As a working advertising photographer for many decades, it was a simple business decision to transition from film photography to digital photography. No one questions the speed, instant feedback, and yes, overall quality of digital images.
So why would a photographer choose to go fully “retro” and shoot 4×5 sheet film with a vintage view camera? Is there any good reason these days to hide under a dark cloth and move the controls of a classic camera made of wood, while struggling with an upside-down image?
It turns out that there are lots of valid reasons to shoot with an analog view camera, and this savvy digital photographer would like to explain a few of them to you.
Note: The above image shows me with my Graflex 4×5 view camera. You can handhold a camera like this and it can produce a negative that can be scanned to mural-size digital files. Cameras such as this can be found used for $300 or so with a lens.
#1 A View Camera Forces You to Slow Down
Film photography is not an instant process. If you are using a view camera, film photography really slows down, because you have to load film holders, insert them into the camera, close and cock the camera shutter, stop down the aperture, remove the dark slide on the film holder, and finally, trip the shutter.
And that’s for a single exposure. Added to that is the time needed to develop the film, and either scan the film into the digital domain, or, if you’ve really gone retro, go into the darkroom to make a print on old-fashioned photosensitive paper.
On the other hand, there is something quite calming—and productive—about the slow pace of view camera shooting because it forces you to plan your shots. I have to admit, when using a digital camera, it is far too tempting to just click away without much forethought, with the expectation that something good will result if you just fire away long enough.
You might argue that you can look at the results instantly on the camera display, and that is true. However, being able to see ten bad pictures on the screen of your camera is still ten bad pictures.
I have learned that the deliberation needed for view camera photography goes a long way towards honing my “eye” so that I go right to a “keeper” shot. Often the time involved is actually a “wash” because I don’t have to wade through a pile of unsuccessful digital images. That single 4×5 sheet of film covers the job.
On a side note, let me comment on the dismay of digital shooters when they realize that the ground glass image on the view camera is upside-down. Yes, this is off-putting at first, but I can tell you from personal experience that it actually helps final image quality. Painters will often invert their work to judge balance and composition, and the upside-down image on the ground glass helps in the same way.
Furthermore, when you are looking at an image measuring 4×5 inches, it is easier to judge composition and the relation of objects to each other. It’s almost like having a 4×5-inch screen on the back of a digital camera. Details that you might overlook due to their small size are now obvious. This is not a trivial benefit of that large ground glass image.
#2 View Camera Perspective and Depth of Field Is Unique
Without getting into too much optical mumbo-jumbo, let me say that view camera images exhibit a different look and feel from images taken with digital sensors. Because the “normal” lens for large format is much longer than the “normal” lens of a full frame digital camera, images often have a pronounced three-dimension feel to them, a combination of shallow depth of focus and some other more subtle optical differences. It’s the opposite effect of cell phone pictures, where everything is in focus. Thus, it is a creative tool when used properly, with the ability to bring attention to certain image areas while also pushing into softness other image areas.
Taking advantage of this ability is a learned skill, to be sure, but in the right hands produces some lovely effects in portraiture and close-up images and never looks forced as with computer manipulations in post-production. The large ground glass image helps with this, for reasons mentioned above.
#3 An Ideal Architectural Tool
It has become somewhat of a lost art but the control you have with a view camera and architectural subjects can’t be beat. Because the lens and film plane can be moved independently with a view camera, you can achieve parallel vertical lines on building edges, eliminating the “falling backwards” look you get when you point a digital camera upwards. I see this often in pictures for real estate ads.
The various perspective-control lenses available for digital cameras are an attempt to duplicate the tilt adjustment of a view camera, and they do work up to a point. However, they don’t solve the problem of having to view the image on a small screen, where discerning small errors in framing and perspective is not possible.
Most view cameras also permit a “swing” adjustment, which can be used to bring a “near” object on one side into sharp focus along with a “far” object on an opposite side, all without stopping down to pinhole apertures. This is the kind of control that you really can’t achieve with a digital camera equipped with a fixed lens.
#4 Sheet Film Is Easily Scanned
I use a hybrid workflow when shooting sheet film. I develop the film in a daylight drum for black-and-white and send out the film for color. The sheets then go into an Epson V750 flatbed scanner for conversion to TIFF digital files. Because of the 4×5-inch negative size, the scanner does not have to be set for insane levels of resolution to produce large data files. Yet, if you wish, you could order out a high-end drum scan and get a file big enough to print out wall-size murals.
Compared to the aggravation of dealing with curly strips of 35mm or 120 film, loading and scanning 4×5 sheet film is low stress. The film is thick in comparison and sits flat in the negative holder. The smaller magnification that is typical means you don’t see minor dust or scratches.
#5 Sheet Film Is “Self-Archiving”
Digital photography requires constant attention to data integrity and preservation. By necessity, photographers make sure to keep backup copies of images, usually multiple backups in different physical locations; otherwise, they risk losing images to power failures, memory card failures or human error. All of this takes time and attention and is one of the more unpleasant chores of a digital workflow.
Film images on a negative, on the other hand, archive themselves. Once recorded on the film surface, a picture is pretty much there for good, assuming you don’t physically ruin the film. Especially in the case of black-and-white film, the image consists of metallic silver, whose longevity is measured in centuries, with color emulsions stable for decades if stored properly.
There is, in short, something reassuring about film images, a feeling that they will be around after digital images are lost to simple carelessness, or, at the other extreme, a world-wide Internet calamity.
I would advise letting a lab do your film processing at first. Later it is not hard to process film yourself and I find that step oddly enjoyable and relaxing in the same way as taking the picture in the first place. Then it’s off to your scanner, and most likely the results will provide an interesting alternative to the frantic pace of your go-to digital camera.
If you’re interested in learning more about shooting 4×5 sheet film with a view camera, here’s my my follow-up story on Digital Photo Pro detailing how to get started with this type of photography. I’ve included a series of sample images I shot recently with a view camera and 4×5 sheet film.