I picked up twenty sheets of developed 4×5″ film from the lab today. Although I made hundreds of photographs with my digital camera, these were certainly the most enjoyable to produce and also the ones that filled me with the most trepidation. I’m pleased to report that the results were rather good. Not 100% what I would like . . . but then again I’m a perfectionist who is getting spoiled by the quick (and virtuous) feedback cycle afforded by digital capture and editing.
I really only used my large format camera about a dozen times on the trip, since I bracket most of my exposures, making an extra photograph with a different amount of light reaching the film. The goal is to have a better chance at getting the “right” exposure. On those dozen occasions, the responses from the people around me ran the gamut from indifference to excited interest. I talked to a few people while composing the scene with my head under the focusing cloth; disembodied voices asking me about how my camera works. There were also several people who thought that because I was incapable of seeing them, I also couldn’t hear their conversations about me.
I think my favorite conversation was with a British fellow about my age in Yellowstone.
“That’s some serious gear.” Most people’s first realization that something is up occurs when I unfold the camera as it sits on the tripod. “Are you a professional?”
“No. I’m just a guy with a very expensive hobby; but I’m having a lot of fun.”
Over the next minutes, I attached my wide-angle lens to the camera, set up a photograph of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, focused the camera, took a few meter readings, set the exposure time and aperture, and switched closed the shutter. At that point almost everything is done. I just had to insert the film holder and trip the shutter.
“WOW! That’s some serious gear!” Something about the Quickload film holder touched a geeky, gadget-loving part in my onlooker. I put a sheet of film in the holder, waited for the wind to subside a bit, and tripped the cable release.
“That’s it?” While I find something immensely charming in the mechanical sound of the shutter winding down the fraction of a second that it’s open, most people think it’s anticlimactic, as though fireworks should shoot out from the camera. But then again, I suppose we’re accustomed to thinking that if someone spends fifteen minutes getting a camera ready, the result should be a poster-sized print that magically appears.
The funny thing is, my mom had the same reaction. She wanted to see how my view camera works, so we collaboratively made the image you see above. And I have to admit, it was a bit disappointing that I had to make her wait three weeks to see the result.
But I talked to several very nice people, and a few even took me up on the offer to pop under the focusing hood and see the image on the ground glass. That reaction is the one that makes me the happiest. It usually goes something like this: “It’s dark under here. . . . WHOA! That’s amazing.”
Anyway, enough accentuating the positive. Let’s talk about mistakes.
Fourteen: My ability to get the “correct” exposure sucks (to put it bluntly). As I mentioned, I have been taking a second exposure, usually 1/2 stop brighter, in an effort to get it right. The darker images — which use the exposure values suggested by my meter — are usually 1/2 to one-and-a-half stops underexposed. So I’m going to change my exposure compensation and start bracketing in whole stops. (And eventually I’m going to get an instant film holder to check the images in the field and finally be able to show onlookers something tangible.)
Fifteen: I forgot the filter compensation factor for my polarizing filter. I guessed two stops at maximum effect and seem to have gotten it about right.
Sixteen: Camera shake is quite visible in a 20 square-inch image. Evidently, I need to wait for the camera to settle after the wind stops blowing and after I pull the dark slide on the film. A couple of the image were a bit blurry and not because of focus.
(And for the curious, I’m working on my “ghetto film scanner,” since I still don’t have a scanner that accepts 4×5. The images lack quite a bit of resolution, dynamic range, and color fidelity. But by adding an opaque mask around my film on the light table, I’ve at least managed to get rid of some of the annoying fringing at the edges of the images. I still must use Photoshop to crop the image, correct the perspective, and “fix” the color; and I don’t feel right using it for anything other than showing off here.
I made a couple photographs of my pathetic setup. Yes, it’s made with two hanging file folders taped together which are held flat by whatever I happen to be reading. (Right now that’s the excellent Devil in the White City.)