There’s no way around it. My sensor is just too small. Super Full Frame, 44×33, small Medium Format, whatever you care to call it provides great image quality, particularly in the obsessive hands of the Hasselblad imaging team, but doesn’t go far enough in the aesthetic direction I crave.
First world problem, I know. But please let me explain.
In the South of France, the weather has been foul, recently. Floods, storms, lightning, the whole caboodle. So even the little smidgeons of blue sky you can see in the photograph above were received with relief, after almost a week of constant battering.
Naturally, I snapped. Photographically.
Not just out of relief, but also because it was a visual delight, a painting of subtle hues of grey, barely discernable outlines and traces of colour that would make for a very delicate photograph.
I knew exactly what I had in mind, the sort of large-scale print by Nadav Kander or David Maisel in which you can lose yourself for half an hour following the contours of a shape, marveling at the subtlety of a tone gradient. Something subtle but with very clearly delineated outlines. Something at which a larger sensor excels.
The X1D excelled.
But not enough. Tones are very true, colours are very true. The rendition is excellent but not what I had in mind. Not what a large format view camera (and, maybe, a larger format digital back) would have produced.
I told you: first world problems.
But a problem that matters to me because, when I do previsualise an image, on those rare occasions of conscious creation, I can’t stand gear being a limitation. In this case, the 44×33 format is. Not the X1D. I do believe that camera is wringing out every last drop of goodness that can be had from that silicon postal stamp, and from current technology. Probably better than anything else on the market.
But … not what I had in mind. Which was not a realistic expectation given the gear at hand. Drat, after all those years of claiming that gear doesn’t matter … my credibility … shreds.
But no. When you make a photograph of something perceived tenuously, every tiniest epsilon of deviation from truth degrades how the viewer will perceive the intent. Make this photograph with a phone and a grubby lens and the viewer will wonder whether you’ve gone potty: just shapeless grey clouds. Make it with an X1D and that same viewer begins to understand what it is I saw in that cloud and wanted to capture. Elusive as it was, it begins to transpire.
When I was young, with more time on my hands and less digital indoctrination in my mind, my camera was a Linhof Master Technika. I’ve already described on this blog the hours spent examining the negatives and slides produced by that wonderful camera and the Mamiya 7, through a loupe, on a light table, while the rest of the family watched a movie. Pixel-peeping prequel of the worst kind 😉
The itch never left. Every improvement in gear technology simply delayed its reapearance, simply hiding the limitations of the previous generation behind marginal improvement, for a few weeks or months. The itch is still here, as strong as ever.
Today’s gear focuses all its energy and technology on providing a low commitment what-you-see-is-what-you-get service. No effort required, just point the camera in the right direction and click. Old gear with large surfaces of film took a different approach, possibly closer to what you feel is what you get, because of the deliberate technique it forced upon you and because of the higher subtlety or results (I dare not speak of resolution). It doesn’t get more unscientific than that sentence, but those who have experienced large format photography (and my 4×5 was really the entry level large format) will understand what this means, in subjective terms. And I believe that is why so many artists still use old large-format film today.
Well, I just cracked.
And contacted Linhof, asking for a review sample. DS probably isn’t on their radar. They’ll probably turn me down, and I’ll be happy if they answer at all, unlike sooo many other because we can manufacturers out there (those collapsing right now, btw, so could there be a link between financial downfall and atrocious customer relations, I wonder ???)
But maybe they will 🙂 If not, there’s Arca Swiss, Horseman, Toyo View, Wista, Cambo, Canham, Intrepid and probably others. I’ll pester them all until one gives in or my wallet releases me from my first-world misery.
Does that mean a return to film? Not in a month of Sundays. Life is too short. Processing film is fun. Scanning is the worst waste of time imaginable, this side of fighting French administration.
No, the plan is to use the X1D as a digital back, use the camera’s shifts to explore as much of the image circle as possible and stitch the results into a larger format image.
Nothing really new, then. And, as we well know, something doomed to failure.
I mean, when’s the last time stitching images from a small format camera gave a large format look? Larger files and greater resolution, yes. Shallower depth of field (than the small format equivalent wide angle lens) and Orton effect, yes. Large format look? Not ever.
That look comes from the rendering of old lenses, the look of film and the low amplification of the “negative”. Low resolution lenses with very large image circles produced gorgeous prints in sizes that were one, two or three times the size of the negative. When enlarged more than that, their defects became visible and pop went the magic. To me, a 20 inch Ansel Adams print always looks nicer than a 40 incher.
But anyone who’s seen a well executed contact print from an 11×14 negative knows the trembling-knee feeling and the … shall we say, discomfort … when viewing a greatly enlarged print made from a small format sensor and high resolution lens. Two different aesthetic universes altogether.
I want to recapture that first vibe which, once experienced, leaves an indelible mark on you. Observe a sally Mann original for 20 minutes and you’re cursed forever. Forget your digital printer, forget MTFs, forget 100Mp, all of this becomes, not just meaningless, but nonsensical. True large format is beauty on a whole other – different, rather than better – level.
So, I want to capture that and fail trying. I’ll pester some poor manufacturer into lending me a camera or will buy one. I’ll find one of the all time great lenses of ye old view cam days. One with atrocious MTFs and soul-lifting rendering. And I’ll meticulously scan the image circle with what I consider to be one of the best “affordable “digital backs in existence, the X1D.
But, of course, a digital sensor isn’t a wet collodion plate. The tone curve and grain of digital have nothing to do with that of film. The look of Phocus or Lightroom is a but a distant cousin of the look of Ferrous Sulfate. And then, there’s the deeply philosophical notion that, in moving skies, one global long exposure and a matrix of shorter ones can’t even capture the same reality.
It can’t work. It won’t work. But I’ll have so many giggles trying 🙂
Before you leave, and since we mention beautiful processes, may I remind you that Ctein’s big Dye Transfer Sale on TOP starts at noon PST today and will probably end minutes after that. Chance of a lifetime to own a dye transfer print before the process goes extinct for good (or bad, really). No, I don’t get free prints or anything from Ctein. I love, therefore I share, is all.
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