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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Get 4x5 Quality With A DSLR

Using a stitch-together method, you can get a large-format look from your regular digital camera

This Article Features Photo Zoom

The 4x5 view camera was, for many years, the tool of choice for many landscape photographers. Its large negative offered unparalleled resolution and the ability to make extremely large prints that were tack-sharp. As digital cameras have taken over, 4x5s have been steadily fading from mainstream photography, but if you’re looking for that 4x5 extreme resolution, you can use a modern D-SLR and re-create it. This image was composited from three RAW files that were captured with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera. The final image is capable of huge enlargements that are razor-sharp.
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III

For almost 20 years as a professional photographer, I’ve shot with large- and medium-format film cameras. Then, five years ago, I purchased my first digital camera, a Canon EOS-1Ds, and gave up film altogether. While I loved all the advantages of shooting with a digital camera, and I was okay with the camera replacing the quality I used to get from my 645 medium-format camera, at times I missed the sharp detail I achieved with my 4x5.

About two years ago, things changed. With the advent of automated photo-stitching software, which first appeared in Photoshop CS3 and other programs, I now use a technique that stitches three digital vertical images together to create a horizontal image, or three horizontals to get a vertical image, the size of which rivals 4x5 resolution. Photoshop does an amazing job at easily stitching these images. Typical stitched file sizes converted to 8-bit range from 110 MB to over 150 MB from my Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III camera. I know that from a pixel-peeping point of view, I can get more resolution from a drum-scanned 4x5 transparency, but what I’m excited about are the results I can see in an actual print. In comparing large prints, the sharpness of the three stitched images is every bit as good, if not better, than a scanned 4x5. Now, of course, there are other qualities in a print besides sharpness, and it wouldn’t be hard to imagine someone liking the “look” of a 4x5 print better, but if you’re looking for that sharp, almost 3-D type of “pop” that a large-format film or medium-format digital-back file can achieve, I think you’ll be very pleased with the three-stitch file.

Capturing a scene using the three-file method works for about 70% of the landscape and floral images I typically shoot, but two circumstances can cause me to forgo the attempt. One occurs when there’s motion that causes elements such as leaves or other objects to move from one exposure to the next, making it difficult for Photoshop to match up. However, I can sometimes compensate for this by manipulation in Photoshop. A more serious problem occurs when a scene I’m shooting is changing rapidly as does, for example, one with moving people or ocean waves. At times like these, I find it almost impossible to set up a three-image capture.

All of the photographs on these pages were built by stitching together several original images. The stitching process is most effective when you selectively mask and combine specific components of the captured images. To make the job as easy as possible, it’s necessary to keep the camera level across each capture. Levelers like the one on the opposite page are ideal tools for this technique.

Recently, because of my absolute devotion to producing a sharp, detailed print, I considered purchasing a 39-megapixel digital back for a medium-format camera. I even had a representative from the manufacturer come to my office with the camera, and we spent a few hours taking sample images. After he left, I felt certain I was going to purchase this camera. However since this was such an expensive acquisition, I decided to compare a file we shot that day with a three-stitched image from my Canon.


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