I’ve written already why I continue to shoot my landscapes with medium and large format film vs digital technologies. I want to share with you in this article some additional reasons why there continues to be a large group of us who do so.
I just returned from 2 weeks in the Yellowstone and Grand Tetons National Parks in the USA. These spaces epitomize the best the world has to offer in grand mountain landscapes. If you’ve never been, I hope you get to go soon.
To lay some groundwork, I traveled with two camera bags: one filled with my 35mm gear and the other with my 120 medium format gear (a Mamiya RB67 Pro S). I use the 35 mm to shoot wildlife and the medium format to photograph everything else. What was on my tripod 99% of the time? The medium format camera. I used 22 rolls (220 frames) of either Ilford FP4 B&W or Kodak Portra color film. That’s a lot of shots, but these Parks definitely are “target rich environments” for landscape photographers!
Each of these frames of film were deliberately composed. By that I mean a series of detailed steps that ultimately result in a properly exposed capture of a scene onto the film. Very quickly, the steps include 1: envision the photograph, 2: place the tripod, 3: decide color vs B&W, 4: install the camera on the tripod, 5: quickly view through the lens, 6: change the lens if necessary, and attach the shutter release 7: adjust the tripod head to achieve the composition I wanted, 8: focus to determine the required aperture, 9: set the aperture and focus, 10: determine the correct time associated with the selected aperture (I use both incident and spot meters to do this), 11: set the time, 12: wait for the exact moment to occur if there are moving clouds or lighting changes occurring, 13: trip the shutter, .reset the shutter release, and advance the film, 14: repeat steps 1-13 as necessary to capture a different scene.
You can see it takes a bit of time to capture each and every scene using this technique, so I’m there for awhile. (I had to wait for Old Faithful for over an hour). Being in a National Park, rarely was I alone. While I was composing or waiting for the moment to arrive, I would often see out of the corner of my eye several other visitors walk up and snap a picture, then get back into their cars and zip off the the next interesting place. If they linger at all, it’s to come over to me to see what the heck I’m doing and ask about that ‘big camera.’ If they do come over, I always stop to talk to them to share ideas. After all, this is fun stuff, and I always get a kick out of what they tell me about themselves, what they’ve seen at the Park, or what they like to photograph. I even let them look through my viewfinder if they ask (and they often do).
If you are typical, you’re probably thinking, “..that’s a lot of trouble to just take a picture.” And this is just where it begins. I still need to develop and scan the film, then process the file into an image for printing. So why do I do it?
Simply put, I shoot medium format and larger film sizes because it makes a huge difference in the quality of large wall-sized prints you can make with these images.
While in Jackson, Wyoming (a popular portal to the Grand Teton National Park), I had a chance to visit 3 photographers’ galleries. Jackson is a very ‘artsy’ town, having a dozen or so art galleries within a few square blocks. All three galleries were what I’d call ‘high end’, meaning they offer and display very large photographs, up to 50 x 96 inches or thereabout.
Without exception, the artworks displayed in each gallery was absolutely beautiful. Extremely fine details even at these large sizes, beautiful coloration and composition, and beautiful finishing. Two galleries I’d highly recommend are John Richter Photography (http://www.johnrichterphoto.com) and David Brookover Gallery (http://www.brookovergallery.com/). Both artists have exceptional gallery designs and artwork in large sizes. Both are high end artists, selling their larger creations in the thousands of dollars range.
Would it surprise you to know that neither Richter nor Brookover use digital cameras to create their masterpieces? On the contrary, John typically hauls a 4×5 Toyo film camera around, and David uses one of two 8×10 film view cameras he owns (both were on his gallery floor when I visited, waiting for their next field trip).
I attribute the quality of their images to the fact they use larger format film cameras. This medium is capable of producing the equivalent of a 500 megapixel (for 4×5 scanned images) to 2 Gigapixel (for 8×10 scanned images) for each picture. There are many other finer attributes of film-captured images for these larger formats, but I’ll leave it at a pixel comparison for now. The most capable 35 mm digital cameras achieve 24 megapixels. You can buy digital backs for medium format and large format cameras, but you may need to sell your house first.
To put things into perspective, I know there are a great number of very successful high-end fine art photographers who use digital cameras. But when I look at their artwork (and I did, by the way, when in Jackson), I can definitely tell it. There is no comparison between their large prints and those of Richter and Brookover in terms of technical and artistic quality. That doesn’t make them ‘bad,” just not as beautiful to my eyes.
They say that an artist should study the works of those they admire in order to develop as an artist. Well, I’ve added two artists to my admire list, Richter and Brookover. The experience of getting to see their art first hand, in their own presentations, was inspiring. I’ve also crossed off any idea of becoming a purely digital photographer in the distant future. I’ll continue to shoot some subjects digitally for specific applications, but if I’m shooting a scene that I think will look great hanging over a sofa (for instance), I’m pulling out my medium or large format cameras, and shooting film, every time!
Let me know if this has convinced you to drag out that idle film camera, or if you want to try medium or large format cameras for those special scenes you come upon. I’ll be glad to discuss the introductory steps with you.