The Craft Approach: Is Large Format Really Best?

October 13, 2013 ·

Mike Johnston

By Mike Johnston

Illustrated with photographs by Carl Weese

(Originally published in Camera & Darkroommagazine)

Introduction — 2001 

This is surely one of the strangest articles I ever wrote during my six-year stint as a Contributing Editor of the oldCamera & Darkroom magazine. First of all, unlike most of my articles, I didn’t come up with the idea for this one myself. The Editor had planned a double-article presentation on large format, one article taking the pro side, and the other taking the con argument. A seasoned author whose name is closely connected with view cameras and the large-format scene had agreed to write the pro article, and the Editor needed somebody to write its counterpart. Would I be willing to write the “con” article?

I got talked into it. In the spirit of the concept, I took the argument I’d been assigned and made the best case I could. Maybe I covered my butt too hard, I don’t know—but the guy who was supposed to be writing the pro side was smart, articulate, and a more experienced writer than I was; I figured I’d have to make my case pretty strongly to avoid getting run over by him. I finished the article and sent it in.

Months passed. Issue after issue came and went, and the large-format pieces didn’t appear. AtCamera & Darkroom , writers weren’t in the loop as to what was going on—you’d send in your copy, wait a few issues, and eventually, presto, there your article would be. I never got a chance to see layouts beforehand, approve changes, or proofread anything.

So, you can imagine my shock when my “anti” large format article showed up in the magazine—all by itself! No “pro” article anywhere in sight.

I put in an agitated phone call to the editor, although naturally I knew full well that nothing could be done at that point. It turned out that the other author had repeatedly promised to submit his piece but had never followed through. The folks at the magazine felt that my article was “strong enough” to stand alone, and it fit the issue they were working on, so they went ahead and ran it.

I think this article earned me a certain “reputation” in the large-format community that lingers even to this day, and that is something I have always regretted. Obviously, photographers can do good work or bad work with any kind of camera, and using one film size over another isn’t enough by itself to predict success or failure. I’m not against any particular format. View cameras aren’t the right tools for me personally (though I’ve used them a fair amount), but I don’t have anything against them or anyone who likes them, and I never have—I swear!

To supply a sense of the “for” side of the argument, just imagine any of the great view-camera photographers whose work you know and love. In my library, among other things, I have two books of silver contact prints by Paula Chamlee, a first edition of Eliot Porter’sIn Wildness is the Preservation of the World , Joel Meyerowitz’sSt. Louis and the Arch , William Clift’s exquisite little bookCertain Places , at least five volumes of Edward Weston, the one-volume version ofKinsey, Photographer (one day I’ll get the two-volume set), Robert Adams’s landmarkFrom the Missouri West , Sally Mann’sImmediate Family , Ray McSavaney’s masterfulExplorations , and on and on, including more historical photography than I could list.

To impart a sense of the magnificent corpus of work bequeathed to us by the view camera and its practitioners, Michael Reichmann and I have illustrated this article with some scans of Carl We e se’s beautiful silver and platinum/palladium contact prints. A photographer of exceptionally wide range and a master printer in platinum, Carl teaches workshops in platinum printing at the Photographer’s Formulary workshops in Montana—though he could just as easily teach seminars in graphic design, professional assignment photography in color, or prepress. For the past half-dozen years he’s been concentrating on large and ultra-large format, shooting with 8×10, 7×17, and 12×20 cameras. Unlike many types of photography, which are well served by the web, ultra-large-format contact prints, especially in platinum/palladium, are almost impossible to reproduce adequately on the printed page, much less the computer screen. These illustrations will therefore require a major mental leap on your part—you’ll have to imagine the exquisite fine detail of these prints, the almost impossibly delicate and utterly grainless tonality, and the pleasing tactility of the fine-art papers, the images seemingly embedded in the paper’s very fibers.

There’s a coda to this story. After I became an editor myself, I had occasion to work with that author who had failed to submit his copy back when I wrote this piece. Sure enough, he did the same thing to me—repeated promises and never any follow-through. I don’t think I ever got to publish an article by him, and it wasn’t because I didn’t do my damndest to try to wring something out of the guy. He was a hard case, a real hard case. You know what they say: oh well!

And now, my “con” piece. The points may be valid, but please take the overall outlook with the proper grain of salt—platinum salts, perhaps.

M.J., September 2001

Evening, Kennebeck, SD, 1999, copyright 1999 by Carl Weese

Is large format really “best”? Regardless of what the great photographers are alleged to have said, much of the talk and most of the assumptions about the advantages of large format black-and-white photography are myths.

Working with large format does offer the photographer certain inherent advantages. But most of them are either offset by inherent disadvantages, or have been superceded by the always-increasing quality of the smaller formats to such an extent that they hardly even qualify as substantial advantages any more.

I wouldn’t have said this a year ago, or two years ago, or five. Like most serious photographers, I used to accept as an article of faith the dogma that view cameras are capable of yielding pictures of the ultimate photographic quality. After a summer of using nothing but a view camera full-time, however, and subsequent months spent printing a portfolio of that work, I’m not so sure. It may not quite be true that the Emperor has no clothes, but he is certainly more raggedly clad than I imagined before I got to know him up close.

Photography is obliging and elastic, both aesthetically and technically. In an altogether human effort to impart to it more structure and hence more meaning than it may inherently possess, the discipline has been more than usually subject to a buildup of received ideas, and is more than ordinarily susceptible to being influenced by the assertions of zealots. So despite its essentially iconoclastic, subversive nature, photography permits, even encourages, the sporadic establishment of canons, traditions, and an academical standardization of ideas. The literature is rife with examples.

One group of these ideologies is what I call “The Craft Approach.” The Craft Approach is not the only avenue to take towards a comprehension of what photography is and how it functions, but it’s one of the easiest to understand and one of the most difficult to practice, which insures it a relatively prominent place in the pantheon of all the different possible approaches to the medium. It mainly encompasses “classic” black-and-white photography in the older West Coast tradition of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and is practiced by people to whom a fastidious, even fanatical pursuit of technical quality is paramount. Historically, it is the most backward-looking, because its practitioners commonly take earlier masters as their models and then pursue an exalted kind of genre photography, picturing landscapes like Adams did, natural forms like Weston did, the social landscape like Strand did, or extractions out of context like Minor White did — to mention just four exemplars. Proponents of the Craft Approach are typically obsessed with technique because a great deal of the way their pictures communicate is through the physical properties of the pictures: thus, tone, detail, “sharpness,” and so forth are thought to matter a great deal.

Especially tone: there is some sort of mystical connection between the Craft Approach to photography and music, between juxtapositions of tones of sound and that of tones of gray. Caponigro is a pianist, Wynn Bullock was an opera singer. Again and again one comes across musical backgrounds in the biographies, and musical analogies in the literature, both figurative and actual: Adams (a pianist) compared his Zone System to a scale of notes, comparing Zone V (middle gray) to C natural (middle C), and I hesitate even to repeat again his hoary old oft-reiterated analogy regarding score and performance. It is hardly an accident that most practitioners of the Craft Approach use, or at least advocate, the zone system or one of its variants, since the zone system is chiefly a method for controlling the scale of tones in photographs. It is as if Adams were photography’s equivalent to the Bach of the Well-Tempered Clavier, establishing, thoroughly and brilliantly, the tuning of the tonal “keyboard” for the benefit of those who would come after him. It is these “Zoners” — proponents of the Craft Approach — who are most active in advocating the claims of large format as the technical system capable of creating pictures of the ultimate photographic quality.

Flood Waters, Shepaug at Bee Brook, 1998, copyright 1998 by Carl Weese

In experimental isolation, of course — all associated difficulties having been dispatched (a condition I suspect is approached only by wealthy fashion photographers in state-of-the-art studios) — I suppose one could make a case that an infinitely large contact print would permit ideal quality (although I have heard at least two photo-researchers claim that slight enlargements are sharper than contact prints, owing to the more localized spurious refraction effects at the boundaries of tone areas in contact prints). But what about in reality, in the kinds of situations in which most real photographers work? What are the parameters that really pertain to making the best quality pictures?

There are advantages of large format cameras that I don’t dispute. Foremost among these is the availability of camera movements. These allow corrections to the image geometry that are almost never duplicable in smaller cameras, and large format must be used where such “image management” (to use Ansel Adams’s rather corporate-sounding term) is imperative. Architectural photographers will always use large format cameras, and on this point I won’t presume to argue with them.

I think the importance of camera movements in non-architectural photography is overstated, however. Large format users routinely use front tilt to help solve their persistent depth-of-field problems, and scrupulously use front rise instead of angling the entire camera. In nearly all real-world situations in the field, however, relatively few situations call for the use of camera movements to manage the geometrical characteristics of the image, and, when called for, the corrections require subtler movements than is often assumed.

Minnesota Farm Field, 1999, copyright 1999 by Carl Weese

The need for movements also presumes a rather rigid literalism where the geometrical qualities of the image are concerned. However, most people who are accustomed to looking at photographs have gotten over the naive demand that everything in photographs be rendered rectilinear. A certain level of distortion, sensitively handled, enhances expressivity rather than destroys it. If the horizon tilts a bit, or the verticals of buildings are not quite vertical, such departures from the way we model reality in our heads are understood by most people to be part of the photographic idiom, and cause neither confusion nor irritation.

Second, a good large format negative is easier to print than one which is equally good but smaller. It is claimed that all the great printers (as distinct from great photographers) used larger formats. Well, have you tried printing a good 4 x 5 negative lately? It’s fun, it’s easy — there’s very little compromise involved, and not much struggle. This unquestionably qualifies as an advantage of sorts. But how essential is it to you to minimize your difficulties in the darkroom? Is it necessary to you to accept the limitations of large format when shooting simply to increase your convenience when printing? Or would you prefer to get a better picture rather than a better negative to start with, and struggle a little more with the print?

In black and white there are some parameters which can serve as limiting factors. Graininess relative to the degree of enlargement is one. But how many photographers who use 8 x 10 cameras, for example, enlarge to a size larger than 20 x 24? This is a 2.5X enlargement, equivalent to less than a drugstore-size print from a 35mm negative. Many 8 x 10 photographers, in fact, contact print. How many of those who contact print are committed to processes or principles which demand contact printing, and how many are doing it as a vanity, as a signature, or as a sort of historicist cultism — that is, doing it because Weston did? We can excuse Brett Weston from the charge implicit in this question — after all, it is his legacy. Others deserve somewhat more suspicion.

Finally there is the old argument that large format allows the photographer to develop each sheet of film separately — individually is the term usually employed, to take advantage of the connotations of special attention, which relate, in turn, to the idea of the photographic print as a fine-art object. It implies that loving care is lavished on each and every negative, and harkens back to the many prejudices in favor of handwork first established during the arts-and-crafts movements of the late nineteenth century.

In fact, individual development is something of a shibboleth. A change in film Contrast Index (C.I.) is sensitometrically equivalent to a change in paper contrast, and few Zoners ever alter development beyond a normal, normal-plus-one, or normal-minus-one. “Normal” refers to some standard development time which yields a theoretically correct scale for printing a negative of an average scene on the photographer’s usual paper. “One” in this case refers to a C.I. shift sufficient to alter some given highlight density on the negative by one “Zone,” — that is, the log density change originally effected by one stop more or less exposure — going from a density which is supposedly optimum to give a print Value VII, say, to one which is optimum for a print Value VIII (this is called “expansion”), or, going the other way, from print Value IX to print Value VIII (this is “contraction”). A trifle inconsistent and not sensitometrically accurate in any strict scientific sense (its definitions contain double-variables in a number of instances), the Zone System was nevertheless a highly sophisticated system when it was devised. But like the concept of “normal” development, “N-1” “N+1,” etc., are, strictly speaking, technically vague terms, expressing concepts which are in theory ultimately arbitrary. As a photography teacher I think its precepts are best taken with a grain of salt — as a practical method its dictates need to be tempered with experience, just as other methods do. It is extremely important — and almost always overlooked — that Ansel Adams, who devised the system, was already a very experienced photographer by the time he felt the need to formulate its principles, and had already developed a longstanding familiarity with, and doubtless an intuitive feel for, photographic materials. And in fact, as a number of technical writers have made clear by now, the parameters of the Zone System need to be tightened considerably to afford it any degree of scientific accuracy; and, as countless photographers (even most Zoners) demonstrate, it can be loosened considerably in practice without loss.

The small format photographer who cannot expose and develop his negatives so that they fit somewhere within the range of available paper grades is incompetent indeed. What many rollfilm users do is to give the equivalent of N-1 development to all their negatives, standardizing on Grade 2 paper for scenes which require that development, and then change to a grade three paper for scenes which would have required N development and a grade 4 for scenes which would have required N+1 development — which, although not the same thing, achieves essentially identical results. For extreme situations this is somewhat more limiting, but many Zoners use a combination of controls anyway — that is, rather than give N-2 development they might give N-1 and switch to a grade 1 paper — and many rollfilm photographers encounter extreme situations so rarely that they are able to apply appropriate controls when they do, up to and including “individually” altered development. It is of course possible to give tailored development to rollfilm, either by exposing whole rolls to scenes of the same illuminance range (which is not so inconvenient as it sounds when shooting with a medium-format camera, with which you might fit only eight to twelve negatives on a 120 roll) or by changing camera backs on cameras such as the Hasselblad, Bronica, or Rolleiflex. Modern films (with the possible exception of Kodak T-Max 100) do not respond particularly well to more than a one-zone expansion or contraction anyway, at least according to Adams and others who should know.

So I think I have established here that there are certain situations in which the use of large format offers appreciable advantages, and some in which the advantages are more a matter of tradition or misapprehension than actuality. I accept the fact that there are certain rather circumscribed situations in which large format does indeed provide the greatest flexibility and the highest quality results — principally in the studio, or where the image must be geometrically rectilinear so far as is possible — and it well may be the most amenable format for photographers who psychologically find themselves best “enabled” by the slow, deliberate, meditative approach dictated by the use of a large stand camera.

For most non-specialist black-and-white photographers, however, especially artists, these applications are limited as well as limiting, and getting more so all the time. For every photographer who chooses to use large format because it best suits his or her vision or because it allows him to make the kind of photographs he needs to make, there are undoubtedly others who choose large format for the wrong reasons — not least among which is the view camera’s carefully maintained traditional reputation for bestowing the ultimate in photographic quality — and then accept the inevitable compromises, to the detriment of the visual content and effectiveness of their work.

So now we come to the crux of the present argument, which is concerned with those compromises.

They are many. First let’s dispense with fact that small-format lenses are better, sharper, brighter, and more even in their coverage than large-format lenses. This is all true, but it may be a false advantage, because things like resolution and lens contrast are ordinarily film-limited anyway, inextricably bound to the abovementioned problem of the degree of enlargement. According to the Rodenstock Optical Works (one of the “big four” of German optical houses, the other three being Schneider-Kreuznach, Carl Zeiss, and Leica), light scatter within the emulsion of negative films causes a 50% contrast loss at 40 line pairs/mm (that is, contrast is not lens-limited at that resolving power) and the human eye has trouble distinguishing resolutions greater than 20 line pairs/mm in a print at normal viewing distances anyway. And this is not even the most salient point. The benefits of the resolving power and better contrast of smaller format lenses are often cancelled out by the fact that any given enlargement of a large-format negative usually preserves the image properties of the lens it was made with better than enlargements from smaller format negatives do of the lenses they were made with, for the simple reason that they are enlarged to a lesser degree or not enlarged at all. This is most obvious when comparing negative formats of greatly diverging size, say, 8×10 and 35mm.

The disparity is mitigated at some point, however. The huge color prints exhibited by Paul Graham at the Corcoran Gallery’s Spectrum show in 1987 (from the “Troubled Land” project) were made with a 6x7cm camera (a Plaubel Makina), but fooled even some experienced photographers into believing they were made with a 4×5 or larger view camera. Where the boundary is (i.e., is 6 x 4.5 cm inferior to 6 x 9 cm in 11×14 enlargements?) is a subjective matter. But that it is a tradeoff — that larger is better only given a fairly broad divergence — is demonstrated, I think, by the mere fact that even the zealots do not tend to covet cameras that are infinitely large. The largest cameras in use today that I know of are Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’s banquet camera — which he uses to achieve effects (shallow depth of field, imposing the necessity of a ritual “stillness” on the subject) which would not normally be considered desirable — and the huge Polaroid cameras owned and operated by the Polaroid Corporation, which I assume are ordinarily used with strobes.

The other consideration which arises here is whether the differences are appreciable at less than extreme parameters. In other words, an 8 x 10 negative may be capable of yielding a less grainy print than a 4 x 5 negative if the print is, say, 40 x 60 inches. Whether anyone can tell the difference in graininess if the print is 8 x 10 inches is entirely another matter. An apochromatically-corrected enlarging lens may show better MTF curves wide open than a non-apochromatic lens, but if you never print with the lens wide open, is it still a “better” lens? If there is a difference, is the difference ever appreciable to the eye? Technical “advantages” hardly qualify as such if you don’t take advantage of the situations in which the improved performance or properties come into play.

What is not dismissible as a false advantage is the fact that smaller format cameras require shorter focal length lenses to cover the same angle of view, which in turn means that they give greater depth of field for given shutter speeds. A 300mm lens on an 8×10 camera is a normal lens, for instance, and gives exactly the same rather limited depth of field at any given aperture as does a 300mm lens on a 35mm camera. The difference is, of course, that a normal lens for a 35mm camera has a focal length of 50mm, which allows much greater depth of field for that same aperture.

Is this a problem? What it means is that large-format photographers ordinarily shoot at much smaller apertures than smaller format photographers. An aperture of f/16 gives relatively little depth of field even on a 4 x 5 camera — less on larger cameras — and it isn’t for nothing that Group f/64 took an excessively small lens stop as its name. This means slower shutter speeds, which in turn mean potential problems with motion blur, wind, and stop-action, which, I admit, might not be a problem, but probably will be, in the field, at least sometimes. And, of course, diffraction effects for any lens begin to mitigate the optical quality of a lens image past about f/16, a physical property which militates against some of the very properties thought to be valuable in large negatives.

Then there is the fact that with large format, you must use a tripod. This also means you must buy a tripod, carry a tripod, and set up a tripod before you can take a picture. After an entire summer spent shooting large format in the field every day, I can tell you that this last point is by far the most pertinent, because it immediately rules out taking pictures of anything ephemeral — which, for my purposes here, I can define as anything that doesn’t stay put for longer than at least about ninety seconds. This qualification encompasses a surprising number of situations. And the memoirs of classic stand camera photographers often contain accounts of endless waiting, after the camera has been set up, for the scene to resolve itself into some pleasing order — waiting for clouds to pass, waiting for the wind to die down. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it is dull, and it negates the quality of “note-taking” — of observing and recording in rapid sequence — which can be so rewarding in photography.

Then, once you get set up and ready to take the picture, it is important that this non-ephemera also be relatively still — unless you are purposely trying to achieve the effects of motion blur — because, again, your shutter speeds will have to be relatively longer, to allow for the smaller apertures needed to achieve the required depth of field, as discussed above. Thus, the predominant properties of the image (fineness of detail, smoothness of tone, precise description, etc.) can be contradicted by all sorts of “syntactical” anomalies in the picture — blurry birds looking like smudges in the sky, blurry grasses and foliage, waves or clouds that make the viewer go slightly cross-eyed. (The exception seems to be closer pictures of moving water, which can look even more watery when slightly blurred than when blazingly sharp — and in which the impression or illusion of sharpness is maintained by the presence of specular highlights, which look “sharp” even when they aren’t. Of course, this effect is not denied to photographers using smaller formats, either.) All large-format photographers seem to occasionally “take advantage” of the effects of motion blur — some as a convenience, no doubt — I did — but the only black-and-white photographer I know of who consistently admits these qualities as an integral part of his vision (and thus of course effectively denies them the status of a qualitative drawback) is John Sexton.

Detail, Shepaug River

It must also be acknowledged that much of the present argument is fugitive, because a loyalty to any given set of technical parameters (I call it a “technical franchise”) subsumes an aesthetic approach and certain aesthetic priorities that function as “givens.” The most obvious example of a technical franchise is the “snapshot aesthetic” of the full-frame, hip-shot, black-and-white street shooting of the ‘Seventies. Photographers who seem to “own” their own technical franchise — Ralph Gibson comes to mind, as does the virtuosic Nicholas Nixon — are fortunate, and rare. Recent books of large-format black-and-white photography by people like Ronald Wohlhauer, Peter Gasser, and Bruce Barnbaum (whose book is entitledA Visual Symphony, cf. my comments about the Craft Approach and music, above), taken together, exhibit a clear aesthetic mandate, almost a value system. What is valued is a clarity, a smoothness of tone, an exactness of rendition, and an objectification of reality (or at least of parts of it, like seashore scenes, landscapes, nudes, etc.) that amounts almost to a sense of transformation; aesthetically, the meaning of the object is effaced in favor of the way it is presented; the static presentations are rendered otherwordly by an almost excessively respectful treatment, “dressed” in a dazzling vividness that makes them resonate with implied mystical meaning. This is to take one quality of photography — its ability to transform the mundane and exalt the beautiful — to a logical extreme, by streamlining — supercharging, so to speak — and custom-crafting the means of expression. Where this aesthetic value system seems to predominate (in other words, when the subject is one which has been found to lend itself to such treatment) this is fine, but in many cases the observer is tempted to conclude that the aesthetic framework is secondary, merely a predicate to the real goal — which is, of course, the craft.

If you are a small-format photographer considering moving to large format, try this exercise. Go back to your thirty or forty favorite prints from the past, and, remembering the situation in which each picture was made, try to imagine if you could possibly have taken the picture if you had had to set up a tripod and a folding view camera first and then use a shutter speed which was, say, two to four stops slower than the one you actually used. How many of your best pictures would you have been able to take? If the percentage is high — say 70% or above–then you are undoubtedly justified in considering a change. I think, however, that the results of this exercise will surprise you — or at least I can say that my results surprised me. I have always considered myself a deliberate, thoughtful shooter of mostly non-action-oriented subjects — I almost always favor pictures of objects over pictures of events — and I have always imagined that I would love shooting with a view camera. Yet when I tried this exercise, the best percentage of my old work that I could possibly have taken with a view camera was about 35%, even granting a certain latitude for good luck.

Now do the same exercise with photographs you didn’ttake but which you admire and might desire to emulate. Is that kind of thing mostly large-format work for you? This latter exercise will measure your current inclinations better than your past practices — that is, the results are easier to “fix.” But of course your current inclinations are useful to know. If you are charmed by the qualities of large-format work and bent on trying a large-format camera, it is doubtless best that you do so. If you are being objective, though, it is at least possible that you will be surprised by the results of this exercise, too. Even Ansel Adams, the patron saint of the Zoners, often shot with a Hasselblad at the end of his career — and not just in his dotage, either, but for more than twenty years.

To sum up, there are several advantages of large format that are undeniable, as well as some disadvantages that are also undeniable. My point here is that no absolute hierarchy of qualitative excellence can be proved or excused; large format cameras aren’t better tools, just different tools, best suited to different tasks, and large format pictures are not necessarily of higher technical quality than smaller format pictures, unless their inherent properties are exploited and their weaknesses mitigated — and usually unless there is a fairly marked divergence in the size of the format being considered. The fact that Edward Weston used an 8 x 10 does not imply that serious photographers use big cameras. The myth of large format is partially justified, but it is also partially a proprietary conceit of proponents of the Craft Approach, who, like short people invoking Napoleon, have an elitist stake in establishing and protecting a certain technical franchise or aesthetic orientation, which they express as fealty to the classic modernist West Coast school of “straight” black-and-white photography and as loyalty to certain cherished technical canons, chiefly the Zone System and its variants.

Mike Johnston, a 1985 Photography graduate of the Corcoran School of art, was East Coast Editor ofCamera and Darkroom magazine from 1988-1994 and Chief Editor ofPhoto Techniques magazine from 1994-2000. He now publishes an iconoclastic, independent ink-on-paper newsletter calledThe 37thFrame.

Artist’s Statement by Carl Weese

“For the past several years I’ve concentrated on photographs of the woods, farms, and towns of the eastern United States. This comes directly from my love of these subjects, and also from a feeling that the tradition of landscape photography in America has paid somewhat lopsided attention to the mountains and deserts of the west, at the expense of the subtler beauties to be found farther east. I’m also fascinated by the interaction of the land and its human occupants. The relationship is obvious in a sweeping valley of cultivated fields, but the deepest forests of the east coast are not wilderness, they’re preserves dependent on human intervention for their continued existence. I’m also drawn to typical, or perhaps even archetypal, subjects rather than to the spectacular or unusual. The most ordinary woods can seem impossibly beautiful in the right weather. When the light is perfect, the most prosaic of buildings can seem to me more fascinating than any European castle.

“All of these recent pictures are made with large (and ultra-large) format cameras and contact printed for the greatest possible tonal smoothness and descriptive detail. Working this way places a premium on anticipation and patience. Often it takes many return visits to a location before I find exactly the right conditions to make the photograph I’d hoped for. Other times I stumble on a perfect situation without warning and the challenge is to get the picture before it disappears. Sometimes I’ll be fascinated enough by a subject to set up one of the giant cameras even though I‘ve only found 90% of a picture. It’s amazing how often the other 10% then obligingly comes along in the form of a chance change in the light, a sudden rain, the appearance of a truck at just the right point in the road, or a gust of wind to move a static tree branch. The challenge then is to craft a final print that conveys the sense of that particular moment.”

Carl Weese, Woodbury, CT, June 2001

Another Perspective

Alain Briothas written another perspective on this topic titled4X5″ — The Agony and the Ecstasy, which you might also enjoy reading.

This piece is part of an on-going series of articles, reviews and essays written for this site byMike Johnston.

Mike Johnston

Mike Johnston graduated in 1985 from the Photography Department of the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., where his photographic mentor was the late Steven Lee Szabo. Initially a photo teacher who taught at all levels from, children to the elderly, he worked as a professional photographer for 7 years in Washington as a member of the Paul Kennedy Studio. In photo magazines he was East Coast Editor of Camera & Darkroom magazine and later Editor-in-Chief of Photo Techniques magazine. He wrote more than 250 regular columns (in five different languages) for a number of publications and websites including the British Black & White Photography magazine and the late Michael Reichmann’s The Luminous-Landscape website. He now writes, edits, and maintains The Online Photographer website full time.

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