Musings on Photography

Large Format and Contemplative Photography

Posted in equipment, large format, process by Paul Butzi on March 20, 2007


Some of the responses to yesteday’s post on the probable fate of my large format gear raise some issues that I think are worth discussing.  In particular, Ed wrote:

There is more to large format than just pushing the button and shooting, especially if you use movements. There is a contemplative way of working that is impossible with digital because you cannot see squat through the viewfinder, so you just have to keep pushing the shutter and hoping.

This might be true for some folks.  But because I worked with large format for more than a decade, I don’t engage in photography by wandering around looking at things through the camera.  With a large format camera, it’s often the case that I make all of the important decisions before even setting the camera up, and I find that with the EOS-5d, that’s still the case.  The viewfinder is used to check composition (as is the groundglass), not to find it. 

I make a lot of exposures with the 5d, often bracketing exposure.  Typically, I make two exposures – one at the exposure suggested by the in camera meter, and then another one at the exposure I calculate to be optimal based on the histogram from the first.  That means that I typically have two exposures per setup – not dissimilar to my LF practice of shooting an in-camera dup negative.  But that’s vastly different from making 30 exposures, each with minor variations in composition, and hoping I hit one that was good.

In other words, my practice is that I see a photograph I want to make, I set up the camera and make the photograph, and then I’m off to find the next photo.  The time and economic costs of an exposure with the 5d are lower, and so I tend to take more risks with the 5d, but I don’t find using the 5d to be a less contemplative experience than using the 4×5.  If anything, the 5d is more contemplative, simply because there’s less physical hardship involved in carting the stuff around.  I’m not unaware of the spiritual aspects of physical labor, but frankly schlepping a pack full of heavy stuff around never really served any positive photographic purpose for me.

So why do I end up with more exposures with the 5d than I did with the 4×5?  There are a number of reasons.  One is that the 5d is faster.  I’m pretty fast with the Linhof TK45s, but it’s still not as fast as the 5d with a zoom lens.  There’s also the fact that the EOS-5d pack is smaller and lighter than the TK45s pack, so that I cover more ground  in less time.  Finally, there’s just less futzing around with the 5d – no readyloads to label, no separate meter to tuck into the right vest pocket, no extended metering and exposure calculation.

 On a similar tack, Kurt wrote:

As Ed alluded to, comparing your digital output to possible LF output is really an apples to oranges comparison. I’d be willing to bet that if you gave the medium the slow, contemplative time it demands, not only would you shoot much less than digital (making the money a non-issue), but your “winners” or “keepers” ratio would go exponentially up.

When I first started using a large format camera (in 1993) I bought this business about the ‘slow, contemplative process’ of large format hook, line, and sinker.  To my eternal embarassment, I once hung a show where the artist statement even referenced it.  But somewhere along the way, I realized it was a huge bolus of crud, more a marketing thing than anything having to do with the reality of making photographs.

Spending 20 minutes with your head under a darkcloth, gazing lovingly at the ground glass, fiddling with your focusing loupe, adjusting and readjusting camera movements, etc. does not magically imbue your photographs with greater creativity, higher image quality, more artistic merit, or greater economic value.  There’s no special magic to photographs made after 20 minutes of camera adjusting as opposed to those made after 20 seconds of camera adjusting assuming you are competent at adjusting the camera

To put it another way, if it’s taking you more than two minutes from the time you decide to make a photograph to the time you have your 4×5 camera on the tripod, movements adjusted, focused, aperture set, shutter speed selected, shutter cocked, and film in the camera with the darkslide pulled, I think you need to practice until you achieve competence with your camera.  Anything longer than two minutes is not a contemplative experience, it’s bumbling because you don’t know what you’re doing.   (those of you who are tempted to tell me 2 minutes is unrealistic might want to consider that John Sexton, that luminary of Large Format/Fine Art photography, told me at a workshop that when he teaches students to use a LF camera, he won’t let them expose film until they’ve proven to him that they can go from pack to exposure in less than 60 seconds.)

Lots of large format photographers like to go on and on about how slow it all is, how ritualized it all is, how difficult it is and thus how contemplative it is compared to every other kind of camera.  But here’s the dirty secret of large format photography – using a view camera is just not that hard.

So when I see a large format photographer spend 15 minutes with his head under the dark cloth, focusing and adjusting movements and so on, I don’t think to myself “Wow, that photographer must be having one blissed out contemplative experience!”  Instead I think “Wow, that photographer really needs to learn how to use his camera.”

The bottom line, here, is this: the camera that produces the most contemplative experience is not the camera that’s hardest to use, nor the camera that’s slowest to work, nor even the camera that is fastest to use or easiest to work.  Using a large format camera does not magically transform your photography into a contemplative experience.  The camera that produces the most contemplative process flow for a photographer is the camera that comes closest to a seamless, perfect fit with the photographer.  For some folks, that’s going to be an 8″x10″ Toyo 810m II; for others, it’s going to be a Leica M8. 

And that’s ok.

7 Responses

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  1. Ed Richards said, on March 20, 2007 at 6:28 pm

    I am not sure how to respond to Paul’s call for speed shooting. I can shoot about as fast as a 4×5 can shoot – I do press photography shots with my Technika. That said, I find it very useful to spend time looking at the image, working on movements, and scanning the GG with the loupe for things I cannot see by eye.

    What I cannot compare to Paul is our image choices – most of what I shoot is the built environment, and I shoot it as classic architecture. When I shoot the pure landscape as Paul does, or when buildings are a small part of the scene, I often skip the GG completely, shooting with the rangefinder and the Linhof viewer. So I suppose I could do those just as easily with my digital, since I do not need to see detail to do it. OTOH, Paul, if you can set up and do complex architecture shots with movements in under 2 minutes, or see them at all in a 5D viewfinder, my hands are off to both your technique and your excellent eyesight. So perhaps the difference is the technical demands of the images we shoot, rather than fundamentally different views of how to use the camera.

  2. Gary Nylander said, on March 20, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    Paul, why don’t you just use the best camera gear that motivates you to want to go out photograph ?, whether it be digital or 4 x 5 , a 100 people could post here all saying that the 4 x 5 is the greatest thing since sliced cheese, but what counts is using the camera that best suits your own particular style of photography.

  3. Guy said, on March 22, 2007 at 9:18 am

    I think the whole “contemplative” thing is a red herring. Contemplation happens when I’m out in the field, when I’m in my creative zone, and when I discover a composition I’d like to capture.

    Messing with equipment is purely technical/mechanical. I don’t want to contemplate mounting lenses, turning the focus knob, or calculating DOF. If anything those are distraction to contemplating the creative aspects of making images.

    I guess it’s really a matter of discipline. If you can train yourself to do the thinking and visualizing without the camera, you don’t need the limitations of your gear to force you to slow down.

    Here’s a more elaborate piece I wrote some time back:

    Keep doing what you do, Paul. You’re an image-maker among gear-heads. Don’t let them assimilate you 🙂


  4. Mike said, on March 23, 2007 at 5:39 am

    “Spending 20 minutes with your head under a darkcloth, gazing lovingly at the ground glass, fiddling with your focusing loupe, adjusting and readjusting camera movements, etc. does not magically imbue your photographs with greater creativity, higher image quality, more artistic merit, or greater economic value.” True. But I like it. I enjoy looking at the image on the ground glass but I don’t particularly care for television. Isn’t that odd?

    For me, one of the advantages of lugging all that large format stuff around with me is that I’m not expected to be in a hurry. When people see me with the 8×10 on a tripod, bag of film holders, etc. they instinctively know that this is a process which isn’t going to be finished any time soon.

    That’s my intent.

    I’ve been photographing, as an amateur, for a while now. Personally, my life over the past 20 years (and especially the last 10,) has been a revolt against the “hurry up” society. I’m not trying to pack as much as possible into every conscious moment of my life; I like to think of it as preferring quality over quantity.

    It is my feeling that when you are standing out there with your motor-driven SLR or this week’s digital techno-wonder, people expect you to take the blasted picture and get on with it. “Git’r done,” and all that crap. If that were the point of photography, I’d take up gardening. If I have to be in a hurry, if my “success” is measured by the number of photographs I’ve taken, then someone somewhere is using the wrong measuring stick.

    I like the process of photographing with a view camera. I -really- like the results. Others don’t. It isn’t a matter of “good” vs. “bad” or even “better” vs. “worse”. It isn’t even a question of digital vs. analog: the world is a big place and has room for many points of view. It is, though, a little presumptuous for one person who doesn’t happen to respond the same way I do to tell me that I’m an incompetant fool. “So when I see a large format photographer spend 15 minutes with his head under the dark cloth, focusing and adjusting movements and so on, I don’t think to myself “Wow, that photographer must be having one blissed out contemplative experience!” Instead I think “Wow, that photographer really needs to learn how to use his camera.” Maybe you ought to consider the possibility that the photographer under the dark cloth sees something that you don’t. Or that he’s taking a short nap. The point is, that photographer isn’t you and you have no idea what’s going through their mind. Criticizing what you are ignorant of is just silly.

    You make nice pictures. I’m more interested in hearing about you, less interested in learning what you think about me, particularly when you don’t know me.


  5. Jim Jirka said, on March 23, 2007 at 7:39 am

    I agree with Mike completely. I too do not feel that I am an incompetant fool when I emerge after 10-15 minutes under the dark cloth. Most of the experience for me with large format is that I don’t feel I have bang off images in two seconds. So what if I take my time enjoying the elements while setting up. What makes it that if you cannot set up in 60 seconds, that you are thought to have no skills? For me it is more the experience of being out and about. The longer I am out in the elements the more I enjoy the experience. It is just my fight against today’s fast and furious.

  6. Foolishness « Musings on Photography said, on March 24, 2007 at 12:00 pm

    […] common thread from this post on the contemplative nature of large format (or rather my disbelief in same) stands out and […]

  7. Wally Brooks said, on November 27, 2009 at 9:06 am

    I am a large format B&W photographer and tend to follow Paul. I will spend the time required to set up my shot. Some times that is 30 seconds some times I forget to lock all controls down and also kick a tripod leg and everything starts over. If I am shooting “found” subjects and have multiple shots and the light is changing rapidly, as in storm light, you work fast. I choose to work in this manner and there is no reason not to put as little time as is needed to get the image. I used to be enamored of the contemplative process taking my time etc and now after shooting for several years focus on what the light looks like and how to render it the way i want in the shortest possible time. When I shoot digital I would also spend time setting up each shot, getting custom white balance, using my hand held meter in advance so the image is correct when made. In both cases your vision takes place in advance of the image. Its all about mastering the craft to create the images. The image is the last part of the process.

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