By Bill Dobbins
Just as cars have gone through various periods of trying to increase sales by offering more horsepower, nowadays the manufacturers of high-end digital cameras try to promote sales by offering files of larger and larger megapixels and additional electronic controls and bells and whistles. The result is some very amazing pieces of photographic technology.
This is a long way from the kind of camera that was around when photography first got started – a camera design that is still available and not much changed: the view camera. This kind of camera consists of a flexible bellows that forms a light-tight seal between two adjustable standards, one of which holds a lens, and the other a ground glass with a place to insert a film holder. Depending on the specific design, cameras like this can use fairly small film sizes or larger including 8X10, 11X14 or 16X20.
There are several advantages to this kind of camera. For one, you are able to use very large pieces of film and film size equals ultimate resolution. The traditional 35MM film frame is about 30MM wide. But you could fit something close to 20 35MM frames into a piece of 16X20 film. That is a HUGE increase in size, and therefore resolution.
View cameras also allow for perspective control. The lens and film standards can both be rotated left and right (swing) and up and down (tilt). When the lens and the film plane are no longer locked into parallel you can do things like correct the perspective of tall buildings and create much greater actual rather than just apparent depth of field. An example would be photos like an Ansel Adams landscape where you see rocks a few feet away and distant mountains both very sharp.
There are lenses that have built in shift/tilt adjustments but these don’t work to the same degree as the right kind of view camera.
But there is another reason to use large format film and view cameras in a digital age. And that is that big pieces of film are so easy to scan with even a moderately priced desktop scanner, most probably under $1000 – or even less. No need to expensive drum scale to create large, high resolution files.
Shooting BW film, you should probably familiarize yourself with the Ansel Adams zone system in order to create negatives with the best exposure and contrast range. But scanning and then adjusting files with Photoshop we have a lot more control over the final print than Adams had during his career. So making the perfect negative is desirable but not as necessary as in the past.
Another benefit of using film is its archival quality. When your images exist only as ones and zeros on a magnetized media they remain vulnerable and have to be backed up carefully. But when you have a properly stored negative it doesn’t fade, can’t be erased and short of fire, flood, tornado or earthquake it will always be there.
So even in the digital age there is still room for using large format view cameras for specialized purposes. And it’s great that equipment like this is available used at very reasonable prices nowadays. So the only complication is having to develop the film. But developing sheet film is really quite simple and can be done without any problem in almost any bathroom.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: