THE VIEW CAMERA IN THE DIGITAL AGE
Remember that iconic scene in THE GRADUATE when the film's namesake, played by a then unknown Dustin Hoffman, wanders aimlessly through a smoky graduation party staged by his parents. He's pulled aside by an inebriated businessmana friend of the graduate's father and local scion of business who has literally one word of advice to offer to the alienated lad to ensure future success in the modern world: "PLASTICS." Hoffman's character is incredulous and sinks deeper into alienation. Fast forward from the late 60s to the early 21st century and the scene could be identical except now there is less smoke in the room and the advice is "DIGITAL IMAGING."
Digital imaging is photography's new mantra. It's the driving force behind product development, sales, marketing, and education within the industry. In short, it's the future of the medium. Assuming our contemporary outlook and enthusiasm for digital technology is correct, where does this leave the venerable view cameraan imaging instrument that predates traditional photography itself? (Camera Obscuras with accordion bellows for focusing and a ground glass for viewing a lens-projected image were used as a drawing aid for painters and draftsmen for centuries before film was developed.) The wooden field camera has persevered to the present day because it does certain things better than more modern camera designs that have evolved from it. In my view, the digital age will do little to change this dynamic. The wooden field camera will not just survive, but thrive, in the digital age.
Though we are only at the dawn of the digital era, we are far enough into it to be able to professionally judge its strengths and weaknesses and to gauge how the technology is likely to evolve. There are two distinct aspects to digital photography. First, there's the application of digital technology in post-production the scanning, or digitizing, of film images for reproduction on the printed page, for ink jet or light jet output, for posting on web sites or e-mailing. Then, there is digital image capture the creation of images where film and traditional photographic processes are not used at all. The former application has no direct impact on view camera photography. One could photograph using 11"x14" glass plate negatives with a 19th century camera and these images could be scanned about as readily as any other film medium. In fact, glass plate negatives exposed over a century ago are being scanned every day. One could argue that digital capture is not directly relevant either because digital scanning backs already exist for view cameras and are used in a variety of view camera applications.
The issue of view camera relevance is genuine, but it doesn't center on the obvious adaptability of view cameras to digital technology. It has to do with whether there are compelling economic, aesthetic, and/or technical reasons to continue to create images on large format film, rather than with digitally-based equipment. I think the answer is yes on all counts. But, before elaborating on why I feel this way, there is an inherent radicalism in this judgment because if I were asked to argue whether there were any compelling economic, aesthetic, or technical reasons to continue to create images on medium and small format film, my answer would be no. Mainstream technologies of all types are mainstream because when all factors are weighed, they are judged to be superior to the alternatives. This doesn't mean that the alternative technologies are useless or unneeded in any universal sense. Rather, they tend to be used infrequently and typically in cases where the objectives are highly subjective or even downright eccentric.
I don't believe that smaller film formats will survive in any practical sense because digital sensors that are physically from about 60% the size of 35mm film to a bit larger than 35mm film have already arrived with pixel counts from 6 to 22 million pixels respectively. These sensors have an optical resolution of slightly less than 35mm film (in the case of the 6MP sensor) to a resolution equal to 120 film (in the case of the 22MP sensor). But, optical resolution is almost irrelevant when you consider that the images from these sensors are grainless. (Film grain consists of visible clumps of silver halide molecules. Film grain adds texture to the image that doesn't exist in the subject and obscures image detail.) The grainless character of digital images allows the acutance, or line resolution, to be dramatically heightened via computer sharpening algorithms. Effective capture speeds are double (or better) that of film. Tonal scale (the smooth transition in values from black to white) is more linear with digital than with film. Color sensitivity can be adjusted to an almost limitless range of lighting conditions without the use of supplementary filters. The shadow-highlight crossover that has always plagued color film with a green cast in the shadows and a magenta cast in the highlights is not present with digital capture. Digital shadows and highlights are as color neutral as the midtones. Digital storage media can hold more images than a roll of film (particularly 120 film) and they are less fragile. Silicon-based digital storage cards have to be physically destroyed before the images stored on them become irretrievable. There are accounts of photographers accidentally leaving cards in their clothes pockets, which are then washed and dried. On retrieval, the images on the card are still there unharmed and the card comes out of the wash ready for reuse. Finally, as irrelevant as we may hope economics to be in influencing how quality images are made, one has to be pragmatic: The cost of digital capture is dramatically less than film imaging and it occurs instantaneously. This is all pretty exciting stuff for photographers and for all of photography's myriad applications.
So, it's simple enough to see what the excitement is about. But, how does digital capture compare to large format film? The best one-shot sensors for medium format cameras are still not close to the optical resolution of large format film. Scanning backs can surpass the resolution of large format film, but they must be tethered to a computer and capture speeds are tortuously long. Large format film has grain as all films do, but the scale of the film grain relative to the critical image detail is so miniscule that large format films can be sharpened almost as aggressively as with digital capture. The legendary tonal scale of large format film, which I would argue, is more significant than optical resolution to the technical quality of the photographic image, remains the benchmark for judging photographic image quality. The linear response of a digital sensor is impressive, but the optical resolution of large format film in combination with its long tonal scale is even more impressive. In the pre-digital era, large format film images were recognizably superior to small format film images. No one argued that. The pragmatic argument was that small format images were good enough for many purposes. The more meaningful argument centered on image capture speed and the lack of intrusiveness of small format cameras, which made photography possible in certain situations where slower and bulkier large format cameras were not as viable.
The primary reason I believe film-based, large format photography will endure has to do with simplicity, with relying on minimal technology to render a high-quality image. There is very little that can go wrong with a view camera from the standpoint of technology failure. When we are far afield and have invested a great deal of time and energy to stand before that which we want to photograph, it is reassuring that our equipment can be counted on to perform reliably, and with unerring precision, without an immediate need for electricity, computers, or hard drives. There are times when there is no substitute for the tried and true and for a simple choice of tools. I've always tried to make the point with my students that one of the traits I most admire about the view camera is that as intimidating as it may be in certain regards, it is unprepossessing. With its lack of blinking lights and a level of mechanical functionality that's readily discernable, it's apparent that this device is incapable of producing anything without human intervention and control. Small format SLR cameras on the other hand are sufficiently complex to possess a technological mystique. It seems they might somehow have a mechanical magic in them capable of creating an interesting picture without our intention or understanding.
The view camera places the onus of image creation on the photographer, where it rightly belongs. It is a vital tool, but it never pretends to be more than that. This must be an enduring trait because no type of camera in the history of photography has witnessed and incorporated as many technological changes as the venerable view camera. The digital revolution will prove, in my view, to be merely another example.
This discussion of the view camera in the digital age was written for Ebony by Richard Sexton, a professional photographer and author who serves as a professional spokesperson for Ebony in the United States. To learn more about Richard Sexton's work and to view photographs he has taken with an Ebony camera, please visit his web site at http://www.richardsextonstudio.com.