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Portrait of the Artist

We spent the morning up on the McKenzie River Trail making some photographs and having a nice picnic.  DJ snapped a couple of pictures of me at work with her point-and-shoot. Here I am photographing the dragon’s head with my 75 year-old camera and lens.

This is a Pacemaker Crown Graphic (http://graflex.org/) made in 1947.  I have the original sales receipt from a store in Chicago.  It was purchased by a veteran upon returning from the war and used part-time over the years to shoot weddings.  When he died, he willed it to his grandson who left it in the attic for years before selling it to me.  It came complete with two flash attachments, two porta lenses (used to make a standard lens into a mild telephoto for portraits) four film pack adapters, old Kodak film and even a bunch of Sylvania bulbs.  All of it was still in the leatherette case.  The lens is a Wollensak 135mm Optar – sharp and contrasty.  The shutter is a Graphex shutter and has performed accurately for me over the past five years.

The Graflex is a great way to get started in large format photography if you’re on a budget.  It lacks many of the movements traditional field or technical cameras have but it’s rugged and easy to use.  I use my jacket or vest for a dark cloth to save weight.  I use my Nikon D200 as a light meter and to get instant results with a histogram.

I use Velvia 50 slide film which comes in individual sheets and must be loaded into double-sided film holders in total darkness.  For that, I use a light-weight, portable film changing bag.  I load the holders at home in advance and carry them into the field in a ziplock bag.  I store all my film and processed plates in the refrigerator in ziplock bags with companion moisture absorbent packets.

Usually, when I’m out in the field with this camera, people ask me about it.  One of the most common questions they ask is, “Why would you use such an old, manually intensive camera?”  The answer is, it makes better photographs than my digital.  It makes better photographs than your digital, too.  There are several reasons for this.  One, it requires that you take your time and think things through.  Believe it or not, this results in better images.  Photography is all about seeing.  Large format cameras require so much time and effort to set up and use, they result in the development of a work methodology that produces a higher kill ratio.  In other words, I may come back from a full day in the mountains with only one or two plates, but odds are at least one of them will be quality.  That’s a 50 percent or higher rate of quality production.  Compare that to my digital where it’s common to fill up a card with hundreds of images and only have one or two truly good ones.

Second, the plates I do produce are richer, sharper, more colorful and better composed than those I produce with my handheld digital.  This is because the camera itself forces me to go through the motions of composition, making those small changes that, in the end, result in the difference between making photographs and taking pictures.

Third, large format lenses are better, even old ones like mine, and therefore produce better results.

This is not to say that you can’t take a great photo with a digital or other handheld camera.  You can.  But if you want the best quality image you can produce, only a large format camera will do.  This is why these large cameras are still made and used by landscape, architecture and product photographers.  For more information on large format photography, visit these websites.  I suggest starting with Ken Rockwell’s site.  Everyone has an opinion on Ken, my opinion is he’s honest, direct and easy to understand.




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