Camera & Equipment

The Camera:

The camera I use is Wista field 5x4 inch field camera – so called because it folds up and can be taken out into the landscape. I have owned and used this camera constantly since I purchased it in 1992.

Lenses:
Like many photographers I tend to buy and sell lenses as I go along... if I feel dissatisfied with any particular lens then I usually sell it and try something else...
Currently, my trusted and frequently used lenses are:
Schneider Super Angulon 90mm F5.6 (Used the most often)
Schneider Super Angulon 75mm F5.6
Sinaron-s 150mm F5.6

Infrequently used:
Kowa Graphic process lens 150mm F9 (for abstract work)
Kodak Etkar 203mm F7,7
Schneider Repro-claron 210mm F9 for macro - superbly sharp.
Schneider Apo-Symmar 134mm

I find all these lenses cover 99% of my needs and am happy with their coverage and sharpness.
Previously I've used Apo Ronar's (150mm), G-claron (150mm, 210mm 240mm), Apo-Lanthar's (150mm), Xenar's and Xenator's (100mm, 135mm, 150mm, 180mm, 210mm), Geronar's (90mm, 150mm), Fujinon's (150mm) and various Grandagon's, Symmar's and Apo-Symmar's - some of these lens have been superb (notably, and surprisingly, the Geronar 90mm - my first large format lens which I had for fifteen years before being rendered useless) and the modern version of the Xenar 150mm and have been disappointed with some of the so-called superior pieces of glass (Apo-Lanthar, Grandagon 90mm F4.5)...
Of course, most of my failures have been my own doing, badly exposed/processed/focussed/camera blur etc etc...

Occasional Transport:

...otherwise an old beat-up estate car...

Benefits:

The main benefit of using such a camera is the quality of the finished image. The negative size is 5 x 4 inches. Such a large negative means that it does not need to be enlarged as much as other formats (35mm, medium format) to make a finished print. Other larger cameras are available, most commonly the 10x8inch camera but these are much larger and weightier, the film much more expensive.

My camera has something called ‘camera movements’ where I am able to tilt/rise/swing the lens to adjust focussing on the subject and, most importantly for architecture photography, to control perspective. To control perspective the front part of the camera with the lens attached to has to ‘lift’ - this will correct the convergence of parallel lines when photographing tall buildings.


With ‘lift’ to control converging parallel lines when photographing buildings


With front and rear tilt


Extending the bellows allows for extreme macro-close up work


The camera half folded


The camera fully folded


Downfalls:

One of the downsides of using these type of cameras is also a positive, the size of the camera and cumbersomeness when setting it up. It must be tripod mounted every time. The image is upside down and back to front in the ground glass. Its slowness of setting up is however also one its greatest strengths. The slower one works, the more care and attention one takes composing.

The price of film is becoming very expensive (approx £30 - £35 for a box of 25 sheets). Again, this too means one is much more careful with what one takes photos of.
It’s weight. Without any other provisions, the weight of my equipment, including tripod, two lenses and around 12 darkslides (which hold the sheets of film in) weighs around 15 kg. Walking all day becomes tiring but is manageable and often worth all the effort.

Composition:

I was recently asked at a talk how I composed my images. I struggled to answer such a seemingly basic and simple question. I aim with the mansion houses and the farms for three basic exposures.

The first is an image, wherever possible (sometimes not due to obstructions such as other buildings, trees or occasionally a forest of brambles), of a building as the architect of that building first envisaged the blueprint. An image of the façade, photographed straight on, using perspective control (‘lift’) on the camera.

The second; An image taken internally of a ruined property, wherever possible (sometimes not due to unavailable light, inaccessibility or simply because there is nothing of note within). This can range from a simple exposure of a fireplace, an internal fragment of the fabrics used in building a house (ie a cruck frame exposed) or indeed perhaps recent graffiti carved into damp soft plaster work.

The third, and I believe more importantly, an image which captures not just an element of a house but also some of the character of its surroundings. These images are often the most hard fought.

There is a simple rule in photography called ‘the rule of thirds’ when a photograph is composed by simply dividing the rectangle framing on the ground glass into approximate ‘thirds’.

For example, this can be achieved simply by a landscape image. One third of the image is taken up with the land, another third with the sky and final third with a tree. Many images are taken using this simple technique, and it’s a technique that many photographers compose automatically, without much needed thought or attention. This is not a criticism. I do this myself in the majority of my images.

Quite often this ‘atmospheric’ third shot I seek is stepping outside the ‘rule of thirds’ and adding extra elements of the subject, pulling apart the rule of thirds whilst pushing together, within the confines of the ground glass, what I consider essential elements of the scene before me.
This is where, on location, it becomes a challenge. A house may have grand façade, gnarled trees planted around it circumference, tumbled blocks of dressed stonework laying chaotically around in amongst the debris of other stonework and rampant foliage. All these elements may be present but to fit together a coherent picture with just one or even two of these elements can be impossible.

Sometimes I am fortunate, a rhododendron bush may have recently died and before other plants take advantage of this, that may be the time I visit a house and exposing more of a house than has been exposed for many a year.

Others times, not so fortunate. I have had on a list of properties to photograph a small cottage and barn. I have had this in mind to photograph for over three years. I visited last month to find the cottage roof (corrugated iron) had blown off, not a total disaster, but it had fallen across the most interesting part of the cottage and was obscuring the pre-visualized latent image I had in my mind for over three years.

The compositions that are the most successful are the ones when I am able to think outside the box. Sometimes these are found because I’m feeling tense, other times when I am at comfort. Each property throws up its own problems. Sometimes these compositions are not properly seen until I compose under the ground glass.

I have recently found myself composing an image using a digital camera beforehand and playing back the image immediately. I have stopped this temptation. It feels a lazy way of seeking a ‘truthful’ composition and could, arguably, destroying my skill of seeing. Without sounding too obvious, there is no better feeling when an image comes together, whilst peering under a darkcloth, totally absorbed within the view.