By Charles Cramer
In 1973, I visited Yosemite for the first time and was smitten. I was in college studying classical piano (I was in it for the big bucks), and soon realized I wanted out of those tiny practice rooms. I read about Ansel Adams, and was inspired, since he started out as a pianist. So, on my next visit to Yosemite, I brought along my new (used) 4x5 camera, the nifty Super Speed Graphic press camera, and began making some remarkably bad negatives and prints. But, after 31 years of practice, I got better! I did eventually upgrade to a Linhof Master V field camera (similar to this one —Ed.), and was perfectly and utterly content with that beautiful camera.
That is, until some of my friends starting using digital DSLRs....
For the past 10–15 years I have been very intrigued with moving water, especially with longish shutter speeds. But this subject matter requires a huge amount of luck, since you don’t really know what the water will look like at different shutter speeds—unless you use a digital camera. On a trip to the Yosemite backcountry in 2002, several of us were photographing the same patch of moving water, and my friend with the digital camera yelled out "fifteenth of a second" as the most effective shutter speed. Seeing my transparencies ten days later—he was right. And he could make tens or hundreds of exposures, without worrying about film and processing costs.
On the next year's trip, I encountered an incredible water display. The base of Yosemite's Waterwheel fall was in shade, with the sun slowly rising behind it. And intermittent jets of water would shoot out far enough to be backlit by the sun. I pulled out my 220 roll film adapter for the 4x5 and started exposing. But this was really tricky, for three reasons.
- The backlit jets were impossible to accurately meter.
- I didn’t know what shutter speed would best show this effect.
- It was hard to time the shutter release with the jets. As the sun rose, the backlighting became even more amazing.
With all those variables, I ended up exposing ten rolls of 220 film—that's 200 exposures (did I mention this was on film?) The exposure you see here was around 1/4th of a second, allowing the backlit water to create streaks, like exploding fireworks. I quickly realized how much easier (and cheaper) this would have been using a digital camera.
But it wasn't until 2006 that a digital camera had enough resolution to compete with 4x5—the Phase One P45 39-megapixel back. My friend Bill Atkinson had earlier switched from using film with his Hasselblad to an earlier Phase One back, and he was interested in this new back, too. At the dealer we staged a shoot-out: the P45 on a Hasselblad, against me with my Linhof armed only with Fuji Velvia. When the smoke cleared, it was all over—except I still had to get my film processed and scanned.
The comparison can be found at the Luminous Landscape website, with a follow-up post five months later at Outbackphoto.com. The P45 was so impressive that I wanted one—but the price ($30K) was outrageous. Since the back came with a three-year guarantee, I computed what I spent the previous year on 4x5 film, processing, and scanning, and multiplied by three—and I was at 80% of the cost of the back. Thus, sheer logic compelled me to buy it! Five years later, I am still very happy to have switched to the dark side, er, the digital realm for capture. (Note to my large format friends: O.K., I sold out—but I get to use zoom lenses!!!)
On the first photo trip I did with this new back, I experienced an almost supernatural event that proved to me that my switch to digital was the right choice! Bill Atkinson and I were photographing the Northern California Redwoods late one drizzly day, and were confronted with this scene:
The overcast provided a beautifully soft, glowing backlight. After doing many digital exposures, I told Bill that I just had to capture this gorgeous light with my 4x5—to make sure I got it. As I walked the few feet to the car—it started to hail! Hail to the extent that the road was now covered with white. My beautiful scene and light was suddenly gone! I took this as a divine intervention—assuring me I didn’t need to use my 4x5 anymore. Bill will testify that I am not making this up (although he thinks it was just a little hailstorm...). I haven't used my 4x5 since.
Here is an image that would not have happened with my film camera. It was getting very late in the day in Acadia, Maine, and I saw this little pool with leaves.
What I didn’t realize was that the pollen foam was slowly rotating. When I saw this slight blur in the LCD screen from a one second exposure, I stopped down to get much more blur. The image here was a four second exposure. Being able to see what is actually happening with differing exposure times, and even changing the composition based on what you then see is a huge advantage.
Two years ago I went to Hawaii, and started playing with slight time-exposures of receding waves. I found about a half-second gave the best combination of smoothness and detail. Even when I did not move the camera, each exposure of the waves created an entirely different composition. It was like the waves were auditioning for me ("How's this one...or this one?") I kept this up at dawn and dusk for the next three or four days, and ended up with around 1800 exposures! Great fun—until you have to edit these down. With that many exposures to work with, I have no excuse if I don’t find at least one good one!
My large format friends always ask me if I miss swings and tilts. To get the same angle of view as my favorite 4x5 lens of 200mm, I now use an 80mm. This decrease in focal length provides about 2 1/2 times more depth-of-field. Also, in a really challenging situation, I can always "focus bracket"—changing the focus point. Since changing the focus even slightly alters the effective focal length of the lens, the two exposures don't register. But, starting with Photoshop CS3, you can now "Auto align" the two exposures and then just paint in the sharpest parts of each exposure.
There is one situation, though, where I want to be able to tilt for focus. In the canyons of southern Utah, colored reflections in the water can be incredible. The water (in shade) reflects colorful things in sun, like red rocks, green or yellow trees (depending on the season), and of course, the brilliant blue sky. With these little creeks, you need a fairly fast shutter speed to capture the color from each respective little ripple. But you also need to get both close and far parts in sharp focus—so the solution is to use tilts so that the plane of focus is parallel with the water. One of my friends wasn't using his Mamiya RZ67—and he had the tilt adaptor and lenses to go with it. So I bought it, along with a Phase One adaptor plate to use my digital back with this camera. If I think I'll be encountering this type of water reflections, I'll take this camera along. Here is an exposure from Harris Wash, near the Escalante that uses this technique. The exposure here was 1/50th of a second.
One of the reasons for my switching to digital capture was the thought that being able to make many more exposures would lead to more "keepers." I'm certainly getting better water images, my camera backpack now weighs about 10 lbs less, and I'm having lots of fun. But, it still seems just as hard to get a really good image. This quote from painter/photographer Charles Sheeler comes to mind: "Isn't it amazing how photography has advanced without improving?" I’m waiting for the camera manufacturers to add a little red light in the viewfinder that comes on when I'm making "ART"!
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Editor's note: As always, you can click on each of the images to see somewhat larger versions. With Charlie's pictures even more than most, you should also be aware that a little online JPEG is but a faint echo of the vibrant and rich real prints. It's difficult to bear in mind when you're "seeing the image" as published here that you're not really seeing the image, but that's the case.