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Go Old School
While most photography today is done digitally, there’s still something to be said for large-format film. That’s the way Ansel Adams did it (although he most certainly would have gone digital were he still out there shooting). Some feel that film has a “film look” that digital just can’t capture. And some just like the process of working with large-format film—”working retro”—especially those who did so before digital.
The fact that you have only one shot before you have to change film (or, at least, flip the film holder over) makes you work differently than when you can record dozens or even hundreds of shots without thinking about “reloading.” There’s the challenge of calculating the exposure just so because you won’t see the image until you process it in your darkroom (or your lab processes it)—no instant playback to check exposure, focus and composition. The process of preparing processing chemicals, actually handling the film, watching the image magically appear in the developer tray—these things still appeal to a number of landscape and fine-art photographers. And there’s something about a silver-based print, as anyone who has seen one of Ansel Adams’ prints (or those of many other talented black-and-white film masters) knows. Silver-based prints from larger-format negatives aren’t better than digital inkjet prints from large-format digital files, but they are different, and some prefer them.
And, yes, they still make large-format film gear—view and field cameras, sheet films, enlargers, processing chemicals and other items. Check out the “Film-Based Large-Format Resources” sidebar for details.
4×5 View & Field Cameras
Horseman, no website; see your photo dealer
4×5 Sheet Film
Ethol, no website; see your photo dealer
Photographers’ Formulary, www.photoformulary.com
You have two basic choices in large-format cameras: view camera or field camera. A view camera consists of a front standard (to which you attach the lens of your choice) and a rear standard with focusing ground glass (to which you attach a film holder or a digital back), connected by a flexible bellows and mounted on a support rail. The bellows keeps out unwanted light, and allows you to focus and perform camera movements. Field cameras mount the front and rear standards on rails on a fixed bed, and fold into conveniently carried packages, but don’t allow movements of the standards as large as do monorail view cameras. Adams used both types of camera over his career. (Adams used many cameras during his career, from 35mm through Polaroid 16×20, including Hasselblad medium-format, but most of his best-known works were done with 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10 view and field cameras.)
You can move each standard in a variety of ways: vertical rise and fall, horizontal shift, tilting up or down, and swinging left or right. Rise (“vertical shift”) is generally used to eliminate converging vertical lines in shots of buildings or tall trees. If you tilt the camera up to get the top of the tree in frame, the image plane won’t be parallel to the tree, and the tree will seem to topple backward. With the view camera, you can move the lens up to get the top of the tree in without tilting the camera up. Shift provides the same capability, but for horizontal subject matter. Tilting and swinging allow you to control the plane of focus by adjusting the relationship among the film, lens and subject planes. When lines through all three converge at a common point, depth of field will be maximized, even at wide apertures. Focusing is done by moving the lens farther from the rear standard (to focus closer) or closer to the rear standard (to focus farther away), using the focusing knob on the standard.
The advantages of these cameras are the compositional and depth-of-field control their movements offer, as well as the better image quality that their larger films provide (you only have to blow up a 4×5-inch image 2X linearly (4X in area) to make an 8×10-inch print, while you have to blow up a 1×1.5-inch 35mm image 8X linearly (more than 50X in area) to make the same size print). Costly tilt-shift lenses are available for 35mm SLRs, but these have limited movement range compared with view cameras and, of course, don’t offer the image-quality benefits of the view camera’s larger film size.
View and field camera body street prices run from less than $1,000 to more than $10,000. The higher-cost models generally are more sturdily and precisely built and offer yaw-free movements, precision gearing, rotating backs, depth-of-field calculators and more. But even the entry-level bodies work well for landscape photography.
Of course, you’ll need lenses for your view or field camera (wide-angle, normal and short telephoto, to suit your landscape vision). Bear in mind that a “normal” lens for 4×5 format is around 163mm (150mm to 180mm, in terms of existing lenses). The widest readily available for 4×5 is 47mm (equivalent in field of view to a 13mm lens on a full-frame DSLR or 35mm film camera); the longest is 360mm (equivalent to around 95mm on a 35mm camera). Adams did most of his landscape work with focal lengths from moderate wide-angle to short telephoto (105mm to 360mm on the 4×5 camera). Note that view cameras don’t have shutters; a leaf shutter is built into each lens.
You’ll also need holders for your sheet film (or a digital back; see the “Film-Based Large-Format Resources” sidebar). Note that each film holder holds two sheets of film. If you want to make 40 shots during your photo outing, you’ll need 20 holders, which you’ll have to load yourself in the dark (a changing bag allows you to reload in the field). You’ll also need a focusing cloth (a dark cloth you drape over you and the camera so you can see the image on the ground glass in bright light for composing and focusing), and a loupe to “zoom in” to check fine focus. And, of course, you’ll need a sturdy tripod to minimize camera movement and lock in your composition so you can study and fine-tune it, and focus it. Landscape photographers generally prefer a ball-type tripod head, as it makes it easy to position the camera at whatever angle you wish, then lock it there with a twist of a knob.
You’ll also need a handheld exposure meter. View cameras don’t have TTL metering (or built-in meters). Adams used a spot meter, which allowed him to read small areas of the scene or subject and apply his famous Zone System to nail the exposure. This is probably the most accurate way to deal with black-and-white shooting. You can also use a wider-angle reflected-light meter or an incident-light meter (which measures the light falling on the scene, so it must be positioned in the same light that’s illuminating the scene, generally right in front of the main subject, aimed back at the camera lens, making it potentially awkward for much landscape work). Adams’ book The Negative explains how he did it.
The traditional film darkroom was a creative space for many photographers. Surrounded by the chemistry and physics of the medium, you could immerse yourself in the photographic process.
Adams (who started out to be a pianist) likened the negative to a composer’s score and the print to the performance of that score. So, of course, he developed his own film and made his own prints (although, in later years, he had assistants to help out). Serious black-and-white photographers generally do develop their own film and make their own prints to have maximum control over the process and the results. But a large-format darkroom can be costly to equip, and the chemicals aren’t environmentally friendly, so some find a good pro lab and work with the folks there to have their film processed and prints made to their tastes.
View cameras are leisurely devices, no 10 fps auto-everything here. You find a camera location, set up your tripod, mount the camera, attach the selected lens, level the camera and tripod, attach the cable release, open the lens, set the lens to its widest aperture, cover yourself with the dark cloth, and compose your shot on the ground glass. Focus, make any desired camera adjustments (tilt/swing/shift/rise/fall), fine-tune focus, set the aperture for the desired depth of field and the shutter speed for correct exposure at that aperture (or the desired shutter speed if you’re trying to blur water to freeze it, and the aperture that provides correct exposure at that shutter speed), and cock the shutter. Then attach the film holder, remove the dark slide, and make your exposure. Quickly reinsert the dark slide, flip the film holder, reattach it, remove the dark slide for that film sheet, and make your “insurance” exposure (or bracketed one). The nuances of view camera operation could fill a book (and have filled several, one being Adams’ The Camera); for more information, check out one of those, or do a web search for “view camera operation.”
Note: Prices are estimated street prices for body only
Phase One IQ280
Going Large-Format Digital
You can attach a digital back to many view cameras, and do your landscape photography digitally with all the view camera movements. There are also view cameras designed specifically for digital backs, such as the Arca-Swiss M-Line, Cambo Ultima 23D and 45D, Horseman Axella and LD Pro, Linhof Techno, and Silvestri Bicam and Flexicam.
Medium-format digital backs can deliver better image quality than smaller-sensor DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras. The higher pixel counts mean more image detail, while the larger sensor area can collect more light, which reduces image noise and improves dynamic range and color/tonal range. Digital backs are slower in operation than DSLRs, but are the ultimate tools for landscape image quality (and faster than shooting sheet film!). We suspect Ansel Adams would be using a digital back on his large-format camera, were he shooting today, for the increased image quality and control digital offers.
The big drawback to medium format has been performance above base ISO. Medium-format CCD sensors are geared to low-ISO performance, and can’t match the CMOS sensors used in DSLRs and mirrorless cameras at higher ISOs. But even that’s changing, with the entry of Sony’s 44x33mm 50-megapixel CMOS sensor, which provides ISOs up to 6400. This sensor is available in cameras from Hasselblad, Pentax and Phase One, and backs from Hasselblad, Mamiya Leaf and Phase One. (Phase One’s IQ260 and IQ280 CCD backs feature Sensor+ technology, which bins four pixels into one, increasing the usable ISO 4X, but reducing resolution to ¼; for example, the IQ280 provides ISO settings from 50-800 at 80 megapixels and from 200-3200 at 15 megapixels—excellent performance for a CCD sensor. But the new CMOS sensor can deliver ISO 6400 at full 50-megapixel resolution.)
Phase One IQ250
Hasselblad‘s CFV-50c digital back features a 43.8×32.9mm 50-megapixel CMOS sensor. Mamiya Leaf Credo backs are available in 43.9×32.9mm 40-megapixel, 53.9×40.4mm 60-megapixel and 53.7×40.3mm 80-megapixel CCD versions, plus a 43.9×32.9mm 50-megapixel CMOS version. Phase One’s latest digital backs include the IQ250 with a 44x33mm 50-megapixel CMOS sensor, the IQ260 and IQ280 with 53.9×40.4mm 60-megapixel and 53.7×40.4mm 80-megapixel CCD sensors, respectively, and the IQ250 Achromatic with a 53.7×40.3mm 60-megapixel monochrome CCD sensor.
You can also gain view camera movements for your Canon or Nikon DSLR or Sony E-mount mirrorless camera via the Arca-Swiss M-Line for Canon or Nikon, Cambo Ultima 35, Horseman Axella and Silvestri Flexicam.