Musings on Photography

Contemplative Cameras

Posted in equipment, process by Paul Butzi on March 29, 2007

Here’s an interesting gedanken experiment regarding view cameras and how to make your photography more contemplative.

If large format cameras are somehow able to allow/force photographers into a more contemplative process than other cameras, we can enumerate the differences between the cameras, and then one by one modify a digital SLR to match that feature of the view camera, and consider whether the change will make our photographic process more or less contemplative.

For instance, a view camera must be focused using a loupe on the ground glass; a digital SLR usually will have autofocus.  But we could, for instance, turn off autofocus and use one of the digital SLRs with live preview on the rear screen, and modify the software so that you could slide a software ‘loupe’ around the image, to check the focus when enlarged.  Focusing would, indeed, be much slower than using autofocus.  We could even add a special ‘make focusing hard’ feature that makes the virtual loupe image get dimmer to make it harder, and we could force the user to use ‘virtual loupe tilt’ to view the image near the edge.  Would changing the digital SLR to have difficult focusing make our process more contemplative?

The image on the ground glass of a view camera is upside down.  The image in the viewfinder of an SLR is, generally, right side up.  But we can easily modify an SLR to present the image upside down, by replacing the pentaprism.  Would having everything in the viewfinder be upside down make our photography more contemplative?

Touching on the ground glass/viewfinder issue again, view cameras have a large ground glass to view the proposed photo, and SLRs have squinty viewfinders.  Would replacing the viewfinder of the SLR with a 4″x5″ very high resolution display which must be viewed under a dark cloth make our photography more contemplative?

We could also try to capture the different form factor of the view camera, which is generally a lot larger than the SLR.  We could, for instance, hide the SLR inside a bellows, which would make the camera large and bulky and act as a sail in high wind.  But would putting the SLR inside a box make our photography more contemplative?

View cameras are heavier than SLRs.  So perhaps we should bolt a lead weight on the SLR, so that instead of weighing two pounds, it weighs eight.  Does making the camera heavier make photography more contemplative?

SLRs typically have built in, through the lens metering.  View cameras don’t.  But we can ignore the in camera meter in our SLR, put the camera in manual mode, and do all our metering with a spot meter.  Will doing this make photography more contemplative?

As a general thing, a digital SLR doesn’t have movements, and a view camera generally does.  Ignoring for a moment that many large format photographs are made without using movements (particularly landscapes done with short lenses), we can use tilt/shift lenses on the digital SLR to get movements.  It’s going to be harder to adjust the movements on the SLR, but since it appears that most of the differences between view cameras and SLRs are such that the view camera is harder to use, we might actually view this increased difficulty as an opportunity to make the SLR even more contemplative than a regular view camera.  Does using tilt/shift lenses make photography more contemplative?

View cameras are (almost always) used mounted on tripods.  We can mount an SLR on a tripod.  Does using a tripod make our photography more contemplative?

One of the commenters expressed the view that, when using a view camera, he felt onlookers expected it would take a while to make an exposure, but that with an SLR, he felt the onlookers pressured him to “take the blasted picture and get on with it.”  We could make modifications to the SLR, adding dials and knobs and controls that did nothing but looked very impressive.  When we did this, onlookers would see how complex the operation is, and they would expect that it would take a while to make an exposure.  Would adding lots of fake dials and controls to an SLR make our photography more contemplative?

A view camera typically requires longer exposure times than an SLR.  We can put a neutral density filter on the lens of the SLR, to make exposure times arbitrarily long.  Does doing this make our photography more contemplative?

If our goal is to have our photographic process be contemplative, and some cameras are more supportive of this than others, then it makes sense to invest some time and energy in understanding what features (or synergistic combinations of features) tend to add to the contemplative experience and what features tend to diminish it.

23 Responses

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  1. Mark Hobson said, on March 29, 2007 at 7:54 am

    I’m still not getting the connection of how the amount of time spent on the mechanics of a format/technique influence the ‘contemplation’ of the the subject matter.

    Isn’t the objective to ‘master’ technique so that one can ‘forget’ technique in order that it not ‘get in the way’ of picture taking?

    Assuming that we’re speaking about landscape photography, does one spend any more or less time framing the subject with a view camera or a dslr? If so, aside from the notion of cost, why?

    I suspect that this discussion is really more about the differences between a moderist and postmodeernist approach to the medium, or so it seems to me.

  2. Mark Hobson said, on March 29, 2007 at 7:58 am

    bad typing – of course I mean the diffeerences between a modernist and a postmodernist approach to the medium.

  3. Nicolai said, on March 29, 2007 at 11:51 am

    Why not go for broke? Attach a box with ground glass and a projection lens that the DLSR viewfinder projects its image onto. Stick a Horseman LD DLSR bellow system on the front and you can get the full experience.

  4. Ed Richards said, on March 29, 2007 at 12:14 pm

    A serious difference for me, and one that is exacerbated for lenses that depart from normal, is being able to see detail in the viewfinder.

    Focusing is no problem, what I mean is looking hard at all areas of the image with the loupe to make sure that there are not things there I out, to make sure I am not cutting things off that I do not see, and, when I am using movements, to make sure I there are not things sticking out of the wedge of focus.

    I cannot not see that level of detail in a DSLR viewfinder, nor can I effectively see it by eye in the scene, esp. with really wide or long lenses. Now if DSLRs were set up like the old Canon F1 or Nikon, so I could take the prism off and use a real magnifier – as we did somethings in the film world – this might be less of an issue. Even then, however, it was hard to see the equivalent level of detail. I make this worse because I like to crop 4×5 like I did 35mm – right out to the edge of the frame, as if every shot is going to be a contact print.

  5. quang-tuan luong said, on March 29, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    An image shot on sheet film costs in the $5-$10 range. If using film holders, it also requires some investment in time for loading and unloading.

    We can interface the digital camera with a wireless system that ensures that your credit card is instantly debited for that amount each time you click. In addition, we will make sure that you have to type the 16 digit name of each individual digital file on your card before it is downloaded.

    This, I think, would cause many digital photographers to look more.

  6. sjconnor said, on March 29, 2007 at 7:05 pm

    Um, isn’t “contemplative” in the eye of the contemplator? Large format, dSLR, box Brownie – why does this matter?

  7. Paul Butzi said, on March 29, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    Um, isn’t “contemplative” in the eye of the contemplator? Large format, dSLR, box Brownie – why does this matter?

    I think the contemplative thing might be important. Everyone is talking about how positive a contemplative process is.

    Naturally, if it’s such great stuff (and I’m not being sarcastic, here, I’m serious) then I think it make sense to examine the LF process and figure out which parts of using a view camera create this contemplative experience.

    Maybe we can export it to other formats. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

  8. Mike O'donoghue said, on March 29, 2007 at 10:55 pm

    Rehashing the old digital/analog debate? I like this quote from Tillman Crane’s website (http://www.tillmancrane.com/musings/musings.html): “The digital world is based on planned obsolescence. The digital camera you buy today, like a computer, is worth half as much when you get it home and it makes a fine paper weight in three years or less. How do you budget for constant replacement of equipment? Not only cameras, but printers, computers and programs have to be upgraded every year at least. It is a financial nightmare for schools trying to run a digital program. Digital means ‘the latest” or the “newest”. It is impossible to keep up.”

    I believe contemplation happens before the camera is set up (or for 35mm — pointed) at the subject. Perhaps just going into the field with an open/empty mind is “contemplation” enough. No expectations and take what’s there.

  9. StephaneB said, on March 30, 2007 at 2:54 am

    Being contemplative is an attitude. As such, it is all in the head, not in the camera. I find a camera viewfinder, even a large format one, to be quite poor a device to contemplate a landscape or whatever.

    I find all those discussions fascinating, probably because I can’t figure out why they even take place.

    As to export some LF aspects to other formats, just put the camera on a tripod and you’re there 🙂 I did it with about anything, from an M6 to a view camera. It always boils down to frame, focus, spot meter, apply the aperture/speed and shoot. What else exactly one manages to do beats me.

  10. Guy Tal said, on March 30, 2007 at 6:26 am

    “The digital world is based on planned obsolescence. The digital camera you buy today, like a computer, is worth half as much when you get it home and it makes a fine paper weight in three years or less.”

    This is plain wrong. It’s certainly what camera manufacturers want you to believe but the camera you buy today will not produce different images in 3 years. Today you can buy a camera that will outperform 35mm film and come close (and in some cases exceed) to the performance of some medium formats. In 3 years it will still be better then 35mm and still come close to medium formats, so where’s the obsolescence?

    Sure there will be newer/better toys on the market. This doesn’t diminish the capabilities of the one you buy today.

    If you want to buy a camera that holds its value, get an old unused Leica and put it in a vault. If you want to make images, get a camera that meets your imaging needs. The only way it will become obsolete is if your imaging needs change or if you’re gullible enough to believe everything you read in ads.

    Guy

  11. Ed Richards said, on March 30, 2007 at 8:20 am

    Shooting tethered to a small laptop with a good screen, as may pros do, would let you see much more of what you are doing, and would make using TS lenses much more precise.

  12. paul said, on March 30, 2007 at 8:48 am

    I think that the contemplation has little or nothing to do with the camera. It has more to do with the photographer taking time to stop, look, listen, and slow down to take that picture. I’m assuming landscape here, not sports. 🙂

    I can be just as contemplative with my digital as I was with my 4×5, which I have sold. I can also be more experimental with digital, which I find to be a boon to creativity. I’m no longer chained to the cost per shot thinking.

  13. Ed Richards said, on March 30, 2007 at 9:04 am

    An arguement against contemplation:

    “When Winogrand died in 1984, he left more than 2500 rolls of film exposed but undeveloped, 6500 rolls developed but not proofed, and 3000 rolls proofed but not examined. That’s a total of a third of a million unedited exposures.”

    Leave a Reply

  14. tim atherton said, on March 30, 2007 at 9:10 am

    An arguement against contemplation:

    “When Winogrand died in 1984, he left more than 2500 rolls of film exposed but undeveloped, 6500 rolls developed but not proofed, and 3000 rolls proofed but not examined. That’s a total of a third of a million unedited exposures.”

    see it here – both the lack of contemplation (I don’t think you could actually photograph faster) and the “massive” film archive itself – in plastic supermarket bags. Oh – and of course – the genius…

    (movie at the bottom of the page)

    http://photo-muse.blogspot.com/2007/03/winogrand-at-work-movie.html

    Of course I’m also tempted to think the opposite -on the street Garry W was in astate of continuous contemplation…

  15. Paul Butzi said, on March 30, 2007 at 9:36 am

    A serious difference for me, and one that is exacerbated for lenses that depart from normal, is being able to see detail in the viewfinder.

    Focusing is no problem, what I mean is looking hard at all areas of the image with the loupe to make sure that there are not things there I out, to make sure I am not cutting things off that I do not see, and, when I am using movements, to make sure I there are not things sticking out of the wedge of focus.

    So is this checking for stuff a contemplative activity?

    I’m aware that there are lots of differences between using an SLR and using a view camera. Right now, though, I’m explicitly interested in the ones that might generate a more contemplative process, and I’m explicitly not interested in ones that don’t.

  16. Paul Butzi said, on March 30, 2007 at 9:39 am

    An arguement against contemplation:

    “When Winogrand died in 1984, he left more than 2500 rolls of film exposed but undeveloped, 6500 rolls developed but not proofed, and 3000 rolls proofed but not examined. That’s a total of a third of a million unedited exposures.”

    Leave a Reply

    Well, you’ve posted this on two different threads, so it must be important, but I confess I’m not getting what you’re trying to say, here.

    Winogrand was known for making lots and lots of exposures. Are you saying that his process was not a contemplative one simply because the interval between exposures was short?

    Because, having watched the film of him photographing, I would disagree. I think that when photographing, he was in a more or less continuously contemplative state. He just made a lot of exposures, and he spent very little time fiddling with the camera.

  17. Mike O'Donoghue said, on March 30, 2007 at 9:44 am

    Winogrand certainly had a knack for the stilted street shot, no doubt, but what’s the point in kicking the bucket and leaving so much unsorted material? And how many useable pictures are contained therein? Seems to me like the old shotgun method in practice….

  18. Guy Tal said, on March 30, 2007 at 10:02 am

    While we’re at it, who said contemplation has to be a slow process. Cartier-Bresson argued he could recognize defining moments in split seconds:

    “To take photographs means to recognize — simultaneously and within a fraction of a second — both the fact itself and the rigorous organization of visually perceived forms that give it meaning. It is putting one’s head, one’s eye and one’s heart on the same axis.” -Henri Cartier-Bresson

    Guy/secon

  19. Ed Richards said, on March 30, 2007 at 10:03 am

    > So is this checking for stuff a contemplative activity?

    Yes, because I am looking hard at the image and the composition and thinking about how will translate into a print. Sometimes I move the camera a little, sometimes I do not take the picture. A lot of my shots are pretty wide and close, so camera position matters a lot. I seem to remember that you seldom use wide lenses, which may be why you find it easier to position the camera by eye. Using a 90 or a 65 makes it a lot harder to position by eye, or even with a multifocus viewfinder. This gets more difficult as you get closer to the subject.

    (I posted in two places because I cannot figure out how to edit incorrect posts.)

  20. Mike said, on March 30, 2007 at 10:29 am

    I think that for me, StephaneB got it right above when he said, “Being contemplative is an attitude. As such, it is all in the head, not in the camera.” As amusing as this series of discussions has gotten to be, I’m relieved that someone has finally said the obvious succinctly.

    Whatever one interprets “contemplative” to mean, it almost certainly resides in neither the hardware or the process. Either may hinder or facilitate it, but it isn’t inherent in either. If you’re a contemplative person I suppose that you’ll gravitate toward contemplation in your photography. If not then probably not. Whether that is a good thing or not is probably a matter for another discussion (which I’m not inviting.)

    It is amusing, though, to see how this discussion has in some respects moved on to the usual “digital/analog” conundrum. Had there been an Internet in 1920-40 era we might have seen the same thing in 35mm vs. large format terms. As meaningless as it would have been then it is almost certainly as meaningless now, but it is still fun to watch.

    As someone immersed in computer technology for the past 25+ years, the geek in me has to point out some meaningless nits, though. For example, yes, a digital device such as a camera can, in theory, keep on going forever and photographers using digital cameras can, in theory, buy one and never have to buy another. It is unlikely, for a number of reasons (people being people is a big part of it — the vast majority of us do enjoy playing with new toys, after all,) but coming from the computer field is in some way analogous. There is no reason, for example, that a computer with necessary maintenance and repair can’t continue to function forever.

    They don’t of course. A computer isn’t an island unto itself: it is dependant on additional technologies such as software, communications, etc. But the real killer factor is availability of replacement parts. A study was recently done, for example, showing that three years is something of a magic number for hard drives. There is a big spike in failures at about that age. One of my PCs at home just shorted the motherboard not long ago. It was an old PC, 500mhz Pentium, but it was doing what I needed it to do and I’m sorry that I can’t repair it. It was from an older technological era, you see, and motherboards made today would require extensive reworking of the case to fit. Connector holes, mounting holes, even the power supply connectors are all wrong for current stuff. It’s both easier and cheaper to just junk what’s left and get another one.

    So yes, someone with a digital camera doesn’t absolutely have to buy a new camera every n years. But when it breaks, good luck getting it fixed. Modern consumer electronics vendors just don’t make spare parts much beyond a 3-5 year product life. When the last have been used, you are out of luck. And let’s be honest: consumer electronics are not designed or intended to be used for a long time. There’s a strong economic incentive for products to not long outlast their warranties and, statistically, they don’t by very much. As always, your mileage may vary.

    The last time I checked, view cameras don’t seem to be prone to that problem; at least, not to that degree. That doesn’t make view cameras “good” or digital cameras “bad”, it was simply meant to point out that there is some truth in Mike O’Donoghue’s comment above and why passionate denials of a digital photographer’s ongoing need for re-investment are funny. Extend that to all the peripheral equipment required for digital photography and it is fairly easy to understand that a regular cycle of upgrading is, in fact, a part of a digital photographer’s life. It’s the same with analog: film and paper change, too. Today’s Tri-X isn’t your daddy’s Tri-X; Michael and Paula Smith made a huge investment in a film Kodak discontinued, maxing out their credit cards so that they, at least, would be able to continue to work with materials they wanted to work with. On a more personal note, I see that there is some momentum to outlaw the sale and use of incandescent light bulbs. Those of us with enlargers can officially begin being nervous now. 🙂 This isn’t strictly confined to digital, although the effects will, I think, mostly be seen there.

    Just don’t let me hear that as a digital photographer you’re somehow immune to the need to regularly invest in new stuff. It is digital, not magic.

    I’ve found it increasingly necessary to put in a disclaimer in disussions of this nature, so forgive me if anyone has actually read this far: I’m not anti-digital, I’m pro-film. I don’t dislike new this technology, I just have no interest in using it myself for the purposes for which I use film. For astrophotography (astronomy is another hobby of mine,) I wouldn’t even think of using film any more. Go CCD cameras! I have no interest in learning to paint, either, but I don’t hate painting or painters.

    Mike

  21. tim atherton said, on March 30, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Winogrand certainly had a knack for the stilted street shot, no doubt, but what’s the point in kicking the bucket and leaving so much unsorted material? And how many useable pictures are contained therein? Seems to me like the old shotgun method in practice….

    having talked to two different poeple who have worked on editing it different times, as well as looked through a small bunch of contact sheets at one time, the hit rate (usable pictures) is more than you’ll ever dream of… much more

  22. Bryan Willman said, on March 30, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    (2nd try)

    I found that the large ground glass was (is) indeed more contemplative, but not necessarily in a good way. I found that seeing the image, upside down, swaying in the breeze, large, was magic. (Lens wide open on a bright day.) The images were poor and few in number, so the viewing on the ground glass was much better than the film result.

    So yes, a large format camera could or would be more contemplative than a DSLR, but in the same sort of “mesmerized/distracted” sense as binoculars, telescopes, and large windows looking out onto scenic vistas. All wonderful, but not particularly related to photography…

  23. Mike O'Donoghue said, on April 1, 2007 at 8:24 am

    Well, those “poeple” Mr Atherton talked to seem to know what I dream of …. interesting, very.


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