Tag Archives: Large Format Photography

Kingdom of Sedimentary Rock in Print

This week the June issue of “Nippon Kamera” has landed itself on bookstore shelves, and within the portfolio pages near the front appears my contribution of photographs.

Entitled “Kingdom of Sedimentary Rock”, the portfolio consists of six images captured in Utah and Nevada during my visit to that area in October of 2010. On pages 82 and 83, all contributors to the portfolio pages are shown in a small mug shot along with a brief text explaining their portfolio and a briefer bio. I received a complementary copy on Saturday and was very excited to see how my latest published piece turned out.

The first thing I noticed and greatly appreciated was the reproduction quality of the images. My photographs are tack sharp and the colour is great. In one image of very strong reds and oranges, it is a little difficult to discern the details in the setting; however, this is not a fault in the printing but a result of the very warm light of the sunrise shining on the rust-coloured sandstone. That the location is The Valley of Fire makes is very appropriate to have such flaming colours. In particular, I like a photo of two rock towers in Bryce Canyon because the direct sunlight and reflected light offer good contrasts in lighting and wonderful details in the rocks. This spectacular crispness of detail I attribute to the fact that five of the images were captured with my Tachihara 4×5 and the one other image with my Bronica 645. Nothing like medium and large format for sharp images in a magazine page. Nippon Kamera’s scanning must also be really good.

Regarding the photographs, I have only two disappointments. The first is that Zion Canyon, which became one of my favourite places I have ever visited, was represented here in a solitary image of a stone in wet mud near the placid waters of the Virgin River North Fork. All those awesome cliffs and canyon walls reflecting orange or blue light that I had desired so much to see in print were not selected. The other disappointment is that the final image of a rock known as a “Bee Hive” in The Valley of Fire is printed on the page opposite an advertisement featuring a young woman in a very active and dynamic pose. The poor rock, no matter how beautiful, can hardly compete! Couldn’t they have put a less eye-catching image on that page?

The explanatory text was sadly edited down from over 1,100 characters to just over 300. The original text contrasted the rather vertical geologic history of Japan with mountains rising and volcanoes collapsing to the mostly horizontal geologic history of the centre of North America with sedimentary layers from seas, deserts, deltas, and river valleys piling up over millions of years before being uplifted and fractured and cut by rivers. I had to strip away paragraph after paragraph until only a brief summary of the geologic history of the area (the Colorado Plateau) remained.

As for my short bio, here is where the most surprises showed up. I was asked to provide a bio which I did. However, what was printed was a combination of parts of what I had submitted and snippets from my Japanese blog. I had noticed a few weeks ago that someone had been visiting that blog, using my name for the search. Some changes are as follows:

My Tachihara field camera became a Linhof field camera.

I wrote that I came to Japan in 1999. The magazine says 1997 (a vacation trip only).

The magazine mentions that I visited New Zealand. Fair enough. What about all the other countries I have visited? But since they published my New Zealand photographs previously it kind of makes sense.

I wrote that I had self-published a book on the Japan Alps. The magazine mentions my books “Earth Tones” and “Earth Cycles” as well as an older POD book from many years ago called “Nature Song”. This was my earliest effort at self-publishing and done more for fun than anything else because the cost was not economical. I was hoping to promote the Alps book the most.

Finally, they wrote that I am a member of the All Japan Alpine Photography Association and the Society for Scientific Photography in Japan. I requested time out while my daughter was young and did not pay my membership dues for the last two years. Only just this month did I reactivate my membership with the Society for Scientific Photography.

Overall though, there’s plenty to be pleased about. As Michael Saddler of the Canadian rock band Saga once said, “As long as they get the name right.” In the end I am the only one who will care about the erroneous information anyway.

Check out the latest issue of “Nippon Kamera 日本カメラ” in book stores now!

Some of my photographs in Nippon Kamera magazine. Image created with Diptic app for iPhone.

Some of my photographs in Nippon Kamera magazine. Image created with Diptic app for iPhone.

Getting Tougher for Film Users

When photography became accessible to the average citizen it was said that painting would become obsolete. Why would anyone need to spend time mixing paints on canvas when a realistic image could be captured in a second? Yet painting has persisted and still plays an important role in the worlds of art and media today.

Then colour photography threatened to make black and white photographs a thing of the past, and yet still today many people want to at least render their images in monochrome if not shoot with monochrome film. And has 3D imaging threatened to make 2D photography obsolete at any time soon? I don’t think so.

So, by considering how these above technical innovations were said to make their predecessors obsolete but still haven’t, I always believed that there would be a place for film photography no matter how far digital photography advanced. However, disconcerting change is in the air.

Several weeks ago, I went to a photo shop that I used to frequent when I used to live in the area. I wanted to get prints made from some digital captures of my children, have prints made from slides, and get some slides scanned. The digital images were printed in about five minutes. But the prints from slides were not so easy. The service I had been using for a decade or more was no longer available. That particular shop could not take my order. Asking about the scans they had only one service to offer and it was not a really good one (small size files from the scans) yet still a bit expensive (210 yen per 25mm scan).

I went to another shop, actually a different branch of the same chain, and was able to order my scans from slides without too much trouble. But the prints from slides continued to be an issue. That shop said they used another service though the direct print service was discontinued. Getting prints from 35mm slides was not so difficult then. But one slide was a 6×7 and getting that one printed was a possible concern. The clerk had to call the lab and verify that they could make a print from my medium format slide.

At last the orders were placed and I went home wondering why it had to be so difficult. But my troubles were not to end there. Two weeks ago I went to buy frames at another big chain store in Japan and as I passed the film section I happened to notice the Fuji Quick Load film I use for my 4×5 camera was not on the shelf. There was regular 4×5 sheet film that you have to load into film holders, but the Quick Load type which is inside an envelope that you put in a holder was not. This film is more convenient to carry when you are going away for a few days or more because you only need one holder and then you can carry as many envelopes of sheet film as you like (I think I took about 40 with me to Utah and Nevada in 2010). Regular sheet film has to be loaded in holders that can only take two sheets at a time. For day trips you might only need to take along three or four holders to get six to eight shots. But if you are traveling for several days or more you have to take a caseload of holders.

I asked the clerk about the film and she said it was discontinued. I followed up with a check on the Internet and learned that Fuji announced the end of production in December, 2010, just after I had returned from the U.S. Had I known at the time I would have bought a few more boxes. But even though they know me at that shop and I told them to alert me of specials, no one said a thing about it when I came in the shop a few months later to develop some Quick Load sheet film I had shot. And since I still had leftover stock from my trip to the U.S. and my time for outdoor photography is rare and precious now, I haven’t been in need of restocking my supply. So by now there is no more Quick Load film to buy and it seems I’ll have to look into picking up some regular film holders if I want to keep using my 4×5 camera for a few more years to come.

That is if they don’t decide to quit making sheet film altogether. On one web site, the author reported that Fuji had justified the discontinuation of the film by pointing out low sales. However, film sales have been dropping across the board, not just in Quick Load film. The web site author encouraged us film users to ensure film survives by continuing to use it. For my own preference, I like that I get all the right colour and everything in one shot and I don’t have to spend time at my computer touching up and changing a load of digitally captured images as I know many people do. I don’t have PhotoShop and can’t imagine spending money every time a new version comes out or buying a new computer every few years to keep up with the processing power required to run the software. As it is, my DSLR is not top-of-the-line quality and I find I am rarely pleased with the colour in the resulting images I shoot. My film scans look much better. And who can argue with a good 4×5 transparency?

I will admit though, the idea of using just one camera again (like I did way back when) and a set of lenses and filters does appeal to me. What if I had everything I needed in one kit rather than carrying three formats of cameras and their lenses up a mountain? One camera, two lenses, and a few good filters – how simple that would be. But at the moment I have no desire to retire my Tachihara 4×5. I still feel there is a certain honour in using it. It should last decades if properly cared for. Even the best digital camera these days doesn’t have such a promising lifespan.

Desert Storm – Part Two

A Brief Encounter with Zion National Park

The thousand-metre high cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park had been familiar to me in photographs since I was in junior high school. Landmarks such as the Patriarchs, the West Temple, and the Great White Throne often showed up in books of natural wonders of the western United States and in photo publications I enjoyed. Zion was appropriately named because it was in all respects for me sacred ground. Here was where several chapters in the long history of Mother Earth were opened up to read in spectacular cliffs, canyons, buttes, and caps. In addition, here was the hallowed ground where so many great landscape photographers of the past and present set down their tripods and tripped their shutters.

From Saint George, Utah, the rocks beside the road were mostly red and weathered into peculiar sculptures that could resemble the petrified organs of some mammoth beast trapped in the strata of the earth. Turning off the I-15 at Hurricane, we left the fantastic red rock landscapes behind and drove past flat-topped table lands, many with layers of black basalt on top. Soon the West Temple came into view again loomed ever nearer. Then the road snuggled up close to the hills at Rockville and Springdale. I marvelled at the huge weathered blocks of sandstone that were tumbled and jammed into the small stream channels carving into the rock. Then at last the mountain-like red cliffs of the Watchman took a chunk out of the sky. It had been cloudy all morning but now the clouds were breaking into long tracks and moving to the north. I had heard of four consecutive days of rain up this way but it seemed the weather was turning around in our favour.

There was a $25 entrance fee for our vehicle but that covered all three of us too. A sign had said that the visitor centre parking lot was full; however, we found an open stall in the overflow parking. Though we had left at 7:30 it was now around noon. We had stopped for gas and a rest in Saint George but it had still taken us three and a half hours in total to reach the park. We decided to take the shuttle bus that ran up the canyon. The system was really convenient. The bus was free to ride and there were nine stops along the way including the visitor centre. One could get off the bus at any stop and then board another bus later and either continue up the canyon or catch a bus heading back down. The buses ran every six to eight minutes and ran from just after sunrise to after 9 pm. The buses all ran on propane, and the implementation of a shuttle bus system was meant to eliminate the chains of private vehicles belching exhaust into the canyon as the tourist traffic had increased significantly since the 1960s.

(It is ironic to think that in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Sierra Club was producing very large format photo art books, many of the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, in an effort to create public awareness of the need to preserve these beautiful and delicate environments. The result of greater public awareness was that more and more people came by car to see the parks and as in the case of Zion Canyon, the huge increase in vehicular traffic actually helped to deteriorate conditions in the park. Of course the Sierra Club is not responsible for this but I am sure their books did capture the minds of many people who otherwise might not have gone.)

We boarded a bus and as we drove past the red cliffs with white caps a recording played, explaining about the sights around and the history of the park and canyon. We went straight to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava and got off. The North Fork of the Virgin River comes out from the narrow canyon walls here and winds around a sandstone tower known as the Pulpit.

The Pulpit

Knowing my parents were not intending to stay long, I dashed to the river side and set up my view camera. It takes time to set up the camera and get the focus adjustments right, so I rushed while trying to make sure I got a good composition as well. Then I tried some 6×4.5 shots of the cliffs and the Pulpit and finally shot some 35mm scenes as well. After 25 minutes I found my parents sitting on a bench at the bus stop. “Did you get some good shots?” my father asked as he always does. I replied that I think I did but was only able to make maybe three or four compositions in total. We rode the bus to the stop at Big Bend and again I hurried to get something exposed on my film. We got out one more time at the Court of the Patriarchs stop and I dashed up to the viewpoint only to find it unsatisfactory. My parents came slowly up the path while I found what looked like a trail leading up higher. Ignoring the beginnings of a mild asthma attack (I always get these when I suddenly start running or walking quickly up steep trails) I ran up the sun-baked clay slope and soon found a clear patch where I could look over the trees to the three great towers of sandstone that were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a smaller tower known as Mount Moroni. All three cameras were put through the works before I packed up and went down to the bus stop where my parents were waiting again.

Two of the three Patriarchs - Abraham on the left and Isaac in the centre - and Mount Moroni on the right.

In truth, though the scenery of Zion was astounding in its beauty, I was finding it difficult to be truly astounded. Perhaps because I already knew of what to expect I felt I was only seeing in real life what I had seen so often in photographs. But I think it was more so because I didn’t have the chance to really set foot on the rock and soil and take a moment to simply observe the naturally beauty and let it stir me into action. Before long we were back at the visitor centre and looking through the books and various souvenirs. My parents bought a book/CD/DVD set for my son and were searching for something for my wife. They also bought a small photo book of Zion landscapes. I grabbed a Utah Rocks T-shirt with pictures of five of Utah’s most famous places for naturally sculpted rock and a calendar by David Pettit who was pictured on the back using the same Tachihara 4×5 that I have.

We sat outside under a clear blue sky and ate lunch, me with one eye on my watch because we were planning to go to Bryce Canyon next. It was when we had finished lunch my mom said that she felt there was no time to head on to Bryce Canyon and that we should head back to Las Vegas. It was only around four o’clock and I had heard it was only an hour more to Bryce. Sunset was just at seven. We still had time. But she said they had seen so much in Zion already and there was a long drive back to Vegas. If I really wanted to see Bryce I could go by myself the next day. I was in a way surprised that they could just stop like that and talk about heading back so early. For me, it was that I had just shaken hands with Zion and exchanged a few pleasantries but had not yet begun any intimate conversation. And Bryce had been a dream destination for me since my elementary school days when I enjoyed looking through geology books. But I understood that the day with my parents was meant to be a day with them and not my own day of exploration. The arrangement was that I would strike out on my own the next day and they had offered to lend me the rental car so that I wouldn’t have to rent my own.

After a bit of discussion, my father seemed to be in favour of trying for Bryce. My mother agreed without overt reluctance and we pressed on up to Canyon Junction where the road turned east to Bruce Canyon. Here we were immediately confronted by a road closure. A construction worker came over and explained the road was closed. We asked if there was another way to get to Bryce Canyon. He told us that we should go back to Hurricane and take the route north to Cedar City. From there we could get over to Bryce Canyon. I checked the map and saw that it was going to take a fair bit of extra time to circle all the way round like that. If we were lucky we’d get there around sunset and then have a very long drive back again. Instantly my desire to reach Bryce dissipated and I was all for heading back to Las Vegas without regret. There was nothing we could do. But those red towers of Zion Canyon reminded me that I still had a purpose were I to stay.

We stopped in Springdale for a moment and checked out a shop selling rocks and a photo gallery shared the building. I went in and saw on the walls some incredible photographs of Zion Canyon and some of the local semi-arid landscape scenery. The photographer was a young guy perhaps in his late twenties named Steffan (www.steffangallery.com). I asked him about his camera and he told me that he used a Wistia 4×5 and also a medium format camera sometimes too. His film preferences were Fujichrome Velvia and Ectachrome too. How wonderful it was to find another photographer who still pursued landscape photography with film and in large format too. As antiquated and almost obsolete as shooting film with a view camera may seem in today’s modern digital age, there were still professionals who wouldn’t abandon their 4x5s. Since I was planning to return in the morning and spend the day I asked his advice about where I should go. At first I wanted to visit the Emerald Pools and make the climb up to Angels Landing but his photographs of the Narrows – a place farther up the canyon where the 1,000-metre high cliffs closed in to within five metres apart – revived in my mind images of Eliot Porter’s from Glen Canyon, whose cliffs and amphitheatres now lie drowned in the waters of Lake Powell. Stephen totally recommended the hike up to the Narrows but said both the Emerald Pools and Angles Landing would be worth the effort. Likely there would be not enough time for all of them. We discussed his forthcoming book, printing processes, and the principles of capturing great images that didn’t require lots of post processing before I left his gallery and collected my parents for the ride back.

A short distance west of Springdale, looking southeast.

So, we turned around, and as the sun was sinking in the west and the sweet light was just beginning to touch up the landscape and photographers were just stirring from their mid-day sedentary pursuits, I began the long drive back to Las Vegas without the opportunity to enjoy shooting this unbelievable landscape in the warm light of late afternoon. Being the driver, I forced a few turn outs on local backroads until I found a decent view over sage brush and sand to some mesas in the distance. The landscape began to glow warmly as the sun edged its way toward the horizon. Then we drove on into the gathering evening and into the night. It was 12:30 by the time I got to bed after dinner in Las Vegas and a shower at the resort. My plan, now discussed with my parents, was set. Off to the Valley of Fire State Park at 5 am; leave there around 8:30 and head for Zion; stay until after sunset and drive back to Vegas; and then head over to Red Rock Canyon for the dawn shoot. I fell asleep quickly.

My Pace

It was a hot summer. The season is hard enough on me here in Japan but this year summer was exceptionally hot. My wife went through her morning sickness period during these hot days and with the combination of her inability to tolerate long car rides and the oppressive heat, we didn’t go anywhere except once to the riverside when the sun was going behind the trees and clouds. For three months then I had not set foot in the great outdoors. It had been three months since I had climbed a mountain and throughout August my legs were getting antsy about the lack of exercise.

I planned a day hike with two of my co-workers and I chose Ryogamisan near Chichibu because it is not far by car for me and it is perhaps the Hyakumeizan closest to my residence and I had not yet climbed it. The plan was set and then the day before both guys had to back out. No matter. I would go by myself.

Sunday the 26th of September had promised fine weather and I left my home only ten minutes before the sun came over the horizon. The drive from Konosu to Ryogami Mura was pleasant with little traffic on a Sunday morning. Arriving at the trailhead, the first two parking lots were almost full. I just managed to squeeze in between two vehicles in the second parking lot. But the parking lots were small and the trail was not as crowded as I had first thought. It was good to feel my legs moving on the trail and I soon started passing the parties of seniors and middle-aged hikers. I had not planned to bring anything more than my compact digital as this was going to be an outing for exercise and camaraderie. But with the other two out I packed my 4×5 and thought that I might shoot in the ravines a bit. I went at my pace, sometimes making good time, but later feeling the lack of exercise and also lack of sleep during the past week. I wondered if I wasn’t seriously dragging my butt later on but a look at the time showed I was on schedule by the times printed on the map.

Ryogamisan had a beautiful rock collection. Ancient metamorphic rock that had once been sedimentary rock on an ocean floor was layered, folded, and buckled. There were especially beautiful cliffs of red rock, which I am guessing was chert. The forest was still green and the streams clear. I resisted the temptation to stop and shoot, saving that for the way back. There were several people on the trail but it was by no means crowded. The route followed a ravine with no name on the map and then climbed up through the trees over massive tangles of tree roots spilling down the mountainside like a dumped plate of spaghetti. There was a shelter along the way, unstaffed but open, and a shrine, very old-looking, not far from the summit. As Ryogami is below the tree-line, the path kept me in the forest all the way to the summit. Here rocks broke through and afforded views of the Okutama Chichibu mountain wilderness. But the clear skies were being invaded by a fleet of clouds and the sun was mostly hidden away. My shirt was soaked with sweat and a cool wind blew on me. I only stayed 20 minutes on top before I started to feel the shivers coming on and so I thought it best to keep moving and began going down again.

Many times along the way down I was attracted by rocks in the ravines with water spilling over, but it wasn’t until I reached a spot with at least three attractive compositions that I decided to clamber down the slope and spend some time fiddling with the 4×5. It took about 15 minutes per photograph and I made three exposures. It was very hard to compose and focus because the sun was behind the clouds, beyond the thick green canopies of the forest and on the other side of the mountain. The ravine looked much darker on the ground glass! Even with the focusing cloth over my head and the aperture set wide open it was not easy to check my composition and focus perfectly. In the end I had to guess that I had set everything up correctly. I hope I am right. Someday I would love to go back just for shooting in the ravine.

The sky seemed to be gearing up for rain and so without delay I set off for my car. There were scenes along the way back that arrested my attention but I decided to put them off for another time. The rain held off but finally came down when I was in Kumagaya, heading home.

Ryogamisan is my 30th Hyakumeizan. I had planned to reach 31 last September but because of weather and time I had to cut my expected plan of reaching four peaks in three days down to one peak only. Washibadake in the Kita Alps was my 28th mountain. Then this June, I made it to the crater summit of Asamayama for number 29. At the top of Ryogami, I heard one man say, “60 more Hyakumeizan to go.” Sixty sounded like a lot. That means he had done 40 mountains so far, ten more than me. But if sixty was a lot remaining on his to-do list, then 70 was even more for me. Thinking that I had 70 Hyakumeizan still to go was discouraging. But then again I don’t intend to climb all 100 (Famous) Mountains of Japan. I just like to keep count.

Eliot Porter and Las Vegas

One night a few weeks ago I learned that wife and son would not be home and I was faced with suddenly having a chunk of time dropped in my lap. Always saying, “If I only had more time to myself I could get so much done,” I welcomed the opportunity to get my office in order and tackled the large boxes that had come over from Canada a year ago. I was particularly interested in opening the boxes that contained my precious photo art book collection. Buried away in boxes in the corner were treasure troves of inspiring landscape and nature photography by some of my favourite photographers.

When at last I had opened and examined the contents of every single box, I reworked my bookshelf and stocked it with the books that gave me the greatest pleasure. Among the many titles were eight books by American landscape photographer, Eliot Porter (1901 – 1990). I had first come across Porter’s works in a book entitled The Place No One Knew: Glen Canyon on the Colorado when I was searching for photography books of landscapes of the American southwest. Soon after, I found In Wildness is the Preservation of the World, Porter’s first book with the Sierra Club and the book that really launched his career. Other books turned up around the local libraries and it was at this time that many of Porter’s books came to be published, including his autobiography Eliot Porter, his photographs from Iceland, and his final book before his passing, Nature’s Chaos.

Eliot Porter spent the summers of his childhood on an island in Maine which his family owned. As a boy, he was first interested in photographing birds. He later began photographing nature and landscapes more. He became acquainted with Alfred Steiglitz and in December 1938 he was granted an exhibition at Steiglitz’s gallery “An American Place.” The success of his exhibition convinced him to give up his work in biochemistry and become a full-time photographer.

Over the next 24 years, Eliot Porter held his exhibitions and took assignments for the likes of the Audobon Society and sold his photographs to publishing houses and periodicals. His big break came when the Director of the Sierra Club, David Brower, had a chance to see his exhibition “The Seasons” with excerpts from Henry David Thoureau’s book Walden. The exhibition became Porter’s first book In Wildness is the Preservation of the World and the first of many titles that the Sierra Club would publish. As his career blossomed and reputation spread, Porter enjoyed rare opportunities to photograph Antarctica and China. As well, he traveled to Africa, Mexico, the Galapagos Islands, and many places across the United States. Many of his photographs made their way into books.

When Porter’s son, Johnathan gave him James Gleick’s book Chaos, Porter said that he felt as if all he had tried to capture in nature in his photographs seemed to be summed up by this new science of chaos theory. James Gleick was contacted and a book idea came together. Some time after, Porter passed away shortly before his 89th birthday. At least one other title has been published posthumously, a collection of his photographs of the Grand Canyon.

I always enjoyed Eliot Porter’s photography exactly because I felt he was very honest about representing nature on film just as one would expect to find it in real life. His photos were never about impossibly vivid lighting situations, shriekingly dynamic compositions, or unbelievable convergences of weather and light. His works show us just what nature is: simply complex, complexly simple, and beautiful for what it is as we find it. I spent my early years seeking out in the forests of my city scenes like the ones he had captured in Maine or in the Adirondack Mountains. When I gave my first slide presentation at a local Lutheran church, the pastor commented that my photographs showed the beauty of what could be found right under our noses. It was also thanks to Eliot Porter’s photographs that I wanted a larger format than 35mm and purchased a Pentax 6×7. Many of my early photographs with that camera bear resemblance to his works, I like to think.

I never made the time to travel south to the desert lands of the American southwest, the places that not only Eliot Porter but landscape photographers around the world come to explore through their lenses. The closest I came was in 2006 when a friend and I tentatively planned a ten-day excursion to the Grand Canyon and neighbouring canyons. My friend decided to spend his money on snowboarding and my parents invited me to stay with them in Hawaii for a week, and so the plan was scrapped.

Then came the news a few weeks ago that my sister was getting married in Las Vegas and my father and mother felt I should be there for the event. I agreed but had not the financial means of getting there. Of course, my most generous parents offered to pay for my ticket. How could I say no? I would see my only sister tie the knot with the only man that has ever lasted more than one Christmas with her, and in fact has lasted the last few years. That was something in itself! My parents did not fail to mention, however, that they would be visiting Bryce Canyon and that I was welcome to join them. Suddenly it seemed the impossible had become possible. I, the poor photographer living in Japan with barely the means to plan a summer hike in the Japan Alps, would have the opportunity to see for a day or two a little of the desert lands of America. Granted, it would likely be a day touring with my parents who are in their mid-seventies and perhaps a day on my own. I would have enough time to be introduced to canyons Bryce and Zion, and maybe the Valley of Fire outside Las Vegas.

Now those Eliot Porter books are within easy reach on my shelf, and my 4×5 camera sits in my closet awaiting its next assignment. Sheet film stays cool in the refrigerator. Two days. I can’t expect much. But I know I will be in a personal piece of paradise when I step out onto that dry sand and rock, set up my tripod and camera, and for a moment believe I am experiencing the same thrill that Eliot Porter did every time he set his tripod down in the American southwest.

The Waiting is Over

Now the cycle begins again

Last Thursday I stopped in at a book store and found a camera magazine that I had been waiting for on the shelf, the February issue of Nihon Kamera (日本カメラ). In it were eight pages of my New Zealand landscape photographs. They looked great. I knew the photos would be in an upcoming issue but I didn’t know when exactly. I had submitted them back in June of 2009, and in November I had called the magazine to ask if anything was happening with my photos. They told me at the time that they liked the photos but hadn’t made any decision yet. They would contact me before the year was over.

It was just days before I left for my two-week winter holidays that I received a call and a PFD file by email explaining what photos they would use and what information they needed. I stayed up until 2 in the morning that night preparing all the captions and explanations in Japanese, and emailed the info to them the next day.

Then I heard nothing from them.

But at last, the magazine was published and I can see my photos in print again. I am especially pleased because six of the eight photographs were taken in 4×5 format. That is, I took the photos with one of those old style type cameras (though mine is new) with the bellows and the cloth you need to stand under in order to view the scene and focus it.

Now, before this recent excitement dies down, I find myself already thinking about the next submissions. I have two that are nearly ready and some that need time to be prepared. It takes many weeks to select the images to go with the idea, and to write out the idea and check it over a few times if it’s in English, or to study and prepare the text in Japanese and then ask someone to check it over for me. Photo and article submissions to magazines don’t get prepared quickly, and the time to wait for a response can be anywhere from a few days to over a year. The norm is several months. However, since I now support my family with my teaching job, I have to earn money from writing and photography in order to continue photographing. This has forced me to stop being lazy, to keep brainstorming new ideas and getting submissions in the pipeline, thus the increase in success I have had since my wife stopped working to be a full-time mother.

I also have my stock agency from which I can earn money through the publication of my photographs, but I don’t make much from them and I haven’t sent them any new material for two years now. So one of my big projects is to complete a selection of photographs from 2008/09 to bring down to them, as well as to start preparing this year’s articles and portfolios.

Inspirations

Last week I got a call from Nihon Kamera. Since June, they’d been holding a submission I sent of landscape photos from New Zealand’s South Island. At last the verdict was in and they are going to run eight photographs over eight pages in an upcoming issue. When I checked the PFD file they sent, showing me which photos had been selected so I would know what captions to provide, I saw that six of the eight photographs were shot in 4×5, and the other two were shot in 645 format and 35mm format. I was very pleased and excited that so many of my 4×5 photographs would see publication; however, it wondered about the two dozen 35mm slides I had included in the submission. Why was only one 35mm photograph selected? Were the 4x5s just that much more eye-catching, or was it a question of quality (sharper images)?

Looking at the 4×5 photographs that were selected I can say that they represent the best of my large format images from my last trip to New Zealand, but also that there were not so many successful images out of the batch. Furthermore, I noticed that my 4×5 landscape photos from New Zealand do not resemble the style of large format Kiwi photographer, Scott Freeman, whose book New Zealand Photographs is one of my favourite photo art books. Because Freeman shoots many scenes of rocks and geologically related subjects, I really enjoy his work and it inspires me to go out and shoot similar scenes in Japan. But my New Zealand large format landscape images are quite different in spite of our common interest.

Shooting in 4×5 is not easy, as I wrote about at length a few months back. However, I still find it really fun to shoot with the technical view camera and rewarding when the images turn out successfully. One of my favourite contemporary 4×5 photographers is not world famous though his work has been published in Hungary, as well as North America. Adam Gibbs is a British-born photographer who has been living in Canada for at least a couple of decades now. During my stay in Canada between December 2004 and March 2006, I had the opportunity twice to meet with Adam and swap favourite photo books. His web site is linked from this blog, and just the other day I took a casual stroll through some of his galleries, once again marvelling at how skilfully he captures mountains scenes, canyons, forest floor detail, sea shores, and so on, with his view camera. Between Adam’s web site and Scott Freeman’s book, I was well charged with inspiration, but to add to it was a book I found at the library called “日本列島の20億年” (“Nihon Rettou no 20 Okunen – The 2 Billion Years of the Japan Archipelago”). Large format colour photographs capture scenes from around Japan and text describes what is in each image from a geology perspective. There are volcanoes and uplifted mountain ranges, glacial valleys and sea cliffs, tuff strata and lava flows. The book has me all fired up to start shooting more geology-based subjects as I used to do long ago before I became obsessed with the Japan Alps.

Then on the train the other day, I was reading an interview with a Japanese photographer who has made his name and fortune shooting in Canada and Europe. He is only four years older than me but he already has ten books published, three or four in the last two or three years. This at a time when publishers are saying that the photo book market is suffering terribly! One comment that photographer made was that you should photograph what you love and he loves to show places where people live, especially where people live close to nature, and he cites Prince Edward Island as one of his favourite places for that kind of photography.

I sure wish it were me who had so many photo books published. But I do recognize that his favourite subjects are much more accessible to the public in general than mountains and rocks. Many more people can imagine traveling to a European town or to P.E.I than those who want to climb a mountain or study rocks in the bottom of a canyon. His words come to me, though, just at the time when I have decided to work not only on shooting mountain scenes but also to seek out and photograph interesting rock formations and land forms in Japan. It might be harder for me to find success like that but I will be shooting what I love and that is one very good reason to look forward to future outings.

The third and final source of inspiration came from a small book of photographs by Makoto Saito, a photography instructor in Tokyo and writer for Gakujin magazine and editor for the members’ magazine of the Society of Scientific Photography. His book, “山のふしぎ” (“Yama no Fushigi – Mysteries of the Mountains”), is a collection of various photos taken in mountain areas all around Japan. The subjects are extremely diverse: mountain peaks, clouds over ranges, small nature close-ups, people adventuring in the mountains, medium scale mountain nature scenes, waterfalls, and so on. His work is in some ways very similar to mine and yet in some ways a level above mine – almost attainable if I work on it a little harder.

I would love to capture some of the scenes in that book but I have to get to those places first. And then I would love to have a book of my best images published but I need to get recognized by publishers as a worthy investment first. I guess it will take some time and a lot more effort. Thanks to the sources of inspiration I mentioned above, I am very excited about what I might be able to do in the coming year.

And for starters, I can look forward to my next published work in Nihon Kamera magazine.

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve

Ben Avon Scenic Reserve, Ahuriri Valley, South Island, New Zealand.

Shooting in 4×5 – Focusing Difficulties

In this modern age of digital photography you probably wouldn’t think anyone would be looking to buy a 4×5 field camera. Given the convenience of digital SLRs, why would anyone be interested in a cumbersome, slow, expensive, and difficult to operate fully manual camera? But just over two years ago that is exactly what I bought rather than a digital SLR. My reason was simple: I had wanted a 4×5 since around 1993 when I first learned that my favourite American landscape photographer, Eliot Porter had used a 4×5.

Way back then I learned some important things about 4×5 cameras. They were just as expensive as a very good 35mm SLR; they were slow to set up; and the film was expensive. Nevertheless, I knew that with a 4×5 camera I would be able to capture landscapes on film that was the size of a postcard, much more impressive than film the size of a postage stamp. The larger format is impressive because it leaps out from a light table and can be enlarged to very big prints while maintaining pinpoint clarity. If you enlarge a 35mm print to 16”x20” you have to increase the original image by doubling the size roughly 4 times (about 1 x 1 ½, 2×3, 4×6, 8×12, 16×24), severely testing the clarity of detail in the photograph. A 4×5 transparency only has to be enlarged by doubling it 2 times (4×5 to 8×10; 8×10 to 16×20) allowing for sharpness to be maintained. Enlarging it by doubling the size four times would give us a 64”x80” size print or 5’1/3”x6’2/3”. It is for this reason that photographers still use large format cameras, particularly 4×5, and some 8×10 or larger.

Some of my favourite British photographers shoot in 4×5: Peter Watson, Joe Cornish and David Ward. Many American photographers I admired in the 90s used 4×5 like Pat O’Hara, William Neill and Carr Clifton. Canadian photographer Graham Osborne also shot in 4×5 (and I think he still does), and many other photographers in countries such as Japan, New Zealand and Australia shoot in 4×5 as well. So I was not as much of an oddball as you might think when I chose to buy a Tachihara 4×5 technical field camera.

A 4x5 transparency and two 35mm transparencies on my light table

A 4x5 transparency and two 35mm transparencies on my light table

Admittedly, it has not been easy. The learning curve has been slow to reach the bend in the elbow. For the most part I have found it easy and fun to use the camera but very difficult to produce the desired results. Composing the image is not as difficult as I had imagined. You view the scene reversed and inverted on the ground glass, but because the view is large enough to be like a small window in most cases I have not found this an obstacle in composing the scene as I wish to capture it. But focusing has proven to be the biggest issue, even much more than proper exposure, which I can get right about 80% of the time using my Minolta spot meter and then deciding the shutter speed from there.

The first reason why focusing is a challenge for me is because I have to think carefully about the focal length of the lens I am using. The standard lens for a 4×5 is a 150mm, and I had to buy a 180mm since there were no 150s available that were used. For the 35mm format, a 150mm lens is a telephoto lens. But even though it is a standard lens for the 4×5 it still has the same depth-of-field. The reason being I’ll explain below.

Each focal length of lens has an image circle that is the circular image of the scene before the lens which is reversed and inverted behind the lens. The smaller the focal length, the smaller the image circle. Therefore it stands to reason that larger film sizes need larger focal lengths in order for the image circle to be larger than the film. A 35mm frame of film is small and captures only the centre of the image circle of a 90mm lens, thus the 90mm works as a short telephoto lens. A 6×7(cm) camera’s film is actually 5.5x7cm and captures a larger area of the 90mm lens image circle. This lens is the standard lens for 6×7 format. A sheet of 4×5 film captures most of the 90mm lens image circle and thus the lens is a wide angle lens in 4×5. We can see that any focal length can be a wide angle, standard, or telephoto lens depending on the size of the camera. A 300mm is a nice telephoto lens for the 35mm format but it’s the standard lens for 8×10.

So I discovered that shooting a landscape with a 180mm lens meant that I had to consider the limitations of depth-of-field. I was surprised to find out that shooting a mountain scene with a large aperture cost me focus because the mountain ridge off to one side that I assumed was in focus at infinity was actually too close and outside the range of the depth-of-field and hyperfocal distance. I blew a number of photos by not realizing this. You may figure that it can’t be so hard not to notice something out of focus but it’s actually quite easy.

First, there is no green light when your subject comes into focus. You view the image on the ground glass and try to focus by turning knobs that move the lens back and forth along rails on the camera bed. The light behind the camera must be darker than the light before the lens otherwise it is difficult if not impossible to see the view on the ground glass. That’s when you need a focusing cloth under which to hide and view the composition on the ground glass. Some experienced 4×5 users claim they can tell if their subject or scene is in focus simply by looking at the ground glass. But some people advise using a loupe to check for clarity. For a straight-forward scenic this is not too difficult. The challenge comes when shooting objects on different focal planes. You have to move the aperture closing lever to make the aperture smaller but then you have less light in the camera and the image will fade into darkness unless you have a focusing cloth to put over the camera and your head.

Sometimes, however, you can’t keep everything in focus the standard way (using a small f/stop like 22 and smaller) and you need to move the lens from its relative position to the film by tilting the lens board back and forth, swinging it left and right, raising it up and lowering it down, and by shifting it to one side or the other (something that can’t be done with a field camera with the lens board on rails). By tilting or swinging the lens you change the normal parallel relationship of the focal plane and the film plane. The most common and easy to understand example is tilting the lens to keep a subject near the lens and one far from the lens in sharp focus simultaneously.

Let’s say there’s a bunch of flowers right in front and a mountain peak in the distance. Normally the depth of field required to capture both in focus would be too great for any lens but one with a very short focal length. But by tilting the lens forward slightly the focal plane can be set across the tops of the flowers and the peak of the distant mountain. With the right focusing adjustments the flowers and the peak of the mountain can both come out sharp with even a large aperture. But if the flowers sit at the edge of a cliff and the valley between the flowers and mountain is in the composition, then the valley will appear out of focus unless and small enough aperture is set to maintain focus throughout the scene because the depth of field now extends out across the scene and the regions out of focus are above and below instead of in front and behind. Furthermore, the normally parallel parameters of the focal plane become wedge-shaped when the lens is swung or tilted, with the point of the wedge nearest the lens. The concept is simple enough to comprehend but I find I have continuous problems with focus nonetheless.

One reason I know for focusing problems is when I set up the camera but don’t check that all settings are at zero before I start making adjustments. Once I shot a sunrise scene of Yarigatake in the Japan North Alps where only the left side was in focus because I had accidentally failed to be sure the lens board was also set at zero. It was actually still set with a slight swing to one side thus throwing out of focus half of the scene spread out before the camera. I wasn’t in the habit of using a loupe at the time either.

Though I still try my best to pay the utmost attention to focusing details with my loupe mistakes occur, and even on my most recent outing to Shiroumadake I failed to set the focus just right and ended up with almost useless shots because some of them, when viewed through the loupe, went out of focus near the bottom or on one side. Again, the foreground rocks and background mountains were in focus but the valley in the lower left was out of the hyperfocal distance.

Focusing can be time consuming and painstaking work, especially when trying to tilt and swing at the same time. You have to be able to see how the focal plane range and limits on the ground glass and imagine how it changes as you adjust the lens position, then meticulously examine the scene through the loupe to verify whether or not you have focused properly. With lots of practice I am sure I will get better but the film is expensive so I cannot shoot as often as I’d like. But that’s a topic for another post.

Me on the way up Oku Hotakadake, shooting the view back towards Yarigatake

Me on the way up Oku Hotakadake, shooting the view back towards Yarigatake