardsparkle Jun 10 '18 at 18:40
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    @ junkyardsparkle -- The cut-out and paste-up was tedious. Most prints delivered to the printer were 8X10 inch. The negatives were printed using every trick in the book. Full scale prints with a black and a white keying tone plus all the in-between shades. The half-tone camera featured a bump, a brief fogging exposure with screen in place to increase highlight contrast, and a flash exposure to fog without screen to heighten detail and contrast in the highlights. And you thought digital has lots of “pixie dust”. – Alan Marcus Jun 11 '18 at 0:30
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    @AlanMarcus Can you add to your answer, or highlight the relevant portions of your answer to explain, what makes the photographs look like drawings? – xiota Jun 11 '18 at 0:33
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    @ xiota - A half-tone has a surreal appearance because it actually has no gray tones. The size of the black ink dots and their spacing gives an allusion of gray which is comprised of a blend of black ink blended against white paper. – Alan Marcus Jun 11 '18 at 3:18
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    ...and yet, the reduced resolution images in the OP no longer resolve the halftoning, and do indeed have gray tones, but still have a characteristic "clean" look to them. I think the question is more about the "pixie dust" that went into preparing them for good halftone rendering than about the halftoning itself. To me, there's an analogy to the way that, say, motown recordings have a unique sound that wasn't due simply to limitations of the delivery medium itself, but to the production process that was aware of those limitations and attempted to fit the result to them in a way that "worked". – junkyardsparkle Jun 11 '18 at 5:20

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