|Bristlecone Pine Forest, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, Calif. This image was shot with the full moon providing the main illumination and starlight providing background. Dykinga used ISO 1600 on the Nikon D3 and a 24mm Nikkor PC. The result is a composite of five images.|
Jack Dykinga doesn’t treat his newest camera as a state secret, although it would be understandable if he did. After all, he calls it a “secret large-format camera.” And it’s made by Nikon. No, Dykinga doesn’t literally have a Nikon view camera. What he has are the same D3 and D3X as many other professional photographers. But through his ingenuity, Dykinga has developed a technique that he says rivals the results he long has achieved with 4x5 film. That’s especially remarkable coming from someone who practically swore off digital cameras.
“My issue with digital in the past,” Dykinga explains, “has always been that I’m going to stay with film until digital is better, or equal. And what’s happened now is that equalization. When you do three across, when I get that file size bumping into 300-plus megabytes, then I’ve got to ask myself. I’ve already made prints for a show at Mountain Light Gallery, of bristlecone pines at starlight, a 24x30 print, and you’d be really hard pressed to tell the difference between that and all the 4x5 shots hanging next to it. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Atacama Desert, Valle de la Luna, Chile. The final image was created from 12 images shot vertically that were stitched together.
Reinvention and transformation are nothing new to Dykinga, who began his career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist for the Chicago Sun-Times. The next phase of life saw him working almost exclusively with 4x5 transparency film, shooting landscapes in the tradition of Ansel Adams for publications such as National Geographic, Arizona Highways and Outdoor Photographer. That conservationist photographer phase really made Dykinga famous, especially to OP readers and especially because of his work with large format. So it may come as a surprise to many that he has all but retired his view camera. That he has done it in favor of working with a DSLR is even more surprising.
“The ‘why’ is Nikon’s 24-megapixel camera,” he says, “combined with tilt-shift lenses for a seamless stitch, getting me into the 300-megabyte range—which is a pretty good file size. Considering that none of that information is wasted on grain, it’s a lot of bang for your buck.”
Horseshoe Bend, near Page, Ariz.—A composite of five images.
It’s thanks to these DSLR advances—massive resolution, low noise at high-ISO sensitivities and phenomenal optics—that Dykinga was able to even consider setting aside his 4x5, but the technical qualities of the equipment are only part of the equation. The remainder comes from the photographer’s knack for building a better mousetrap, which he has done to re-create the resolution of a 4x5 film image by stitching multiple digital captures together. Stitching is nothing new, but Dykinga’s technique is unique. He’s not just stitching to create high-resolution or panoramic images; he’s stitching to more accurately mimic large-format photography. He relies on perspective-control lenses to laterally move the image-to-sensor relationship without ever changing the camera position or the plane of focus. This makes use of the entire circle of light that a lens provides, turning a 35mm-sized sensor into something akin to medium format.
Laguna Amarga, Patagonia, Chile—Five images across stitched together; the 24mm Nikkor PC was slightly tilted.
“I’m maximizing the image circle,” Dykinga explains. “Nikon’s perspective-control lenses are like medium-format lenses in their scope of coverage. All I’m doing is moving the sensor around to capture all that the lens can provide. I take a picture and shift, take a picture and shift, in a very fast time—six seconds real time. I shift the lens to one side to check the corner on one side of the composition and then take it across to the other side. In Live View, I watch it and make sure I’ve got a really nicely composed image, and then I just maneuver the adjustment knobs and shoot with considerable overlap. Three frames across for each vertical. And, of course, therein is the seamlessness of it.”
Lago Grey, Patagonia, Chile
—Calved icebergs and small ice formations on shore with lenticular clouds; five images across, stitched together.
Dykinga usually makes five or six exposures, with the camera oriented vertically, to create a horizontal finished image. “That, coincidentally, comes out to almost a 4x5 ratio when I’m using either the 45mm, the 24mm or the 85mm PC [perspective-control] lenses,” he says. “And besides those, I’m mixing and matching, doing whatever the subject demands. Some of them I’ve gone as far as 17 across, and actually rotating the camera, producing these really wide panoramas.”
Dykinga’s technique should be familiar to large-format photographers because he’s essentially applying the same techniques he has refined over years of working with a 4x5 view camera. He composes in much the same way, and he can even tilt the lens to move the plane of focus for near-far compositional effects.
“It’s like a secret large-format camera,” he says. “I actually can previsualize pretty well. Maybe that’s part of the secret—my background as a 4x5 photographer. I compose on the corners. So I would do the left side and then the right side and just keep moving it back and forth with the lens’ adjustment controls until I get what I think is going to be right, and then when the light is great I just blaze away. Sometimes I may have to tighten it up in cropping, but not often. I’m actually able to hit it pretty much most of the time.”
Working as he does within a single focal plane, Dykinga is able to alleviate any need to move the camera and risk misaligned images and poor composites. It also means he can work really fast. So even though he’s making multiple exposures, it’s often much faster than a single long exposure with his 4x5 would be. This has caused him to reflect on the philosophical conceit of which moment is “more real.”
“That was always my argument in the past with film,” Dykinga says. “Film was going to be the pure one and get me the single moment. Well, the trouble is, it sort of falls on its nose when you figure you’re making a 15-second exposure. If I’m making a 15-second exposure and I can do the same shot with five images in six seconds on my Nikon, then that point becomes moot.
“People are still using the nodal point and the shift up and down in layers,” he continues. “It seems like it’s an exercise in superb engineering. The engineers are doing that, but it has very little practical use. Whereas this, if I can beat my time with a cable release, then it’s actually going to be a beautiful image, an exact rendering of what I was after, and I can also compose it very accurately. It’s really not that hard.”
Dykinga says the Photomerge tool within Photoshop makes the compositing very straightforward, nothing fancy. The key is staying within the same optical plane for all of the exposures. And that’s not the only benefit he gets from working with a lens with movements. Tilting the lens for near-far focusing also compensates for the smaller format’s inherently shallower depth of field when compared to 4x5.
Dykinga still picks up the 4x5 view camera on occasion, but typically only for fine-art work. While he’s gravitating increasingly toward his “secret” Nikon large format, he knows it isn’t truly as versatile as an actual view camera. But it makes for an impressive setup.
“It allows me to do the movements of a 4x5,” he says. “Not all, not quite—the infinite aspect of perspective control still makes the 4x5 very desirable. You can do a combination of two movements. But what it’s allowing me to do is produce a file size that’s very competitive now, and it’s moving in on medium-format digital. Those are 65-megapixel cameras, and if you have a 25-megapixel sensor and you’re moving it across with five exposures and maybe you have an overlap of a certain amount, you’re probably doing about two and a half times that. So you’re in the 65 MB range. It’s not 16-bit, but it’s pretty good. And it’s very versatile.”
Versatility is a very practical consideration for a photographer these days. Not only is traveling internationally ever more difficult with film and quantities of larger and heavier equipment, but the infrastructure that for years made large-format film the professional option has shifted considerably toward the digital realm. When your images are all about quality, those practical concerns become game-changers.
“It’s multifaceted,” Dykinga explains. “It seems like the labs are disappearing. And film availability is sometimes scarce. But I still continue to use film and my 4x5. If I’ve got a scene that I know is really going to go right to fine art, I’ll pretty much revert to film. So I’m still kind of juggling and marrying the two.”
The other concern Dykinga has with his new approach is technical, and decidedly digital. It comes by way of color fringing at the edges of the image due to the extremes to which he’s pushing his lenses. It has both a digital cause and a digital solution.
“Fringing is important,” he says. “Basically, the glass isn’t rendering all of the colors exactly the same. When the angle is bending the light way out at the edge of the frame is where it’s most noticeable. So when you pull the image out of the raw processor, you’d better address the fringing—especially these wide angles that have huge image circles. When you approach the edge of the circle, you’re almost assuredly getting red, green and yellow blue fringing going on. With these smaller-format cameras, it can be the difference between a sharp picture and a not-sharp picture.”
Most of the changes Dykinga has seen from his new approach have been quite beneficial. He even has begun to notice aesthetic changes that have followed the technique—things he always dreamed about with 4x5, but only now can he achieve.
“One of the things I find is that with 4x5 you’re sort of gravitating to shorter lenses and wide-angle approaches,” he explains. “And a lot of these pictures—the cactus, the desert, the Namibian sand dunes—these are all telephoto shots. It’s a good mixture, but what I find myself doing are these very wide panoramas with telephoto lenses, which allow me to bring up that background and get that effect I’ve always yearned to do with a 4x5. To do that with a 4x5, I would have to be using a 1200mm lens and a tripod and several Sherpas to carry it all.
“Some of the panorama shots,” Dykinga continues, “they’re shot with telephoto lenses, and a lot of those aren’t that sharp until you get down to about ƒ/13. Quality is always the driving force. Unlike wildlife or people, when you can actually shoot wide open because you’re going after that moment, you’ve got no excuse with landscape photography. You want maximum quality. That’s probably the original reason for going to this—to supply maximum quality.”
To see more of Jack Dykinga’s photography, visit www.dykinga.com.