5.11.2010

Flash back to the early part of this century. The long goodbye.

front porch

It's pretty easy to get typecast as a certain kind of photographer these days.  But recently we've been getting more and more jobs that require me to use some of the old skills.  This is from one of the last jobs I did almost completely with a 4x5 view camera.  And it wasn't that long ago.  I think it was 2004.  Camera:  Linhof Technica,  135mm Symmar lens,  Fuji 4x5 transparency film.  No lights.


I got a call from Michael Murphy who at the time was the photo editor for Texas Highways Magazine.  I'd done a piece for them about the little town of Boerne, Texas previously.  Mike must have liked the work because he invited me back to do a feature article on Elgin, Texas.   I read the writer's first draft to get an idea of what to cover and then I thru my camera gear in the car and headed down the road.

It was summertime so it was nice and hot and sticky just about every where I went.  I shot the rodeo one night and it was probably the only part of the job job I shot on 35 transparency film.  Everything else, from photos of people barbaque-ing to profile portraits I did on the big camera.

I can remember today driving slowly down the main street looking for just the right view of the historic buildings before parking the car and hauling out the battered Gitzo tripod and setting up the camera.  I'd look through a monocular viewing hood (like a modern Hoodman loupe only ten times bigger) then hoist the tripod over my shoulder and head in closer by ten feet or so and then look again.

When I found a composition I wanted I'd stand there in the heat, a little breeze flapping my shorts against my legs and jiggling the bellows, and focus my camera, mindful of the need to distribute the sharpness carefully.  Then I'd stop down and re-check focus at my taking aperture.  Usually f16 or f22.  Then I'd mosey back over to the car and pull a couple of film holders out of my Coleman cooler.  Didn't need Polaroid in direct sun.  It was always pretty much the same exposure parameters and the Texas Highways Budget wasn't rich.  I'd do a three sheet bracket:  1/2 a stop under, 1/2 a stop over, and one right on the money.  I used the shutter speeds to bracket.  Sometimes I'd use a China marker to write a note on the white space near the business end of the film holder but most times I just ran sheet film thru the lab at their normal settings.

Then I'd hoist the camera up over my shoulder and head back to the car.  I always took time to put the camera back in the case.  I'd hate to mess up a ground glass by having it rattling around exposed.

I don't remember the view camera being too difficult.  I'd worked with one since 1978, for a while almost daily, and I'd gone thru the routine thousands of times.  What I did like about the view camera is how it slowed everything down.  You spent a lot more time considering shots and then considering the best way to shoot something.  You almost never had difficulty editing down your take.....

And there was a lot to love.  Literally.  If you nailed focus and exposure you could do mind boogling enlargements in magazines and in the darkroom and you could crop till you were using a tiny quarter of the frame and still pull off a good image.  I used the view camera a lot for shooting flash outdoors.  With a nice 2000 watt pack and a convenient wall outlet you could almost work miracles.

And all the lenses sync'd at all the shutter speeds.  But the great thing about using a view camera was all the range of movements.  Tilts, shifts and swings on every standard.  Not just on the front standard like the TS lenses for Canon and Nikon.

The new digital cameras are fun but I think someone should hold a workshop to teach old view camera techniques.  We'd get together enough cameras for everyone in the class, put normal lenses on em and then head out and learn to use all the movements.  What a great way to learn theory and exposure.  Probably only want three people in a workshop as that's how many would fit in an Element besides the driver.  And it's a pretty good number for a nice, leisurely lunch.

Anyway, after we did this article the tide washed over us and we started having clients finally demand the new, free, immediate digital stuff.  Not better or worse, just different.

Still remember my first days with those old cameras.  That's back when no self respecting photographer had a fancy focusing hood---we just used black focusing clothes.  The real trick was---how long could you stand up on an August day in humid, 105 degree heat under a black cloth before the sweat rendered the controls uncontrollable and before you fell over...

20 comments:

alohadave said...

Kirk, that sounds like a great idea (the view camera class). I recently had the chance to look through a Mamiya 6x7 and it was a totally new experience. It almost felt like I was watching in 3D. I imagine that a view camera would be even more so.

Brent said...

I would love to attend a view camera class... pity I'm on the other end of the world.

Anonymous said...

I think you could do a class like that and charge something like $1200 for a weekend. With only three people it wouldn't be that profitable but it might be a lot of fun. Just make sure the people who sign up already know how to do regular photography.

steveH said...

Same here, but I'm on the wrong coast.

The first adjustable camera I owned was a 5x7 Seneca field view. Never did own or use an enlarger big enough for it, but contact prints were still moderately wonderful. That was 40 years ago.

Maybe it's time to get a 4x5 field camera and see how it goes. I could scan the negatives/tranparencies and slide it into my current workflow, even.

Mark Olwick said...

Ian Whitehead (Fine Art Photographer in Sedona AZ) already offers such a workshop. In fact since he still shoots primarily with LF film, any of his workshops will do that.

James Frederick Bland photography said...

I'd be happy to host a work shop for the true believers. I have several cameras and film, or you can come with your own. Fuji Quickloads are the most convenient as film, Velvia, Provia, or Sensia. Fuji Instant film is available for confirmations, it's about $40 a pack of 10.

Please contact me with your interest. I also have and use medium format film with Mamiya RZ 67, and use a digital back with both formats. Please let me know what you think is a fair price and how long (time) you'd like to go. Several reference book titles to share also.
Best Regards

Nathan said...

Kirk, we sure run with a bunch of the same people. I know/work with your MUA (Patricia). I know Michael through a photgrapher's meetup group. Small world.

AroundOmaha Photography said...

At one point I bought a wonderful old Wista 4x5 camera. Nearly every shot I took with it is a treasured memory, and I miss it to this day. I learned more in 6 months of shooting with this camera than at any other time. Tilts, swings the ultimate adjustability made me learn and consider the "shot" in ways that made my brain hurt. I almost started to resent the shoot, shoot, shoot mentality of my Nikon. Loading your own film sheets (in the dark), carrying a 15 pound rig into the field, setting up, figuring out the subject (focus plane) and tilt/swing, focus, loading the film. I had an exceptionally high keeper rate, probably over 90%. If I were shooting serious landscape, I'd probably still have a large format camera. Of course finding a place to develop color 4x5 film these days is an art unto itself. In spite of all that I think any serious photographer would benefit from even a week-end with these wonderful, cameras. I will never forgot that magic moment of taking out the dark slide and clicking that wonderful shutter.

Kirk Decker said...

I'll never get rid of my 8x10, and 4x5s. I may never use them again, but I'm not turning them loose either.

Kirk Decker said...

btw, Kirk. www.ShopGoodwill.com is a Goodwill auction site. They have a camera category, and there is always Olympus stuff on there. OM1s, rangefinders, and, today I noticed a 135 Zuiko.

John F. Opie said...

After having used large format on and off for years (largely 4x5) whenever I could get hold of some equipment, I've started using something designed for panoramas as an alternative large format, a Gigapan robotic tripod head.

Here's one of New York:

http://www.gigapan.org/gigapans/31353/

I'm still working on technique and no, you don't have any perspective controls. But in terms of sheer image quality, this does it for me. My plans are to use it like a view camera involves using a long telephoto lens (Leica APO Telyt-R 180 f3.4 via adapter on an Olympus E510) to work with the very small depth of field at f8 or so (best sharpness) to replicate, as it were, a relatively long large format lens. Of course, the subject matter must remain relatively still, bringing back the slower style needed by early portraitists...

Oh, and it does fairly magnificent panoramas as a side benefit. :-)

http://www.gigapan.org/gigapans/44622/

http://www.gigapan.org/gigapans/30178/

Alan Fairley said...

I loved shooting 4x5, ended up swapping my Calumet field for a Linhof Technica III on a monopod because I wanted more portability shooting urban street scenes. I could focus with the coupled rangefinder and compose with a wire sports finder. Great street shooter with the 150mm Symmar. I had to stop using it when I went back to school, it was $5 ever time I pressed the shutter between the color neg film, processing and a contact print, and later it got stolen, I still miss it. One of these days I'll scan my favorite negs and reprint. (I miss every piece of photo gear I've ever sold, but the large format stuff has a special place in my heart.)

craig said...

This post, and the earlier post about personality photographers really hit home for me. The other day, I watched another of the seemingly endless videos teaching how to control your automatic exposure camera and TTL flash to get the right balance. I don't have anything against auto-exposure, or TTL flash. But when I listen to the contortions people go through to trick the auto system, which was itself tricked by the scene..... well, wouldn't it be easier to just set the camera and flash manually?

In the video, the photographer was trying to balance flash with daylight. To pull it off, he ended up dialing in minus 2 to 3 stops of exposure compensation in the camera (just to get back to a sunny-16 base exposure) and then plus 2 to 3 stops in the flash compensation to get to a good flash exposure. And that, after a lot of trial and error and chimping. And he's the teacher!

It's hard for beginners to get their heads around why the camera misleads them, and then how to dial in an offset to adjust for it. My hypothisis is that it would be easier to learn just a few basics of exposure, and then set the camera and flash for what you want. Quick, done, get what you want.

Maybe it's fear of having to learn something they think will be hard that scares people off. If only they understood how hard they were working, just to avoid working a little.

kirk tuck said...

Craig, Thanks. You said that sooooo much better than I did. I love that last sentence.

AroundOmaha Photography said...

Kirk you inspired me. I'm out seriously shopping large format again. Probably not a 12 pound Wista rail camera this time though. Love the look of old Linhof Technika III or a nice Wista SP. Heck a nice setup on LF is cheaper than buying a Nikon 70-200mm VR lens and which one will I have get more hobby value from? (of course I already own an 80-200mm af-s so I'm cheating the question).

The other thing I want from LF is a different creative angle from the myriads of digital clones. Cool idea Kirk! Maybe I should rent the outfit once I've got it setup.

Robert said...

I am a fan of new creativity with old equipment. as oposed to someone elses ideas with new equipment. how many different times do we need to see a clasic story because the technology has changed.

I couldn't aford it but would love a view camera seminar.

Daniel said...

Craig and Kirk- I am fairly new to the "world" of Photography..that is getting to know my cameras and to use them properly.

Yes, my cameras are digital...but Im 35 and on a huge learning curve. And digital gives me opportunity to learn quickly. I am not scared of working or failing even. It's just hard sometimes to find someone that will take the time to teach you without constantly reaching into your back pocket. What ever happened to mentoring? The joy of teaching can be enough at times...This is how I reinforced my Calculus skills.

Until I can find someone to help teach me the nuances that I have yet to learn I will just have to read yours and others books. (Just bought your minimalist lighting the Location one).

Paulo Rodrigues said...

Kirk perhaps you could run that class when you come to the UK. :)

BTW shooting 4x5 doesn't mean you have to shoot film. I know someone who shoots 4x5 with a digital back in the studio. Its not full frame though.

Bold Photography said...

There's a side effect of this (pushing people to the 3:2 aspect ratio) ... all the paper in every store is either 4x6 or 8.5x11 .... HUH? Same aspect ratio as a 3:2 sensor... but no 8x10 paper unless you specifically ask for it. Wally world, Staples, Office Depot/max, Target, etc., all dropped 8x10 paper support.

The sad thing is -- there are no frames designed for 8.5x11 prints!!!

roteague said...

You bring up quite a few gems here..

....

I still use a 4x5 on a weekly basis; in fact, I can't see using anything else for the majority of my work (although I do shoot a bit of 35mm on occasion).

Thanks for the thoughts, and thanks for sharing.