Daniel Schaefer returns with a followup to his immensely popular article ‘The Storytellers Kit’. This time discussing what type of body can be used to achieve the look you are aiming for.
(Header Image credit @MarcManabat)
All images below by the author.
A continuation of the discussion launched in my first article, “The Storyteller’s Kit”, which focused on the relationship between lens choice and creative theory.
When it comes to equipment choice, lens selection inarguably makes the largest immediate difference when the outcome of the final image is concerned. However, for many discerning photographers, the careful process of choosing the body they base their kit around can make an equally immense difference in their approach to photography and its final outcome.
For the sake of categorization, I’ve divided the bodies I intend to discuss into three subsets:
Rangefinder/Viewfinder(RVF), Through the Lens(TTL), and Ground Glass(GG).
Firstly, although I am aware that there are certain cameras that represent intersections amongst these categories, this will be more a discussion of the actual handling of these cameras rather than a technical breakdown.
I will also preface this discussion by admitting that in my opinion, a capable creator should always be able and willing to create great work regardless of the system they have in hand. That being said, for those still searching for a camera to match their flow, the sections below may help you find which tool suits you best.
Rangefinder/Viewfinder (RVF) – Reaction & flow.
When confronted with the question of why they choose to shoot with such a seemingly outdated piece of equipment, many photographers who regularly utilize RVF cameras offer a relatively quick and simple answer: “It’s the most natural way I’ve found to shoot.”
Therein lies the beauty of the RVF. Because of their seemingly simple, compact designs, these cameras tend to be the gold standard for your an every day carry camera – a tool for the photographer who refuses to leave the house unadorned by a lens of some sort.
As far as the design of RVF’s, due to their typical lack of mirror and naturally more narrow body type, these cameras have always had the advantage of size when compared to other models shooting the same varied formats. Both the bodies and lenses lean towards a more bantam scale, and relatively higher quality glass than their larger counterparts. These smaller glass elements are easier to grind to higher tolerances, and the scale of material allows for a balance of cost, solidity and creativity that some camera companies have capitalized upon well, creating legacy systems that refuse to stop shooting.
For an artist, these cameras allow for a certain lightness and reactive shooting style that larger bodies rarely accommodate. However, in anything but well trained hands, the disconnect of factors like parallax, the difference between the image at the photographers eye and the image that’s locked into the final frame can actually make for pictures drastically from what was expected.
The advantages of these cameras are bountiful if the user is willing to be patient – especially when coming from another style of focusing, in which case the rangefinder can be difficult to master. For those who have however, techniques like hyper-focal, contrast, and scale focusing can beat out even the fastest autofocus lenses. Considering that the view on these cameras is never blacked during the firing of the shutter also makes these cameras particularly adept at capturing the ever notorious “Decisive Moment”.
Many a photographer has tried to join the storied ranks of RVF shooters, only to find that the learning curve isn’t necessarily the right thing for the type of image they tend towards making. But for those who do find their groove in this niche, the RVF style of cameras can offer something best described by street photographer Craig Semetko as “the path of least resistance, between me and my image”.
Some examples of photographers who have found the RVF to be the best instrument for their rhythm:
Jim Marshall – http://www.jimmarshallphotographyllc.com
Susan Meiselas – http://www.susanmeiselas.com
William Eggleston – http://www.egglestontrust.com
Through the Lens (TTL) – Accuracy and Versatility.
The widest ranging of the three subsets, the label TTL can be applied to any camera that shows the photographer a direct and accurate view of what is being seen by the lens. The most traditional example of this style is of course the SLR, but any camera from your iPhone upwards that allows you to compose accurately through the lens can be considered a TTL.
One of the key advantages of the TTL’s build is its ease of use. Because of their standardized nature, shooters of all skill levels are able to compose quickly and carefully in almost any situation. The TTL allows for beginners to develop their skills efficiently and long time pros can get the right shot every time. Additionally, because of their dominance in the modern marketplace, there is an incredibly wide range of existing lenses and accessories from which one may build a comprehensive kit.
The incredible versatility of these systems allows shooters to select their kits in accordance with almost any situation they may be working with. Furthermore, with recent advancements on the market like the newly dominating electronic viewfinder (which eliminated the need for bulk building mirrors and prisms) even full pro systems are getting the Atkins treatment.
As a tried and tested base for most professional photographers’ kits, TTL cameras are industry standards across the board. These camera’s popularity is largely a product of one of the greatest advantages that TTL photographers have: some degree of disaster insurance. Having spent a good deal of time working as a lighting/camera assistant in the fashion and editorial market, I can personally attest to Murphy’s law being alive and well in the photo industry. If something goes wrong with a camera, or any piece of the kit, they are easily and quickly replaceable in almost any situation, making the TTL by far the least worrisome system to use as a professional in today’s market.
The flow that these cameras offer is best suited for photographers seeking efficiency and accuracy. The classically effective design of the TTL gives the photographer a chance to relax, allowing thems to concentrate on their artistry and consider focus, composition and exposure quickly and carefully for every image.
Photographers who have used the TTL greatly to their advantage:
Steve McCurry – http://stevemccurry.com
Véronique de Viguerie – http://veroniquedeviguerie.com/
Michael Donovan – http://studiodonovan.com
Ground Glass (GG)- Intentionality & Control
No system of these three is more tried and true than the Ground Glass setup. Undoubtedly the model which has remained consistently in use for the longest amount of time, these systems are renowned for their intense degree of control over the final image as well as the slow intentionality which the photographer must implement to create the image.
Cameras in this category range widely in design, from the waist level Rollei to a 20×24 Polaroid and everything in between. Although it can be debated that many of these models can also fall into the TTL category, one of the key aspects to my classification of the GG camera is that at least one axis of the image must be reversed during the composition, as this is a characteristic that all of the GG cameras (lacking prisms) share. Cameras that are purely light to lens to glass render the images upside down, while cameras that run light to lens to mirror to glass render the image right side up, but backwards.
Ground Glass photographers often refer to the process involved in creating each image as an almost zen-like or meditative flow; a simple but critical routine that must be followed and finely tuned. In the same way that the RVF allows for a reflexive and low resistance path to creating images, GG cameras help the photographer develop their process over time, making each choice in a more calculated manner.
Optically, these cameras definitely tend to have some incredible advantages, and what large format lenses lack in speed, they make up for in stunning clarity and almost unnaturally low distortion. In the hands of a capable photographer who is able to take advantage of these lenses in addition to tilt/shift/rise and fall (a common characteristic of GG cameras) they can create compositions that border on hyper-realistic and surreal.
Medium and large format versions of this system also offer the photographer jaw dropping quality from a properly handled negative. In my personal opinion, there are few things more satisfying in the realm of photography than a perfectly exposed piece of low ISO large format slide film, where the richness and detail are truly unrivaled.
Photographers who use the GG system to incredible results:
Pentti Sammallahti – http://www.peterfetterman.com/artists/pentti-sammallahti
Frank Ockenfels – http://fwo3.com
Gregory Heisler – http://www.gregoryheisler.com
Overall, I must reiterate the idea that a great image can be made with whatever camera you have on hand, but I also subscribe to the idea that intentionality of artistic choice and the distinctly different advantages of each piece of equipment can inform the creation of an image just drastically as the choice to use black & white or color.
Each weapon in our photographic arsenal allows us to tell a story in a different way, and it’s distinctly to our advantage as photographers to understand the strokes we can create with each specific piece of gear, and which ones can best channel our individual artistic rhythm.
Daniel Sawyer Schaefer is a freelance photographer and writer, currently based on location in Spokane Washington, but constantly on the move to wherever his lens can be of the most use.
Check out his work or drop him a line at the links below, and like his facebook page at Daniel Schaefer/OutlierImagery. www.facebook.com/DanielSchaeferPhotography
@OutlierImagery – (Instagram/Twitter)
Thanks to Daniel for this informative and fascinating piece. It makes me want to get into Large Format photography.
Feel free to comment and contribute.