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New Work: First Sunset of 2013

Sunset at Heisler Park - Laguna Beach, CASunset at Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Provia 100F, 1/4 at f/25 - Lee 2-Stop Split ND
Click Image for Larger Version

Seems to be a tradition around these parts that the first sunset of a new year is quite stunning. Not sure why. Maybe it's just Mother Nature ringing it in the best way she knows how. It's her way of soothing the aching heads of hungover party goers all around Orange County. One of the most amazing sunsets I've ever seen was on a New Year's Day several years ago.

Shen-Hao HZX-45IIaThe first sunset of 2013 was no exception. We had a great cloud cover to pick up the sunset light. And so with my large format camera in hand, I visited the local beach at Heisler Park to photograph it.

Photographing the beach with a large format camera is no easy task, as I've said before. It takes 5+ minutes to set up a single shot on this type of camera. If a wave comes in and sinks your tripod, you practically have to start over. It's about finding the perfect spot where the water will come up close enough to look interesting in the photo without ever actually touching the tripod legs. And that's not to mention the quickly changing light, which is difficult to keep up with.

But luckily, I've made enough mistakes to know what not to do on this night, so things went off without a hitch. I managed to fire off a couple horizontal compositions and a couple vertical compositions, the best 2 of which you see here.

I made both images with my Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa camera and a Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens (that's a wide angle on this type of camera). I used Fuji Provia 100F film because I had a bunch of it on hand and it's a little cheaper than my favorite film, Fuji Velvia. Provia is a little less saturated than Velvia, but it still managed to record some decent color. Plus I think it actually worked out for the best here because Provia has a warmer color balance to it than Velvia 100. Velvia 100 is very blue compared to Provia - can be great for mountain scenes, but not so much for beach sunsets like this.

I used a Lee 2-stop split ND filter on both of these photos so as to preserve color in both the sky and foreground.

Sunset at Heisler Park - Laguna Beach, CASunset at Heisler Park, Laguna Beach, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Provia 100F, 1/4 at f/22 - Lee 2-Stop Split ND
Click Image for Larger Version

Corona Del Mar in B&W

It's been my dream for years to shoot 6x17 panoramas. 6x17 is a film format in which the negative measures 6cm tall by 17cm wide. It's a huge negative. Almost 7" wide! This means ultra-high detail and resolution in a beautiful wide format. Scanned at high resolution, you're looking 300+ megapixels.

Arch Rock, Corona Del Mar, CAArch Rock at Little Corona, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Ilford Delta 100, 18" at f/45 - 3-Stop Split ND & 3-stop full-field ND
Click Image for Larger Version

The only problem is that dedicated 6x17 cameras are heavy, rare, and ultra expensive. The gold-standard Fuji GX617 camera with one lens runs about $4,000...used. But man oh man would I love to shoot some true panoramas. No stitching digital files, no Photoshop, just good, pure panorama negatives.

But good news for me. Shen-Hao makes an attachment for their 4x5 field cameras that converts the standard 4x5 back into a 6x17 roll film back, just like the Fuji but for only $600 or so. I get to use my current large format lenses and I can even use camera movements like rise, shift, and tilt - something the Fuji can't do. That means I can keep vertical trees looking vertical and control distortion in a way only large format cameras can.

So I bought it last year as a Christmas gift to myself.

I'll be honest, the thing is difficult to use. There are a lot of things you can forget to do. It's all manual, it's slow, it's heavy. No fun for hiking and there's lots of room for error. But with some practice, I've become very adept at using it. And I'm addicted. I've been shooting 6x17 like crazy - black and white, color, beaches, forests...it's just plain fun.

For my first attempt at some serious 6x17 work, I went down to the local beach "Little Corona Del Mar." There's a great archway off the coast that I figured would be good practice. I decided to shoot B&W partly because I thought it would look good, but largely because it's cheap and I could develop the results that night.

I started with a horizontal pano. A simple composition with soft water and carefully placed rocks. Then as the night wrapped up, I tried a vertical pano that would highlight the distance between the near rocks and the far archway.

But other than that, I'll let the pictures tell their own story. Please click each for a larger version.

Arch Rock, Little Corona Del Mar, CAArch Rock at Little Corona, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor W 150mm f/5.6
Ilford Delta 100, 8" at f/32 - 2-Stop Split ND & Polarizer
Click Image for Larger Version

And all in all, I'm pretty happy with the results. It was a first attempt, so they're not perfect, but I think it's the start of a long love affair with 6x17.

New Work: Crescent Bay Sunset

Sunset at Crescent Bay in Laguna Beach, CASunset at Crescent Bay, Laguna Beach, CA
Shen-Hao HZX 4x5-IIa with Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5
Fuji Provia 100F, 30" at f/29 - 81C Warming Filter and 3-Stop Split ND
Click Image for Larger Version

Shooting large format at the beach is tough. The camera is slow, unwieldy, and once you lock down the shot, it's a royal pain to adjust anything. This makes using a tripod in the surf essentially impossible. As soon as the water rushes in around the legs, they start sinking, which messes up everything. Plus, it's not uncommon for exposures to be 10" or longer, which makes it really impossible to set up in sinking sand.

I tried to make some "snow shoes" for use at the beach to remedy this problem, but they don't work well enough. So instead, I either set up in the dry sand or if I want to be close to the water, I must find just the right cluster of rocks that will permit me to set up my tripod on them. And that's what I did here.

Shen-Hao HZX-45IIaFrom high up on my perch on some rocks at Crescent Beach in Laguna Beach, CA, I composed this image using my large format Shen-Hao HZX-45IIa 4x5 camera with a Nikkor SW 90mm f/4.5 lens.

On my way to the beach, I envisioned a photo of the Pacific Ocean smoothed out into a gentle fog with the water's surface and wet sand reflecting the vibrant colors of a fiery sunset. I wanted some dark, nearly black rocks in the foreground to break up the reflection and, luckily for me, the sand level was low at the beach that day and the perfect rocks were perfectly exposed in the perfect location under a stable platform for my tripod. And the sky was nice enough to serve up the colors that night.

I metered the scene using my handheld spot meter, calculating an exposure of 15 seconds at f/29 on Fuji Provia 100F film. A 3-stop split neutral density filter allowed me to hold color in the sky and water surface and an 81C warming filter brought out the warm tones of the sunset exactly as I hoped. The 30-second exposure smoothed out the water and the wet sand picked up the reflections just as I envisioned.

I also tilted the lens forward a little bit while keeping the film vertical. Sounds weird, but on this type of camera, I can tilt the lens and film independently of each other so that they are no longer parallel as on a standard SLR camera. Why would I want to do this? Well when you tilt the lens forward but leave the film plane vertical, you basically tilt the entire plane of focus forward so that it better aligns with the earth stretching out in front of me.

So if you imagine on a traditional SLR camera, the plane of focus is always parallel to the lens and camera back, like photographing a wall straight on. But when I tilt the lens forward on this camera, the plane of focus starts to "lay down" in front of me, like a wall tipping away from me. This gives me a huge depth of field so that everything is tack sharp from foreground to background. This phenomenon is called the Scheimpflug principle and is a very valuable tool for controlling depth of field.

It doesn't happen often, but I love when all the elements come together perfectly like they did on this evening.