An Essay by Alain Briot
My main reason for acquiring a Fuji 6×17 camera was to be able to see differently. Prior to acquiring this camera I became convinced that the extreme format -almost 3 times longer than high- would allow me to re-think how I had composed my landscape photographs so far.
I was right. The 6×17 format is unlike any other format I had used (6×4,5, 6×6, 4×5, 35mm) and I effectively had to re-think how to compose an image. At first I found few compositions which would inspire me to take a panoramic photograph. It took me some time to learn to see in panoramic mode and to start to visualize panoramic images in locations where, so far, I had composed square or rectangular images.
One thing which helped me greatly in this endeavor were the removable viewfinders which come with each interchangeable lens for the Fuji 6×17 camera. These viewfinders are made of plastic, which makes them light, and come with a protective bag which both protects them and makes them easy to carry. I currently own the 90mm and the 300mm Fuji lenses and when I explore a new area I carry these two viewfinders with me. This way I can compose images using the viewfinders without having to carry the camera and the lenses. If I find something which I want to shoot I come back later with the camera and the chosen lens.
The Fuji viewfinders are extremely bright and quite accurate regarding the percentage of the scene which is shown in the viewfinders. I also have the ground-glass adapter and have framed a scene using the viewfinder and then checked the exact framing using the ground-glass adapter. The main difference I noticed was that I tend to include more sky when framing with the viewfinder. Otherwise the viewfinder shows nearly 100% of the scene from left to right when the lens is focused at infinity. For close-ups the ground-glass adapter becomes a necessity. For example, the Handprints Petroglyph image (link?) was taken with the 300mm and composed on the ground-glass adapter. Since the Handprints were relatively close I had to focus the 300mm lens to the shortest focusing distance available and would have had parallax problems had I not used the ground-glass adapter.
Sunrise from Hopi Point, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, 1998
Another important point needs to be made regarding my approach to composition when using the 6×17 camera. I was originally trained as a Painter, at the Academie des Beaux Arts in Paris, and I found that I refer to my painting background when composing a panoramic image. It seems to me that the sweep of a long panorama is best approached from a painterly perspective. I often have the image of sweeping brushstrokes in mind when I attempt to create a new panoramic image. These brushstrokes may start on one side of the image and move towards the other side, as in Tsegi Overlook (link) in which the flow of the river, going from right (upstream) to left (downstream) reminds me of a gestural brushstroke with oil paint on a long canvas. Around this gestural sweep of the photographic paintbrush the other elements of the image (mesas, clouds, grass, etc.) tend to organize themselves naturally.
The image seen above ‹Sunrise from Hope Point, Grand Canyon National Park ‹has the clouds parting from the middle of the image and moving, in symmetrical fashion, towards the right and the left edges of the photograph. Taken at sunrise this image also shows a natural gradient of color in the sky which goes from blue on the left to yellow on the right, or from night to daylight. These effects, both the parting of the clouds and the appearance of the day pushing away the darkness of night, would be plainly impossible to create with a rectangular frame such as 4×5. Although one could cleverly maneuver the camera so as to frame the essential part of the scene, the sweep of the panoramic format would never be there to tell the story as effectively.
The use of a telephoto lens on a panoramic camera is also quite exciting. The mix of long lenses and wide vistas is an unlikely combination. However, it does offer unique possibilities in terms of image composition. For example, when used to frame a forest scene, one can isolate sections of the tree trunks as well as compress the perspective of the scene. In this situation it is possible to show close ups of the tree trunks in the foreground-thus bringing texture as a foreground element- and full-size views of trees in the background -thus bringing the whole tree as a comparison part/whole or back/entire tree. This is plainly impossible with a wide angle lens. If attempted the shot I just described would require that the photographer comes extremely close to the tree trunks. While this may succeed in creating texture it would force the more distant trees to become extremely small and thus make them secondary elements at best and space-fillers at worst.
Similarly, I tried to photograph the Handprint Pictographs image both with the 90mm wide angle and the 300mm telephoto and ended up selecting the telephoto image as my favorite photograph. The wide angle shot, although interesting, showed the handprints a lot smaller because even when focused at the closest focusing distance possible I could not magnify the handprints as much as with the 300mm lens. This made the handprints difficult to see and gave them a more jumbled appearance. Also, when working at the minimum focusing distance for the 90mm, I had to be so close to the pictographs that the handprints on the left and right side of the image were greatly distorted. The telephoto on the other hand allowed me to create an image which had a feeling of flatness which I perceived as being much more representative of the real scene.
Alain Briot, January 2000
All text and photographs on this page are Copyright © 1998 – 2000 by Alain Briot
This is one of a regular series of exclusive articles by Alain Briot called Briot’s View