Photographers are always looking for the perfect camera, even in these days of high megapixel, large sensor, programmable cameras. The selection for many has become more than just a choice between manufacturer loyalties, as it extends to technical demands, and practicality when approaching a particular subject.
There is no doubt in my mind that some of the finest landscape and scenic photographs have been produced, and continue to be made, with the type of camera that is a design that has been with us for over a hundred years, the “view” camera. The great nature photographers Elliot Porter, Ansel Adams, Imogene Cunningham, and Brett Weston used them, and many publications still prefer the quality of 4×5 inch, or larger, sheet film (some readers may never have even seen film).
A local photographer, Peter, stopped by the other day to talk about a 4X5 Burke and James view camera he had purchased. Photographers can easily obtain moderately priced, used, 4×5 inch format film camera by manufacturers like Burke and James, Graphic, Sinar, Linhof, Calumet and many more, that, depending on the use, are similar in application to DSLR (digital single lens reflex) cameras in that there is an extensive array of lenses available, but unlike DSLR’s there is not a limiting lens mount. One must merely find a lens board that has a hole in it the size of the lens you want to use and voila, the camera is ready to go.
For those unaware of just what a view camera is I’ll describe it as an accordion looking contraption, consisting of a flexible light-tight bellows with a focusing screen and film holder on one end, and a lens board and lens on the other. This assembly is usually mounted on a rail or platform and uses a rack and pinion system to move the bellows back and forth for focusing. The main advantage of view cameras is the technical control that one can get because both the front and back have the means available that allows for up, down, and lateral movement. At one time some cameras like his were called “press” cameras because they were the camera of preference for news photographers (seen regularly in old movies), so depending on what the source is the camera might be called a press, field, or large format view camera.
I know that may be confusing to those that have only used DSLR type cameras, but volumes have been written about using view cameras and if you are interested information is readily available and I suggest starting with http://www.viewcamera.com.
Simply put: Consider being able to move a digital camera sensor and lens at different angles. Light certainly doesn’t go around corners, but with a view camera one can change perspective, control distortion, and sharpen an area of focus just by aligning film, lens and subject.
For example, walk up close to a tall building, aim the camera upwards, and release the shutter. The resulting image will show the building having a wider bottom and narrower top. With a view camera one can adjust the film plane and lens plane positions parallel with the building’s wall, and of course this would be easy to accomplish because between the film and the lens there is a bellows that bends easily. This time the resulting image would not be wide at the bottom and narrow at the top, but whatever, the photographer set it to.
It is this control, and not so much the large negative, that draws serious photographers to view camera technology. However, the large 4×5 inch negative does produce impressive results. Although one would traditionally need a photography darkroom with enlarger, chemicals and trays for processing and printing, many modern photographers now use scanners. The film still must be processed, but once done just scan that beautiful, large sheet of film into a computer and then proceed as usual into PhotoShop for image enhancing and printing.
Peter plans on taking his 4×5 on some hikes in and around the British Columbia interior. That’s a neat thing about these foldable cameras; they collapse nicely into a portable box. With a lightweight tripod, a few sheet film holders, and a camera that is easily stuffed into a small backpack, he’ll be on his way. The hills are covered with snow, but if the light is good I know he’ll have a great time there and I look forward to seeing his resulting pictures.