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Venturing Back Into Film

I want to share with you a picture I recently made in the White Mountains of California. This image of an ancient bristlecone pine tree bathed in warm sunset light as it clings to the jagged rocks is a unique image for me on account of 3 factors.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine in the White MountainsShen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Velvia 100, 1/4 at f/29, no filters
Click Image for Larger Version
 

First, these trees are among the oldest living organisms on Earth. The oldest known tree (Methuselah, at over 4,840 years old) lives here. This area of the world and the trees that inhabit it are downright awe-inspiring. They are treasures. They are a gift for anyone who has the privilege to stand next to them. So the subject matter alone makes this image special to me.

Secondly, this was my first visit to the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest and my first encounter with this species of tree. One day soon I will try to put into words the profound impact this place had on me. I have plans to explore this area and study these trees much more in the near future.

And finally, the main reason this image is special to me is that I made it on film. That's right. They still make film. And I used it to make this image. 

I've recently decided to venture back into film for all of my major landscape and nature work. Don't worry, I'm not turning my back on digital. Digital isn't going anywhere and neither is my expertise in the digital medium. I fully intend to continue instruction, classes, blog posts and articles geared around making people better digital photographers.

As some of you may know, I got my start in analog film photography about 13 years ago. My first camera was an all-manual 35mm Minolta followed by a succession of better and better 35mm cameras until I reached the Canon EOS 1v HS. I used color transparency film exclusively with my films of choice being Fuji Velvia 100 and Provia 100. These 6 years in my early photographic life marked an important period for me as I developed my style and mastered the techniques. The learning curve was slow, but I couldn't get enough of it.

I was also one of those guys who was never going to go digital. I resisted it for awhile and took pride in the fact that I still shot film. I believed that film just looked better, although my undeveloped eye at the time couldn't pinpoint exactly why, and my idol Galen Rowell was a 35mm slide film guy, too. Whatever he did, I wanted to do.

Eventually, the Canon EOS 5D came to market as the first affordable full-frame digital SLR. So with a combination of factors coming together at one time, I decided to go to "the dark side" and purchase a 5D.

Digital photography with my Canon DSLR proved to be a great learning experience. The learning curve was lightning fast. I mastered techniques like metering, filtration, composition and more in much shorter time than I could have with film. And although I hated to admit it, I really enjoyed the instant feedback digital gave me.

But now after 6 or so years of shooting with a DSLR, I've decided to return to film. Except now, I've decided to do it big. Instead of using my old format of choice, the dinky 35mm, I've taken the dive into 4x5 large format photography. Here's my new camera:

Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa
Shown with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 

I know a lot of my regular followers out there are serious digital shooters. Upon hearing this news, you may have a lot of questions on your mind as to why I would "take a step backwards" into film when digital is the "best" choice these days. And if you're a new visitor to my site (welcome!), you may have similar questions.

Well I fully intend to answer all of those questions. But I feel like I could write an entire book on why I'm going back to film. So instead of trying to fit all of that into a single blog post, I will regularly put out little articles on my blog here addressing one specific topic at a time. These posts will not be a sales pitch on the virtues of film and why you should start shooting film yourself. After all, I feel the vast majority of people would prefer and should shoot digital.

My bigger goal with these upcoming "Why I'm Shooting Film" posts will be to show people another side of photography. A side of photography that has, unfortunately, been trampled by the stampede of HDR, Photoshop plugins, and sloppy shooting techniques that digital has engendered. By exposing you guys to my techniques for shooting with this new camera, I hope to spark some curiosity in you, to make you think about how to get even more creative with your shots and break out of the usual mold of today's digital techniques. I want to show you what's possible with good, solid technique and not a lick of Photoshop to help you out. I hope to instill the same spirit of curiosity towards all aspects of photography that Galen Rowell and Ansel Adams have instilled in me through their writing.

So I intend not for these essays to come across as holier-than-thou treatises on why digital is bad and how much better I am for choosing film. In fact, my intent is quite the opposite.

This venture back into film has opened my eyes to how much I don't know about photography. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface on the field of science and art that is photography. The future is bright with creative possibilities, new topics to learn, new mistakes to make, and new ways to be creative. Film has brought forth in me an invigorating thirst for knowledge that I haven't experienced in some time. It's a great feeling and I want you to have it too. That's why I want to bring you along on my journey as I master new techniques myself and figure out new ways to express myself through film. Hopefully my rediscovered enthusiasm for photography will be contagious for all who read these articles.

I will also soon post articles discussing the technical aspects of 4x5 large format photography, including how it's different than other formats, how the camera works, what types of lenses I use and more. This will probably come in a separate series of posts titled something along the lines of "About Analog Film Photography."

So thank you for reading this far and thank you in advance for returning to read my upcoming posts about analog photography. I look forward to bringing you new images made with this camera.

How to Choose a Tripod for Your DSLR

There are tons of options out there when it comes to tripods. Too many options, I say. The product lines are cluttered and confusing. It's so cluttered that even I have a hard time narrowing down tripods when someone asks me for a recommendation. I tried my best in my post "Recommended Tripods (Part 1: Aluminum)" and there will be a part 2 and probably part 3, but I think it'll be more effective if I give my advice on how to choose a tripod based on what features and options to look for  rather than try to narrow down very specific models. So let's look at some of the most important criteria when shopping for a tripod:

Gitzo tripodMaterial:

Tripods can be made of different material. The two most common are carbon fiber and aluminum. Carbon fiber is lighter weight and much more expensive than aluminum. Don't bother with basalt or wood tripods.

Weight: 

If you're planning on doing backpacking or international travel where weight is definitely a concern, go with a lightweight carbon fiber. If you'll be shooting within a couple miles of a car or tour bus, weight isn't as big of a concern and aluminum will probably be fine. And keep in mind that if your tripod is ultra lightweight, that can equate to less stability. Make sure it has a hook on it that allows you to hang some weight off the bottom for more stability.

Maximum Load Capacity:

This is how much weight the tripod can carry. Unless you're using those huge 15+ pound lenses you see on the sidelines of sporting events, don't worry too much about this specification. Most tripods over $100 can handle your typical DSLR just fine. Make sure the maximum load capacity is at least 7 lbs or so.

Maximum Height:

Check out the specifications for the maximum height of the tripod. Two heights will usually be listed - the maximum height without the center column extended and the height with the center column extended. Disregard the maximum height of the tripod with the center column extended. You shouldn't extend the center column of the tripod unless absolutely necessary because it greatly reduces stability. If weight and folded size aren't a huge issue, try to find a tripod with a maximum height (without the center column extended) not much shorter than 8" below your eye level. It's a drag being hunched over a 3-foot tall tripod all sunset long. But if you're doing a lot of travel and you need something that folds up small, you'll probably need to sacrifice maximum height a bit. Although the bad back from being hunched over a short tripod may about match the bad back from carrying a taller, heavier tripod.

Manfrotto TripodMinimum Height:

If you plan on shooting low to the ground for macro work, get a tripod that can shoot from a few inches off the ground.

Tripod Head:

I could (and probably will) write an entire blog post on tripod heads. For now I'll keep it simple. You have 2 basic options: ball heads and pan/tilt heads. Ball heads consist of a ball in a socket which has full range of motion with the flick of a single knob. Pan/tilt heads have 3 separate knobs for each motion - panning, tilting, and leveling. Pan/tilt heads are slower than ball heads because you have to loosen 3 knobs for a full range of motion versus one on a ball head. But the nice thing about pan/tilt heads is that you can level the camera or pan it side to side or tilt it forward without messing up any of the other adjustments. It makes leveling a horizon much easier. I personally prefer ball heads because of their speed and I think most people prefer them unless they have some specific reason to use a pan/tilt head. But whatever the case, you can either buy a tripod that includes the head and legs, or you can buy the head separate from the legs. And if you like your tripod legs but you grow tired of the head down the road, don't worry. You can switch out the head and legs on any decent tripod. You can mix and match brands, too. Oh, and don't get a fluid head. Those are for video.

Leg Locks:

The tripod leg locks are what secure the telescoping sections on each leg. There are 3 different types of leg locks - butterfly knob locks, flip locks, and rotating grip locks. The butterfly knob locks, like on this tripod, are slow and annoying. Don't bother if the tripod has these locks. But the good news is that manufacturers know they are a hassle, so very few tripods have them. Flip locks are ultra fast and are the most common on tripods. As the name implies, they consist of a little flip lever that with one flick of the hand unlocks the telescoping legs. Here's an example of a tripod with flip leg locks. Almost as common as flip leg locks are rotating grip locks. They consist of a rubber-gripped collar around the tripod leg that rotates to loosen the telescoping legs, like on this tripod. They are not quite as fast as flip locks but they are close. Rotating grip locks are nice, though, because there is no flip lock to snag on anything and there are no steel parts in the lock itself. Flip locks have bolts and screws that rust (especially bad at the beach). Rotating grip locks are just anodized aluminum and rubber. That's why high-end tripods like Gitzo tripods use rotating grip locks. Less moving parts and less metal means less breakdown. I prefer rotating leg locks for extreme environments, but I like flip locks for the speed.

Folded Length:

The folded length of the tripod is especially important for air travel. Will you need to pack it in a small suitcase? Do you want to try to fit it into a backpack? If you want something ultra compact, check out the line of travel tripods from companies like Gitzo and Feisol. Their legs usually fold up in the opposite direction to save a few inches on the folded length. Kind of cool.

Brands:

There are so many brands out there now. I haven't used all of them, so I can't comment on the quality of each. But you can get good quality from almost every manufacturer now. Very trustworthy brands are Manfrotto and Gitzo. Gitzo makes the best and most expensive tripods on the market. They are overkill for most people. I had a bad experience with Giottos once, but I saw a tripod from them recently and the quality seemed to be better. Feisol (I think) has good stuff. Slik tripods are great, especially for the money, but they aren't quite as rust-resistant as Manfrotto. Stay away from Sunpak or anything sold at Best Buy.

Price:

Price is easy. Just buy within your budget and realize that you get what you pay for. Tripods run from $30 to well over $1000. The more expensive ones will usually last longer, stand up to rough conditions better, and they should certainly be more stable. If you have GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), you have money to burn, and/or you absolutely must have the very best tripod available because your photos and your $3000 camera are only worthy of the very best 3 sticks on the market, then go for the thousand-dollar tripods. But be smart and buy something that makes sense for how serious you plan on getting with photography. A tripod in the neighborhood of $400-$500 would be a very sufficient tripod for even the most serious shooters. Most would be more than happy with something around $300-$400. More expensive tripods usually just make setting up a shot slightly less of a hassle and/or they allow higher vantage points. Gitzo tripods are some of the best on the market, but I would bet that for at least 75% of the people who have them, it's just a form of peacocking (showing off). So buy within your budget. Simple as that.