Back to the future; visualising the old-fashioned way
Kia ora tatou:
Not all of you read f11 magazine. This article first appeared in it in Issue 22. Here it is, with a few edits, for those of you who did not catch it.
Not as much as you might think.
The one on the left is a Canham 8 x 10 Standard Wood Field Camera, made from leather, walnut and hard-anodised aluminium. It shoots sheets of 8 x 10” film (200 x 250mm for those of you who think in metric). It is a current model. The one on the right, also a current model, is a Fujifilm X-E1 APS-C digital camera, made from metal, plastic and containing parts made from gold, aluminium and a whole bunch of other rare earth elements. Its ‘film’ is an electronic sensor, measuring 23.6mm x 15.6mm. It cannot function without a battery. The Canham requires no battery, just an operator with a strong back.
Poles apart you say? Well, to all intents and purposes yes. Until you begin to use them. The Canham has a large ground glass which you use for focusing and composition; the Fuji has a small 2.8“LCD which you can also use for focusing and composition. When you use your LCD to do this, you are stepping back in time and using your camera in the same way photographers did in the 19th century. Next time you are sneering at tourists standing there with their point-and-shoots or their smartphones, while you are hanging onto your D9xMk33 DSLR with its 20-2000mm/f1.0 megazoom, realise that they are using the same visualisation techniques as our great-grandfathers did, when they would study a scene, analyse it and make necessary decisions about it, before setting up the camera, adjusting the composition and focus, and making the photograph. Although they worked under a dark cloth and viewed the image upside down, live view was a given for them; it is a cool new tool for we ‘serious’ digital photographers who have grown up with the viewfinder and mirror box. However for gazillions of tourist snappers and those still using Hasselblads, RZ’s and TLR’s, making a composition at arm’s length is no biggie.
And it changes the way we respond to our subject.
Remember that there are 3 parts to interpreting a scene: what the scene has to tell us and how our mind interprets that; the distortion of the scene our camera/lens/settings supplies us, and how our minds interpret that; and finally the composite which our mind creates from the information supplied by both camera and scene – they are often not the same – and then attempts to execute.
When we rely on the viewfinder, we get only one view of a scene, and if the viewfinder is one of those tiny ones which are like looking through a dimly-lit road tunnel, then it is quite likely we will miss elements and, more importantly, spatial relationships. Viewfinders are intimate and allow us to integrate with our subjects, while live view allows us to see our image as part of a greater wholeand, to some degree, take an objective view of our subject. It also allows us to keep both eyes open when we make a photograph and see our image for what it is – a collection of shapes, textures, patterns and lines – to mention a few compositional elements, on a 2-dimensional surface.
On the hunt for autumn, I rounded a corner and saw this tree before me, fiery and at the peak of its powers. I sensed a square composition and as I have increasingly been doing, I put the camera on its tripod and fired up live view. I looked at the scene, then at the image on my ground glass/LCD, and then back to the scene. Then I stood back so I could see both. It was at that point that I was able to see what was different and what was the same. By standing back I was able to see both the reality and the realised; it was at that point that I could discern the colour recession from hot red to cool blues and greens and the triangular nature of the composition became obvious.
As, no doubt it had for luminaries like Timothy O’ Sullivan and Ansel Adams, masters of the view camera medium.