Friday, September 21, 2007

Is The View Camera Dead?

Clearly the answer is no, lots of people enjoy the pace and routine, the huge ground glass, dark cloth and having a negative the size of a dinner plate. In fact there are more manufacturers of large view cameras now than at any time in history. you can get ones of wood - teak, mahogany, cherry, ebony. You can get them metal (including titanium and magnesium, pvc and other plastics, even MDF.

There are 4X5's, 8X10's, even cameras up to 20X24 and panoramic formats like 4X10, 5X12, 7X17 and 8X20.

Oddly, film isn't an issue today. Ilford is selling all manner of odd sizes and out of Eastern Europe there are other options. You can still get rediloads in 4X5, though processing colour is getting more difficult and I suspect the future of view cameras is going to be almost exclusively the realm of black and white photography and in particular alternate processes requiring big negatives for contact printing - platinum and palladium, albumen and other types.

On a practical level, there aren't a lot of reasons to use a view camera - it's heavier, slower, less versatile, less reliable, bulkier, has inadequate depth of field, problems like windage and bellows factors, squinting into dark corners and carrying adequate film.

That said though, working with a good view camera is in itself a rewarding experience, regardless of the images that come out the other end. My first large format camera was a borrowed crown graphic from the local newspaper. It was rigid and light, the Optar lens was pretty sharp and quite tiny, everything folded up into a nice well protected box. Oh, sure, you didn't have back tilts and back rotation, bellows a mile long or geared controls, but it worked well and reliably and took good pictures.

Given that you can tray process 4X5 film and flat bed scanners are all you need for digitizing images, you might want to give it a try. Perhaps not for a football game, but for landscape, still life, architecture - it's a pretty potent tool and might just help you see differently too.

I still have two view cameras though it's been some months since I last used them. I have seriously considered getting a bigger view camera with which I could make contact prints, which many people maintain are still the ultimate in quality.

Of course, a $35,000 medium format kit could do almost as well, but few of us can afford that kind of equipment.

Do I recommend the view camera for normal work - well, I'd be a bit hypicritical if I did, given I'm shooting digitally, but not all photography is about practicality, some people drive antique cars, even though newer ones are safer, faster, more fuel efficient and so on - there is just something about the tools. Furniture makers love to use the hand plane they inherited from grand dad, sure a power planer could do a faster job, possibly even a more square one, but there's something about using your hands, and that's the feeling you have with a view camera.

Of course, there are lots of view cameras that are less than fun to use - ones that shake at the best of times, or slip their settings or bend when you lay the dark cloth on top to expose the film. There are cameras that take an instruction manual to set up or 10 minutes to assemble from a reasonably compact package.

The best view camera I used was a Linhof Color Kardan. This monorail was built like the proverbial brick outhouse yet quickly disasembled for back packing. It used a two part screw together monorail of huge dimensions and absolute rigidity. It had universal bellows (normal back with a big pleat at the front simulating bag bellows - a great combination). It was so rigid I could mount my 19 inch Artar on an apple sauce can on the front and know nothing was going to move.

In theory, digital can do everything large format can. If I stitch enough images, I can get the same resolution. If I use helicon focus and multiple images, I can get the depth of field that tilting can produce (and more since I don't have to rely on everything being in one plane). I can compensate for a smaller dynamic range in digital vs. black and white film by bracketing exposures. Of course, this could mean at an absolute minimum a 27 shot image - say three wide for stitching, three deep for changing focus and three along for changing exposure - now that's just plain silly.

One of these days, I'll haul out my 4X5 again, just for fun, and for a change, and just for the heck of it.


Gary Nylander said...

Is the view camera dead ? to me its not as I'm an avid view camera user, I having been lovingly shooting with the big box for the past twenty years or so, mostly I like to shoot with my 4 x 5 Tachihara also I have an 8 x 10 version of the same make, plus a 5 x 7 adapter for the 8 x 10. I shoot pretty well all black and white film which I process myself, the negatives are then scanned and printed to a Epson 4800 printer. I don't mind the slowed down pace, at the end of the day I always seem to make a number of images that I am happy with.

I should also mention that even though my comments might come off as a bit anti digital, I am a staff photographer at the Kelowna Daily Courier in B.C. here where I have been employed for the past 24 years , our staff at the paper has been shooting digital since the fall of 2001, we currently shoot with Nikon D2Hs' and I must say I really enjoy using the digital for my newspaper work, I would never want to go back to film, the quality is just so much better.

For a change of pace on my time off I'm happy to to shoot with the view cameras.

Anonymous said...

I too don't think that the View Camera is dead. Naturally it becomes harder and harder to find film and as you say shops that may develop color-films.

Too me photography shouldn't just be capturing the moment, but I want to live the moment. And when using the view camera looking on the upside-down image on the ground glass really slows things down and as I feel it, I become one with the subject.

I also only take portraits of children in ages 7-15 and I have noticed that when putting a huge view camera (eventhough I have reduced size from 8x10 to 4x5) the children feel a lot more prettier because I use that large camera on them.
And at the same time, since it takes longer to take a photograph I don't only become one with the model, but they feel a lot more at ease. One think that they would be more intimidatet by the huge camera, but fore some reason I don't know they like it more.

And naturally when developing the negatives and print them it just look wonderful.

George Barr said...

Excellent comment Marcus. I have heard before that portrait shooting with a view camera can work very well.