Category Archives: Chamonix

Preview: The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

This is not one of the images in the series that some people may be aware I’ve been working on, The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness, but it is the precursor to that series, made near Beauly in Scotland on a trip with Mike Colechin in March this year:

Introductory image - The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

Introductory image – The Wide Open Spaces of Infinite Darkness

It was made with a large format camera (the series itself is made with a Nikon 35mm camera). It is a negative image, both in terms of what I see it communicating, and the fact that it really is the negative image (i.e. not reversed from the film).

I will upload the series to the page shortly (at the moment, there is just this introductory image on the page, with a short text). Every other image in the series is made using the same lens (28mm) and though shutter speeds change (generally they are very slow), the aperture is kept at f2.8 (wide open…) and the focus is always set to infinity and mostly shot at night (infinite darkness…). Everything about this series is both literal and figurative…

(And if you still think photographs represent some kind of documentary evidence, here’s Mike Colechin’s image of exactly the same bit of ground, made maybe half an hour earlier…)

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Normal views and wide views

Many photographers lust after new cameras and lenses.  Indeed, many spend more time lusting after new equipment than they do consummating – err… working on the relationship they have with the cameras and lenses they already own.

For my large format camera I have one lens.  It is a 180mm lens, and that roughly corresponds to a ‘normal lens’, i.e. one that has about the same perspective as the human eye, or, in 35mm terms, it is about the same as a 50mm lens.  It’s a very fine lens, but there are times when I want a lens with a wider view (say, 90mm), and another with a telephoto view, such as a 300mm.  It is simply(!) finances that preclude me from buying these lenses, I lust after them all the same…

So what to do when trying to make an image that would benefit from a wider view?  In July I made a series of photographs on a very foggy morning at Glen More on the Isle of Mull.  I was trying to photograph the glen near the edge of a lochan in the valley, whilst showing something of the scale of the valley – but the 180mm lens only covered about half of the valley.  So one of my studies involved a triple exposure, moving the camera round a little at a time to include one side of the valley, the bottom of the valley, and the other side.  The ground glass of the large format camera includes grids and markers for various purposes, so it was relatively easy to measure this out.  I think the resulting image manages to communicate something of my view of the scene that morning:

Glen More, Isle of Mull (Ilford FP4+, triple exposure)

Glen More, Isle of Mull (Ilford FP4+, triple exposure)

The use of a 90mm lens would have enabled me to capture the entire breadth of the glen, but the image would have been different: is it important that the image doesn’t ‘look like’ the glen did?  For me this communicates what I saw, even though the hills are not really this precise shape.  I would still like to have a wider lens, but my lusting after such a lens has lessened somewhat since seeing the interesting and rather pleasing result that can be achieved with just the 180mm lens that I already have – in this context it was perfectly possible to communicate the image in my head using the equipment I already had.

 

This is exciting…

… though probably mostly to me! 🙂

On 5. January this year my wife and I were in Strathpeffer, and in the morning we went to the nearby Rogie Falls.  I decided to go back there in the afternoon on my own and try to capture a scene I had noticed in the morning.  A bit of a miscalculation in terms of timing (err… yes, I know, Scottish winter…!) meant that it was rather late in the day to do this, but I was keen to persevere, so I set up the Chamonix looking down into a little gorge.  I started setting up at about 14:45, had a composition I was vaguely satisfied with at 15:15 bearing in mind the decreasing light levels, and took a series of light readings.  I was mortified to find that any reasonable chance of a decent exposure would necessitate at least 30 minutes by the time I included the film’s reciprocity failure.  ‘Never mind,’ I thought, ‘FP4 has plenty of latitude!’ and went for it.  By 15:45, I could barely see anything in the woods around me.  So I decided that another 15 minutes would do no harm, meaning the exposure was 45 minutes long.  It then also started raining which was a good motivator to move on, and I could only pack up and find all my bits and pieces by getting out the head-torch (one of the most useful things to have in a camera bag!).

I finally managed to get the film to the lab and picked it up today.  The resulting negative is slightly under-exposed (another 5-10 minutes would no doubt have helped), but it is perfectly usable with some relatively minor adjustments to levels and curves:

Rogie Falls, Chamonix, Fujinon 180mm, Ilford FP4, f22, 45 minutes

Rogie Falls, Chamonix, Fujinon 180mm, Ilford FP4, f22, 45 minutes

My first reaction to the image is two-fold.  I think it does represent the balance between tremendous chaos and small signs of order that I felt in the woods: all these twisty branches contrasting with the clear white trunks and branches.  I like the way the whiteness of the tree trunks directs my eyes – I can remember seeing this and wanting to achieve precisely that.  And yet I am not completely happy with the composition: the gorge with the fallen-down tree feels a bit lost as the trees on the left dominate the foreground.  I could crop the image to exclude the large tree on the left, but then the other smaller trees seem a bit irrelevant and the white trunks almost seems less prominent – perhaps the large tree is not so much a dominant tree as a counterweight to the thin white lines?

In any case: this is all very exciting for me, because it is the very first large format image I have taken completely on my own, AND I managed to use tilt and movements successfully in achieving reasonable focus across the frame.  I wanted it to be a technically decent image, and it does enough of that for me to be confident to continue what I’m doing, even if it is not (yet?) that emotionally engaging for me.  It may have taken me half-an-hour to set up, it may have been too late in the day to use a sensible exposure time, and it may not be perfectly composed – but I am very happy!

With my large format camera in the Pentland Hills

The Pentland Hills south of Edinburgh are gentle Scottish hills, certainly when compared to the bigger and more spectacular mountains further north.  But they are my local hills, and I do like spending time in them.  When fellow photographer and Twitter-user Mike Colechin visited Edinburgh for work in September, he brought his camera with him, and on his last day here we went into the hills in the morning before he took the train home again.

Mike is a large format photographer, who very generously gave me some film and lent me some of his equipment so I could take my new large format camera out.  I made three images that morning – the first one by accident!  I didn’t manage to put the dark slide into the camera properly and so half the image is basically white, as light leaked in from the side.  This is the successful version of that scene (slightly underexposed, but as it was on my favourite black and white film, Ilford FP4+,  that’s irrelevant and easily recoverable with a little adjustment of levels and curves in Photoshop):

Castlelaw Hill Fort, Pentland Hills (with a Nikkor-W 150mm lens, f16, 1/4s)

Castlelaw Hill Fort, Pentland Hills (with a Nikkor-W 150mm lens, f16, 1/4s)

It’s not a fabulous image, but I do like the valley and the lines on the hillsides that are apparent here.  Perhaps I could have worked on these a little more in Photoshop, but I don’t quite see the point – at the time, we both agreed that this was going to be difficult to work at, and I’d rather leave it to be a little more subtle and hard to follow.  For me, this is what the Pentlands are like: deceptively simple little hills that don’t require very much effort to get up (at least, not when compared to some of the afore-mentioned more northern hills!), but they have something intriguing about them.  This particular area, past Castlelaw Hill Fort heading northwards, is deceptively bland at times, but there is actually so much to see, if only one can be bothered to look.

The third image is not quite what I wanted: I was trying to photograph some grasses, but somehow my focussing didn’t… er… quite work out.  The grasses in the foreground are in focus, but the context is not – it is basically an image that is ok, but could have been made on a medium format or 35mm camera, and not what I intended.

My large format adventures are about to move up a gear: I expect to take delivery of a lens (180mm f5.6 Fujinon-W) this week, as well as some double-dark-slides and a changing bag.  I have some Velvia on order (who knows when that will come!), but what I will buy next is a large batch of FP4+, partly because I feel I need the forgiving nature of exposure errors that this film allows, and partly because I think my composition skills will improve using black and white.  It is all very exciting – if only I didn’t have a day job to distract me! 🙂

New camera, new challenges

I’m just back from two weeks’ holiday in the Highlands and Islands.  Before going I was beginning to toy with the idea of a pinhole camera, but something else has come up…

New camera

Last year I went on a large format photography day workshop – a kind of taster to see if this kind of thing might be of interest to me.  It was… and soon after that I was nearly tempted into buying one of Mark Banks’ view cameras that he was selling, but I couldn’t quite afford it at the time (have a look at his website, by the way – wonderful images!).

Whilst on holiday near Inverness a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Ffordes – a fantastic camera shop selling all kinds of new and second-hand camera equipment.  I was there to buy a spare plate for my tripod head (which I did, second-hand, at £7, and my bank balance would have been very happy had I just walked out of the shop at that point).  But I also asked about prices for wide lenses for my Mamiya MF camera, and somehow the discussion then moved on to other things… and before long a Chamonix 4×5 view camera was mentioned…

Chamonix view camera

Chamonix view camera

Almost completely unused and on sale at a pretty good price, I went away to think about it, consult some Twitter users of 4×5 cameras, and the next day, I went back to buy it. Gulp!

Chamonix view camera

Chamonix view camera

So now I have a rather beautiful view camera!  It is one of the cameras that Dav Thomas and Tim Parkin recommended when I was on their large-format workshop last year, and I know that other photographers like Tim Smalley have used Chamonix cameras after being on Dav and Tim’s workshops.  I don’t yet have any lenses for it, nor do I have any of the other accessories I’ll need, but I’ll be working towards acquiring these just as soon as I have paid off the credit card bill for the camera! 😉

Chamonix view camera

Chamonix view camera

The Chamonix is very light, and folds down to become fairly small and rather elegant.  I don’t really get very excited about modern cameras: my digital Nikon is a great camera and does the job well, but it is pretty soulless.  However, there is something absolutely exquisite about this view camera, which is partly, I think, to do with there being no plastic – it’s made of metal, wood, and glass, with board for the bellows.

Chamonix view camera

Chamonix view camera

This makes handling it a very tactile experience, even before it’s seen any usage.  I also like the attention to detail in the construction of the body, which makes me want to touch it and use it right away.  I know that a modern digital camera is designed and made with amazing attention to detail: every component is precisely formed within fractions of a millimetre so as to squeeze in every last little bit of technological wizardry, but still… this is somehow different.  I never thought I’d be this sentimental and romantic about a camera, but it really is a beautiful piece of equipment! 🙂

Chamonix view camera

Chamonix view camera

Of course, it’s all very well being excited about the tactile nature of the camera – I need to use it properly and create images with it that work for me and communicate something of what I understand and see in the landscape.  Given that I don’t have any of the necessary accessories yet, that might take a little while, but it will come… I would hope that I’m able to start working with it in a couple of months’ time at the latest (afore-mentioned credit card bill being a key factor…!).

New challenges

Calanais, taken on my iPhone the previous evening

Calanais, taken on my iPhone the previous evening

A few days after buying the Chamonix I was on the Isle of Lewis – an amazing experience, of which more another time (my films are being processed at the moment and I won’t get them back until later this week).  The house we were staying in didn’t have much of a mobile signal, but I was out one afternoon photographing the second and third group of Calanais standing stones where the mobile reception was pretty good, and Twitter chatter from a few days before that confirmed the news that Fuji are withdrawing Velvia 50 and 100F in 4×5 format – just as I buy myself a 4×5 camera!  As it is for many other people, Velvia 50 is my favourite colour film for landscapes, so I found that news rather depressing, and I even found myself wondering if I had made a mistake buying the Chamonix if my favourite colour film was being withdrawn.

At the time of writing, I’m not sure whether this means Fuji UK are no longer importing 4×5 Velvia 50 to the UK and therefore it might still be available elsewhere, or if it is going to be discontinued globally.  I’m not bothered about the 100F being discontinued, which has always seemed to me to be a pointless film, but it seems odd that the 50 is being discontinued and the Velvia 100 is being kept (for now) – if Fuji thinks cutting down the Velvia range is necessary, then ditching both the 100 and 100F would seem more sensible to me.

Anyway: there’s not much I can do about decisions by a global company like Fuji (beyond signing this petition – I’d encourage you to do likewise!).  My first reaction on Lewis was to come home and try to buy lots of 4×5 Velvia 50 so that I have a stock of it to use with my new camera.  I did look into different suppliers in the UK, but they are mostly out of stock (other photographers – clearly not on holiday at the time of the announcement! – seem to have bought up everything they could).  I even checked some suppliers abroad: it appears to still be readily available in Germany, for example.

But now I am beginning to think that I should just leave it: I think that perhaps the challenge for me should be to look at doing something new with the 4×5 camera and to keep the Velvia 50 for my medium format Mamiya (it is still being produced in 120 size).  My thinking just now is that perhaps I should be photographing landscapes on the Chamonix using black and white film – I love Ilford’s FP4+ film, for example – at least to begin with.  There are two good reasons for this:

  • a practical one: FP4+ is wonderfully forgiving about exposure errors in a way that Velvia is most emphatically not, and perhaps this will stand me in good stead as I get to grips with a new process;
  • a process one: I want to engage more with my composition and I can imagine that photographing in black and white on a view camera could enable that, not least since the image on the ground glass is, of course, upside down!  This means shape and form and tone are more accentuated when composing, at least, that was my impression from the workshop I participated in last year.

So my sadness at the apparent loss of Velvia 50 in 4×5 format is turning into a further kind of challenge.  Again, I’ll have to see how I get on with this, and I’m sure there will be plenty of ‘misses’ – but I hope the ‘hits’ to ‘misses’ ratio improves over time!

Chamonix view camera

Chamonix view camera

More about this camera and my trials with the image-making process to come over the next months.  And yes: the pinhole will now have to wait a little longer…