Early Photographic Systems

 

Early Adventures in 35mm

It turns out my photographic journey has traced a 'there and back again' route, from 35mm film to large format (4x5) film to APS-C digital to 35mm (full frame) digital.  And it all started with an Olympus.

Olympus

The earliest camera I remember having was an Olympus Infinity Stylus Zoom 70 QD.  What a great camera to get started with.  Compact, 35-70mm zoom, sliding front cover, and film (obviously).  I don't remember how old I was, but I had this camera right when my growing love for mountains, hiking, wildlife, and the general outdoors was taking off.  Having this camera in my hands fed that enthusiasm and undoubtedly contributed, in several way, to my current career arc.

Minolta

Somewhere along the line I replaced the Olympus with a Minolta Maxxum HTsi+.  My first SLR!  Now THIS was serious photography! 

I started with a Sigma 28-80mm/3.5-5.6 kit lens, but I soon sold some flyfishing equipment to fund the purchase of a Minolta AF 24-50mm/4.  Certainly sharper than the Sigma!  Corner softness at low apertures, purple fringing, and other issues apparently aren't enough to eliminate a following for this lens even today.  It was small, reasonably priced (at the time), and covered my preferred range (at the time). 

Over time, the HTsi+ developed a sticky shutter and a twisted frame.  Not wanting to switch systems (I already had the 24-50, and money was tight), I upgraded to the Maxxum 5.  Lightweight, compact, and more fully featured than the HTsi+, I believed it to be as perfect for hiking as an automatic SLR could be.  It had DOF preview, full aperture and shutter speed manual controls, and (given the proper lens) a very fast but noisy autofocus.  It's lack of mirror lockup was a concern, but I had done without it up until that point and didn't feel like I was missing anything in the sharpness realm.  At one point I bounced it down a hill (though it was still in its case) and it survived just fine. 

Over time, my interests drifted toward a exploring large-format photography (see below).  I was able to use my Maxxum 5 as a light meter and snapshot camera for several years during that period, until it developed autofocus issues and eventually stopped working completely.  Right around that same time, Minolta exited the camera market.

I learned a great deal about photography using those two Maxxums and the 24-50mm/4.  I was fortunate to have plenty of other toys growing up, but few of them influenced me as much as those Minoltas did.

Large Format

The wide-open expanses and fine detail of most western landscapes always seem to call for a finely detailed print.  At the time of my switch to large format, digital cameras were improving but still remained out of my price range.  Canon's EOS-IDs Mark II was running approx. $7,000, and medium-format cameras with digital backs (such as Hasselblad's H2D-39 with its sky-high 39 MP sensor) were even more (~$30,000).

For those who are unfamiliar with large format photography, LF cameras allow for the use of film much larger than the standard 35mm (which is actually 24mm x 36mm).  A 4"x5" sheet of film provides nearly 15 times the resolution of a given scene compared to 35mm film.  A quality drum scan of 4x5 film can yield well over 1GB of non-interpolated 16-bit data. The extra imaging area allows for better tonality as well.  In addition, unlike conventional cameras, the lens and film of a view camera are not fixed parallel to each other. This allows for various tilts, swings, and shifts of the lens relative to the film to correct for distortion and to extend the area of focus beyond that controlled by the aperture.

So why don't more photographers still use large format cameras?  They're bulky and weigh a ton.  Not so good for backcountry fastpacking but only the bulk is really a problem when working from a vehicle.  I filled an old suitcase with egg-crate foam to hold the camera flat (w/ the bellows removed and both standards turned parallel to the rail), and that worked relatively well.  It took a while to set up, but most of my shots were slow-paced landscapes, so rarely was that an actual problem.  I used my Minolta as a light meter anyway, so if conditions changed quickly I had a backup camera at the ready.

With most large format cameras, everything has to happen from a tripod.  Trying to compose an upside down and backward image on the ground glass was difficult at first.  But as time went on, it became much easier to balance the composition of the scene when viewed abstractly like this. 

I took some of my most prized photos with this setup.  Each exposure required deliberate, thoughtful setup and execution, resulting in an artistry to the photographic process that was mostly new to me.  Working in large format taught me more than any other equipment-defined phase in my photographic life.  Because of the weight, however, I found myself leaving this gear behind on all of my backpacking trips and many other trips as well.  I cherish the images I was able to make during this period, but I'll regret forever the ones I wasn't prepared to make.  In the right circumstances, or with more field-appropriate gear (field camera instead of a monorail, carbon-fiber tripod instead of the hulking Manfrotto 3221W I was using, etc.), large-format photography is simply unmatched as a photographic process.

Cambo 45N

Rebadged as a Calumet SCN, this camera was everything it needed to be: a light-tight frame to hold the lens and the film holder. All movements were friction-based and solid. It was durable, elegant in its own way, and about as portable as a table saw. Though I probably be have been better served with a field camera, this monorail came cheap and allowed for a much greater range of movements. For a review, click here.

Rodenstock Apo-Sironar N 210mm/5.6

One of many examples of fine German optical engineering. This lens was at the lower end of Rodenstock's line, but was still of very high quality.  Also rebadged as a Caltar II-N, this modern lens was multicoated to reduce flare, apochromatically corrected, and very sharp.  Copal 1 shutter, a 6-element/4-group plasmat design, 67mm front threads, a fully mechanical design, and equivalent in terms of field of view to a 70mm on a 35mm camera.  What a fun lens to work with!

Field Use

I took some of my most prized photos with this setup.  Each exposure required deliberate, thoughtful setup and execution.  I carried with me a simple laminated rectangle of cardboard with a central 4:5 area removed and a string (to establish a fixed distance from my eye) to use as a framing guide when traveling.  If a shot looked promising, the setup would begin:

  1. Determine the necessary camera height and position
  2. Set up the tripod
  3. Mount the camera on the tripod
  4. Rotate the standards perpendicular to the rail
  5. Attach the bellows
  6. Attach the darkcloth
  7. Compose and focus
  8. Insert the filmholder
  9. Meter the scene
  10. Determine and dial in the optimal aperture/shutter speed for the scene
  11. Verify the previous meter reading
  12. Activate the shutter

For those of you interested in the film development process (at least as involved as all the work leading up to the shutter click), I've summarized my processing method under Film & Processing, linked at top under Equipment & Methods.

Transition to Digital

I don't maintain a journal, but I did find this entry in a website I maintained several years ago regarding my transition away from large format photography:

7/21/2007: Well, it finally happened.  The Cambo was set up and ready for a beautiful shot of the Tetons along Mormon Row, and my Minolta refused to meter.  And then it (the Minolta) retracted its partially exposed roll of film, including the leader.  The same roll, incidentally, that took almost 20 minutes to load a week earlier due to electronic issues.  That preceding week I was in Oregon's Steens Mountains, waiting for the morning light in freezing conditions.  About then it hit me: I'm really not enjoying photography as much as I used to.  The Cambo's bulk and cost was sucking all the fun out of it.  At ~$5/sheet for purchasing and development, plus an additional $20-$100 for flatbed/drum scanning, I wasn't even taking many photos anymore.  Those that I did take were immaculate, but what use is that if I pass up hundreds of shots a year because my camera is too heavy to carry?  And I wasn't in the mood for guessing the exposure, given the costs. 

So, I'm in the process of selling it.  All of it.  Camera, lens, lensboards, film holders, film, darkroom gear, etc.  It was a great experience, and I learned more than I ever expected.  With that background, I still love photography, so it's time for something new.

Since I still had the 24-50mm Minolta lens, I headed for the digital Sony Alpha100 (Sony recently acquired all of Minolta's photographic business).  But the body/layout of the Alpha100 just didn't feel quite right to me, and the digital crop factor left me with a 36-75mm lens, perfect for... not much, at least for what I like to photograph.  Pentax's new K10D received higher scores in some recent reviews, and (holy crap!) it's fully weathersealed, as is the grip!  Image quality should be very good... at least compared to other DSLRS.  The Cambo could've blown every DSLR up through the Hasselblads out of the water, but this K10D doesn't weigh 10+ lbs or cost $39,000.  So after agonizing over the cost (largely offset by rebates and payments for the LF gear), it's on order. I can't wait!

Pentax Digital

The Pentax K10D was a wonderful camera.  Lightweight, robust, packable, comfortable, and well-balanced in the hand, the K10D is my reference for what a dSLR should feel like.  I've since come to appreciate what more than 10 megapixels can do, but ergonomically the K10D was terrific.  My limited hands-on experience with the K-5 suggests that Pentax continues to make superbly well-designed cameras.  My new Nikon D600 feels like a football in comparison. 

My primary lens was a 16-45mm/4, equivalent in terms of field of view to a 24-68mm lens on a 35mm camera.  With a minimum focus distance of nearly 11", I used this lens for everything from wide-angle landscapes to floral closeups.  Inexpensive, light enough for travel, and sharp enough for most subjects, it was an ideal complement to the strengths of the K10D.

Unfortunately, my time with Pentax occupied a period of reduced photographic interest in my life.  Other things were going on, I was traveling less, and I just wasn't as inspired to make photos as I had been.  I certainly took a lot of photos during this period, but none of them received the attention and interest I formerly devoted to my large-format images. 

My interest in photography began to blossom again in 2012.  I acquired a Sigma 70mm/2.8 macro lens which opened up a whole new world of photography beyond landscapes.  It all came flooding back:  photography as a hobby, a creative outlet, a technical challenge, a way to document the beauty in the world around me. 

But a trip to Scotland and Ireland in late 2012 exposed a major problem I was not expecting.  With me was my K10D and 16-45mm/4, and upon arriving home I discovered that only about half of my travel shots were properly focused.  Adjusting the AF on the K10D required a hack into the system settings, and that did little to correct focusing issue.  The other half of the images, in many cases, simply didn't contain as much detail as I wanted.  Fine for travel, but those few that had real artistic potential just lacked the latitude for creative adjustment. 

I could have sent the camera in for repair, but the K10D was released in late 2006.  Compared to contemporary cameras, particularly those with larger sensors and improved features, my poor camera was showing its age.  So in February 2013, I posted my two Pentax-mount lenses for sale online and purchased a Nikon D600.

My search for a new camera in the months leading up to that point, and reviews of my current kit, can be found under Equipment & Methods, linked at top.