My hopes of getting a shot during the course of the day began to wane. Spring was behind schedule. The colourful wildflowers still quietly tucked under the covers, afraid to emerge, while a persistent chill permeated the air, and the clouds teased the warmth of the sun from my view. Nevertheless, I grew a little agitated, I desperately wanted to shoot something but was invariably prepared to walk away if I had to. I decided to try one last trail and then round back to the car. I was at my second location; the first still looked and felt like a dull November day, one that saw the absence of much colour and vegetation.
And then there it was, a grove of marsh marigolds, the young yellow flowers beckoning to be photographed. I leapt off the trail and waded into a thicket of trees and low hanging branches, careful not to dunk my feet in the shallow mud pools, while deftly keeping my balance as my large Lowepro backpack tried to topple me over on several occasions. I knew this was a shot for the 240mm lens, but finding which way to point the camera was the current conundrum. The sea of marigolds was visually confusing at first and by now it was all around me.
So I took out my iPhone and using the Artemis Director's Viewfinder app, I chose my preselected camera and lens combo and started searching for a frame. The potential candidates were messy, lacking any sort of visual cohesion. In situations like this, where there is a repetitive pattern of marigolds filling the frame, I needed to look for anchors (elements that "reinforce" but don't detract from the main subject). In this case it was the moss covered rock in the lower right of the frame and the three fallen logs that aesthetically broke up the monotony of the marigold field. I had my shot!
It's easy to maneuver a cell phone into place when framing up, but the next challenge was to replace it with my 8x10 camera. Naturally, as is often the case, where the camera wanted to be wasn't the easiest thing to achieve. A thicket of small trees coddled my chosen space and I carefully had to set up the camera in and around them on the uneven terrain. Under cover of dark cloth (in my case an old black t-shirt) I began to massage the frame into the shot I had rouged in with my iPhone.
Of course, with a real lens on the 8x10 camera, there was a different kind of perspective, one that imparted the shapes of objects with a unique quality. I find working on the ground glass directly, with its upside-down, reversed view, enables me to “see” more clearly. To see the scene before me turn into shapes and lines and textures. I find it easier to choreograph the image and balance these attributes against one another to create a tasteful shot.
Finalizing the image with my focusing loupe was the next task at hand. This involves repeated tilts and swings of the camera, in an incremental and sometimes aggravating series of steps, checking the top and bottom of the frame with the loupe, then the sides and corners, to maximize the focus plane as best I can manage from the f/9 opening of the lens. I know that I will never get all of it sharp so here’s where experience and intuition come to play. I just need to get enough of my main subject sharp by delineating the most important areas. Then, when I close down to my chosen shooting stop (I believe here it was at f/45), depth-of-field should take over and spread the focus into the nooks and crannies that f/9 couldn’t quite achieve.
Why focus wide open at f/9? Because wide stops reveal the focus plane, like a red ball in a grassy patch, and allow me to critically focus while offering up the brightest view on the ground glass so that I can see what I’m doing. If I were to work at f/45 the image would be extremely dark, the added depth-of-field confusing the whereabouts of the actual plane of focus. All this is taken for granted with a modern SLR, DSLR or iPhone coupled with the latest autofocus. Most cameras nowadays always give you a bright clear view and automatically stop down to shooting stop when the photo is taken. With an 8x10 camera I have to manually adjust the aperture for focusing and then again before taking the picture. The bigger hurdle is trying to focus the image with a 240mm lens. Think of how shallow the depth-of-field is when using a 240mm focal length on a DSLR. What was once a telephoto lens on a DSLR now becomes the equivalent of a 35mm wide-angle lens on the 8x10 format (but with the same narrow depth-of-field of a 240mm lens!). This is why, when I would focus on the tops of the marigolds and their bright yellow flowers, the earthly ground that they sprouted from below was still out-of-focus at f/9. So again, make the best of it by focusing on the most important areas, then stop down to increase your depth-of-field from there.
I loaded my first frame. The film holder, about the size of a closed 13” Macbook Pro laptop, slides underneath the spring-loaded ground glass. Easy does it…I’m careful to not jostle the camera while inserting this giant film holder as I can accidentally loosen the tilts and shifts I’ve established. At this point it would be crappy to start all over again. An 8x10 camera can only load one frame of film at a time. There are two frames in each film holder (one on each side that is manually pre-loaded in a dark changing tent before I journey out into the field). I carry five holders for a total of 10 shots. Here is another area where we take our digital counterparts for granted. Hundreds of frames are available at a moments notice; and if you take enough images at any given time, you will have likely captured “the shot” in your rapid fire quest to reveal it. With the 8x10 this one frame counts. I am suddenly aware of the light, its character, its intensity, and how it subtly or not-so-subtly dances over my chosen target every second.
I was looking for a thin cloud that could offer some directional quality without sacrificing the latitude of the film (like the way the full sun would do every now and again). Once in a while a thunderous dark cloud would brood the scene silencing even the most happy songbirds. The clouds, with their tease on, moved about quickly enough for me to constantly monitor the level of illumination and quality that I was looking for. This, combined with a deterrent intermittent wind, narrows the window I have to make the exposure. The shot, using my preferred cloud arrangement, was a few seconds long at f/45, and any wind oscillating the marigolds would destroy the delicate detail that I was trying to achieve. To find this ideal marriage of stillness and cloud took about 25 minutes of waiting.
Am I crazy? You could say that. But when I see the resulting image I am awestruck. It’s a difficult thing to flaunt, as you only see a scanned and compressed JPEG here, but a properly exposed transparency, on such a large format as 8x10, begs me to wonder why I would ever consider shooting my landscapes with that ubiquitous digital format. Now before you get your arms up in a huff, it is hard to describe the pleasures of shooting this way. Bear with me as I believe some frivolous analogies are in order. It’s nice to have a Ferrari that goes from 0-60 in 3 seconds. There are many advantages and conveniences digital cameras have to get you the shot. But the journey in a horse drawn carriage or the Wright brothers aircraft can be quite enjoyable, if not more exhilarating. You become not only a part of your mechanical, manual camera and all it's deliberation, you begin to aware yourself of the dynamic environment, much like the exposed cables and pulleys that sinew along the wings and rudder of Orville and Wilbur's early design. It takes a different kind of nurture with the 8x10 to get an image, one that involves my full attention and technical prowess (if only because I have no automated features). Certainly the 8x10 is a pain in the ass with all that manual labour. But I love 8x10 because it just so happens to be everything that digital isn’t. No menus, no batteries, no technical simplicity, no ease of use. Every effort is concerted, thoughtful and distilled. Yet, it can also be frustrating, annoying and quite debilitating.
Don’t get me wrong, at times there is something to be said about speed and convenience, where a digital camera is most welcome. Because of its inherently slow design, I can and do miss images with the 8x10. But I am more deeply rooted to the shot I am trying to create; the technical “limitations” of shooting this way force me to pay more attention to the conception of the image throughout the whole process. As a result, the images that do survive this barrage of restrictions - from the incessant wind; painstakingly slow shutter speeds; and even my own limited patience - are stronger and more powerful than any I could have made with a simpler, faster format.
The ideal cloud arrangement stepped over the scene and the wind hushed just long enough for me to set my exposure, remove the dark slide, and take the shot. Click! I flipped the holder around, cocked the shutter and tried for one more frame. Another 10 minutes went by before those conditions were met again. Click! This time the exposure was 1/3 of a stop lighter. I based my exposure by spot metering the green leaves of the marigolds in the upper right area of the frame.
Perhaps if I waited another week or so, the marigolds would have had a fuller bloom, but sometimes you can't always pick the day you'll be out, so you have to make the best of the days you do have to make a photograph. In this case I felt I accomplished just that.
The three detail crops that follow are extracted from a 30"x40" print size. Keep in mind that these are compressed JPG files; however they do give you a good idea of the overall quality that is offered by an 8x10 camera. When the image is taken as a whole the viewer feels as if they are peering through a window. One can study the scene and get lost in the beauty and wonder that makes up our natural world. When I view some of my older work at this print size and larger, even years later, I still discover details and arrangements that I have overlooked.
If I had the opportunity to re-visit this marigold patch the following week I would have certainly encountered a much richer concentration of yellow flowers. But who knows if the shot would have still "worked". Could the balance of yellow and green been compromised? Did heavy rains or a storm pass through that would have knocked the delicate petals off their narrow stalks? Would there have been a thick cluster of yellow in one corner of the frame while other arrangements were blown apart by strong winds? What if the day I picked happened to be clear and sunny? The harsh shadows and strong light ruining the delicacy of the flowers.
These are some of the questions that you ask yourself when shooting with an 8x10 camera. The deliberation required allows for a detailed inquisition of your subject and all of its varied possibilities. Questions I would hardly ask had I used a faster, more mobile format.
When I view the film on a light table with a loupe I am amazed at all the little things I can see; from fallen petals adding to the debris on the boggy ground to the cell-like structure of the giant lily pad shaped leaves.
The upside-down, reversed image on the big ground glass of the camera can only be seen under a dark cloth. This is my preferred method of working, despite being hunched over and irritable on hot, humid days. I also have a tendency to fog the ground glass with my breath when it's too hot or cold, necessitating periodic breaks from the mandatory image manipulations that these cameras inherently require.