Large Format is the Wild West of Photography

My ambitious young photographer friend Mac Crosby came by the office earlier this week, at my invitation, so I could lend her a Minolta X-700 and a couple of lenses, as well as a couple of antique 620 cameras. Readers might recall that Mac wrote a neat piece about my wife Abby and me for class last March (link).

Photographer Mac Crosby looks at some of the thousands of 4x5 negatives on file at my newspaper.
Photographer Mac Crosby looks at some of the thousands of 4×5 negatives on file at my newspaper.

In recent months, Mac has been curating film photography into her body of work as an aspiring photojournalist, and that has included disposable cameras, 35mm film cameras, medium format cameras, and even toy cameras. Photography with toy cameras is sometimes called lomography.

One thing I showed her while she was here at the office is some of the thousands of 4×5-inch black-and-white negatives we have in our files at The Ada News.

4×5 negatives are about 15 times larger than 35mm film frames, so they potentially contain a tremendous amount of detail. In fact, 4×5 negatives are large enough that they can be printed as contact prints, in which the film is laid directly on the printing paper and exposed to light, skipping the step of putting the film in an enlarger.

I lent my friend and fellow photographer Mac Crosby this Minolta X-700, a 35mm film camera from the late 1980s. I hope she dazzles me with the results she gets with it.
I lent my friend and fellow photographer Mac Crosby this Minolta X-700, a 35mm film camera from the late 1980s. I hope she dazzles me with the results she gets with it.

If 35mm film is common and medium format film is exotic, 4×5 film is the Wild West of photography.

I’ve never owned a 4×5 camera. I do have a photographer friend, Robert in Tulsa, who has a Burke and James 4×5 field camera. A field camera differs from a view camera in that it uses a viewfinder instead of a focusing hood or cloth. If you have ever seen the movie Flags of Our Fathers, the character of Joe Rosenthal uses a 4×5 field camera to photograph the raising of the second U.S. flag on Iwo Jima.

As Mac and I talked about film photography, she said she’d like to see what I could do with film, and I pointed out that in the very office in which she sat were literally hundreds of thousands of film frames I made during my career, from when I started at The Ada News in October 1988 until about the middle of 2005, when I had enough digital cameras to get the job done, and when the film scanner of 1998 vintage finally died.

I also told Mac that if she gets a chance to use a darkroom in her travels or education, I’d be glad to tag along and throw in my expertise. I’d also extend that invitation to anyone who wants to learn about how a darkroom works. It’s pretty amazing that I can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can tell you exactly how to process a roll of film.

Three children use a water pump in this image made on 4x5 inch sheet film. The film is from an envelope marked, “Oakman Homecoming, Published Oct. 21, 1954, in weekly.” That means that the children in this image are in their 70s now.
Three children use a water pump in this image made on 4×5 inch sheet film. The film is from an envelope marked, “Oakman Homecoming, Published Oct. 21, 1954, in weekly.” That means that the children in this image are in their 70s now.

Experiments Keep Us Moving Forward

In my last post, I talked about buying a nice used mirrorless camera and some adaptors so I could experiment with older lenses. It got me thinking about some of the very first images, and very first experiments, I tried.

I had a microscope as a kid, and spent a lot of time looking through it at everything from ants to onions. Photographing it with a homemade macro lens yielded very shallow depth of field.
I had a microscope as a kid, and spent a lot of time looking through it at everything from ants to onions. Photographing it with a homemade macro lens yielded very shallow depth of field.

Ignorance is bliss, and some of my most successful early photographic experiments wouldn’t have happened if an expert had told me why they wouldn’t work. One, for example, is one I tried with a garage-sale Exa camera of 1962 vintage. I was drawn to it by it’s beautifully-made all-metal Exacta removable / interchangeable lens. It was the only lens I had for it, but it occured to me as I watched how the focus mechanism moved the lens farther from the film to focus closer that if I could move it ever farther from the film, I could focus even closer.

Using my fingertips to hold the lens on the camera with a piece of cardboard toilet paper core between them required some patience.
Using my fingertips to hold the lens on the camera with a piece of cardboard toilet paper core between them required some patience.

In the world of photographic equipment, this is done with a device called an extension tube, which mounts between the camera and the lens. I didn’t have one, and I was 15, so the only money I had was a few bucks from mowing a few lawns, and my allowance. So I decided to put the cardboard core from a used-up toilet paper roll between the camera and the lens. It worked!

This spring of wheat grass grew in the pasture behind our house in Lawton when I lived there in the 1970s.
This spring of wheat grass grew in the pasture behind our house in Lawton when I lived there in the 1970s.

Most lenses aren’t designed to focus close, and neither was the 1960s-era Exacta. The images I got have a dream-like softness about them, and are loaded with vignetting, which is darkening of the edges of the frame. The vignetting was so dominant that my mother called the images “vignettes.”

Experimenting with the creative aspects of photography goes so far beyond camera and lens reviews and specifications. Sometimes I can get better, more interesting, more compelling images with a broken camera, a toy camera, or an ancient camera.

This tiny statue made of corn husks is a representation of my mother and her sister singing together, which was their favorite thing to do.
This tiny statue made of corn husks is a representation of my mother and her sister singing together, which was their favorite thing to do.

That Little Dance Called Creativity

The weather and the light has been beautiful the past few days, so I took another crack at the neighbor’s irises. The light on these flowers filters through some trees, so it flashes in and out with the wind and the movement of the sun. The wind also blows the flowers around, so the whole thing is an exercise in patience. Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro.

Irises only stay in bloom for a short time in April and early May, so, like my peach blossom six weeks earlier, I made sure to photograph these several times.
Irises only stay in bloom for a short time in April and early May, so, like my peach blossom six weeks earlier, I made sure to photograph these several times.
When irises finish blooming, this is the result.
When irises finish blooming, this is the result.
You can see the momentary splash of sunlight through the trees in this image.
You can see the momentary splash of sunlight through the trees in this image.
While I was photographing flowers, I came across these kid's bikes being taken back by the weeds.
While I was photographing flowers, I came across these kid’s bikes being taken back by the weeds.

I also wanted to try to make pictures with a photographer friend of mine using a couple of ancient process camera lenses, but ended up making some fairly creative images of them instead of with them. Tokina 100mm f/2.8 Macro.

Using a tripod in a darkened room, I lighted this with an LED flashlight. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
Using a tripod in a darkened room, I lighted this with an LED flashlight. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The LED flashlight I used to light this has a red setting, which I used in combination with the white LEDs for this image. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The LED flashlight I used to light this has a red setting, which I used in combination with the white LEDs for this image. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The third attempt at photographing this beautiful process lens, which is older than I am, was made with the LED flashlight again, with a different set of movements while the shutter was open. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.
The third attempt at photographing this beautiful process lens, which is older than I am, was made with the LED flashlight again, with a different set of movements while the shutter was open. 8 seconds, f/11, ISO 100.

The Walk

A branch of immature cherry blossoms reaches for a cloudy sky yesterday. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.
A branch of immature cherry blossoms reaches for a cloudy sky yesterday. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.
Hawken Rifle Trail on the trail today. AF Nikkor 75-300mm f/4-5.6 at f/7.1.
Hawken Rifle Trail on the trail today. AF Nikkor 75-300mm f/4-5.6 at f/7.1.

Come rain or come shine, in sickness and in health, in good times and bad, quarantined or not, I walk our Irish Wolfhound Hawken and our Chihuahua Summer. Of course, in the current climate of pandemic crisis, walking our dogs in the pastures and the woods away from everyone else is one of the best things I can do. And of course, I always have a camera.

This tiny peach still has pedals on it from its blossom. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.
This tiny peach still has pedals on it from its blossom. AF Nikkor 60mm f/2.8 at f/8.

My Screen Saver Is Making Me Yearn

Rebecca Thrailkill, Jayden Janda, and Maria Ruiz-Blanco look at a finished butterfly craft during the Ada Art's Council's Cozy Up with the Arts Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 at Wintersmith Lodge.
Rebecca Thrailkill, Jayden Janda, and Maria Ruiz-Blanco look at a finished butterfly craft during the Ada Art’s Council’s Cozy Up with the Arts Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020 at Wintersmith Lodge.

On my work laptop, I use recent images from my news, sports, and feature photos as my screen saver.

My Screen Needs to Be Saved?
For you 21st century people who have no idea what a screen saver is, basically it is part of the operating system of a desktop or a laptop computer that activates when the computer is unused, dimming the screen, showing the time and date, making patterns, or, in this case, showing me a slide show of all the photos in my screen saver folder.

The images scroll past, showing years of events I’ve covered, some of it grim, some of it boring, but most of it was absolutely rippingly fun to cover. I hope I never took those events for granted, and I hope we can return to them one day soon.

Latta Homecoming King Rylan Schlup and Queen Cheyenne Adair share a laugh during their crowning at Latta School's 100th anniversary celebration Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 at Latta Panther Fieldhouse.
Latta Homecoming King Rylan Schlup and Queen Cheyenne Adair share a laugh during their crowning at Latta School’s 100th anniversary celebration Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 at Latta Panther Fieldhouse.

In the middle of this, it occurred to me that one of my very favorite things to cover , graduations, won’t be happening at all this spring because of the coronavirus crisis. Nor will proms, spring festivals, sports playoffs, water seminars, pancake frys, quilt shows, wagon rides, land run reenactments, groundbreakings, dedications, food festivals, car shows, arts festivals, parades. Life has ground to a halt.

Ada head basketball coach Christie Jennings and her team cheer as their Lady Cougars fight for a chance to stay alive in regional playoffs last month.
Ada head basketball coach Christie Jennings and her team cheer as their Lady Cougars fight for a chance to stay alive in regional playoffs last month.

Neither my wife nor I, nor anyone close to us, is sick, and I am grateful for that, for every day, for every breath.

I just posted a few images here, but there are literally thousands in my files that have stories to tell. I want to keep telling these stories.

A fortunate combination of building layouts, graduation plans, and time of day result in my finding this spot for Ada High School graduations in the last few years. This is last year, 2019, and it was such a beautiful day, a day we won't get to share this year.
A fortunate combination of building layouts, graduation plans, and time of day result in my finding this spot for Ada High School graduations in the last few years. This is last year, 2019, and it was such a beautiful day, a day we won’t get to share this year.

Editing and Tweaking

In the process of adding my trip reports to a paper journal book, I asked Michael (link) to send me any images he had of me from a hiking trip he and I took in 2004, The Confluence (link). You can see his images from the trip on his web site (link). I felt sure he had a few images of me I hadn’t seen, and hoped that if he did, I could add them to the trip report.

Here are the images I added to the report.

Here I make some human shade to see the display on the back of my Minolta Dimage 7i.
Here I make some human shade to see the display on the back of my Minolta Dimage 7i.
Your host makes video of himself near the Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
Your host makes video of himself near the Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
Your host photographs The Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, Utah. The next frame is the result...
Your host photographs The Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park, Utah. The next frame is the result…
The Fiery Furnace is a labyrinth of stone in Arches National Park, Utah.
The Fiery Furnace is a labyrinth of stone in Arches National Park, Utah.

Workflow Changes

In the fourth quarter of last year, my newspaper moved, and things have been weird ever since. This image shows the old newsroom now that the building has been listed for sale. I worked 31 years in that newsroom.
In the fourth quarter of last year, my newspaper moved, and things have been weird ever since. This image shows the old newsroom now that the building has been listed for sale. I worked 31 years in that newsroom.

By now we all know about the social upheaval connected to the current pandemic. As a photojournalist, I normally cover breaking news, feature news, and sports. Right now, if things were normal, I would probably be shooting two or three baseball games and two or three softball games on typical afternoons.

Oddly, there seems to be a lot less breaking news – fewer car crashes, fewer house fires, fewer stabbings, fewer shootings – than normal, possibly because people are in their homes watching television, or maybe because they have less access to alcohol and drugs.

Last night I worked outdoors, not at a sports event, but because the Ada City Council’s meeting room only holds 10 people with enough space to be safe, so we the public and press watched it on a closed-circuit television just outside. It was a nice night, and I was glad to be outdoors instead of trapped with potential carriers.

The nature of my work is different, too. For one thing, I use my iPhone more, since it is connected to the cloud. The images aren’t as demanding as usual – it doesn’t take much camera power to photograph an empty shelf at a supermarket or a “closed” sign on a restaurant’s dining room.

It’s true that I am really missing covering sports, but that is an indulgence. People are scared. People are sick. Sports can wait. I can wait.

This was last night's city council meeting on closed circuit television.
This was last night’s city council meeting on closed circuit television.

Kathy’s Influence

A wooden cross marks a grave of some kind. I found this while walking Hawken, our Irish wolfhound, deep into the woods.
A wooden cross marks a grave of some kind. I found this while walking Hawken, our Irish wolfhound, deep into the woods.
The Fujica ST-605n was my first single lens reflex camera.
The Fujica ST-605n was my first single lens reflex camera.

Abby and I rewatched Three Days of the Condor recently, and enjoyed it immensely.

When I was about 16 I saw this movie, starring Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway. Dunaway portrays Kathy, a photographer who gets tangled up in the intrigue. In her apartment, Redford, whose character is Joe Turner, looks at some of her images on the walls; deep, rich, low-light black-and-white images. He remarks that the photos aren’t really autumn, but they aren’t really winter. They are in between – November.

Kathy: Sometimes I take a picture that isn’t like me. But I took it so it is like me. It has to be. I put those pictures away.

Joe Turner: I’d like to see those pictures.

Kathy: We don’t know each other that well.

Joe Turner: Do you know anybody that well?

Kathy: I don’t think I want to know you very well.

This scene made a huge impression on the early years of my own photography.

Snow blows across U.S. 191 near Monticello, Utah.
Snow blows across U.S. 191 near Monticello, Utah.

Same Scene, Different Day

Abby's squirrel statue keeps watch keeps watch during a snowstorm this morning.
Abby’s squirrel statue keeps watch keeps watch during a snowstorm this morning.

It seems like an obvious truism that light and shadow are essential to every image, and that every scene looks a little different with variations in light. But compare the images in this entry with a couple of images in the previous entry, “Keep Your Eyes Open,” to see how profoundly this is true.

Fresh snow blankets furniture on our front porch this morning.
Fresh snow blankets furniture on our front porch this morning.

Keep Your Eyes Open

Light from the rising sun strikes the shades in our living room this morning.
Light from the rising sun strikes the shades in our living room this morning.

Sometimes very beautiful photographs happen unexpectedly before our eyes. Such a scene appeared before me last night as my wife Abby and I were watching television before my departure to photograph Friday night basketball.

Sunset lights streaks through the boards on our front porch last night.
Sunset lights streaks through the boards on our front porch last night.
This squirrel's nut isn't lit; it's catching sunset light.
This squirrel’s nut isn’t lit; it’s catching sunset light.

I grabbed a camera, my very old Minolta DiMage 7i of 2002-vintage, that I felt might help express what I was seeing, a rather remarkable moment of purple, pink and orange sky and land just at sunset. I’ve been shooting sunsets with the Minolta since 2002, and despite its obsolescence, I still turn to it for something intangible I like about the images it makes.

The salient point of this post, though, is to remind everyone who wants to make better images to stop the car, mute the tv, put down the phone, and go make the picture.

This is the view from our front porch last night.
This is the view from our front porch last night.
Last light catches the treetops last night in our front yard.
Last light catches the treetops last night in our front yard.

“Dreamlike Quality”

Christmas ornament, December 2019; 85mm f/1.4 at f/1.4.
Christmas ornament, December 2019; 85mm f/1.4 at f/1.4.

So we have all been around the block about “bokeh.” It is firmly entrenched in the photographic lexicon, and recently, I have been seeing many posts and videos that cite, “incredible dreamy quality.”

My new well-used 85mm f/1.4 is certainly good at selective focus. The question becomes, "Am I good at it?"
My new well-used 85mm f/1.4 is certainly good at selective focus. The question becomes, “Am I good at it?”
f/1.4 seems like a magical aperture.
f/1.4 seems like a magical aperture.

Could it be that simple? Is the goal of some of our photography to evoke dreams? Is that what I was seeking when I bought an amazing, beautifully-made AF-D Nikkor 85mm f/1.4? I have been experimenting with this “quality” using this lens. I also attempted to bring that “quality” to some of my images on our anniversary vacation last October using my AF-S 50mm f/1.4.

I will have more thoughts on this. What would you like to know or add to the discussion?

Santa Fe Plaza, dusk, October 2019; 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4.
Santa Fe Plaza, dusk, October 2019; 50mm f/1.4 at f/1.4.

First Stack

Macro photography is great fun, but it has its challenges, including the fact that at very close focus distances, depth-of-field, the amount of stuff that's in focus, is very, very shallow. I did my first ever focus stack in an effort to address this issue using a row of .30-06 rifle rounds and my 100mm f/2.8 Tokina macro lens at f/8.
Macro photography is great fun, but it has its challenges, including the fact that at very close focus distances, depth-of-field, the amount of stuff that’s in focus, is very, very shallow. I did my first ever focus stack in an effort to address this issue using a row of .30-06 rifle rounds and my 100mm f/2.8 Tokina macro lens at f/8.

For some time now, I’ve been intent on making a preliminary attempt at focus stacking. It’s not critical to my work, but I often think I should add as many tools as I can to my photographic toolbox. I’m already pretty good with High Dynamic Range (HDR), which is a form of exposure stacking, so focus stacking seemed like the next move.

This was my very basic setup for taking my first step into the world of focus stacking.
This was my very basic setup for taking my first step into the world of focus stacking.

Stacking is a way to blend more than one image. Focus stacking is blending several images, each of which is focused at a different point. The idea is to use sharp portions of each image to create a new image with more in focus. This can be useful for landscapes that have compositional elements at locations both very close to the camera, and very far from the camera, but it is an exceptional tool when it comes to macro photography of very, very small objects, in which focus ranges are so close that depth-of-field is razor thin.

The basic process is to import images of different focus areas into Photoshop, then tell Photoshop to blend them. You can put it into search engine to find a step-by-step, which is what I did. It wasn’t at all difficult.

For this attempt, I made one image for every rifle cartridge in the image, moving focus from one to the next.

This is my first try, and it’s incredibly rough. Obviously I need to read more about how to finesse this technique, and I need to practice. There are many more applications available in addition to Photoshop, but I have Photoshop as part of my Adobe Creative Suite, so it seemed like a good place to start.

Stay tuned for more focus stacking efforts!

My first focus stacking effort didn't look great, but it did create an image with everything in focus. I'll be experimenting with this a bunch in the near future.
My first focus stacking effort didn’t look great, but it did create an image with everything in focus. I’ll be experimenting with this a bunch in the near future.

My Antelope Canyon Experience

Your humble host poses for a tripod selfie at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona in May 2012.
Your humble host poses for a tripod selfie at Waterholes Canyon near Page, Arizona in May 2012.

Shuffling across the web for a column idea, I came across this headline:

“Antelope Canyon is Shutting Down Its Photo Tours Due to Overcrowding and Negative Reviews”

I took that very photo tour in May 2012. It was a photographic opportunity I wanted to cross off of my to-do list, but after the experience, I felt sure I never wanted to do it again.

Antelope Canyon is a spectacular, narrow, short, easily-traversed slot canyon in far northern Arizona. It is close to the town of Page. A huge industry has built up around touring this feature.

The article includes, “According to Navajo National Parks, they have made the decision to stop running photo tours in Upper Antelope Canyon following the negative reviews and feedback from many attendees.”

I can assure you this assessment of the experience is accurate. Even seven years ago, this feature had been discovered and became overwhelmingly crowded.

The tour is phony and commercialized as well.

  • The guides rush you through, almost bullying you to get the shot and get out in a hurry.
  • At one point about halfway through my tour in 2012, a nice lady in our group put away her camera. When I asked her why, she said, “This just isn’t relaxing.”
  • The magical “shaft of sunlight” and the magical “falling sand” we see in so many images from this feature are both the result of a tour guide throwing a ladle of sand in the air.
  • There were many times in that two hour tour during which my fellow photographers and I had to turn sideways and inhale to let 30 tourists pass through the narrow passages.

On the same trip as the Antelope Canyon tour, I found and photographed a much smaller canyon, which I had entirely to myself, and which not only made much better pictures, was relaxing and fun.

The Antelope Canyon “photo tour” costs more and offers more, but by this point in history, it’s definitely not worth it to me. Not only are all the images from this feature essentially the same, they are too prevalent. I have these shots. Every photographer I know has these shots. Every photographer in the country has these shots. Every photographer in the world has these shots.

It’s a hard wheel to reinvent.

Saying that implies that most photography is repetitive, and that’s true in a lot of ways. The trick to keeping your own imaging fresh is to give it a unique narrative. Make your images tell your story instead of the story everyone is telling. Yes, Antelope Canyon is beautiful, and yes, maybe your Antelope Canyon photos are beautiful, but an eight second web search can find images that are better. Always.

So, I’ve circled back to the point where a lot of my columns start: storytelling. I need to tell my stories. You need to tell yours. If you are true to that mission, your images will be unique and beautiful on their own.

Okay, it's a double shaft of light. This might have been neat the first time it was discovered and photographed, but at this point in history, it's been done to death.
Okay, it’s a double shaft of light. This might have been neat the first time it was discovered and photographed, but at this point in history, it’s been done to death.

Always Be Ready to Make the Picture

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a wide angle lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a wide angle lens.

Anticipating an early voter turnout Tuesday, I drove directly from our home in Byng to Konawa to cover the school bond issue election. It was just after seven in the morning, and the sun was still below the horizon. I immediately noticed that farm ponds had fog above them and anticipated that the Canadian River, which I would shortly cross, would as well.

I drove across the U.S. 377 bridge, parked in a safe spot, put on my highway safety vest, grabbed three cameras and walked to the center of the bridge over the river. For the record, I don’t recommend this, and I did it as a journalist. I know, I know — do as I say, not as I do, but drivers can get distracted in a moment, and it’s not always easy to see in early morning light.

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 70mm lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 70mm lens.

Sunlight caught the rising fog exactly as I had anticipated, and the scene did not disappoint. I shot it with all three cameras — one with a 300mm lens, one with an 80-200mm lens,and one with a wide angle. All three scenes expressed something slightly different about the scene, and I was glad I lugged all the hardware with me.

How many times has someone come up to me with their phone in hand and started telling me, “I didn’t have my camera with me, but…” They then show me an image they made with their phone that tells only part of the story. Despite constantly improving technology in smartphones, they lack something. Maybe they lack the attitude of a camera.

The lesson is: Always have your camera with you. I know this is easy to say if you’re like me and have had cameras within arm’s reach since I was in high school, but it can really pay off.

The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 300mm lens.
The sun rises over the Canadian River north of Byng. This image was made with a 300mm lens.