Musings on Photography

Large Format, Ritual, and Results

Posted in Uncategorized by Paul Butzi on October 12, 2006

Every once in a while, I’ll read something which seems to make a bunch of random thoughts I’ve been having for quite a while crystallize into a more coherent form. Last week I got such a comment in email from Ed Richards, who wrote

I would also think about whether the ritual of LF is necessary, whether the instant gratification but ultimately limited capabilities of digital are helping undermine your sense of photographic worth. Maybe what you need is a bigger camera.:-)

I think Ed is wrong (I don’t think I need a bigger camera), but I do think he’s on the right track. That is, I think the size camera you need depends to a large part on whether you’ve ever USED a bigger camera.

When I returned to photography after a long hiatus, I went out and bought a 35mm SLR. After a bit, I concluded that the 35mm SLR was inadequate for the sort of photography I wanted to do. This conclusion was wrong; it wasn’t so much that I needed a different camera as I needed much better technique and a different frame of mind. But I bought a 4×5 view camera, and then a much nicer 4×5 view camera, and I photographed for a long time exclusively in large format. I thought that the important changes were that I was now getting big, sharp, grainless prints with ease, but the hidden win was that as result of switching to a large, slow, ponderous camera, I finally slowed down enough to pay attention to technical matters and practical technique, and as a result of this slowing down, I started paying more attention, and my results improved.

So, despite switching to large format for what in retrospect seems like the wrong reasons, it turned out to be the right decision to move things along (for me, not necessarily for someone else).

The big factor, which Ed alludes to rather directly, is that the ritual of working in large format makes a difference in your mental state as you work. Working quickly with large format takes a fair amount of discipline, which mostly emerges as a fairly set routine to making an exposure – camera setup, compose, focus, meter, close the shutter, set the aperture and shutter speed, cock the shutter, load the film holder and pull the darkslide, release the shutter, etc. As a result of this relatively lengthy ritual, and the physical size of the resulting negative, you end up feeling like after you’ve made an exposure, you’ve actually accomplished something of significance. And if that’s the case, you’re mentally prepped to feel that the results must be important, too. (It turns out this is wrong, but from a mental state point of view, the wrongness doesn’t matter much).

When you work with a digital SLR, there’s very little ritual, and the results are a digital file on a computer – a result which is intangible compared to a 4×5 negative. So it would be easy to feel like nothing significant was accomplished when you let the shutter go.

And yet, strangely, when I take the 5d out into the field, and make an exposure, I do feel that sense of accomplishment. I think that after working with 4×5, enough of the cues that make me feel like I’ve done something remain – cues like carefully selecting the camera position before setting up the tripod and camera. So the result is that if I’d never used a large format camera for a long period, it might be the case that I’d need to use one just to get that feeling of significance. But, as it turns out, I have used a large format camera, and I no longer seem to need the big camera to tell me that I’m doing something worthwhile.

So I end up going out with the 5d and making a large number of exposures, and then I come back to the workroom and I download them, and look at them on the big monitor, and I feel that same sense of satisfaction I felt with large format.

But I wonder if that would be the case if I’d never worked with large format at all. Perhaps the big advantage of working in large format is that it makes subtle but important changes in your working method – changes that don’t go away just because you stop using a large format camera.

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  1. Edward Richards said, on October 13, 2006 at 7:04 am

    Part of the ritual of large format is the inherent limit in the number of images that most of us can shoot in a day and in a year. Unlimited free, both in cost and time, digital images pose a problem for some photographers – you drown in your bad images and mistakes. Fred Picker discussed what he called “editing by wood stove” – the process of throwing out all but the best keepers about once a year. He was talking about 4×5, and the problem is much worse for digital.

    For some photographers, it is impossible to let go of the mistakes and not quite great images. There is always the temptation to got back and make one more print. This gets in the way of moving forward and constantly shooting more negatives to get better negatives. This does not mean that you never reprint or re-photoshop old images, but you restrict the universe of old images that you revisit.

    This does not effect everyone, and it is only relevant to fine art photography. Some people can stick the images on the backup harddrive and never look at them again. If you shoot stock, keep every decent exposure you shoot, who knows what someone will want for that odd space on the calendar. But for fine art photographers, the image that almost works teaches you a lot when you first see it, but then becomes a millstone. Digital takes this to the extreme – Ansel Adams said that 10 good images was a good year, and he probably shot no more than 2,000 LF images in a year. Most of us are not AA – imagine 5 good images in sea of 20,000+ digital exposures for a year. Quickly dump the 19,800 that are not right, and then at the end of the year you have 5 good shots out of 200 nearly good – wouldn’t that make you feel better?

    Ed Richards –

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