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New Work: Fall Color and Bishop Creek

Fall Color and Bishop Creek - Bishop, CA

Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6 
Fuji Velvia 100, 1 minute at f/25 - Polarizer and 81C Warming Filter
Click Image for Larger Version

As has become somewhat of a tradition for me as of late, I took a trip to Bishop last autumn to catch the fall color. I'd been the previous year and was treated to a very impressive show of leaves along Highway 168 into the mountains. North Lake and Lake Sabrina were stunning with good water levels and vibrant colors on their banks. So with my fruitful trip in 2011 under my belt, I hoped my 2012 excursion would be just as rewarding. 

Although the colors weren't nearly as vibrant and the lakes were miserably low, the trip turned out to be rewarding on an entirely different level. That's because I decided to shoot 4x5 film exclusively on this trip. I'd just recently acquired my first ever large format view camera, a couple of lenses, and a few hundred dollars worth of film and I was itching it try out the new format in "the wild." I'd already gotten comfortable with the basic operation of this camera back in my stomping grounds - the beaches of Orange County - but this would be my first jaunt into mountainous terrain.

I shot a total of 36 pictures over the 3-day period, which is a lot for 4x5 work. I'm still breaking my old digital habits of shooting fat and fast. Plus, at $5.00 per picture (including processing), those 36 frames cost me $180.

Shen-Hao HZX 45-IIa 4x5 view cameraBut coming home with only 36 pictures instead of a more typical digital crop of 300 hundred photos didn't leave me feeling like I missed out on anything. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Having to restrict my shots and knowing that each photo cost me five bucks forced me to slow down and really think out every composition. I exposed 7 frames on the first sunrise instead of 50. I didn't waste shutter clicks on sloppy compositions and less-than-perfect moments in the light. More time between shots gave me a chance to absorb the scenery and light and really appreciate it with my eyes instead of through my viewfinder.

One of my primary grumbles about shooting with a DSLR is that at the end of a trip, I ironically felt like I had been absent for the very photos I took. It was like I wasn't there for that sunrise during which I took 50 photos. The mental image pictures in my mind were faded or not there. It's a really weird phenomenon and it took me some time to come to a reasonable theory on how I could possibly feel like I didn't even see a gorgeous sunrise that I'd photographed for over an hour.

My theory is that I spent so much time with my eye pressed up against a viewfinder, taking every damn picture I could so that I wouldn't miss the perfect moment, that I forgot to look around and just soak it all in with my eyes. I was so busy making digital images that I neglected to make sufficient mental images.

But that wasn't the case on this trip. With my view camera, I take maybe 10-15 minutes setting up the shot and metering the scene, then I step away from my camera and look past it in the same direction of the lens, waiting for the right moment with the cable release in my hand. The majority of my time isn't spent with one eye closed looking through a viewfinder. For the most part, I'm standing next to my tripod and camera just waiting. Waiting and looking around, soaking in the scenery and light with my eyes.

For the first time in a long time, my mental image pictures are more solid and real than the photos themselves. It's a nice feeling.

The photo at top is one of the "keepers" from this trip. I made this picture at the tail end of the sunset in a shaded valley between two mountain peaks. The creek you see is Bishop Creek as it leads away from South Lake.

This particular location just a few yards from the road had a nice spread of aspens at peak color along the banks. I pre-visualized an image similar to what you see above with the creek cascading along the foreground and the fiery leaves at the top of the composition. The only difference in my head was that the creek would be rushing towards the camera, dropping down a few levels in the boulders for a good eye trail into the trees. Unfortunately, though, I couldn't find an angle where the creek flowed towards me with strong color in the background. The best color could only come from shooting downstream.

It's not my first choice to have the water flowing away from the camera, but sometimes you just have to take what mother nature gives you.

I positioned my camera on a islet in the creek bridged by a fallen tree. With my 150mm lens (equivalent to about 50mm in full-frame DSLR terms) and camera leveled, I raised the film standard just a bit to include more of the creek. For those of you scratching your heads at that last sentence, let me explain.

On view cameras like this, you don't often tilt the camera up or down to change the framing. Especially in scenes with vertical objects - like trees - it's best to keep the back of the camera (the film standard) perfectly vertical. This keeps the trees looking vertical. On a regular DSLR camera, to include more creek, I'd need to tilt the camera down, but that would make the trees "bend" towards the edges. It's the same effect that makes buildings look like they're falling backwards when photographed at an upward angle.

If you want to keep the film plane vertical, the only way you can include more foreground is to literally raise the film up while keeping the lens stationary. It would be like if you could slide the back of your DSLR camera up on some rails while keeping the lens exactly where it is.

Why up? After all, I want more of the creek at the bottom of the frame. Well that's because the image records on film upside down. So the creek is at the top and the trees are at the bottom. To include more creek, I need to slide the film plane up.

So once I had the camera adjusted and focused, it was time to add any necessary filters. I used a circular polarizer on my Lee system to reduce reflections in the water, and since this was taken in the shade of a valley, I used an 81C warming filter to combat the natural blue tone of the shade. An 81C warming filter is just a piece of plastic resin with a light orange tint to it. This causes the light coming through the lens to shift towards the orange end of the color spectrum. Shade is naturally blue, so without this filter, this shady scene would have looked too "cool." The 81C cancelled out the blue tone in the shade so that the fall colors rendered accurately on film.

Digital cameras have white balance to deal with these color casts. But film is "locked in" to a certain color balance - hence the necessity for warming filters.

All that was left now was metering using my handheld spot meter, factoring in the loss of light from the filters, cocking the shutter, setting the aperture, sliding in the film, removing the dark slide, and clicking the cable release. The exposure was at an aperture of f/25 at 1 minute (timed with a stopwatch on the "bulb" setting).

The Virtues of Film: Tangibility

This is the first in my new series of posts under the heading of "The Virtues of Film." With my recent venture back in to film, I often get asked "why'd you go back?" I usually respond with "I could write a book on why I've gone back to film." So here it is, the first chapter in said book. 

The Virtues of Analog PhotographyThese are photographs, not 1's and 0's

Those of you who are close to me know that I'm "old timey" at heart. I like the whole vibe of the turn of the century - late 1800's to early 1900's. The fashion, the technology (or lack thereof), the fact that things were built in America, the robust cast iron construction of old machinery and the way things were designed back then, the muted colors, the music...I just dig it. The way I designed my website is a perfect reflection of my affinity for the old timey style. I even dress old timey when I'm in the mood.

But it goes beyond simply the look and feel of these old times. There's something else to this period in history that speaks to me. And the best way I can describe it is in one word: tangibility.

It was a time when dialing a phone meant rotating a wheel that had some resistance to it instead of tapping intangible pixels representing faux-3D buttons on a glass screen. We wrote letters on paper with ink and dropped them in a mailbox. Now we shift pixels around on a computer screen, sending a bunch of 1's and 0's out into the ether that we trust will be reconstituted into a matching arrangement of pixels at the recipient's end.

Pixels have replaced tangible maps, books, calculators, phones, notepads, record players, phonebooks, and even money. Yes, money. Think about it. You get your direct deposit, you see the pixels change in your online bank statement, you pay bills electronically, the pixels change again. How much of your money do you actually get to hold and touch?

Pixels have replaced things. The tangibility of our daily lives isn't what it used to be.

I know, I know. I love my iPhone, too. The digital revolution is awesome and it amazes me every day what we can do with it. Information is always at our fingertips and everything is accessible now. It's great.

But I feel like this degradation of tangibility is unhealthy for society. We need tangibility. It's gratifying. We all know it's gratifying. That's why it feels so good to build something yourself instead of buying it or hiring someone to make it. It's why a long day of spring cleaning is ultimately so rewarding. You accomplished a goal or you created something. You did it, you can look at the finished product, you can touch it, everyone else can see it and touch it, and it ain't going anywhere just because you turn the power button off on your computer.

This is a big factor in why I shoot film. I like the tangibility of it. It's rewarding.

One thing I've always hated with digital is that it leaves me feeling like something's missing. There was always a small void in me at the end of a shoot. After all the effort, time, and planning I put in to creating a photo, I felt like I had nothing to show for it. Sure, I had pixels on a screen that represented what I captured, but nothing more than that. All it took was a power outage for my pictures to be unreachable.

Digital photos don't exist on their own. They only exist in the presence of electricity and a computer screen.

I don't like that about digital photography. I can't touch my digital photos or hold them in my hand. I could only look at them on a powered up computer screen or phone. Sure, I could touch a print, but that's not the original. A print is just a facsimile of the original creation. I want to touch and feel the original. And the original digital photo is just a bunch of 1's and 0's on a hard drive that looks like nothing more than a clump of metal.

With analog photography, I have a roll or sheet of film that I can touch. I physically put that film in my camera, made an exposure, then I put it in chemicals I could smell and that I mixed in a jug with weight and heft to it. I clipped that film to a clothesline to dry. Then I looked at those images on a light table that I could touch before storing them in binders that I have to open and close and store on shelves in my office. And even if I have a lab develop the film for me (like I do with color film), I have exposed film that I hand off to another human being who will then return it to me in a box that I can open and touch. It's all tangible. It's all actually really there. It's all there for me to touch and see. And I don't even need electricity to do it. I just need a window with some sunlight behind it.

35m film slide in front of windowLook, ma! No electricity!

For me, this tangibility with film puts it on a completely different level than digital. It's the difference between the tactile experience of driving a car versus playing a racing video game. And for all you digital fanboys out there thinking "That's ridiculous. I now it's not that different. The instant gratification of digital, the freedom to take as many photos as you want, and the fact that it's really all just photography anyway - there are a million reasons why digital is better and more rewarding."

Well, maybe "to each his own." But I wouldn't go waving the flag for digital until you've used both extensively. Who knows? Maybe there is a big void in your photography that you don't even know is there. Maybe your photography could be a thousand times more rewarding than it already is. And with how rewarding digital photography already is, imagine how much greater it could be with film.

But don't get me wrong. Film isn't for everybody. Digital is much better for many subjects like sports, family photos, wildlife in many cases... Besides, film never fails to weed out the real photographers from the fair-weather pixel jockeys of the digital revolution.

More B&W Film from the Old Barn

Old tools and parts in a shed - Ilford Delta 100 Film

Here are the remaining pictures from my trip to my aunt's old barn in Utah (see part 1 here). These pictures are primarily from the interior of the attached woodshed. I wish I could have spent more time dissecting the place because it was riddled with interesting artifacts from the turn of the century. Old tractor parts, rusted bolts, hand tools...ah geeze - just thinking about all the gems in this joint makes my shutter finger quiver. I could get lost in them for days.

I love the way old places like this basically turn monochrome with time. Dust and rust slowly engulf everything until the wooden things and the metal things become the same hue. It allows the shapes and details to show through without the distraction of color. And the best textures on the planet are found in places like these. Throw in some beautiful light from a nearby window and I'm in hog heaven. I can't wait to go back with my large format camera and really capture the intricate details in this tiny room.

Click any image for a larger version.

Old tools and parts in a shed - Ilford Delta 100 Film

Old tools and parts in a shed - Ilford Delta 100 Film

Old tools and parts in a shed - Ilford Delta 100 Film

Old tractor in the snow - Ilford Delta 100 Film