That’s right – in this age of megapixels, 64 GB memory cards and cameras that can rattle off over ten frames in the blink of an eye, I choose to shoot film. But, I don’t just shoot any kind of film. I shoot large format with a 4×5 view camera.
View cameras were first developed during the era of the Daguerreotype in the 1800s and are still in use today, albeit by a relatively small proportion of photographers. This was the type of camera used by Ansel Adams to create his unforgettable landscape photography. The whole idea of the view camera and the process involved to shoot with one captured my imagination and I knew it was something that I needed to try.
Into the field
Now, I am still new to the world of large format and I have a lot to learn. Exposure: England, The Yorkshire Dales was the first time that I primarily shot any assignment with my 4×5 camera and I realized fairly quickly that I wasn’t quite prepared for some of the logistics. The gear was heavy. It was tough to load and unload film holders in the field (especially while trying to seek shelter from passing English rainstorms). The light changes quickly in the Yorkshire Dales and all too often I found that by the time I was set up and ready to go, the image that I was trying to capture was long gone.
After a several long days out hiking and shooting, it felt strange to know that I had only created about two dozen exposures while my teammates – who were shooting digital – had probably already made several hundred. What if none of my pictures came out, I wondered? Might not I travel all the way to England, carry thirty pounds of camera gear for days on end all around the Dales, and end up with nothing? It was a possibility.
So, why did I do it?
The answer is actually pretty simple: I chose to shoot with the 4×5 because it forced me to slow down and see the landscape in a different way.
Taking a photograph with a 4×5 view camera is an unavoidably lengthy process. Setting up the camera, composing the image, figuring out the exposure with a hand-held spot meter – all of this takes quite a bit of time. This isn’t a process that I go through for just any photograph. I have to be fully vested in the idea of a picture before I take out the camera. I have to be able to see that image in my mind and know that it is something that I need to capture.
And for me, that is the difference between shooting digital and shooting with my 4×5. Shooting digital is so much more accessible than the 4×5, it makes it easy to capture first and think later. When I walk by something remotely interesting, I can quickly put my digital camera up to my face and rattle off a few frames. I can check the results on the camera’s display and can make adjustments to my exposure and composition based on real-time feedback.
But, when I am out shooting the 4×5, I have to visualize the image fully before I can even begin the process of committing it to film. I am reminded of something Ansel Adams said: “Simply look with perceptive eyes at the world about you, and trust to your own reactions and convictions. Ask yourself: “Does this subject move me to feel, think and dream? Can I visualize a print – my own personal statement of what I feel and want to convey – from the subject before me?
The excitement of finding the memorable
As I ask myself, “does this subject move me?”, I find myself much more aware of the world around me. I am constantly looking for an image that I can commit to. I am seeing the landscape, looking at the light and asking myself if this is a time and place that I want to immortalize in film. Is this a time and place that I want to remember?
And, when I do find that image, nothing compares to the excitement of getting set up to take the shot – because I know that there is the potential to create something beautiful and memorable.
When I got my negatives back from Exposure: England, The Yorkshire Dales I whooped with joy that they came out. Looking at each of the 23 images that I created, I could remember the details of every single one. I know where I was when I took the shot. I can look back at my notes and recall the decisions that I made on composition or the struggles that I had on exposure). Not every image is a keeper, but that’s part of the learning process that I feel I go through every time I shoot the 4×5. I know that those lessons will make me a better photographer overall – whether I am shooting digital or film. Because, in the end, it is not the medium that makes the photograph. Rather, it’s the vision of the photographer and his or her ability translate that vision to the image itself.
The process of visualizing an image and translating it to film is what large format photography is teaching me in a way that nothing else has. That’s why I shoot film.
Note: Written January, 2011