Sunday, August 30, 2015

My Thirty Years of Shooting with a View Camera

Albert Head Lagoon, #41, December, 1985

   I don't often write about "camera gear" posts here, but in this modern photographic era with digital cameras being the norm now, I thought I would share a few of my thoughts on why I like use the view camera for the creation of my photographs that are featured on my blog here.  I recently realized thats its been nearly 30 years nice I first started shooting with a  4 x 5 view view camera, but there was a time before that when I had this very cool antique view camera that I bought  in the 1978 but didn't use that much. It was a Thorton Pickard with nice red bellows and a beautiful brass made by Cooke, dating from about 1910, it included film holders and had the matching wood tripod which all  fit in a well used leather case. Unfortunately it used an odd size film, 4 3/4" x  6 1/4" so I had to cut down 5 x 7 film, the wooden holders leaked a considerable amount of light ( which I repaired ) and had metal inserts for modern day sheet film,  but I think they were actually made for glass plates.  It never dawned on me at the time that I would want to use it to make "serious" pictures, it was more of a conversation piece, something I brought out to show family and friends.

  What I really needed a camera where I didn't have to cut the film down so one day in November of 1985 I saw this very nice 4 x 5 Tachihara view camera for sale in a Kelowna camera store, it came with a Schneider 150mm Xenar lens and a few film holders. When I first started shooting with it  near I was unsure if I was going in the right direction, I thought maybe I made a big mistake,  although in the beginning I felt that I did made a couple of okay photographs with it  ( Albert Head #41 ) . At the start of 1986 I put the camera away and decided to retreat to the relative safety of medium format, I tried out a couple of different cameras, including the Pentax 645 and and then settled on an older Hasselblad 500CM, I liked the Hasselblad, it was beautifully made plus I felt somewhat familiar using it, it used roll film. I made some nice photographs with the medium format gear but I felt something was missing.

  So the Tachihara 4 x 5 stayed on the shelf in my bedroom closet for a year or so not getting a whole lot of use. In January of 1987 I thought about the view camera sitting there not being used and decided that I was either going to use it or sell it. One day on a beautifully sunny winter day I dusted off the Tachihara view camera, this time fitted with a new ( but used ) 120mm Schneider lens and got in my car to go out and photograph what ever caught my imagination, with no real plan in mind. I drove a while ended up along Drought Hill on Highway 97 which over looks Okanagan Lake, it was a bright sunny day with a few clouds obscured the sun which made patterns of dark and light on the water which also glittered with 'diamonds' where the sun shone. I got home and processed the film  and the negative survived "my learn as I go" film processing. This photograph ( Okanagan Lake #1 ) gave me the reward to carry on using the view camera, and to use it with confidence. During the next few years I studied and read many times over Ansel Adams' technical books, 'The Camera', 'The Negative' and 'The Print', I got better with my technique and learned the fundamentals of the zone system which helped me to visualize my photographs in the field.

  Some people have different reasons for using the view camera or for any camera for that matter including digital, but most would agree that because of the large view camera negative (about 20 square inches for a 4 x 5 negative ) that one can make big enlarged prints from the negative. Despite this, even when I had my print darkroom I never made prints larger than 16 x 20 inches. I found for my style of shooting and the way I "see" that huge enlargements were not always the best way to view my work, and I will admit that in some cases I have not been able to achieve total and absolute pin point and razor sharp focus from near to far, because of the limited depth of field that comes into play with shooting with a view camera.

 For myself there other reasons for using the view camera that are perhaps more aesthetic, for one thing I feel a certain "magic" happens when I use the view camera, difficult to transcribe into meaningful words, but there was something that I was not getting from my photographs when I used 35mm or medium format, I have found that when I approach my subject when using the view camera,  I engage my mind more towards visualizing my subject, how it would look in print form, ( yes if I really applied myself I could use the same methods while using any other kind of camera ). Also I feel that when I'm using the view camera it forces me to shoot outside the box so to speak. I can no longer rely on putting a camera up to my eye and choosing the right composition by  moving to and fro, with the view camera it becomes more decisive, and its more intuitive and makes me think more when settling on my final composition, I like that the image is upside down and backwards on the camera's ground glass screen, this makes the art of composition more challenging and rewarding when I do get it right. Finally there is never a right or wrong way in the creative process, or what ever camera one may choose, they are just "tools" which we use in various ways on different paths to create a photograph, that perhaps over might find interesting. 

This is the process that works for me, I hope I can keep the "magic" happening for another 30 years or more!

Gary Nylander,
West Kelowna, BC, Canada,

Okanagan Lake, #1, January, 1987

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