Normally the image is what’s important so I don’t comment on the equipment I use. Having good equipment does matter but not so much compared to vision, technique, testing, hard work, aesthetics, intuition and thinking. But this is different. I’m showing an historic project made using historic equipment. Film is all but dead now and not many readers will know much about large format cameras. These are essentially the same as the cameras used during the nineteenth century except that the medium is film rather than glass plates. Hence this post.
This is the view you see on the ground glass screen at the back of a large format camera, specifically a random view in the rain from my front door in inner city Canberra. The view on the ground glass is 5×4 inches because that is the sheet film size. By contrast, 35mm is over 13 times smaller at 1×1.5 inches. To focus, you use a focusing magnifier on the ground glass with your head under a large piece of black cloth called a dark cloth. If you want a vertical image, you take off the back of the camera and put it back on in portrait orientation.
The image you see is upside-down and back-to-front. This can be confusing with fine framing adjustments yet is actually beneficial as you see compositions in abstract terms. When you are finished focusing and composing and the camera is locked in position, you slide a film holder in under the ground glass screen. Usually this would be a double dark slide, which holds two sheets, one on each side. I was using Graflex backs, which hold six sheets and rotate as you take each exposure. I also had a 6×7 roll film back.
Whatever back you use, the film is protected from inadvertent exposure to light by an aluminium plate called a dark slide. To take an exposure you first have to measure the light using a hand-held exposure meter. I usually used my meter in incident mode which measures the light by pointing at the light source rather than the object. Then you set the shutter speed and exposure on the lens. Next you pull out the dark slide and trigger the shutter using a cable release. Having made the exposure, you then push the dark slide back in.
Next, you rotate to the next film holder (Graflex back) or advance to the next exposure (roll film back). You need to do all these things in correct order or disaster ensues.
This is a whole different kind of photography than blazing away with a digital camera. You are not going to take many exposures in the course of a day. You need to know what you want to take before you set up the camera. There are many technical things to get right in the correct sequence but then when you come to compose and take the exposure, it becomes a meditative process.
This is the camera from the other side and you can see the 150mm Linhof Schneider lens. There are many adjustment possibilities here. The front and the back standards of the camera can both slide along the rail and you adjust this to focus the camera. The camera is here focused on the trees in the front yard as we saw in the previous image and the standards are fairly close together. Full bellows extension would be for a macro shot.
The squarish black knobs on the side of the standards let you lower or raise the front or back of the camera to correct for converging or diverging verticals due to the camera viewpoint, for example in photographing buildings. This is called rise and fall. The grey knob just below the lens lets you move the front standard sideways for the same purpose. There’s also a similar knob for the back standard. This is called shift.
The black levers below each standard allow you to change the angle of the front and back of the camera. This leads to tilt (vertical angles) and swing (horizontal angles). Without tilt and swing (and for most other cameras), an image will be in focus only at a particular distance; this means you are focusing around a plane parallel to the camera. When using a view camera you have other choices. Let’s say you tilt the rear standard back and the front standard forwards. If you extend the angles of the standards, they will meet at some point. You can now focus on any plane that runs through that point. For example, if you have a field in front of you, you can adjust the angles of the front and rear standards so that you are focusing on the whole surface of the field instead of just to a distance in it. This is called the Scheimpflug Effect.
I used large format cameras because they can deliver optimal image quality for printed reproduction. Usually I did not use movements. Sometimes I used rise and fall and shift but I did not use tilt and swing in this project.
Here is the Arca-Swiss monorail camera on the Manfrotto 058B tripod I mainly used. Together they weigh eleven kilos and the tripod is as solid as a rock. It is shown here unextended and it goes much higher. You may notice the locking nuts on the stays to ensure rigidity. It has a centre column that you can crank up using a winder and it is the rare case of a tripod where you can use a centre column without compromising the rigidity of the tripod. You can see two small red levers near the centre of the tripod. There are six of these, two for each leg so you can access them in different ways. If you hold the tripod in the air where you want it and push a set of three levers in, the legs fall out onto the ground and you can lock them there in place.
Actually, I started out with a different tripod, an ancient Sampson wooden tripod. Coming back from one journey, it left Perth in one piece and arrived in Canberra in two. Consequently, Ansett (an airline that no longer exists) bought me a new tripod. Since their policy was to replace with a new item from the same maker and new Sampson tripods were prohibitively expensive, I got to choose the tripod I wanted and even rent one while they made up their mind. Over 25 years later, the 058B is still a current Manfrotto model.
The Arca-Swiss monorail camera lives in a large leather box of some antiquity. I had an aluminium base made for it to fit in so I could wheel it around in a golf trundler (aka buggy). The tripod I could strap to the top of the box.
This is the Nagaoka Field Camera that I used when I was off walking somewhere, clambering down cliffs for a dawn shot or even bushwalking for the right view. It is a much lighter and more compact camera than the Arca Swiss with less movements but still capable of fine image quality.
I bought the Nagaoka new and it would only have been a year or two old in 1987. In contrast, the Arca-Swiss and the lenses date back to the 1960s though change is very slow for that sort of camera and lenses.
The lever at the top of the lens cocks the shutter and the lever at the bottom fires the shutter if you are not using a cable release. The lever that cocks the shutter operates in a slot that leads down to the innards of the lens. There is no weather sealing at all. If operating such lenses in the rain, an umbrella is an essential accessory, for the lenses not for you. I was lucky I encountered very little rain in my travels for this project.
Two of the three lenses I used are Linhof Schneiders rather than just Schneiders. This is because they were tested and selected from new lenses at the Schneider factory for use on Linhof cameras (I don’t own any Linhof cameras, though).
And the camera is very compact when folded up.
When I went bushwalking in the 1980s, I had a large shoulder bag for my camera equipment that fitted in the bottom of my pack and there was a zip in the pack down there so I could take out the camera bag without disturbing anything else. I also had a light though reasonably stable tripod on the side of my pack. My standard pack would weigh about 25 kilos (55 pounds) including 15 kilos of camera equipment. I had two days of bushwalking in this project to take images of Tasman Island from Cape Pillar in Tasmania and probably carried my “standard pack”.
I am somewhat bemused when I read on the web of people who are disconcerted that they may have to carry a few kilos of camera equipment. Sometimes travelling very light makes sense; in other circumstances I suspect that it shows they are not very interested in photographic quality.
These days I probably prefer not to carry more than 15 kilos. Of course, if you’re smaller than me you will be able to carry less and if you have a back problem that will seriously compromise you. Either way, the most important thing is to have a good quality pack that is well adjusted for you. Cheap or inferior packs can be disasters.
Here are some of the accessories I used with the 5×4 cameras. In front is a Graflex back that holds six sheets of 5×4 sheet film. On top of it at middle right is a Nikon focusing magnifier which I probably used for the Lighthouse project. On top of it at rear left is a Quantum Calculite XP exposure meter which can meter about three stops below the light of a full moon.
To the right is a roll-film back which records exposures in 6×7 format (that’s 6×7 centimetres as compared to 5×4 inches, so smaller than 5×4). In the centre rear is a Pentax spot meter. I had one and it got stolen and I replaced it some years later. I’m not sure whether I had one at that time. If I didn’t, the Quantum has a spot attachment that gave a rough equivalent. In the rear is a spare recessed lens board for use with the 65mm Schneider on the Arca-Swiss monorail camera. Wide angle lenses needed recessed lens boards or else the front standard would be too far away from the film for them to focus at infinity.
Initially I used the Department’s Mamiya 645 for quicker images. When that broke down I started using my 1937 Rolleiflex. To my surprise, the image quality was far superior to the Mamiya although in some circumstances I had to be careful about flare with its uncoated lenses. It is now over 75 years old and was 50 years old even then.
You will notice it has two lenses. It is a twin-lens reflex. You look down on the top of the camera through a ground glass screen and the top lens and there is a magnifier that pops out if required. As with the 5×4 cameras, you see the image upside down and back-to-front. You take the picture through the bottom lens. They were popular cameras in the 1950s and 1960s because they are almost completely quiet and since you don’t hold the camera up to your eye, you can be quite unobtrusive.
Behind it is a waterproof aluminium case that I suspect is much rarer than the camera. I picked it up separately to the camera but from the emblem on top it appears to be of similar vintage.
This is the Nikon FE with the 16mm f3.5 fisheye and the Vivitar Series 1 28mm f1.9 lenses. I mainly used the Nikon for the 16mm fisheye lens which was not available to me in larger formats. I also used the Vivitar Series 1 28mm for one image taken from the air, so I have included that as well.
Here is a selection of films showing the difference in sizes. At the bottom is a couple of boxes of 10 5×4 sheets of Fujichrome 50 that I used at the time. The other films are more recent but included for size comparison. For the 120 films I would have used Fuji 50 rather than Velvia and one of the rolls of Velvia is out of the box, unopened. I did use some Fujichrome 400 but it would have been of a different generation to the box at the back. The 35mm roll is Agfachrome 1000 RS whereas I would only have used Fuji 50 in 35mm.
Slide film could produce fine images but has much less exposure latitude than current digital SLRs. Before the digital era there was no capacity to combine multiple images to extend the tonal range.
The prints for the exhibition I printed myself in my chemical darkroom as a matter of principle as much as anything else, though my printing skills were OK. Unless you take control of all stages of the photographic process that involve aesthetic judgements, the work is not really your own. In the chemical era, this did not apply to processing the film which was a mechanised process that you could not expect to improve upon by doing it yourself.
Most of the images I will show in following posts were scanned with a Microtek 1800F scanner and a few with my Canon 9950F scanner. I scanned most of the images in probably 2005 or 2006 but did little processing at the time because the computer technology of the time made processing very slow.
Certainly the files are huge. Most of the scans start out over 300MB and with a few layers in Photoshop they can easily get over 1TB. There is also an unfortunate byproduct of the scanning. The Microtek scanner had a system where you put the film in a drawer inside the scanner so the scanner glass didn’t degrade the image. The trouble with that was that the inside of the scanner filled up with dust over time, dust reduction was not available with the scans and each image requires a long painstaking process of manual dust removal. Probably just as well there are less than 100 5×4 images. Each image is likely to take some teasing out.
Summary of Equipment:
- Arca-Swiss Monorail camera (5×4)
- Nagaoka Field camera (5×4)
- Rolleiflex Automat Twin Lens Reflex (1937) with 75mm Zeiss Tessar f3.5 (6×6)
- Mamiya 645 with 80mm Mamiya-Sekor f2.8 (6×4.5)
- Nikon FE (35mm)
- Lenses (for the 5×4 cameras)
- Schneider Super Angulon 65mm f4.5 lens
- (35mm equivalent: 20mm)
- Linhof Schneider Angulon 90mm f6.8 lens
- (35mm equivalent: 28mm)
- Linhof Schneider Technika Symmar f5.6 150mm lens
- (35mm equivalent: 50mm)
- Lenses (for 35mm)
- Nikkor f3.5 16mm fisheye lens
- Vivitar Series 1 28mm f1.9 lens
- 2x Graflex backs (for 5×4 cameras)
- Fidelity 6×7 rollfilm back (for 5×4)
- Quantum Calculite XP exposure meter
- Dark cloth and focusing magnifier (for 5×4 cameras)
- Manfrotto 058B tripod and 3-way head
- Small Slik tripod
- Fujichrome 50, 64 Tungsten, 100, 400
- (Velvia was not yet released)
- Cibacrome CAP-40 processing machine
- Omega Chromega D2 or D5 (?) with Schneider Componon 135mm f5.6
- Microtek 1800F scanner using Silverfast