Allen Murabayashi of PhotoShelter recently put together an entertaining blog post entitled 17 Signs That You Were Alive Before Digital Photography. In the post he showed a slew of film-era relics like the disc camera, flash cubes and a split image focusing screen. Perhaps I'm showing my age, but I remember, and I used, all 17 items on the list. The lead entry was a stack of 4 x 5 film holders. Not only did I use 4 x 5 film holders, I resolutely hold onto my collection of them. I haven't shot film in years, so why am I so emotionally attached to my film holders?
In a frenetic, splintered, Tweet, Text and Instagram world, I, like many, crave the prospect of slowing down from time to time. Being out in nature with my 4 x 5 was a very contemplative experience. If you've never done it, the process of shooting large-format film involved a lot of steps and none were fast. Here's a not-so-brief run through how I worked:
After identifying a possible photo, set up the tripod (a heavy wooden one) and spend a few minutes with my chin resting on the tripod head to get a rough feel for where I'd want to position the rig.
Then I'd open up my Wista 4 x 5 field camera and attach a lens to the front standard.
Next I'd mount the camera to the tripod head, and pull a dark cloth--usually just my jacket or sweater--over my head to see the image on the ground glass. Yes, the image was upside down and backwards on the ground glass, but I found that to be more of a benefit than a distraction. You can see a good composition easier when you're looking at it that way and you're not distracted by reality.
I got pretty good at estimating the proper exposure, but I also confirmed it with a handheld 1-degree spotmeter.
With the exposure confirmed, I'd pull out a loupe and slowly stop down the aperture while looking for vignetting and confirming depth of field.
Once I was set, it was time to close and cock the shutter and attach the cable release.
Almost ready to shoot.
The next step actually began the night before....in my living room. And this is what brings me back to Allen Murabayashi's blog post..the night before was when I loaded my film holders.
Any large-format photographer will tell you that sheet film holders are precious and finicky items. Before loading them up with film, I'd give each one a full inspection, looking for dust, grit or any other contaminants that could scratch the film or contribute to light leaks. Each holder would get a few blasts of compressed air and brushed with a fine-bristled brush.
There's a zen to dealing with sheet film. You create a standard, methodical way of doing it and you don't deviate from that method. Once the film holders are loaded, you don't want to have any question about what's in each holder and if it's been exposed. I would set up my changing tent (like a changing bag, but with dome-tent like structure for a more comfortable workspace) then set each empty film holder in the tent on the left side. Each holder, having been thoroughly cleaned and inspected, would have the dark slide pulled half-way out with the white tab facing outward on both sides. This was critical to keeping track of unexposed sheets of film. Next, I'd cut the seals on the box of film and place it in the middle of the changing tent floor.
From here, everything is done in the dark. The changing tent can have light leaks and since you can't see what you're doing anyway, having lights on in the room serves no constructive purpose. Hands clean, I'd slide my arms into the changing tent sleeves, feel for the holders and the box of film and get to work. Open the box...tear open the inner bag..feel for the notch code with my right index finger to ensure that the film is being loaded emulsion-side out...take the first holder and place it in the middle of the tent floor...slide the film out of the package and carefully into the holder...make sure it doesn't catch on the dark slide indicating a cockeyed load...fold the bottom of the holder up....slide the dark slide all the way down and confirm that it has locked into the bottom of the holder...slide the wire catch over the top of the dark slide so it can't accidentally slide back up....turn the holder over and repeat with side B. When both sides of the holder are loaded, place the holder on the right side of the tent. Reach back to the empty stack of holders on the left and proceed to load the net holder. A box of 10 sheets would take me about 20 minutes assuming the holders were all in good shape.
That's how I would hit the field...with a rosewood camera, an ash wood tripod and a bag of film holders. I own 20 holders but I'd almost never go into the field with more than five at a time--10 sheets total loaded. Fred Picker, the founder of Zone Six Studios in Vermont used to say that you can't be too healthy, too rich or have too many film holders. I'd be out in the field, with a total of 10 frames available to me. Think about that for a moment. Just 10 frames. Before using one, I'd carefully consider whether the scene in front of me was worth one of those precious sheets.
So, back to taking the photograph...With the camera set up, lens stopped down, shutter cocked and ready, it was tim to load the back. I'd reach into the bag, remove one of my holders, confirm that it was unexposed (white tab out) and slide it carefully into the camera back. You have to be sure it's seated properly at this point or you'll just get fogged film instead of a photograph. One more check to be sure that the shutter is closed and cocked before sliding the dark slide all the way out of the holder. Cable release ready...and...click. That's it. The latent image was now safely ensconced in an emulsion of silver -halide and gelatin. Turn the dark slide over and replace it in the holder with the black tab facing out (exposed). Remove the holder and note whether the sheet inside required any special handling and that's it. Holder went back in the bag...camera disassembled...pickup and move on. Nine more possible photos for the day. Considering just the mechanics that went into any given large format photo, is it any wonder why each exposure would take some careful consideration before committing a sheet of film?
All of this is a far cry from being able to shoot thousands of photos on a single flash memory card with a handheld camera. But which is better? Which is more conducive to creative photography?
Here's the thing...As I said, I am emotionally attached to my film holders and my large-format camera rig and I do miss the contemplative nature of working with my 4 x 5, BUT when I look at my photos from that period, I find them to be much more static and less interesting then my more recent DSLR photographs. Some people say that they like to use a DSLR in the same way that they used a large-format camera. This doesn't work for me. It's like trying to use a sports car as a motorhome. The DSLR naturally lends itself to a particular way of looking through and moving the camera as I compose, explore a scene and shoot. I will set up a DSLR on a tripod when I have to, but even then, I find that I move the tripod around a lot more than I moved a view camera. Everything is much faster with a DSLR and although I miss the slower process of the 4 x 5, there's no question that my nature photography has benefitted from speeding up with my DSLR.