A Long Look Behind the Scenes

For this post I have decided to offer a “behind the scenes” look at the man’s effect on the landscape project (see my “welcome” post for information on this). Here, I will provide a long, but detailed insight into what tools I have used and what processes I have been through to get to where I am today.

Of course, it won’t be a serious landscape project without a large format camera. Specifically, the first two cameras I borrowed and used were a monorail camera and a field camera.

I knew I wanted to shoot with 5x4 film in order to capture the detail in the type of subjects that I would intend to photograph. I decided to borrow a large format monorail camera with a tripod to get used to this new kind of photography.

I realised I couldn’t just use the equipment without knowing how to work it first so I began to familiarise myself with the settings of the camera (believe me, practice beforehand helps). I started by making sure I knew how to work the tripod which was different from my own as it could take the weight of a monorail camera and had a specially designed head for the rail.

The lever on the tripod is used to lock the legs into position to prevent both camera and tripod from collapsing.

One of the biggest differences to me that a 5x4 camera has to any 35mm or 120 camera that I have used so far is that the aperture and shutter speed settings are located on the lens. This took some time for me to get used to, but I didn’t find it as difficult as trying to alter perspective in the camera. The image below shows the lens for the 5x4 camera. Notice that at the top of the lens is the switch to release the shutter, on the side of the lens next to the apperture pointer is the lever to cock the shutter and at the bottom is the switch to preview compositions before exposure.

In the images above we see the aperture in the lens closed and open. This can either be done through the lens preview switch or releasing the shutter (using the shutter to open the aperture should only be done when exposing film). To avoid making any fatal mistakes, I have had to constantly remind myself not to leave the aperture open just before making an exposure.

As the picture below indicates, all dials must be set to 0 before using the camera. This is so that the settings can be gradually changed if need be to improve the image for things like correcting converging verticals. The image below shows the dial used to adjust the vertical angle of what could be the front or back of the camera (as I recall, there are dials on both the front and back of the camera). 

The settings in the above photograph are also set to 0. The numbers below the lower red dot indicate the different angles for horizontally shifting the camera back while the higher red dot is where the camera back can swing from left to right. 

The ground glass at the back of the camera is where the image is composed. For those more used to a digital SLR, think of it as a big viewfinder, except back to front and upside down. What I liked about the ground glass on this particular camera is that it had a grid that helped to divide an image into thirds which was useful for me and helped with the composition of my pictures. What would happen is that the film holder would sit in front of the ground glass when film was being exposed. The camera back in this picture was in vertical mode for portrait photographs so I needed to turn the glass on its side for landscapes. On top of the camera back was also a spirit level which was obviously used to tell the photographer whether the camera, and thus the image, was straight or not. 

Something else I borrowed, and I am still using, is a loupe for when I compose pictures. I place the loupe on the glass and look through it to see if the image is in focus. If it isn’t then I adjust the settings on the camera. It’s times like this I realise that I have been taking the auto focus option on my digital SLR for granted. By manually focusing I have had to put a lot of faith in my eyes. 

The photograph below was made when I was making my first 5x4 image earlier this year. When using the camera at a silica quarry, a wider lens needed to be used with appropriate bellows and a shutter release cable had to be attached to prevent me from moving the camera while exposing film. 

The camera produced some good results which I was proud of. Unfortunately, it also proved to be a cumbersome tool to use, as it needed to be driven up to the location. The camera and the other tools, except for the tripod, came in a big, metal case that proved quite heavy to lift. From this experience, I knew that the Toyo-view monorail 5x4 camera couldn’t be used for photography on mountains so I set about looking for an alternative which I eventually found. 

Apologies for the big, stupid grin.

Needing a more compact piece of equipment, but not wanting to abandon large format photography I decided to use a 5x4 field camera. I didn’t really want to fully commit myself to buying a field camera until I was familiar with the controls so I borrowed one out of the university stores. 

When I felt ready to use the camera I set off with the relevant gear. This picture shows the contents of the camera case I took with me that day. Not only did I take along the camera and a lens, but also a loupe, a shutter release cable, dark slides, focusing cloth, an ordinance survey map, a notebook, a pen, a light metre and a sun compass (for placing on the map to give an idea of where the sun would be in a certain time and location). 

The first place I took the camera to was a spot in the Brecon Beacons where motorist would either stop and admire the view (by taking photos) or have some food from the snack van. I was in luck when a bus full of tourist showed up in my image and from this I felt I could make a photographic statement on tourism in the Beacons. 

The next area I visited was the Ponsticill reservoir where enthusiastic amateur photographers would go to make images (you know, tourists and camera club people). By photographing the reservoir, I wanted to comment on the fact that people need to use nature for their own purposes. In retrospect, I was probably a little too impatient to photograph the subject so some compositions might look worse than others. I will have to remember to take my time when making these images and not rush. A large format camera knows when you’ve made mistakes! 

The uni’s field camera at Ponsticill reservoir. A gleaming instrument of gold and rosewood.

I found carrying a field camera to a location was much easier than carrying a monorail camera. I still felt like I had much to learn, but at the same time I knew that I couldn’t keep borrowing cameras because it would take a long time to produce any work. I decided I would buy a field camera but I would have to do some research beforehand to see what kind of tool I wanted. It took a considerable amount of time to find any reasonably priced cameras, but eventually I found a Speed Graphics camera that looked suitable. 

I will post a blog about my current camera, the Speed Graphics, in the near future so watch this space!