October 3, 2014

Rollin' Out

With the fall color season upon us, I decided it might be good to shoot some 4x5 again.  So I loaded up the old Graflex film holders with some RVP 50 in total darkness, and the next morning I headed out to a site.

Mind you, this was really an attempt at a re-take.  

Rollin' out to take 4x5 pictures is an adventure. Even a re-take session will have you stopping at ten different other spots and looking for new scenes anyway.

The Cloud That Ate The Sun

Back in 2012, on a day very much like this one, I had arrived at this spot and set up my 4x5.  That day, the weatherman said "mostly sunny".  Well, it was starting to cloud up, and I figured I'd better hurry. 

The thing is, "hurry" is not something you do with a 4x5 view camera.  This is when mistakes happen.

I managed to get one two shots, but sure enough:  for one of them, the film holder wasn't seated all the way in the back of the camera.  The picture blurred.  

"Easy," you say, "Just take another shot."

Normally, yes.  Here, no.

Before I could get a second third shot on that day in 2012, a monstrous storm cloud rolled in and swallowed up the whole landscape in shadow.   Yep, just like that.  Ridiculous!  This is about typical for landscape photography:  the weather seems to have a mind of its own sometimes, and its mind is set against your getting the pictures you want.

There was a moment of vague unease as the giant cloud cast its shadow across the landscape.  I captured that moment on 4x5.

Velvia 100F
Speed Graphic / cloth shutter / 210mm Wollensak
This 4x5 photo was taken literally seconds before a gigantic dark cloud ate up the sun for the rest of the day.
Actually, no;  this photo was taken while the cloud was in the process of eating the sun.

See that shadow climbing up on the hillside? Yup.  Thirty seconds later, I was shooting black and white film.

Flatbed scan, by the way.

Another Try

The photo shown above wasn't actually the view I'd been trying to get;  the other one-- not shown-- blurred.  So here I was:  early October 2014, going for a re-try. 

Today I set up the Graflex camera on a tripod.   While I was waiting for the clouds to get right, I saw a man walking from his vehicle.  I said hello.

"Oh, you brought a view camera," the gentleman said.

Hey, wait a minute.  Your average tourist doesn't say "view camera".  This guy was a photographer.  And unlike most of the people who show up at these places, he didn't appear to be carrying a digital camera.

"It's good to see someone with a real camera," he continued.

And wouldn't you know it... he brought a real camera of his own.  That's because this photographer happened to be John Lilley, artist and 4x5 shooter for many years.

I took this quick picture a few minutes before I had to get going to another site.   (Canon 6D in case you're wondering). 

Spot Metering a Scene

October 2, 2014

I'm glad I met John here, because actually, the clouds never did quite reach a photo-worthy state.  (I did take a couple 4x5 pictures, but I'm not thrilled with the results;  second location was better.) 

He had the right idea here, taking pictures of smaller areas of scenery.  

We both agreed that in terms of color and appearance, film has something that digital lacks.

Meeting up by chance with another 4x5 photographer... it's cool stuff like this that makes film photography so much fun.  

Up For A Challenge

Large format film is the ultimate test of photographic skill.  Sure, I mess up the occasional sheet, and so will you.  But don't give up.  You could drive a long way somewhere and find the weather doesn't pan out.  Maybe the clouds are too dense, too sparse, too dull... the wrong shapes... any number of things.  Maybe it will be too windy.  Maybe the leaves will all show you their drab undersides while the trees sway mockingly in the wind.  They seem to know exactly when you can't use the higher shutter speeds...  all these things I've seen.   And sometimes you will trip that shutter anyway, knowing you can't make it back to that spot for a long time, if ever. 

Before I left for this trip, I thought I'd easily be able to top the one from 2012 (photo on this page).  Now I appreciate that I even got that shot at all.  The orange October colors, the softly surreal blue sky:  the whole aspect is something that proved very hard to duplicate.  This time around, I tried to duplicate it by taking about twenty photos of this same overlook with a digital camera... but no dice.

One, single, rushed 4x5 picture... and I still like the result better than digital.  Then again, even the 4x5 retakes didn't match the original.   A small change in lighting can make the whole picture different. 

But it's all good, because this day I made it to another spot just in time for a couple photos.  The shadows were eating up the scenery already.  I managed to set up the camera quickly and get this shot. (Quick scan;  I didn't make any effort to translate the enormous resolution of 4x5 into digital form.)

Autumn Foothills

October 2, 2014
Fujichrome Velvia 50 (4x5 inch)
Crown Graphic with Optar 135mm f/4.7
f/32 @ about 1/12th sec.

This photo doesn't have that "painterly" sky that so many people seek.  Actually, I like the negative space of a clear blue sky.    It is the most realistic.

Sometimes when I see these perfect puffy-cloud skies in every picture a person takes, it makes me wonder.  Unless you can afford to drive to the same spot every day for a year, chances are you will not get the perfect puffy-cloud sky that you want.

Getting Into Big Film

The "Getting Started in 4x5" section is now a separate article.

Even if it weren't for the resolution, I like the whole process of using large format cameras and film.  But there's something special about those big transparencies.

Medium format is tons of fun, but it doesn't have the tactile aspect of slapping one of those big, flat film holders into the back of a press camera.  

For me, part of the fun is actually the use of older equipment.  One of my film holders is kind of sketchy and may have a light leak, but I can never remember which one;  so I carefully wrap every one of them in aluminum foil when they're not immediately being used.   These are the kinds of things that have a comforting familiarity after a while.  Odd, I guess, but I prefer that over the mass-produced quality of digital.


Get started in 4x5, and you'll be hooked for life.  It's fun, challenging, and satisfying... even when it's not satisfying.   But that's what keeps you trying for better shots.  Missed one?  You know you're just going to have to drive back there to take that picture again.  (Someone wants your work for free, huh?  Tell 'em to go get their own 4x5 camera.)

I hope you enjoyed this article.  Thanks for visiting my website!

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