Does Equipment Affect Creativity? Some New Jewels From ALPA

February 11, 2011 ·

Mark Dubovoy

by Mark Dubovoy

“Blue Rolls”

Three image Panoramic.  ALPA STC, Rodenstock APO Digaron 60 mm lens

Have you ever been stuck in a photographic funk?

The weather in California last December was awful.  Record rainfall, high winds and all the assorted consequences such as flooding and mud slides. For some reason, the sameness of the weather day in and day out seemed to exacerbate what I call a “photographic funk”.

I believe that most photographers periodically experience a lack of creativity.  A time when one is either bored with a specific subject matter, or is inexplicably unable to create really good images, or is looking for a new theme but cannot find it, or some other reason why things are just not working right.

I call this a “photographic funk”, and I was certainly having one last December.


Composite of 17 images for proper perspective, lighting and depth of field

ALPA STC with 100 mm Rodenstock APO Digaron lens

How do you break a photographic funk?

There are many ways to break a photographic funk.  For me, one of the best ways to break it is to try a new subject with new equipment.  

I was pondering this question, when I realized that it is not only a new subject that can energize the creative juices, but I also realized that equipment has a significant effect in the creative process.

“Rolls Engine”

Three image Panoramic

ALPA STC with 100 mm Rodenstock APO Digaron lens

Equipment affects creativity

Like it or not, equipment affects creativity.  

For instance, I was talking to a good friend and excellent photographer the other day.  He told me that he had decided to stop working with a view camera so he can hike with a lighter load.  The first thing he mentioned was that because of this, he is no longer doing his near/far all in focus landscapes. He no longer has view camera movements with his new equipment, so he is doing mostly panoramics.  In other words, his new equipment is dictating a completely different approach to his images and thus significantly affecting his creativity.

I have often noticed that the equipment I use has a dramatic effect on how I see images.  For instance, I find that if I am using a large aperture lens with beautiful Bokeh such as one of the Leica S2 lenses, I immediately start to interpret my subjects with out of focus areas that exploit the beautiful Bokeh.  On the other hand, if I am shooting with a technical camera like the ALPA, my whole creative process seems to focus (pun intended) on just the opposite:  Capturing every single element throughout the whole image in perfect focus with the glorious level of detail that the ALPA system can deliver. 

Looking back at some of my older prints, I can also see how the rest of the photographic process has affected my creativity.  For example, a few decades ago I used to love to shoot landscapes with extensive portions of sky in the image.  However, when I started to print masked Cibachromes, I quickly discovered that retouching minor dust spots in the sky was a royal pain in the butt.  

When I go back and look at my images of the “Cibachrome era”, I can see my lens moving down and down until there are no longer any skies in my images.  I never even thought about it at the time, but it is clear that my instincts kicked in and the retouching issue completely changed the way I approached my subjects. For several years I did not shoot a single sky!

In conclusion, there is little question in my mind that capture equipment and post processing tools have a very significant  effect on creativity and therefore on the final image.

“Red Rolls”

Three image panoramic

ALPA STC with 100 mm Rodenstock APO Digaron lens

The joys of fine equipment

This brings me to another more subtle, but just as important issue in terms of equipment.  I have spent many years observing myself and observing other photographers, as well as my workshop students in the field. I find it fascinating that when I see people using equipment that is not particularly well designed, or not particularly well built, there are massive discontinuities in the workflow.

I certainly hear a lot of complaining and a lot of 4 letter words when equipment is sub-par.  It can be the tripod, or the tripod head, or a badly designed camera body, or whatever.  One single piece of equipment can make all the difference.  The workflow as a whole can be ruined by a single piece: The chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The real problem is that once the workflow is interrupted, or even worse, if frustration sets in, the final image is going to suffer. 

On the other hand, when I see people working with well designed and well made equipment, there is a smooth flow, there is a rhythm that is much more likely to lead to a good image. Of course, this only happens if the photographer has spent the time to be intimately familiar with the equipment, and practices on a regular basis.

Again, I have noticed in my own work that when I am using really well designed and well built equipment, the joy of shooting increases tremendously, and the final images are usually better because I can concentrate on the creative process rather than fighting the equipment.

While a lot  of fine equipment is (almost by definition) expensive, working with fine equipment is not snobbery and is not for “bragging rights”.  In fact, I personally feel uncomfortable if a stranger who knows that a piece of equipment I am using is expensive starts looking at me or starts asking questions about it.  I would much rather fly under the radar in stealth mode.  And it almost goes without saying that I would much rather spend less money on equipment. I feel a real sense of triumph when I find something that is well designed and well built at a reasonable price. While this does happen periodically, sometimes there is no choice but to pay the price for good design and quality construction.

For me, working with fine equipment (the word “fine” in this context means well designed and well built, not gold plated) represents the ultimate joy during the capture, editing and printing process, as well as a way to enhance the probability of realizing my vision and producing better images.

Anyone who has observed a good artist such as a fine musician, or a fine painter, or a fine sculptor; or anyone who has observed a fine craftsman knows that there is a tremendous synergy between the person and the tools or equipment they use.  

Fine artists and fine craftsmen in many instances tend to revere their best tools.  Case in point, I was watching a documentary called “Note By Note” about how Steinway pianos are built.  There are very few people that can handcraft a soundboard of Steinway quality. It is one of the most critical parts of the piano.  One of the featured top craftsman is a delightful fellow from Eastern Europe that came to the US a long time ago.  He came to the US with nothing, except he managed to arrive with his most prized possession for woodworking: A very fine plane.  He still uses the same plane to make Steinway Concert Grand sound boards, and it is amazing to see how this man and his plane seem to be an inseparable single unit.

I feel the same about photographers and their equipment (and software too!).  It is truly impressive to watch a fine photographer work with fine equipment when true synergy is achieved.

“Alfa in Fog”

Composite of 3 images to capture high dynamic range

ALPA STC with 23 mm Rodenstock Digaron lens

A confluence of events

There I was thinking about how to get out of my December photographic funk, when a confluence of events became an opportunity.

First, a small package arrived.  Inside was a brand new ALPA STC body from the first production run that ALPA wanted me to test and evaluate. This package was followed by several other packages from ALPA containing some examples of their new High Precision Focusing (HPF) rings, their new shutter release device that wakes up a digital back just prior to the exposure (it can be used hand held and triggered with the finger, or it can be used with a cable release) and their new iPhone holder which allows you to use the iPhone to frame the image.

At around the same time, I was thinking that I needed to work on shooting a new subject.  

I happen to like cars, and I was thinking that doing some automotive photography could be a very interesting challenge.  This kind of photography is not easy and there are a number of photographers that are incredibly talented in this field.  On the other hand, most car photography is done either in superbly equipped studios with very powerful strobes and huge diffusers, or on high budget shoots on location with lots of assistants, models, light modifiers and so on.

While a lot of car photography is very beautiful, I find that much of it has a level of “sameness” associated with it.  It is always the same diffuse light from above, the large white reflections (from the huge diffusing boxes or fabrics used to diffuse the light), the same post processing motion effects, etc. After looking at many images, it all begins to look the same.

I wanted to try to do something with a different look.

So, I found my new equipment: The ALPA STC.  And I found my new challenge: Automotive photography without the big studio, the big budget or the fancy lighting systems.

Could I make some good automotive images under these conditions, and would they look different from the rest of the pack?

The funk was over and the gauntlet was thrown.  Time to get to work!

I was excited, I was energized, I was ready to go, but two “small details” were missing:

1. Finding the cars.

2. Figuring out what was different about the ALPA STC, and figuring out how to use it.

ALPA STC with tripod mount plate

Another jewel from ALPA

Every time I think ALPA has exploited their basic design of the 12 series of cameras to the point that there is little else they can do, they manage to surprise me with something new, truly useful and unique.  The ALPA 12 STC is no exception.

So, what is new about the ALPA STC?

Like its predecessors, the STC oozes quality.  The precision of the instrument, the quality of the machining and the fit and finish is a step above all other technical cameras.  Exquisite is the word that comes to mind. 

The camera is extremely small and light. It is just a smidgeon larger than the TC which is the smallest camera in the ALPA line. It has a new set of bubble levels that are seriously protected by metal all around; a wonderful design.  My camera came equipped with a new grip in natural wood that fits the hand like a glove. Unlike most other technical cameras (including other models in the ALPA line), the mounting plates holding the lenses and backs are inserted and locked sideways on the camera instead of top and bottom.  Notice the locking levers on the side instead of on the top in the picture above.

It took me a little while to get used to the sideways mount, but I think I like it better in terms of visibility and less of a chance of dropping something in the field.

The biggest difference is the back which now offers shift.  The shifting mechanism is exquisite  (what else?). It includes an incredibly smooth and precise mechanism using a knurled knob for fine adjustments, as well as a separate lock that when unlocked allows you to rapidly shift the back by dragging it directly with your hand. The back also has a detente in the center. There are some very clever moving baffles built into the mechanism to  eliminate light leaks regardless of the position of the back.

The price of the STC body is approximately $4,000 US dollars.

As usual with all ALPAs, everything is symmetric, so one could potentially mount the back in the front and the lens in the back, or the camera rotated 90 degrees on the tripod in order to reverse which component shifts, or to turn the shift movements into rise and fall instead.

By shifting the back left, center and right and taking 3 exposures, one can quickly shoot panoramas the way they are supposed to be shot:With the lens fixed, and moving only the back.

Obviously, the uniqueness of the camera resides in its extremely small size and the shifting back, so one of my key questions had been answered:  The STC was begging to go into tight spaces and was begging to shoot panoramics. I usually do not shoot panoramics, let alone panoramics of a new subject, but the STC was telling me to shoot panoramics.

So, I decided that my new challenge was to shoot automotive panoramics in tight spaces.


Where there is a will, there is a way

The only other “detail” that was missing was finding the cars.  

This is not an easy task, car collectors tend to be very guarded about some stranger coming over and taking pictures of highly cherished objects of art.  

Suffice it to say that where there is a will there is a way, and after some effort with lots of help from my dear friend Geoff Baehr, we managed to convince a car collector to allow me to take pictures of some of his cars.  His conditions were that I could not disclose his name, the location of the cars or the provenance of any of the cars.  Also, I could not move the cars, so I was stuck working in very crowded conditions with lousy lighting, or outdoors if he was available and kind enough to take one of the vehicles outside.

Many thanks go to Geoff for all his help in procuring the cars, as well as his assistance during the shooting sessions.

As the old Chinese proverb says: Don’t wish for something, because you might just get it. Well, I got it.  I got the tight spaces, I got permission to shoot the cars, I got the terrible lighting versus the usual lighting to shoot cars and I got a new camera body and some new interesting accessories for the camera.

HPF ring for 100 mm lens in feet

Notice the extreme detail in the distance scale

Speaking of accessories…

One of the necessary evils (or pleasures, depending on your point of view) of technical cameras is the use of a groundglass.  In the days of large format film, looking at a big groundglass was truly a pleasure, and a unique experience.  There is nothing quite like the magic of looking at an 8×10 or bigger groundglass under a focusing cloth.

Over time, however, formats have gotten much smaller.  Current Medium Format digital backs require a much smaller groundglass, which makes it more difficult to evaluate fine details and focus, particularly with camera movements (versus the old big classic groundglass).

There are some additional hassles that modern technology has brought: Because of the depth and size variability, and the screen position of digital backs, one cannot just insert the back into a spring loaded mechanism like we used to do with film holders.  The two options are a sliding or rotating back, or taking the groundglass off, mounting the back, taking the picture and then reverting to the groundglass.

Sliding or rotating backs have many problems.  It all boils down to the fact that they are simply not accurate enough and the wear and tear during standard usage makes them even more “wobbly”.  I have tried most of these devices and in my view, they are simply not up to par.  I can see the problems in the images.

So, the only decent current solution is the hassle of mounting and un-mounting the back and the groundglass, which is not fun and can be nerve racking when you are holding a little thing worth tens of thousands of dollars, with an exposed sensor in the wind or the rain, or on top of rocks or water, or what have you.  In fact, just last week I dropped my groundglass frame and broke one corner of the groundglass.  I am thankful that it was not the much more expensive back!

In order to make matters better, ALPA has introduced a series of accessories that when combined with the upcoming versions of Live View in PhaseOne digital backs, may finally render the groundglass obsolete.

The first accessory is the HPF rings. These rings are made for all current lenses in the ALPA line and are user installable. An HPF ring is a metal ring that is installed around the normal focusing ring of the lens. It is beautifully engraved with an extremely accurate and highly detailed distance scale, as shown in the image above.  

They can be ordered in feet or in meters. By using a laser rangefinder to measure the distance to an object of interest (the Leica Disto D5, which sells for about $500 dollars is ideal), one can then turn the HPF ring until the mark on the lens points at the measured distance and the camera will be perfectly focused on that object. Traditional distance scales do not have fine enough markings to do this with a high level of precision.  The HPF rings do.

How well does this work?  It works exceedingly well.  It is deadly accurate.  In my personal tests, it has never been less accurate than using a groundglass with an 8X Loupe, and in some cases it has been more accurate.

The second accessory is the iPhone holder.  By mounting an iPhone holder on top of the camera, and using the iPhone lens with the ViewfinderPro application, one can frame the picture very accurately.  There is the tiniest bit of parallax, but for practical purposes it is so small as to be irrelevant.  The only issue is that one cannot use the iPhone to frame an image for extreme wide angles, because the iPhone lens is the limiting factor.  A wide angle attachment for the iPhone  is in the works.

So, with the iPhone holder, the HPF rings and a laser rangefinder one can focus and frame very accurately without using a groundglass.  And now that PhaseOne has promised us a form of Live View with focus confirmation in the IQ backs, it is highly possible that technical camera users will no longer have to depend on a groundglass.  Even with camera movements, the system should work.

I find this very exciting.  No more clumsy sliding or rotating backs affecting image quality, and no more changing of the groundglass and the back all the time. Sign me up!

(Of course, I will not know if this really works until I can test a full functioning version of an IQ back.  Stay tuned).

The icing on the cake is the new ALPA cable and finger shutter release device that wakes up the back just prior to exposure.  The ALPA device is dramatically better designed and better made than any other such device on the market. As such, it is a delight to use.


ALPA STC with iPhone holder, iPhone 4 and PhaseOne IQ 180 digital back.

The end of the groundglass?

What about the pictures?

I have interspersed some photographs of my current car project with the text.  It is interesting to note that once I started taking panoramics with the ALPA STC, my brain seems to have switched into “multiple image composite” mode.  Not only did I start to shoot panoramas, but I also started to shoot focus composites, exposure composites and combinations of two or more of the above.

I do not like to say much about images, because they should speak for themselves.  All I can say is that I am getting a lot of practice at manually blending layers in Photoshop!

As an interesting experiment, one morning I decided to also bring a Leica S2 on location,  just to see what would happen.  Interestingly enough, my brain stayed in multiple image composite mode, and I ended up shooting mostly composites with the Leica too.

This was further proof that equipment definitely affects creativity, and it does it quite directly.  The mere existence of a sliding back in the ALPA STC had completely affected every image in my car project. For now, it has clearly affected the way my brain and my heart currently approach images of cars, even when I use a different camera!

“Isadora Duncan”

(this is the view from the passenger seat in a Bugatti that is very similar to the one in which famous American dancer Isadora Duncan was killed)

Composite of 7 images for  enhanced depth of field

Leica S2 with 120 mm lens

Just Tools?

While many people will argue that cameras or software are just tools, I believe there is more to it.  Yes, they are tools, but it is much better to work “with them”, rather than in spite of them.  What I mean by this is that if a tool has a specific strength, we are much better off utilizing this strength to its full potential.  However, as soon as we do this, the tool has instantly affected our creativity.

So, the choice is ours, we can choose to live in a vacuum  and fight every tool to force it to do only what we want and ignore its strengths and weaknesses.

Alternately, we can choose to workwith the tools and let them affect our creativity.

I prefer the latter, because it expands my horizons and makes me learn new things.

And, on that note, I finish this essay.  I need to go out and shoot some more cars!

“Ferrari California”

One of the few images from a single exposure in this whole series.

Leica S2 with 35 mm lens.

February, 2011

Avatar photo

Mark Dubovoy is a well-known photographer, educator, writer and businessman. His images are a unique combination of impeccable aesthetics, a deep love for nature and flawless technique. His unique background, starting in the darkroom as a child, combined with a long-term career in science and technology, are clearly evident in his work. He is a master printer in many traditional and digital methods and considers printing an integral part of the creative process. Mark’s love of the technical aspects of photography is only exceeded by his passion to reveal and document the natural landscape, the hidden beauty in objects and the personalities of wild animals. While his main area of focus is landscape photography, he has also completed a number of projects photographing the animals of Africa, rare automobiles and images of flowers. His photographs are included in a number of private collections, as well as the permanent collections of major Museums, including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Monterey Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum, the Museum of Modern Art in Nanao Japan and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City. His images have also been published in a number of magazines and books, including the Best of Photography Annual, International Edition. Mark is a highly regarded technical expert in many aspects of photography. As such, he has been and continues to be an advisor, consultant and early tester for a number of manufacturers of high quality photographic products. Mark has also been a major contributor to a number of print and online publications. He has been an instructor and a leader of photographic expeditions and workshops around the world, including places like Antarctica, Iceland, Africa, Mexico and others. Prior to founding Photo Aesthetics, Mark was a regular contributor to PHOTO Technique magazine and Editor-at-Large of The Luminous Landscape. Mark holds a BS degree in Physics from the National University of Mexico, and MA and Ph.D degrees in Physics from the University of California at Berkeley. In addition to his involvement in photography, he has had a long and successful career in science, technology and early stage companies in Silicon Valley

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