4×5, or Not

It was seeing large prints of William Neill’s and Charles Cramer’s photographs that made me want to shoot with a large format view camera. At sizes of 40×50, their quality was amazing. You would stand in front of them and would be just floored. I purchased a 4×5 field camera and on my second or third outing took the photo above. If I was looking for a sign telling me that 4×5 was a good idea, this was it. I bought a couple of more lenses and never looked back.

These days, William Neill is shooting with a full frame Canon and Charlie Cramer is shooting medium format digital.

I originally purchased my digital Nikon to take macro and telephoto images that weren’t possible or were too much trouble to take with large format, but as my finances waned, I started using it for everything. It was so much easier. Your histogram told you if your exposure was right or what was needed to make it right. The digital sensor of my Nikon had greater latitude than the transparency film I was shooting, and its color rendition was much more neutral. The fact that the camera was so light and one could shoot and shoot without it costing you anything didn’t hurt either.

When I moved to Colorado, my outings with 4×5 didn’t turn out as well as my outings with digital, so I put the 4×5 away.

Recently two friends of mine, who happen to be photographers, were commenting about my large format photographs and how they wanted to see me shooting LF once more. At first I was very resistant, but finally I decided to give it a try. If I was looking for any positive signs that morning, I didn’t get any. What could go wrong, did, from the weather to the wind. In retrospect the funniest experience occurred when I was carrying my 4×5 camera on a tripod over my shoulder and I stopped to set it up. It turned out that the cable release dangling from the lens on the camera got caught in the strap of my back pack so I couldn’t open the tripod or take off my pack. As expected, I got nothing from that outing but I still loved the experience of working with a large format camera again. Nothing beats being under a dark cloth and looking at a large upside and backwards image on a ground glass.

I’ve been out with the camera two more times. I’ve yet to send out my film so I won’t know for a while, but it’s been really fun working with 4×5 again. Successfully operating a large format camera and properly exposing images is a craft in itself and takes a lot of focus and attention. I like that. It’s like a walking meditation. I just walk around with the camera over my shoulder looking at things. If something catches my eye, I put up my hand in front of my eye and make a frame with my fingers to see how it might appear as a photograph. If the framed view looks boring, I move on. If it has possibilities I may set up my camera. There’s no room in my mind for anything else but looking, seeing and composing.

We’ll see where it all leads. Hopefully I’ll be able to use both large format and digital as the spirit and circumstances move me. In the meantime, the image below was taken with my 12.3 megapixel D300. In the 11×14 print I made, you can’t tell which camera it was taken with.

~ by danbaumbach on May 15, 2011.

10 Responses to “4×5, or Not”

  1. I must admit I have seen a different in your photography – personally I preferred the compositions from your LF work but I may be biased. I work with both digital and LF and I know my compositions are different depending on which camera I am using – that said, I have pictures from my digital that I couldn’t have captured with LF (and that a lot of people prefer). I shall be trying out a Mamiya 7 over the next months to see how that changes things.

  2. Hi Dan. Glad to hear you are pulling out the dusty Canham and having fun with it.

    I would echo Tim’s comments and say I had a general preference for your 4×5 work over your digital, the 4×5 having overall stronger compositions in my opinion. I know Guy Tal insists that gear does not matter, but for my own work, I would disagree. I have far more success when I shoot 4×5 than with digital. The slower pace, greater attention to all the steps, the concentration on the ground glass, etc. all work to make me think more and be more selective.

    As with all things, everyone’s experience can be different, but I go with what works for me.

    Regardless, glad to hear you are having fun with it. Missed you on the recent Yosemite outing with PB and Lon. Maybe we will see in up in Sonora Pass this summer?



  3. Hi Dan,

    Got your film back yet? I hope you got some great images. I just wanted to comment after reading this one line:

    “I put up my hand in front of my eye and make a frame with my fingers to see how it might appear as a photograph. If the framed view looks boring, I move on. If it has possibilities I may set up my camera. There’s no room in my mind for anything else but looking, seeing and composing.”

    For me, that about sums it up. At least for me, if one can enjoy that process and see in that way, you may again enjoy the LF process. By the same token, if you take that approach, even the digital will work too. Personally, I think too many have the “shoot now, ask questions later” approach rather than “moving on” to another opportunity if it doesn’t strike you. I can’t speak for you of course, so I don’t know it that’s true for you. Enjoy what you do regardless.


  4. HI Dan:
    Weston said that “composition is the strongest way of seeing”. Many of us visualize and compose images all the time, even if it never means framing the visualized compositions with the camera. ‘Composition’ becomes an extension of sight for the obsessed and well-oiled photographer.

    Your digital images have not had the same impact on me as does your LF work, although I’m not too quick to attribute it to anything specific. It could be your emotional state (nothing negative implied here); it could be your radical change of location; and it could be simply the current state of your passion for large format. What I have observed is that when one pursues a more convenient and faster method of craft, it’s the work that ultimately suffers. It doesn’t have to be the case, but most often seems to be … There are many ways for me to cut corners and expense in my craft and reduce the hassles of going from exposed film to final print, but I’ll never consider it unless my current work is stagnating. This would be my *only* impetus for change.

    As you know, I teach Large Format to many new users each year, and the single most important thing I try to instill is practice, practice, practice! Because LF is technical and can be cumbersome, only with constant use and practice does it become second nature. If one takes 30 minutes to set up and still makes errors, practice, practice, practice!

    My best wishes to you with your photography, Dan!

  5. Thank you, Tim, Harley, Lon and Michael. It’s interesting that all my LF friends think my LF work was better. The two friends I mention in the blog actually shoot DSLRs. I think a lot of the difference between my CA and my CO work is my learning to see in a new area. Just walking around with an LF camera these days I see that I don’t have the confidence of what will photograph well and what won’t like I had in CA. I’m always experimenting, but with LF, I don’t experiment unless I think there’s a better than even chance of success.

    We’ll see how it turns out.

    – Dan.

  6. Beautiful colors of the photos you did!

  7. Hello Dan.

    Wow, the first photograph is breathtakingly beautiful and strong.
    Very interesting post, and comments. I wish you good luck, my friend.
    Looking forward to see more of your work and to see how things turn out.

    Best Wishes
    Seung Kye

  8. gorgeous

  9. Hi Dan,

    I should have added that I don’t think that your digital stuff is ‘bad’. I do think that the ‘meditative’ state you mention is as much a part of the different ‘seeing’ as the medium. The camera works as a catalyst as much as a capture medium.

    I must admit to going out with both a digital and a large format system but use the digital as a ‘finder’ mostly (a Canon 5Dmk2, 4×5 viewfinder mask and 24-105 has to trump the linhof finder for overpriced large format accessory!). I’m trying to get out of that habit though but it’s very good for visualising wider angle shots

    • I got my film back. I’m using a new lab as so many of them have closed. My Astia trannies look unusually dull while the Velvia 100 ones look more like my digital. I’ll try to work on some of them this weekend.

      I decided not to carry my digital camera with me when I’m shooting 4×5 just to force me to use a regular light meter and focus on 4×5.

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