8.28.2011

Going backwards in time. Buying up yesteryear. The cameras I wish I'd had back when....



It's been a mysterious week.  The heat is getting really oppressive and all out of hand and I find myself turning back the hands of time to recapture the magic of my own photography.  The photograph above was created with a handheld Pentax 6x7 film camera using a 165mm lens and whatever my favorite flavor of color negative film was at the time.  Hard to believe in a day and age when people must have their cameras focus, meter and wipe their noses for them that photographers ten or twelve years ago could go out and shoot 20 different well exposed and well seen images without any of the crutches we take for granted now.  And I've come to believe that we made good images not in spite of having no training wheels or floaties or inexhaustible sources of image frames, but because we worked within those earlier restrictions.

I've been going through a process of evaluating my work done since the dawn of digital.  As most of you may know I've been doing this long industrial art enough to have started with 4x5 sheet film.  And I was there at the dawn of the digital "revolution" shooting with everything from Kodak DCS 660's and consumer 1 meg cameras to Fuji pro cameras that took PCMCIA memory cards.  Think you're cool because you're an early iPad adapter?  Well, I've got an Apple Newton sitting on my desk.  Think we don't get what you can do with PhotoShop?  I was just looking at my 1994 copy of PhotoShop 2.0.....on CD.  And you know what I think?  I think we all got hosed by the digital "revolution."  I've got a drawer full of the latest Canon stuff but I like the images from my oldest Canon digital cameras a lot better than the newer ones.  I like the files from the 1D mk 2N a lot better than the files from the 7D.  I'm trying to snap up an older 1DSmk2 to replace my 5Dmk2 as my primary shooting camera, and I'm finding that I like focusing manually a lot better than I like letting the camera focus for me.

After I looked through twenty or thirty boxes of black and white portrait prints, originally shot on film, I've been back to Precision Camera to buy two Hasselblad 500 C/M bodies, an 80, a 120mm Makro and an old, black 150 Sonnar.  Along with a couple bricks of God's film, Tri-X.

What's got me so fired up?  I'm tired of shooting in an aspect ratio I don't give a crap about.  I'm tired of trying to find a decent SilverFX profile that even comes close to matching what we could effortlessly get with a roll of $3 film.  I'm tired of blurring backgrounds in PhotoShop when I can see em and blur em while I'm shooting with that glorious 150mm.

Have you ever wanted to start over?  Have you gotten to the point in a job or a hobby or a life where you found yourself surrounded with failed (and mildly successful) experiments that you wished you never had to see again?  Have you ever want to wipe the hard drives clean and start over from scratch?  To take all the stuff you've learned and start off in a new direction?  It's a constant with me.  There's stuff I like in my collection but I mostly keep everything, image-wise, because I fear the loss of something I didn't quite appreciate more than the freedom of being unfettered by the trappings of a past.

I've gotten over my "all or nothing" and "take no prisoners" approach to change but I think doing stuff the same way over and over again, while critical for restaurants and surgeons, is anathema for art.  And for artists.  At times I feel trapped the way Ansel Adams must have felt trapped, printing edition after edition of those same twelve or twenty greatest hits until he couldn't print any longer.

Have you ever sat down with your life's work and distilled it?  The way I do it is to look at every print and slide that stays in the "active layer" of the studio.  That's the layer where the same content rises again and again and gets used over and over again as both resource and filler.  You know it's good.  Not much of it is great.  And it amazes me, or frightens me, how few digital images would even make it into the second layer (the stuff that you shove in the filing cabinets but can pretty much remember how to put your hands on it if a client calls and asks for it.....) and how many images from the 4x5 sheet film layer are down in the primordial ooze. It seems I'd found a sweet spot with the medium format square.

For the last decade we've all been racing to find the digital camera that will give our inner artist the fully erect tool we think we've been looking for and at the same time telling ourselves and everyone who will listen that:  "It's not the arrow, it's the indian.  Horses for courses.  It's not the camera, it's the man (or woman) behind the camera that counts.  Real pros can make great images with any camera.  A true artist can even make art with the camera in his phone, Just shut up and shoot.  etc. etc. etc."  And, it's all bullshit.  Just rank bullshit by people who either don't get the search for the tool, the format and the palette or people who get it but are more interested in following the pack.  (If you've never been in the zone with a camera how could you even understand the difference it would make?)  Being in the safe spot in the Bell Curve.  The tools do matter.  If painters paid thousands of dollars for a brush you bet your ass they'd be talking about them.  If there were twenty competitors to Newton oil paints and oil paints cost a couple of house payments there'd be forums galore with all the teeth gnashing you could ever want.....

So, I'm going in the opposite philosophical direction.  I'm saying the tool leverages the artist in our field.  The tool (the medium is the message) is part of the process.   The process doesn't exist in a vacuum.  A straighter arrow kills more buffalo or cowboys.  A real pro can make a better image when he's comfortable with the aspect ratio of his chosen tool.  A dedicated artist has a strong preference for the way their medium expresses its own color palette.  And the process is as important to the art as the idea.

We've effectively cut down our choices and, thru market attrition, homogenized the vision of what a camera can be for a generation.  I realized this for the first time when I realized what made me buy an Olympus EP2 with a EVF finder......it was the ability to set the camera so I could see in the square.  And that's the way I've used the camera for the last two years.  It's not enough to crop something square in post production it's important to go thru the visualization process while you are shooting.  You have to exclude the visual clutter to realize the image.  Only those images that I shoot square really make me smile.

So, I've shot a dozen rolls of film in the Hasselblad over the course of the week.  I'd love it if it were digital and full frame (6x6) and only black and white but the process of shooting constrained is already making me a happier photographer.

I'm not suggesting that any of us is wired the same way but if you were someone who grew up shooting a different format than 35mm and you were forced to abandon it for digital's contraints you might want to revisit your roots and see how it impacts the way you see, and what joy it might bring you.

I wrote about the Sony a77 a few days ago and while their are many things to potentially like about that camera what I like about the EVF technology is that it can (Go Olympus!!!!)  put the choice of aspect ratio back into the hands of the artists in a meaningful way.  Not an "after the fact" way but in an organic way of seeing and previsualizing that helps one de-clutter their vision and provides a formalist constraint that moves the process forward.  Like turning off the hip hop on the radio when you are trying to hum the melody line of a symphony.  It works that way for me.  Less static better seeing.  Less steps to think about now for greater clarity in the moment.

A long way to go to justify my capricious purchase of a couple cheap, used Hasselblads but I mean every word.

http://visualsciencelab.blogspot.com/2010/05/public-examination-of-private-process.html

28 comments:

Craig D said...

I think the aesthetics of the tools matter to the shooting experience. Not just, as you say, seeing in the desired aspect ratio without having to think "I'll crop it later", but the whole feel of holding it, looking through the viewfinder, focusing, turning knobs, releasing the shutter, and so on. A camera may be wonderful in all sorts of dry technical ways, but if it doesn't feel right in your hands and you don't feel comfortable with it, it's not for you.

Gordon Buck Jr. said...

My dad loved woodworking and had well over a dozen hammers. Except for special needs, he often reached for his first one: a 50 cent hammer from Woolworths in the 1930s.

Dave Elfering Photography said...

Kirk you have your photographic heart on the end of your photographic sleeve and God bless you for that.

Go back and study the VHS vs Beta thing to see how all this will probably go. Does digital trump medium or large format? Not likely but marketing and glitz will overtake common sense in the buying public's eye.

Digital has become the societal mantra. Most consumers don't even dump their digital digital diarrhea out of the camera and would be better served with old fashioned negatives sitting in the family photo drawer.

For us "serious folk" digital offers potential game changers if we harness it correctly. I can go into a client site, shoot, preview, select and have the short list in front of them in a matter of hours. An order can be visualized and fulfilled in hours rather than days.

With regard to Sony, they've had fertile ground for years and chosen to be stupid about it. I'd love to have bought an A850 but their lens line up has been so-so at best. Now they're poising the A77 as their beast but I'm looking at how they treated their A900 and A850 customers and saying no thank you.

I'm with you. Let's put together a digital hunger strike. No food until the camera companies come up with a real revolutionary argument in favor of abandoning film :)

Photo_13_02 said...

I went through all the desire to get a full frame DSLR, I eventually got a 5d. But it was a severe let down, I preferred a crop camera and I missed film. I sold it bought a crop Nikon and a 35mm lens and a Fuji GS645s fixed lens rangefinder. I cant describe the joy of looking at Kodak Portra 160 negs that I scan in. My wife is enthralled by the prints she gets from HP5 iut if an old Canon AV1. As far as digital goes I loved the files I got out of the Fuji S3, but I can't carry one around all day so Ill get one for portraits at some point. I rarely shoot over 200 ASA.

Chris Klug said...

Your line about trying to get a Silver Efex preset to look like a box of Tri-X made me sing out "yeah, brother Kirk!" I searched for a few years to find that preset and all I shoot now if b&w film 'cause I can't find anything else like it.

kirk tuck said...

David, I cannot argue with you that digital makes better "business" sense and that film is destined to go the way of Beta but remember that Sony made enormous money on Beta SP for professional products for decades after the demise of the consumer format. In fact, they owned that space.

You can shoot both. I bought a 1ds2 today for just that reason....

Dave Jenkins said...

Like Picasso said, limitation of means unleashes creativity. (I keep repeating this, but it's important.)

I wish I could focus a Hasselblad, but I no longer can. I have mixed feelings about shooting film. I'm pretty happy with the E-PL1, though, because I can set it to square format, place it on a tripod, then tip up the EVF and look down into it to compose my shot. Almost like the old days, but better in some ways. The files look gorgeous at 12x12 inches in my new book.

Craig Yuill said...

Having the right tool is essential for taking photos. The problem I have with digital is everything is changing so rapidly I cannot tell what the best camera for me is likely to be. That said, the Olympus PENs have been looking mighty attractive to me.

Lately, the camera I have been carrying around with me the most is my sixteen-year-old Nikon FM2n, which is usually loaded with premium slide film. The lens? The old reliable "nifty fifty" 50mm f/1.8. I like looking at the big, bright focusing screen, and using the simple - o + metering readout to determine best exposure for a shot. It won't do the job for all of the things I shoot, but for most things it's great. I wish someone made a digital equivalent, operationally and physically.

If there is one camera of a similar vintage I wished I had owned it is the Olympus OM-4. (I had an OM-1 for fifteen years.) I would have loved to have the OM-4's spot meter for shooting stage productions, which I used to do from time to time.

obakesan said...

Hi

"And I've come to believe that we made good images not in spite of having no training wheels"

and perhaps because rather than depending on training wheels to be forever there, we actually had some training!

ginsbu said...

"We've effectively cut down our choices and, thru market attrition, homogenized the vision of what a camera can be for a generation."

Amen. How many times have I seen people on forums deriding (m)4/3 for having an "amateur" format? As if 3:2 was the only serious way of seeing! It's truly a shame that so much variety in formats, control schemes, and the ways of working they promoted, has disappeared in the digital age. Like you, I hold out hope that the advent of mirrorless systems will begin to reverse this trend.

In the meantime, we're lucky MF film holds up pretty well to digital and doesn't have to be too costly. I'm itching to get a Yashica-Mat 124 so I can compose in the square and enjoy larger negatives for scanning. (After that I dream of a Hasselblad or a Fuji rangefinder—the GF670 folder is a little pricy, but boy does it appeal!)

Craig, OM-4s are out there waiting for you! I just picked one up for under $100 in BGN grade from KEH—a little beat, sure, but fully functional with the fixed battery circuitry. The meter is wonderful, even without taking advantage of its multi-spot capability. Having six control points dedicated to metering makes using it very direct. [The six are (1) shutter half-press (center-weighted), (2) spot button, (3) highlight button, (4) shadow button, and the (5) meter memory (AEL) / (6) meter clear ring around the shutter button.] It makes taking advantage of the meter's capabilities far easier than any other camera I've ever used.

It's nice to focus manually too: I may miss, but I know I can work on it—that's far more empowering that getting frustrated while my DSLR's AF hunts or after finding that it missed focus when reviewing shots on the computer. And knowing that I will need to focus has me paying attention to adjusting focus in anticipation of shots before bringing the camera to my eye (using the genuinely functional distance and DOF scales!). Having aperture and shutter so clearly displayed on the very controls that adjust them encourages forethought as to their settings, without having to bring the camera to my eye or activating an LCD to do so. Again, it's all refreshingly direct.

Kirk, is the "new" Tri-X still God's film? I'm curious, do you still use your Newton? I think the Newton got some stuff more right than anything since, but mine has long since been relegated to a box in the closet.

jason gold said...

Good luck! Very impressed about you "going back". I am sure many more like me, said "Them prints from your Hasselblad,whatever film camera way better". I use digital and enjoy the ease and low costs. Yesterday I shot close to 390 images at a Street Fair In Toronto.I could never do this in film.Would I ? No! If I had shot film, it would have been one single roll of 24 pix. I am too slow with my Rollei for a Street Fair.
I shoot better with film.Sure I miss a focus now and then. I goof an exposure. Yet I have more keepers per shoot! The Rollei a case in point. Took me about 18months to expose a roll of 220.
23 out of 24 negs could be big ones! Rats!

Bold Photography said...

KEH has some used 1DsMKii's for sale: http://www.keh.com/search?store=camera&brand=Canon-Digital&category=Camera-Bodies&k=EmptyKey&s=1&bcode=DC&ccode=2&grade=Grade&sprice=0&eprice=0&r=SE&e

And, they have a bunch of Hasselblads for sale too..... including one AF body...

Richard Alan Fox said...

Kirk
I feel your pain, the perfect square ennobles one vision.
I shot for twenty years with a Rolleiflex equipped with a leather binocular hood, a dream world of sight and smell.
Today I am eight years 100 percent digital, if only my Sony R-1 was native square.

Hugh said...

"If you've never been in the zone with a camera how could you even understand the difference it would make?"

There's a subject for an important post all of it's own.

Been "in the zone" occasionally when I shot one BW film, one manual camera, two lenses for about 5 years.

Can you do it with digital? I don't know. Maybe why we oldies miss the manual focus gear.

Toby Key said...

Perhaps another question we should ask ourselves is why should it be that a film shot image is 'nostalgic' and a digital one 'modern'?

That is a theme I hear again and again. Surely this is down to the sensibility of the artist rather than the mode of capture. It is perfectly possible to for an artist to produce very modern work with old technology.

Kirk, if you can swing it use what you are most happy with, that's the only way to produce the best work you can. And anyhow the latest Kodak colour negative films are absolutely amazing, they've really raised the bar for image quality with film, so it's not as if the medium is standing still.

Hugh said...

Most people have difficulty telling from my prints whether they were Pentax 67 or Canon 5D or 5D2.

Taken some work to get there.

I'd still jump at a mechanical, metal SLR (e.g. Canon F1n) with the sensor from the 5D2.

Anonymous said...

I agree that there is nothing like the right tool in ones hand to push the inspiration and creativity up a notch. I do have to say I could never get shooting in square...worked at it back in the day, Rollei, Hassy, Bronica, but never could "see" that way....

Chad Thompson said...

My most recent camera I did what I didn't think was possible. It's American made AND shoots square format. Of course it's a hulking wood beast that requires I use a tripod and bring a darkroom everywhere I go. And the chemicals put me on every watch-list in this country but hey, the 6.5" X 6.5" negatives are amazing. And what is "art" without a little suffering?

Clay said...

I get it. The process is:

What do I like?

Why? (Wait for an honest answer. You know it either by that Aha! feeling or by that itchy-butt, that-can't-be-right, yeah-I-guess-it-is feeling.)

What does that look like?

OK, what do I really like?

Why? (and so it goes.)

Anonymous said...

hi kirk, i've been through these thoughts after reading jonathan canlas' blog, MF camera are way more cheaper now and i bought myself a mamiya 645+80 mm 1.9, talk about gorgeous bokeh ! for what i'm shooting right now, i'm seriously considering selling my DSLR and maybe just keep a fuji X100 as a ""polaroid camera" . sometimes, less is more. thx for refreshing ideas. gerry

Paul H said...

I know exactly what you mean when you talk about shooting square. I discovered the joy of the square format after discovering MF folders. I now find it somewhat of a struggle to compose with a non-square format. When I'm not just taking casual shots of the family, I'll set the GF-1 to square format, but I'd still much rather shoot with one of my native-square format film cameras.

I have a theory about keepers - you get a fixed number of keepers per "load". It's often around one per load, so one per 4x5" DDS, one per 120 (regardless of format), one per 35mm roll, and one per memory card - again, regardless of capacity ;-)

kirk tuck said...

Paul, I love the theory of one keeper per load. Brilliant because it feels true.

Thanks.

neopavlik said...

Nice pickup of the 1DsII.

I went to an exhibit that had excellent big prints (sharp details even under close scrutiny) and recognized the photographer's name.

I emailed him what he used and he mentioned a 1DsII so I've been waiting to get that ever since -- also longing for a Hasselblad 500 so I'm envious of your shooting options :)

ken said...

Exactly the reason I shoot four thirds. After 25 years w 6x7 couldn't deal with aps-c. FF when I need to go big but I usually crop.

Anonymous said...

I really like the passion that comes through in this post. I know the market drives so much but I still find it so frustrating that so much is given up along the way in the quest of what is perceived as progress.

Billy said...

I completely agree. I like wide angle but not on a 4/3 or 2/3 format. So I went and got a sweet Fuji gx617, shooting velvia in three 6x6 frames stitched together and been simply amazed by the tonality of the film versus digital sensors. So far i love the 3 to 1 aspect ratio and having a lot of fun seeing the world in a new aspect ratio.

Wally Brooks said...

Hurray for Film! Agree completely re Sony! The only thing keeping me shooting my D7000 is that I have always shot Nikon! Canon shooters probably keep their gear for the same reason- Its what we always have done! I can dump the glass for no loss sell the body, keep the flash and use in manual-something all storobists should know how to do- and pick up something like the Nex 7! Good to stir things up! I am not dumping my 4X5 Either!

Anonymous said...

"Only Spartan women give birth to real men." 300. Only medium format photographers give birth to real art...