I’m postings these musings – and this is the first of them – mainly to produce an history of the direction my photography takes over time; it’s my record essentially, something I can refer back to and marvel at how wrong I was. The intent is that I can reread these at some unspecified, future date, and see how my thinking has changed over time. If they provoke thought in anyone reading them, so much the better! And if I do reread them – it’s entirely possible I won’t, given my past dabbling in the writing of diaries and subsequent lack of ever having reviewed them – it will have been a worthwhile use of time. I also find it’s rather useful in clarifying thoughts to actually write them down, so let’s see if this works.
Two years ago, the most photographic equipment I ever carried around was a small, light – let’s call it highly convenient – compact digital camera. Prior to that, I’d generally carried a compact camera and some slide film. Now, after twenty months of using a dSLR, I find that not only am I already hauling about 10Kg of ‘stuff’ up and down hills, but I’m alarmingly drawn towards lugging around a large format camera – quite possibly in addition to the existing kit. This causes me some degree of consternation!
The appeal of large format to me is mainly the image quality and the nature of the compositional control they provide, but also, I’ll confess, since they’re rather nice objects: they look like ‘proper’ cameras, what with the bellows and the black cloth to shield the ground glass from the sun. They’re ‘serious‘ cameras! Then there are all the beautifully-engineered knobs and worm screws which lock down the camera and allow precise control of where exactly the plane of focus is, and what the perspective is doing. And that comes back to function: the movements provide the ability to design an image with just the focus that will suit it, and with perspective distortion removed if that will enhance the result further. It all adds up to an entertaining device to use and a great tool for making landscape images.
But then there are the downsides. They’re relatively bulky; setting up a shot takes a fair bit of time (OK – Ansel Adams’ ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico‘ was relatively brisk; I’ll grant that); no instant feedback, since they use film; all the extra post-processing steps involved in film (developing and scanning, re-scanning the less-than-perfect scan…); I’m sure there are more. I’m optimistic that these will keep me LF-free, but not utterly convinced. Oh! And there’s the additional problem that pesky, SLR-types come and ask you for demonstrations when you’re trying to set up a shot – I know this, I’ve been the pesky SLR-type. And lastly: will large format film be available indefinitely?
At the moment, I’m comfortably on the don’t go there side of the metaphorical line, but a year ago it would never have remotely occurred to me to consider acquiring such an archaic and arcane piece of kit. Is this a slippery slope, or will my recent purchase of a 24mm PC-E lens, enabling tilt and shift – though only in one plane, and an LCD screen is not remotely as good as ground glass to compose on, so there is considerably less flexibility than a large format camera – will this lens mollify the allure of LF? Or will it show me what can be done with camera movements, and move me even closer to the LF ‘edge’?
The trouble is, I recognise, and have been told, that I already have something of a large format approach to making photographs: I tend to spend non-trivial amounts of time setting shots up and tweaking the composition and focus, and then I wait for the light to be just as I want it (well, in reality, I take several shots of the same thing whilst waiting, since I’m using digital capture, but I know that this habit is, at least in part, to kill time!). Going out and making just one or two compositions in a session seems fine to me; and this, it could be argued, is not making the best use of the possibilities offered by SLRs. i.e. I don’t compose through the viewfinder – at least I often don’t – and I can readily live without autofocus.
And then there’s medium format of course. Not as good as LF in terms of absolute quality, and without the inherent ‘movements’ capability, but better than 35mm and its digital equivalents. I think I can safely say that I’d move to medium format immediately if it weren’t for the fact that digital backs are so alarmingly expensive right now. Trouble is, they really are expensive; and, given that fact, the affordable option for me is medium format film, which comes with most of the downsides of LF film, but without the absolute quality jump LF gives…. nor the movements… which leads straight back to going the whole five miles, as they say, and giving LF a try.
For the time being, I’m sticking with a dSLR and hoping that medium format digital backs will come down in price, but I do wonder how long I’ll be able to resist LF. Oh dear, heading back to the 19th century here…
Your thoughts? Am I doomed?