Old World Charm

Fine-art photographer Ben Ham merges the best of a film-based process with the best of a digital process to create the quiet beauty of his nature images

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Photographer Ben Ham’s image “Dream Lake.” Ham uses large-format 8×10 cameras and lenses to produce larger-than-life, black-and-white images, which he then tones and prints through sophisticated digital means. It’s a marriage of old-world aesthetics and modern-day methods.

Ben Ham makes his way over a craggy landscape wielding a huge bellowed camera and an equally impressive tripod. He’s looking for just the right angle that makes the difference between art and documentation. It’s a scenario that could be from 1888. But this is 2008—a time when serious landscape photographers have the option to capture the breathtaking scenes before them not only in color, but also with high-resolution digital equipment.

While Ham is well aware of the evolution of photographic technology and, in fact, utilizes the digital world after processing his 8×10 sheets of black-and-white film, the South Carolina-based photographer finds that his classic form of image capture still yields the best results for his aesthetic.

Outdoor Photographer: Why do you shoot film with an 8×10 camera at a time when digital options can capture massive amounts of information?

Ben Ham:
There’s just something about the process I really like. Thinking about what I want to record and slowing down—it’s a real contemplative way to shoot. When I get out in the field, I look at the subject before I ever set the camera up. I do this for a couple of reasons. Initially, it was just the time involved setting up the camera, but then I realized that the process developed a better sense of seeing for me. I encourage people who are shooting in smaller formats or digital to put down their cameras for a few minutes and think about what they’re trying to say or capture in an image. That’s one thing I really like about working with a large camera.

Outdoor Photographer: When you’re heading out to create images, what gear do you carry with you? How do you keep the weight manageable?

Ham: I have an amazing camera made by K.B. Canham. Canham gets his bellows out of England. Before that, I was using a Wisner, which weighs about 17½ pounds. So when you carry that and four lenses and holders along with a tripod—even though I’m using a carbon-fiber Gitzo with a ballhead—it gets to be a fair amount of weight. The Wisner is a great camera, but this one weighs less than nine pounds; it’s black walnut and uses aircraft aluminum. The controls are really precise, and it’s a rigid camera.

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old world charm
An image of a plantation road has been sepia-toned to achieve a feeling of antiquity that more closely communicates the timeless feel that Ham strives for in his work.

For lenses, I have a great Schneider 150mm XL, which is incredibly sharp and has great coverage. It’s an ƒ/5.6 lens, which is fast for that format. It gives a bright image on the ground glass. I have a great 240mm A ƒ/9 Fujinon that I use a lot, which is super-sharp, a 300mm Nikkor and then, to round things out, a 450mm Fujinon—so I have a real nice kit of lenses that cover a pretty wide range.

There’s just something magical about working with an 8×10; it’s almost like looking out a window with that large ground glass on the back and, of course, you get all that information in a negative. Most of my work is printed very large.

Outdoor Photographer:
How large are you going with your prints?

Ham: If it’s a panoramic piece, it can get out in the 85-inch range and 42 inches tall. I’m printing now with the Epson 9800 on Hahnemühle Photo Rag Satin, and I’m looking at the new Epson printer, the 11880, which is a 64-inch-wide printer.

Outdoor Photographer:
It’s interesting that you prefer traditional film process when shooting and making the negative, yet you migrate into the digital space to print. Do you still do some printing in a wet darkroom, or is it all digital now? Do you find that there are specific advantages to being digital for output?

old world charm
“Falling Ceiling”

Ham: I’ve had Photoshop since the first version came out. I was fascinated by it. I didn’t start thinking about it until about 10 years ago when I came to the conclusion that it’s a usable thing from a print standpoint. I needed to figure out how to do in Photoshop what I could do in the darkroom. The guys over at Nash Editions were starting to make that happen when it came to making fine-art prints. I started to buy some larger Epsons and experimented with a lot of different inks and papers and was really refining that process while still printing in the darkroom. I made a breakthrough and stopped printing in the darkroom about six years ago. Now I use the Epson UltraChrome inks exclusively. They’re great. They give me a wide range of tones. Most of my work has a sepia tone to it. I’m using the ImagePrint RIP.

I’ve always been kind of a green person, and it bothered me that I was using all those chemicals. I’m now running my sheet film in a JOBO, so I’m running five sheets in a big drum. By the time I’m done, I’ve used less than a liter, whereas before, I’d use gallons of chemicals.

Outdoor Photographer:
It seems that black-and-white has come full circle, with more interest in it than ever. Most of your photography is black-and-white toned to sepia. What does black-and-white/sepia give you that color doesn’t?

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old world charm
“Heading Up The Trail”

Ham: There’s something aesthetic and artistic about black-and-white that I don’t feel in color. One of the things I really like about it is that it requires you to think in a compositional way. When you strip away color, it comes down to composition. It’s amazing how people think of black-and-white in a more artistic manner. I’m represented by the Claggett/Rey Gallery in Vail. I’m surprised in a way that they carry my work because, except for my photography, the gallery carries only original oils and big sculptures. Bill Rey made the comment, “When I look at your work, I know it’s a photograph, but I don’t see photography.” A combination of elements goes into the end result he’s talking about. How the work is presented in large matted frames, the tonal range of the print and the paper it’s printed on all add a quality to that as well.

On the other hand, sunsets are great for color. I just sit there and take it in, as opposed to shooting it. I look for inclement weather. If it’s a drizzly, rainy day, great. Fog is a big thing for me; it creates such a great mood. I’m happy to see that a lot of people now are capturing color images in digital, then converting the images to black-and-white. It’s really nice to see that people don’t want to abandon that foundation of black-and-white.

Outdoor Photographer: Can you describe how you merge your film-based shooting with the digital side of your work? For example, do you filter the lens when you shoot, or do you shoot “straight” and apply filters and effects in Photoshop?

Ham: I definitely have my foot planted in both worlds—the traditional and the digital. When I shoot film, I still think of it exactly as I thought of it when I began my career in the 1970s. I’m filtering for whatever sky, light and foliage I might have. I’ll use the 25 dark red filter for darkening up a sky, or light yellows and oranges in locations, such as the Southwest, when I want to accentuate the rocks and the details out there. I’m using the Zone system, compression and expansion, those sorts of things—setting the exposure for shadow detail and developing for highlights. I use a spot meter. I’ve learned where I need to be to process the negative so it will scan well on my Epson 10000XL and give me all the information I need. I now make my negative a little less contrasty, which allows the scanner to capture as many tones as possible.

Outdoor Photographer: You work in very different parts of the country. You shoot in wine country, the desert Southwest and the South. We’ve noticed that your images in the South have a distinctive mood. Is there something about the South that you find particularly conducive to your approach to photography?

Ham: Actually, I find it harder to shoot in the coastal areas of the South, especially compared to the grandeur of the West, regardless of my working in black-and-white or color. That being said, I’m tied to the creeks and marshes of the Southern coast. When the fog rolls in, there’s nothing better. That mood is best captured in black-and-white. I live in the South, and our region of the coast is called the Low Country. I spent many days as a teenager exploring the creeks and marshes of this region. The ebbs and flows of the tides of its unique ecosystem flow in my very soul. As with most areas, rapid development has changed it, and still is changing it with increasing fervor. With my work, I’m trying to capture its spirit and convey the emotion I feel when I’m out in it. Hopefully, people will be touched by the images and will desire to preserve some of it.

old world charm
“Old Sheldon Church”

So much of photography is a slow pursuit of that incredibly fleeting moment. This is amplified with large format. So many things have to come together to form that perfect moment, even more so working in the coastal regions—a big tide happening at just the right time of day, the right light, the right conditions and, of course, no wind. So often it doesn’t happen. But I’m still out in it to experience the moment. The things I see during scouting, on the way to and from a particular location—seeing dolphins, osprey, a bald eagle catch a fish or a fawn at water’s edge—it’s all so magical even if I don’t expose a single sheet of film. This environment also is the reason for the sepia tone of my work. These special places are old and timeless, and this technique conveys that feeling.

I’m drawn to the coastal creeks, but it seems that it’s always toward the trees. They’re a reoccurring theme in my work. I think it goes back to my childhood of climbing and playing in trees. I can remember climbing big live oaks and sitting on limbs overhanging the water. I find trees and the forest to be very calming places for me.

To see more of Ben Ham’s photography, visit www.benhamimages.com.