An abundance of articles mention those idealized styles and the gear aimed at creating them “on the cheap”. My experience in that respect has been … underwhelming 😉 But getting to the roots of those looks can help us recreate them with common gear!
A lot has been written about the cinematic look and the large format look.
And, a few years ago, when Sony took the world by storm with their fantastic new mirrorless cameras that could use lenses from almost any brand so long as they covered the sensor, a range of accessories flared up and promised to transform those cameras into large format monsters and cine cams. They probably existed before and could probably be used with other cameras, they just seemed to become more famous as Sony stirred the soup with their extra marital lens matings.
There was the Mirex, which I owned and reviewed and sold immediately after 😉 Superb build quality, superb functionality, lazy user. And there were others, the name of which now elude me. All allowed the diligent user to scan the rear of a larger format lens and stitch an image for more pixels and a large format look.
Nowadays, all the craze is in high resolution video. God help the manufacturer who releases a 500 bucks camera that doesn’t do 16K in 240 fps from an 80Mp sensor. Might be a good time to invest in Sandisk, Western Digital and Samsung stock.
Because slow-mo, you know. That cinematic look.
Except it ain’t that simple, really. Because there are multiple cinematic looks, not one, to consider. And because profound technical evolutions in cinema cameras is mixing up the looks even more.
So I’ll try to explain my personal take on those looks and how to reproduce them, based on a semi-technical approach to the subject. This will take several posts, so this first one will focus on large format photography. Cine looks will come in later instalments.
There are no really large format digital sensors around these days. That would be a lovely idea, but so far, nada. The current dogma is one of slicing and dicing in as many pieces as possible rather than offering a generous uninterrupted surface. A few years ago, you could buy a scanning back that covered a huge surface compared to our modern offerings, but that required a perfectly steady mount and a steady subject, a bit like pixel-shift today. Let’s ignore those early curiosities for this discussion.
Since technology and economics make smaller sensors more viable, the idea behind the Mirex and others seems very valid : grab a large format lens, scan the image circle piece by piece with a smaller sensor, and presto. And it kinda worked, though it was a little cumbersome.
An easier alternative is to stitch multiple frames using your everyday camera and home for similar results. Sadly, it’s not that simple.
The photos above and below are both panoramas of two X1D frames. That’s often my goto method to create a square frame without cropping into that sensor. If the subject allows it, it works just fine. But it doesn’t look like anything else than a Hassy X1D photograph. Just like stitches of 4 or more frames with an M43 camera will look like a larger photograph made by an M43 camera, not an Ansel Adam’s 8×10 contact print.
The Mirex had one thing correct in that it required the use of a medium format lens. In my case, Mamiya 645 lenses (which I am now kicking myself for selling 😉 ) What my Sony A7r2 was sampling, with the help of the Mirex, was the look of those lenses. A very different look from the Sony Zeiss I was using at the time. And one step in the right direction.
But only one step, and not a big enough one for the large format look. So what’s really required?
This may seem obvious, but the Mirex solution only offers us a sliver of steps 1 and 3 and nothing of step 2. Let’s examine those in turn.
There are stunningly sharp large format lenses for sale today. Rodenstock, Nikon, Schneider (and probably others) all sell modern offerings optimized for digital and with MTF curves that put our favourite glass to shame. But, when were talking about the large format look, those are not what we are referring to. The term, while not properly defined, stirs up images of Sally Mann or Brett Weston. Old large format lenses, that it.
And those were not sharp. Not by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, few old large format negatives stand up to much magnification in print. Being so large they don’t need to, even for a decent sized print. In fact, a large part of the large format look hinges on that combination of a not very sharp image that’s not enlarged very much.
Think of the best images produced by the iPhone 12 Pro Max. Well, the exact opposite to that 😉 The iPhone produces tack sharp images on minute pixels that must be enlarged a lot too produce a 20″ print. Around 70 times. Compared to 2 times from a 8×10 negative. Leaving resolution aside, the final aesthetics from a greatly enlarged tack-sharp jpeg and a only slightly enlarged slightly sharp negative are completely different.
Also, large format implies film. Hence gentle highlight rolloff. And that’s another aspect of modern cameras that’s radically different from large format films. Film had a very long shoulder to its tone curves meaning that the transition between very light and completely blown-out zones was very subtle, almost imperceptible. Whereas, in their haste to pretend they are more sensitive than quantum physics allow, digital cameras tend to cut off very brutally. Which is synonymous with hideously.
More than any other factor, my love of the Hasselblad X1D files comes from the fact that its highlight rolloff is far nicer than the one of the Sony A7R2 it replaces. See the cloud photographs, two photographs above. And I believe the CCD image above (from an old Nikon D80) is also far nicer in the highlights than what most high-end CMOS cameras deliver today, in spite of its (theoretically) much lower dynamic range. Even with the glorious Sony A7R4, it is wise to underexpose (sometimes massively) to keep colours in check in light areas of the frame. And, as nice as it is, the X1D still falls a long way short of well processed B&W film from a large format camera.
So, how can you recreate that gentle rolloff? Through HDR and post-processing. Not the mad tone mapping HDR we have all come to know and hate, but one that gently blends well exposed shadows with underexposed highlights. This is where the Zone System still comes in handy. You can even bracket, overlay the two frames in PS layers and simply blend one into the other using good ol’ dodging and burning. Of course a bit of curve massaging for gentle slopes at either ends probably helps as well.
Then, there’s aperture. The f/64 group didn’t get that name from using f/1.2 lenses 😉 In order to obtain sharp images from relatively close up to infinity, large format photographers needed to close down the aperture to such extremes: f/16 to f/64 was the norm.
And there’s focal length. If you accept the “natural” looking lens has a focal length roughly equal to the diagonal of the film/sensor, that’s 40-ish mm for full frame, 10-ish mm for the iPhone and 300-ish mm for 8×10. So you could grab an old medium format 300mm close it down as far as it goes (f/32) and start stitching for vaguely similar results to 8×10.
If it’s sounding like a lot of work, it’s because it is (why do you think you’re not seeing 20 large-format-ish pics on this page? 😉 ) But Leonard has recently show us you can hand hold a 90 frame panorama with astounding results. So, it’s doable.
Don’t think you can skip the long lens part of the deal 😉 Even with very soft light and gentle highlights, the brutal contrast between foreground and background, above, shouts “small” (full frame) sensor.
The local length, aperture and optical design give you the look and perspective of large format. And it’s through stitching of those tiny “large format” post stamps that you broaden the angle of view. Sorry 😉
Now, my longest “old” lens is a 90mm Elmarit-M lens that looks absolutely gorgeous in the right conditions.
Finally, there’s the actual chemical process vs the inkjet or screen, to consider. Should I even bother describing the difference between a retina screen and rice paper with a gelatin coating? 😉
Here, I prefer to diverge from the traditionalists and their chemical-stained borders. Simulating those in a digital process is a step too far for me. It is faking it rather than recreating it. In fact, I very much admire the work of Christopher Thomas, who photographs on large polaroid negatives and then scans for a digital output. But, even though the stains are genuine, seeing them on a digital output is off-putting enough to keep me away from his otherwise glorious prints. I find a good piezo print on art paper really lovely and vintage enough for me. And a carbon print even is better still, if your budget stretches ten fold. Still, that’s just me and everyone’s subjective mileage is legitimate at this point 🙂
So, this, above, is a partial attempt at putting my money where my mouth is. It is a 9-frame stitch made with a 50mm C-Sonnar at f/4, for a roughly 7x7cm sensor size (still a long way from true large format). To me, it still looks a tad “sharp” and modern, but the tonal range is spot on. For the next post, I’ll try a longer focal length and smaller aperture. More important : What do you think? Does this look more like a Linhof or a Smarpthone?
And, while I’m about it, I tried a film medium format look on the same walk. It is below. Convincing?
Those are starting points. After that, everyone explores a different direction. Care to share your ideas or results?
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