The Rectangle Period. And general thoughts about photography.

There was a period, back in the early 1990's, when I veered from the true path of the square format and flirted with several medium format cameras that "featured" different aspect ratios. Of the handful that I tried I think my most successful affair de camera was with the Pentax 6x7. The value proposition over the traditional Hasselblad and Rollei squares was twofold: The extra centimeter of film, printed on a rectangular piece of paper gave one XX% more resolution and, the camera and its lenses sold for much less than its European counterparts.

If you haven't used a Pentax 67 let me describe it for you.  The 6x7 centimeter format writes to film that runs horizontally through the camera like 35mm film. The camera is set up like a 35mm DSLR on super steriods. It's bigger, by far, in every dimension. And it's painfully heavy.

The camera usually came with an eye level prism finder which was available as a metered or non-metered prism. My biggest gripe with the Pentax 67 was the fact that the viewfinder covers less than 88% of the actual frame.  Since the mirror was huge and the shutter curtains equally enormous every frame required lots of mass to go flying around inside the camera. The noise would make digital-only camera users gasp and the recoil of the mirror slap was enough to cause a concussion if held to tightly against one's head.

The way most people I know used the camera was to put it on a tripod, compose, focus and then hit the mirror lock up button, wait for the internal chaos to calm down and then trip the shutter. In many ways this made the Pentax 67 more like a view camera than a handheld camera. And it was equally slow to load. 

A roll of 120 film would give you 10 exposures. To load the camera you opened the huge back and swung it to the right. Then you pushed a button to release the empty film spindle on the left and moved it into the spindle holder on the right. Next you would insert a new roll of film into the left chamber, lock it into place and then pull the paper leader over to the empty, right hand spindle and insert the leading edge of the paper into the slot on the plastic spindle on the right hand side.

In my experience the paper would slip out two out of every three times I tried to wind it on prior to closing the back.  Once I got the film to "lock on" and wind properly I could close the back and wind the film advance lever until the camera stopped itself--ready at frame one.  Ten frames later you'd go through the whole process again. This made the camera a really piss poor tool for high frame rate studio portraiture....but it sure trained you to be frugal with your frames...

The usual solution for studio shooters was to buy two or three additional bodies, since they were relatively cheap, and then interchange cameras while shooting fast. Assistants hated working with these cameras because of how fiddly they were to load and how quickly their photographers could go through ten frames.

The camera was a decent studio performer since the lenses were pretty uniformly sharp and contrasty. The big negative with its plethora of surface area silver was also a big plus; clients loved seeing the bigger images on light boxes. The biggest downside of the camera was the slow sync speed. The camera was limited to a 1/30th of a second sync speed. You really had to be careful when shooting flash in brightly lit environments because you ran the risk of color contamination from sources other than your primary light source.

So, why did we use them? Because they were optically good and a whole set up with a good lens cost less than a bare Hasselblad body at the time.

For a working photographer some of the cost savings was offset by the fact that Pentax offered no Polaroid back for the camera. Camera repair wiz, Marty Forscher, made an after market back for the camera but it required the back to be replaced with the Polaroid back = Permanently.  So one dedicated one body just for proofing.  And that meant that the Polaroid back couldn't be used as a way of testing all your different backs for technical issues when out in the world shooting.

Eventually I got tired and bored carrying around a bag with three shooting bodies and one proofing body and all the assorted hardware that goes with them. I switched to the Hasselblad system and bought a bunch of film backs instead. The silver lining to my short tenure with the big rectangle was the fact that prices rose quickly during my time of ownership and I was able to move the whole system on to the next brave photographer for about what I paid in the first place.

What does this have to do with today's world of digital photography? Nothing. But I do have to think that we were willing to go much further in our pursuit of a good image in those days. Not out of some superiority of character but out of sheer necessity.

On a personal note:  I feel oddly unmoved by any of the new cameras that have come onto the market so far this year. Not sure why. I was sitting in the orchestra seats shooting Pagliacci for the Austin Lyric Opera when I came to the conclusion that I had all the camera and lens I needed right there in my hands. If I had used full frame sensor I would have needed a fast 300mm lens with all the cost and handling considerations that would come with it. When I shot portraits yesterday I realized that using ISO 50 or 64 was giving me an amazing dynamic range that yielded great skin tones and good detail with lots and lots of dynamic range and no noise. 

My local camera store called to let me know they had reserved a Sony a99 camera for me but rather than jump up from my computer and rush to the store I yawned and took a nap. The camera will be in stock if I need it. The panic buying of newly introduced camera gear seems to have abated or the makers have become better at filling the inventories on first launch. In the past we rushed to buy the new cameras because we felt that we were keenly aware of some real shortcoming in our current cameras that desperately needed fixing. Now we're just looking with mild curiosity at some outlier specs.

If you were working with a Nikon D2X when the Nikon D700 came out you couldn't get to the store quick enough because, for the first time in Nikon digital history you'd be able to shoot both full frame and high ISO. It was heady to go from shooting at ISO 200 and under to being able to crank up the ISO to 1600 or even 3200 without undo anxiety.  

If you worked with a Canon EOS 5D the introduction of the 5D mk2 bought you a doubling of resolution and a much more solid platform. Of course you'd rush to get that!

But the difference between the 5D2 and the 5d3 for most of us? Not so much.

In fact, all the cameras introduced in the pro, semi-pro and advanced amateur segments of the market in the last year or three are more than adequate for almost any kind of commercial photography. Buying more camera is an exercise in buying into a small percentage of improvement that may be more about bragging rights and working at the bleeding edge than any real need to deliver work that pleases clients.

Some of my peers are upgrading from 5d2s to 5d3s but not because they need some incremental improvement in image quality; most of them are just refreshing. Getting rid of bodies that have 80 or 90 thousand clicks on shutters that are rated to 150,000 actuations. Turning over inventory before they reach the troublesome zone. Reloading the tax break for depreciation.  But none of them have come back and gushed over any sort of performance improvements.  A few people mention better autofocus but that usually leads to a rejoinder from my friends who shoot architecture and still life: "You mean these cameras have autofocus???"

In the Nikon camp there are probably not many who were unhappy with the performance of their Nikon D3X cameras. If they buy D800's it's probably because of the price point.

There will always be new people coming into the market and they'll be excited about the new offerings. There will always be techno-amateurs and they will always wait with cortisol-laden-adrenaline-laced breath for the latest and greatest technical achievements. But in the realm of diligent image makers and people who charge for their work, it seems like we're entering a period of calming equalibrium. Cameras that work well and exceed need. The prices will drop, the AF will get faster and more flexible, but the IQ is already so usable.

If you buy a new camera to replace a pro camera bought in the last year you are buying it because it has more fur-lined cup holders or built-in grip warmers or some such thing. How do I know this? Because I'm as big a new camera freak as you'll meet and I feel a sense of camera buying calm I haven't felt since the days of mature film cameras.

What am I buying these days? More great photo books. I just bought a hardback edition of Josef Koudelka's Gypsies, and I have a whole list of similar classics for my collection of 20th century masters. Funny thing, while most of our miracle digital cameras depreciate in value the minute we unbox them most of the photo books I've bought in the last twenty years have sky-rocketed in value while consistently delivering real value to me in terms of joy and inspiration.  Long after the gleam and white hot desire for the turboflex 2013 wears off I'll still be sitting down in a comfy chair browsing through a book of Elliott Erwitt images or Diane Arbus one frame dramas. And I'll find some new resonance in them every time I return to them.

What else am I buying these days? Experiences. For every day that I ignore the march of progress  in the consumer camera space I wind up with more energy to go out and look. And by looking distill down what it is I want to see and then what I want to make into my own art.

As the camera itself recedes the subjects come into clearer focus. And isn't that what we really wanted when we started this journey?

Hope you're having a fab week. We're trying to wrap our brains around all this Formula One stuff here in the center of the universe....


Craig said...

I used to own a Pentax 67. I think your assessment is pretty much spot-on -- the lenses were excellent, but the body was overly heavy, the noise and recoil were excessive, the 85% viewfinder coverage (for the metered prism) was inadequate, and getting film to load properly was trickier than it should have been. Add to that the fact that ten 6x7 frames do not fit onto a single 8x10" contact sheet, whereas 12 6x6 frames do.

There was also the claim that 6x7 was the "ideal" aspect ratio because you could crop it to either a square or a 4:5 rectangle with minimal loss. This is true, but I don't really want a format that requires cropping for almost any use you might put it to. If I want squares, I shoot 6x6; if I want rectangles, I shoot something else. 6x7, as a non-cropped format in itself, does not particularly appeal to me. It's not a square, but it's too close to a square to make an interesting rectangle.

Anonymous said...

The big negative was a big plus?......made me laugh, love it.

Mike said...

It is interesting that despite all the issues with weight/vibration/no interchangeable backs, the Pentax 67 was very, very popular with fashion photographers. Mario Testino, Bruce Weber, Peter Lindbergh, Patrick Demarchelier, and Michael Thompson all shot with them.

And note, there are a couple Pentax 67 lenses with leaf shutters which helps with the flash sync issue.

Those cameras are a blast. When you fire one, it feels like shooting a gun. If I had a crew to help, I'd be shooting with one all the time.

AdamR said...

Regarding your comment about photo books, that's the way I've been leaning recently too. I almost pulled the trigger on the Avedon book you talked about the other day and I think might actually do it today.

For me the novelty or a new gadget (even a new camera) wears off within a week or two, the photo books I've bought are a source of renewed inspiration each time I pick them up.


Anonymous said...

I heard from the assistant of one of those photographers you mentioned about shooting with those cameras. The photographer had eight bodies and eight identical lenses and his staff loaded them with 220 film frantically (20 exposures) non-stop while he shot and rotated through them.

Kirk Tuck said...

I've regretted half the cameras I've ever bought. I've never regretted buying an art book. Ever.

Patrick Larson said...

I bought my first photo book a few months ago. The Sound of Austin (a coffee table book about Austin and its musicians). Mathew Sturtevant. It's excellent.

Mike said...

I would love to be headed your way for some Formula 1 goodness. Hopefully you guys won't be too overrun.

Kirk Tuck said...

Just imagine 300,000 people in a small downtown who all want to go to the same 12 restaurants.....and want to drive there and park there too...

Dave Jenkins said...

I owned a Pentax 6x7 for about 20 years, and while other medium format systems (Bronica EC, Hasselblad, Mamiya RB67, Mamiya 6, Fuji GX680) came and went, the Pentax stayed. It gave me the highest percentage of keepers of any camera I've ever owned, which is not surprising, considering the cost per frame. I did much more thinking about what I was doing than I do with digital, unfortunately.

As for weight -- one day around 1990, the photographer with whom I shared studio space walked in with a brand new Nikon F4. I hefted it with its standard lens, said "hmmm," and placed it on our UPS scale. Then I did the same with my Pentax 6x7 with the 105mm standard lens. They weighed exactly the same. I decided that it would be a very cold day in a very hot place before I would pack that kind of weight to shoot a 35mm frame. But for a 6x7 frame, I would happily do it.

I also found it to be quite good for hand-held shooting. Much better than all the noise would lead one to expect, even at 1/60th second.

I wish I had never sold the Pentax. Of all the cameras I've owned in a long career, that one is the one I most regret selling.

Mike said...

At an Adorama street fair over the summer, they set up a Pentax 67 with the 600mm lens on a tripod. Crazy stuff. Just tripping the shutter was fun.

Anonymous said...

Buck Lovell used a Pentax 67. His work was used for editorial, posters and calendars, mostly motorcycles, cars and nature. It produced great looking chromes.

Almost any modern camera is good enough for magazine work, both editorial and advertising.

Full Frame + 300mm f/2.8 = back trouble as you get older.


John F. Opie said...

I still own mine. I wanted a P67 ever since my father bought the Yoshikazu Shirakawa book "Himalaya" and there came a point in my life where I had $3500 to spend back. Went to both B+H and Adorama to get everything: body, meterless prism, waist-level finder, 45, 105 and 300 lenses, along with a 2x extender.

My other MF were a brace of 'blads when I was doing weddings back in the late 1970s (leased and went when I sold the business), then Fuji rangefinders (first a GS645S Pro 60, then a GW670 and finally a GSW690III). I had largely decided to give up 35 at that point in time because of enlargement issues, moving to MF for the quality. The Fujis were a huge challenge because of the lack of interchangeable lenses (I owned them serially, not parallel), but it really forced me to work at getting the photo I wanted, which was largely landscape work. After over 6 years with the GSW690II I sold it for more than I paid for it (yay!) and went Pentax for two reasons: a) I had the money and b) interchangeable lenses rock. :-)

I still have it because...I missed the window for selling it when I could get something for it. Laziness, really.

Now the films I used are all gone save Tri-X. Tri-X, pushed to 800 in Rodinal 1:50 for 18 minutes, used for street photography back in my New York days. 45, lens hood, meterless prism, wooden hand grip...sigh.

Never really had problems loading the camera and could do it under 30 seconds. I can still remember the different tastes of the glue for the exposed film for different brands...minty Agfa. Learned really how to make that camera sing, but my how time passes, and where I live I can't even get 120 film developed any more except via the pro labs with a minimum of 20 rolls of one type of film.

So the camera sleeps, with the battery removed, in a f64 backpack with the lenses, filters and everything else associated...

Oh, and it was greatly beloved of fashion photographers in Paris for location shots. Only time I ever saw a 600 in the real world. Complete with bodyguard. :-)

Anonymous said...

Read this post a couple of hours ago, then by chance went to a site listing camera deals. Serendipity hits, for the small sum of $17,500 US dollars you can again experience the rectangle moments in digital.

"Wednesday, November 14, 2012
In-stock: Mamiya 33mp camera kit with 80mm lens for $17,500

And now a rare in-stock alert of interest to medium format photographers! The Mamiya 33mp camera kit (645DF camera and Mamiya Leaf Aptus-II 33 digital back and Mamiya Sekor 80mm f2.8 LS D lens) is in-stock for $17,500 with free shipping at B&H Photo.

** prices and availability are as of the date shown below

** posted at Nov 14, 2012 12:55:15 PM pacific time

** categories: medium format, now shipping "

Neal said...

I can't imagine shooting in portrait orientation with a P67.. must wreak havoc on your wrists and forearms after a while, (unless on a tripod.) I have a Mamiya RB67 ProSD which features a rotating back, easy peasy.

There is a new camera out this year that I am taken by. the Rolleiflex 2.8 FX-N - looks to be gorgeous, but alas it's out of my price range.

Clay Olmstead said...

Beware the unsquare:


Jim Simmons said...

I really enjoy your blog, Kirk. Been reading it a long time, but this is my first comment. I still shoot a Pentax 67. Architecture only, on a tripod. Acros at ISO 80 processed in my big Jobo ATL for architectural conservation work and Astia (fridge full of it) for editorial. Mostly interiors, as I shoot the Arca Swiss for exteriors (6x7 back unless the job warrants full 4x5). If this is what I did full time, I'd have switched to digital, but it's only a few jobs a year. I love the results and the process of using the P67 (yes, it is like shooting a view camera), and my architect clients actually like that they're getting old school craftsmanship in this day and age.

Peter Rees said...

That Koudelka book is really something, isn't it? Inky ...

Carlo Santin said...

I've always been tempted to buy a Mamiya or Pentax outfit but shied away from the bulk of them. Earlier this year I picked up a Yashica 24 TLR instead, dirt cheap. The camera is very light and easy to carry around with a shoulder strap and pretty fun to use. I really love waist-level shooting and prefer it over eye-level, so I'm looking for a digital camera with a folding screen. The little Nikon P7100 is giving me lots of satisfaction at the moment and I'm in no hurry to purchase a new digital cam until I've sorted out my folding screen options...for the price the Sony A57 seems nice and I really liked the one I tried. So many good cameras to choose from these days.

Dave Jenkins said...

Although I started out doing architectural photography with 4x5 in the '70s and '80s, by the mid-'90s I was mostly using a Pentax 6x7 with the 45mm lens. I had a grid screen installed in my camera, and it was a really sweet combination. I loved Astia. Just the loveliest E-6 film ever, IMO.

Mike said...

Touche. I just want to see the race, but I guess I would have to eat and sleep somewhere. Hey, just think, it will be a much more diverse crowd than a NASCAR event.

jason gold said...

So many comments here with almost same conclusions.. The Pentax 6x7,67 camera is till great. Wonderful lenses, wonderful feel, wonder how anyone could carry 3? You are one strong man Kirk! My gripes were poor viewfinder, not 100% or even close. Needing extra depth of field and NO movements like a real view camera. Whadda ya mean no f32,f64?
Want a thrill, take off lens ,face mirror, release shutter. Best done on tripod, due to Hurricane "Sunrise" wind blast.Asahi=Sunrise.Hated the rectangle, couldn't print all negs on 1/ONE page of 8x10". Problems with "pro" labs.
Best moment with Pentax after 20+ years.. trading it at a good price with everything, for a Leica M6TTL, black,new plus grip. Shot more exposures in 3 months than last 15 years with the elephant.
In spite of all negative comments,about the Pentax loading, loading a Hasselblad magazine, would be considered an unusual punishment in most cultures..Sure the Zeiss lenses are great, the camera, unlike Pentax, is too complicated.
My Medium format is a Rollei. Automat. Tessar. Small light, loads itself..

Kirk Tuck said...

"NO Movements like a real view camera" ????? Really? You were expecting movements in a medium format camera? You must have thought it was a Fuji....

And be honest, loading a Hasselblad is easier than a Pentax 67.

Gordon McGregor said...

maybe the digital technologies are finally starting to mature. Perhaps we can start worrying about taking good pictures again?