I can’t even visualize what they do in the modern
“Joint Services School of Photography”, with its Mega pixels, Zoom Lenses
and Laser printers but I can offer some memories of the Royal Navy School of
Photography of nearly sixty years ago and how “would-be-phots” were trained
In early 1949 some 30 young Naval Airman would arrive
at RNAS Ford from various air stations around the country where they had
received their basic training. Either
by luck or being bright in initial training they have been fortunate to be
selected for Naval photographic
training. This was to be 6 Course and would later be whittled down to 24 bodies
at the "dreaded 8th week" exam.
Our course and Divisional Officer was Commissioned
Photographer “Wally” Gresham with C.P.O. “Biffer” Nash and P.O.
“Ratfaced” Brown together with the younger Mr. Jack Barber (one of two
Barber brothers who were civilian instructors) would see us through our nine
month course. At various times
usually when the C&POs were sleeping off their tots
Ldg. Phot Len. “Low-angle” Brown
would read to us from the Ilford Manual of Photography,
detailing the various chemicals required to make up a developer. !! This
we had to write down and memorize, ….it was Instructional Technique of the
highest order!!…. I still remember “Silica
Gel absorbs moisture with avidity”. I didn’t discover for years what avidity
meant and I’m sure Len who later became a good chum never did know!!
We were housed in a clapped out wartime wooden hut with
corticine on the floor in places and two wood burning stoves for heating, the
lucky ones grabbed beds near the stoves and our class leader “Shorty” Walker
ex TAG took up residence in the cabin at the end.
5 Course who were in the next mess became great rivals as to who could
find most wood for the stoves, usually by breaking pieces off each others huts.
If we were lucky we would travel down to the school in
a 3 ton lorry, all of us !!! But if we'd been “stroppy” we were marched all
the way with no talking as we passed the Wardroom and so-called married quarters, all
in about 6 to 8 semidetached houses. Quite
a sight with “Shorty” calling the steps.
The school buildings were outside the airfield
perimeter on the lane leading to Yapton from Ford railway station. Once within
the school the discipline became even more relaxed , the C.O. a Lt. Cdr Taylor
together with Lt “Scruffy” Manley-Cooper let the Commissioned Phots. get on
with running it,
and stayed in their offices which with stores and classrooms lined one
corridor joined to another corridor of darkrooms
by two contact printing
Most of the first eight weeks were spent in the
classrooms “absorbing” the basics of optics and Photo-chemistry theory,
with spells mixing chemicals and learning the rudiments of the Watson
half-plate and VN press camera. with simple contact printing all this leading up
to dreaded 8thweek exam. I must confess I spent the exam week in hospital in
Chichester and on my return found the class cut down to 24. The rest returned to Lee for other duties.
Whether I would have passed myself we shall never know
but Wally Gresham said I could stay if I forego my sick leave to which I readily
Having missed out on some of the training whilst in
hospital I was given my own personal instructor for contact printing!!! One P.O.
“Soapy” Watson !!!! He wasn’t
too happy about this extra work and his method of teaching me is worth relating.
“Now we have three sorts of paper,.. hard, medium and
soft. I want you to expose separate
sheets to this negative for
3 , 6, 9 and 12 secs for each grade
a total of 12 sheets which I want you to develop for 2 and a half minutes at 68
degrees then pick the best print and produce for me 12 matched prints".
he promptly retired to a corner of the darkroom to sleep his tot off. An hour or
so later with a sink full of prints I finally managed to achieve his required
matching dozen and got a bollocking for waking him up when I’d finished.
Whenever I went into a darkroom for the next 50 years I still remembered it and
was just glad “Multigrade” paper hadn’t been invented at the time.
We were instructed on the Watson camera by Jack Barber,
who thought it important that we know how to find out the focal length of
a given lens if not on it.
"Somebodies" law he called it and it meant we spent a day in
the fields at the back of the school focusing two marks on the ground glass
screen on distant fence poles, lines
were drawn on paper under the cameras baseboard and the point they intersected
measured from similar marks on the paper was the focal length of the lens !!!!!
A fact that was on the lens barrel !!!! And you know in nearly fifty years in
professional photography I never came across a lens without its focal length
being marked on it…….but at least its was a nice break in the sun.
Loading glass plates was another trick he passed on.
To check which was the emulsion side he told us to put the corner of the
plate in your mouth !!! The side that stuck to your lip was the emulsion and all
the class were left walking around with purple lips from the backing that was on
the reverse of the plate.
There were four types of emulsions available to us,
fast Pan at 4000H&D, slow Pan at 2000 H&D, fast orthochromatic at 2500 H&D and Blue Sensitive for
copying at 50? H&D.
Hurter and Driffield was the speed rating system we
were taught before ASA became the standard and Jack explained we had to give the
prevalent light an “actinic value”…. Dividing the “A” value into the
H&D rating gave you your exposure at F 8 !!..magic when you knew how to rate
the light, but as most of us developed our plates by inspection, and with
Farmers Reducer available we usually came up with a printable negative…. what
its gradation was is a matter of luck. But eventually we got used to using the
system and it was in practice until light meters became available.
Interiors were a different kettle of fish, and required
us to consult our “magic card”, a series of numbers on a square grid, not
unlike a suduko card. If memory serves me right we noted the aperture at which
the darkest object on the focusing screen disappeared, this was transposed on
our card to another figure which was the exposure at F8.!!!
True it worked. I had three cards worked out for the different pan emulsions
and fast ortho. Sadly it didn’t
work for copying and that meant lengthy calculations also taught by JB.
on 5 course had the first exposure meter I ever saw, ..a Beemeter (?) and I had
him check my estimations until his course left Ford.
subjects became standard for our Watson work and I think most of us did the
interior of Climping church as our test. Once somebody got the right exposure
the info was passed on, The vicar of Climping must have had 100s of prints given
When we got our hands on the VN press camera we really
thought of ourselves as photographers. With one member of class riding
a bike up and down the lane outside the school we’d practice “action
shots”….. who could get a sharp bike with a blurred background through
panning ?. We were very lucky insomuch as there was no limitation on materials,
so we tried until we got a decent shot. It was only at exam times that our
plates were limited by having them signed in the darkroom by an instructor prior
allowed quite a lot of freedom which led to three of us getting Commanders
Report. We had gone into
Littlehampton to practice with the VNs. Really
it was an excuse to take pics of the local girls, so with caps flat-a-back in
Jolly Jack style we roamed the streets looking for the local talent….only to
be confronted by the Station Pay-bob complete with escort going into the Bank to
collect money!!!!. Suitably “bollocked” by the Pay-bob and told we were to
be reported for being “improperly dressed” and placed on Commanders report.
We confessed to P.O. Brown on our return who immediately went bonkers and
said he would see what could be done.
prior to going in front of the Commander he told us we were to say we had to
push our caps back so we could get our eyes close to the viewfinder and that
having promised his Tot to the P.O.
in charge of the escort, who would
agree we were taking photographs. When
we offered this excuse the Commander asked if this was so, to which the P.O.
gave a very good impression of somebody using his hand to see through the waist
level viewfinder of a box camera !!!! We
all nearly fell about laughing….but we still got away with it…..but it cost
us quite a few pints to both P.O.s.
to more applied photography and the first highlight was to cover a gun shoot
with the Low Angle Marking Camera.
of a camera, body of cast aluminum, tripod of solid steel with a “Pendulum”
a cast iron weight swinging between
the tripod legs. It all came in three wooden boxes which required a man each to
carry them, and it only used 120 roll film *(or 70mm).
Our party traveled down to Portsmouth the night before
the shoot in the charge of CPO
Biffer Nash who deposited us at Vernon steps to go aboard on the towing tug
HMS Antic, the last coal
fired vessel in the RN, whilst
he disappeared home to Tipnor.
As most of
the tugs crew were “Rationed ashore” we were left to sling our hammocks
wherever we could find space. I didn’t fancy down below so decided the small
bridge was an healthier space, until about 6.0am in the morning when the
skipper, an ex-lower deck Lt. came aboard found
me, tipped me out of my hammock and said I should go below and act as
cook-of-the-mess and get the breakfast ready for the crew and those “b…..
redeem myself I opened the tins of Herrings in Tomato, laid them out beautifully
on a plate, then buttered the bread
and laid it all out on the mess table, … went off to wash and shave.
On my return every cockroach in Pompey had decided to come to the party
and the table and all the food was covered with the creepy cockroaches. I tried
quickly picking them off and throwing them on the deck.
When the crew returned they wanted to know why all the cockroaches on the
deckhead were covered in tomato sauce. I hadn’t the heart to tell them!!!!
Nobody went down with the plague and were none the wiser until I told the rest
of my fellow phots. on our return to Ford.
had to process and plot the
results. Low Angle Marking was the first and only time I used Colour photography
in the Navy. It was Dufaycolour, a roll film with three screened layers which
required rather complicated processing. The
school had a splendid new shiny chrome plated electric driven processing machine
installed in a small darkroom which had no ventilation.
Higginson and I were entrusted with
processing the film and warned that in no way were we to “cock-it-up” or
we’d go back to Whale Island and explain
dutifully mixed the prepacked chemicals as instructed, darkened down and loaded
the film onto the machine. All went well until we reached the bleach stage and
Higgy collapsed to the floor, the bleach chemistry contained a lot of
Ammonia and that had overcome him as he leant over the machine.
What do I
do?…. I daren’t open the door letting light in and spoil the process, so
dragging Higgy as near the door as possible I started banging and shouting until
“Soapy Watson” heard me, opened the door and crushed Higgies fingers… he
came round very quickly!! Fortunately the film survived the light from the door
as the next step in the process was the exposure to light for the reversal
The resulting “colour” images could record the
different coloured splashes from shells fired by different guns or ships….if
you were lucky. The transparency film had no other use as the screens in each
layer made projection impossible.
We progressed to Aerial photography through classroom
calculations to produce “line-overlaps and mosaics and memorised various
formulae to give the required results. T he only one I remember being “wrens
have few virgins” which translated to
“Width x height over focal length x velocity “ !!!
Also some reason we were made to memorise the cycle of operations of the
F24 camera gearbox and believe it or not I could still recite it until a few
The highlight of this part of the course was a trip to
Tangmere to fly in RAF Ansons and practise what we had been taught.
I think 7 at a time boarded the aircraft and we all took turns at
shooting hand-held obliques through the rear window and then crawling into the
nose of the Anson to do a “line overlap”. Favorite “targets” were
Arundel Castle and the railway line to Barnham station.
Which leads to the legendary story of the trainee phot
instructing the pilot “right,right
, left steady, steady and then the famous “Back a Bit”!!!!….. a modern
phot in his Helicopter might get away with it but certainly not in an Anson.
We had to print and lay down our own line overlaps and
also printed and laid down mosaics from other negs, which required some skill in
Other aircraft mounted cameras such as the GSOP gun sight
camera, the G45 gun camera, both 16mm and the F46 a torpedo tracking camera
which used 120 film and had a Louvered shutter which was different. We practiced
loading 16mm film onto racks which would have been processed in practice in 20
The 5inch wide F24 film was processed by winding from
one spool to another by hand at an even speed, quite an accomplishment for 8
minutes but somewhat easier than trying to load the same film into a large
spiral for “rapid processing”. The processed film was then wound onto large
rotating drying frames and air dried as the frames rotated.
Moving to Movies !!
We were taught how to load magazines and service Vinten K,
Newman Sinclairs and Morigraf 35mm cine cameras though our actual film
shooting was limited to 16mm Kodak cameras with which we attempted to make
a short film albeit only in negative form which was ruined the first time
we projected it. The National Service Phot course running at the same time as
ours went one better……whilst attempting a tracking shot down the main
corridor on a bike….. ran into the CO's. Secretary carrying coffee into his
office splashing both him and her with hot coffee.!!!
Two other characters worth recalling at the school were
Bill Roadnight, a civvy cleaner who was also a bookies runner, so he catered for
the gamblers and "Hooky" Fairhurst, a leading phot who ran the stores.
He catered for the 35mm film requirements of the civvy photographers who
photographed visitors in Trafalgar Square and the pigeons. He would lend you an
AGI handheld 120 Observers camera with an enormous wooden pistol grip to take on
weekend to London if you would deliver the 200ft of 35mm film to his
"friends", who would reward you with a fiver to take back to Hooky,
who in turn usually lost it to Bill Roadnight. .
The last weeks before our final exam were spent
refining our camera and printing skills on the 8308 enlargers,
learning how to use flashbulbs with the VN press camera which entailed synchronizing
via an antenous release to a push-on Compur shutter.
One had to mechanically sync up the shutter set at1/50th
to a Sashalight flashbulb which had a duration of 1/75th second and
that was if the bulb fired!!! Those bulbs caused phots many an embarrassing
moment on shoots as they were quite likely to explode and even after they were
coated with plastic they still caused nasty burns to the fingers if you changed
them too quickly.
There must have been lots of other techniques and
practices that were explained to us which have disappeared from my memory, I
don’t even remember the final exam but I do know we celebrated it in the
“Farmers” at Yapton with the Landgirls who regularly beat us at Darts
whenever we gave them a game.
Naval School of Photography had a happy atmosphere and the knowledge I gained
there served as a very good basis for the remaining 50 years of professional
If I could wind the clock back I’d go back there
tomorrow… even use plates again…..it beats this modern digital stuff !!!.
Whoever got pixels stuck on their bottom lip ?.
Item Description. Article
Remarks/People Involved. Memories of RNSOP Ford
Ship/Place/Originator. Bob Lomas
Date/ Date range.c1949
by. Bob Lomax
Held By. Bob Lomax
Historians No. Hist 437