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Why I still love view cameras

Posted by Greg Blue on Monday, October 12th, 2015

My 8X10 large format camera now sits on its Gizzo tripod in a corner of my living room more as a cherished monument to the past than a brilliantly versatile photographic tool. I’ve had that camera since the 1980s and have shot many of my most important images on it, so at least it’s had a good life. Like most photographers, I’d say 98% of my work is now shot digitally (and I love digital photography), but I still do pull out my large format cameras and shoot film on very important shots.

If you have never shot film or worked with a large format view camera, then I urge you to consider experimenting with these cameras. Their camera movements make them exceptionally versatile and give you wonderful control over composition and the image making process. A couple of blog posts ago, I wrote an article on the creative process and dealing with artistic blocks.

One of the suggestions I made (which many artists have made before me) was to consider exploring other means of artistic expression such as music or painting. There are also some incredible opportunities for you to step away from the norm but still explore in the photographic realm – especially with historic processes such as Cyanotype and Vandyke printing, or wet plate and ferrotypes. Even picking up a disposable Diana or Holga camera will give you shitty looking photographs that will send shivers up your spine.

Yes, Yes – I know Photoshop comes with a whole host of filters designed to emulate the Diana, Holga or Polaroid transfers and, to their credit, these filters don’t look entirely unlike the actual thing (and that’s as kind as I get in this case). But seriously, a Diana Camera is going to cost you what – $40? Plastic lenses and leaky camera bodies aren’t that expensive. The reality is that a Photoshop filter is only a poor copy of an actual process – if you create a piece of art like a glass plate or tintype image that by nature is a completely one of a kind image, it will give you a connection to your work that is hard to describe.

There’s a couple of websites that I highly recommend checking out

1) www.alternativephotography.com – This is a fantastic website that gives very good directions on how to use a whole host of historic and alternative photographic processes, and none of them are digital filters. This is the real thing, and very few photographers will be able to emulate what you do if they are trying to fake it in Photoshop.

 

2) www.the-impossible-project.com – The Impossible Project are a bunch of wonderful folks who are manufacturing and bringing back to life many of the instant Polaroid films of old. I am still hoping that will include 4X5 and 8X10 colour Polaroids that are able to do image transfers.

 

I’ve included a few samples of (what are now alternative) or historic processes:

Polaroid Transfers:

Bride Polaroid © Greg Blue 1994

Bride Polaroid © Greg Blue 1994

 

Watch Polaroid © Greg Blue 1992

Watch Polaroid © Greg Blue 1992

 

Polaroid Image Transfers are unfortunately a thing of the past unless you are incredibly lucky and have access to a properly stored supply! Large format Image transfers were done on Polaroid Type 59 (for 4X5 large format) and Type 809 (8X10 large format). Back in the days before digital photography, we used to use Polaroid instant film loaded into our large format and medium format cameras so that we could do test images before we committed to real film.

4X5 Polaroid came in an envelope that would be loaded into a Polaroid film holder – the envelope held the negative, print and chemical packet to process the print. When you put the film holder on “process” and pulled the Polaroid out, two rollers broke the chemical packet and processed the film. 8X10 Polaroid required a machine to process it as the 809 film came in two separate pieces – one negative that was loaded into your camera, and a print plus chemical packet that was loaded into the processing machine. You would raise the dark slide on the negative holder, take the shot, lower the dark slide to protect the negative and then load it into the processor, which would also use rollers to coat the print with the processing chemicals. You’d then wait about 90 seconds, peel the print from the negative and you had your colour instant.

For Polaroid transfers, you would first take a piece of paper for the transfer (most photographers used watercolour paper), soak the paper in water and then use a squeegee to remove the excess water and leave the paper damp. You would then follow the same procedures for processing a Polaroid except instead of waiting 90 seconds for the print to develop, as soon as you pulled the Polaroid through the processor, you would immediately pull the print off the negative and then lay the negative down on the dampened watercolour paper. Next, you would use a rubber roller to press the negative onto the paper and then wait anywhere from 90 seconds to 10 minutes depending on the circumstances. You’d then very carefully peel back the negative to expose the image transfer. If you knew what you were doing, the process had about an 80% success rate, but you always did tons of transfers for each shot, as each one would be different from the last.

The Image transfer of the pocket watch was shot on a 4X5 view camera and transferred onto cold pressed watercolour paper (which has lots of texture). The image transfer of the bride was shot on an 8X10 camera and transferred onto hot pressed watercolour paper, which has a much smoother texture. That image was shot in collaboration with photographer Analee Weinberger who was superb at image transfers when that product was still available.

 

Ferrotypes:

Watch Tintype © Greg Blue 2009

Watch Tintype © Greg Blue 2009

Opera Glasses Tintype © Greg Blue 2011

Opera Glasses Tintype © Greg Blue 2011

Tintypes, also known as ferrotypes, were popular in the late 1800s, especially for portraiture. The metal plates were fairly inexpensive and this made the process affordable to the general public. The original process was pretty toxic however, and is only used in modern times by the most obsessive in regards to historical processes. Modern ferrotypes are much more manageable and are typically shot onto aluminum with a blackened side. Tintypes and ferrotypes, like collodion images, require a black backing to show the image – otherwise the image looks like a very weak negative instead of a positive.

You can order the material for making tintypes from a company in New York called Rockland Colloid – there website is at http://rockaloid.com/tintypes You can also view some very good directions on how to make tintypes at the Alternative Photography website at http://www.alternativephotography.com/wp/processes/liquid-emulsion/the-modern-tintype-process

I shot the two ferrotypes above on my 8X10 camera using blackened aluminum plates and the Rockland tintype kit. I used window light to expose the images and the exposure times were about 30 seconds each.

 

Large format film:

Parents © Greg Blue 2011

Parents © Greg Blue 2011

Of course you can also simply shoot conventional film. These portraits of my parents were shot on a 4X5 view camera on Kodak Tmax 100 black and white film and then printed in the darkroom on Ilford Fibre-based paper. There are times when an image is simply so important, that only the most tried and true archival processes will do – these portraits were two such samples.

As I said earlier – I love digital photography and the digital printing (both colour and B&W) available to us today is superb in quality. But there is a depth and beauty to a handmade B&W fibre-based print especially when it is made from a large format 100 ISO negative that is just magical. In my opinion, it’s not enough to simply go to a museum or gallery to see beautifully printed fibre-based work (and you should most definitely do that). It is far more important to see one of your images printed on a B&W fibre-based print to truly understand the depth and beauty of this medium.

I hope you have had – or will have in the future, the pleasure of shooting with such equipment using these types of processes! If you are interested in viewing the complete image tutorial for my parent’s portraits, you can see it here.

 

Update: Nov 28/15 – Go get thee a Holga! The manufacturer just announced that the celebrated plastic medium format camera will no longer be produced. Sad, sad news.


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Summary
Why I still love view cameras
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Why I still love view cameras
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Why I still love view cameras - My 8X10 large format camera now sits on its Gizzo tripod in a corner of my living room more as a cherished monument to the past than a brilliantly versatile photographic tool.
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3 responses to “Why I still love view cameras”

  1. Matt Law says:

    Looking good, Greg. Should it be “Olga” or “Holga” camera?

  2. Greg Blue Greg Blue says:

    Thanks Matt – actually Holga is the right name. Images shot on the Holga are often referred to as “Lomography” after the name of the company that produces the camera. Plasticky goodness.

  3. Bjorn Hock says:

    Wonderful treatise on the art of “analogue” photography and artistic development.

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