The Rectangle Period. And general thoughts about photography.

There was a period, back in the early 1990's, when I veered from the true path of the square format and flirted with several medium format cameras that "featured" different aspect ratios. Of the handful that I tried I think my most successful affair de camera was with the Pentax 6x7. The value proposition over the traditional Hasselblad and Rollei squares was twofold: The extra centimeter of film, printed on a rectangular piece of paper gave one XX% more resolution and, the camera and its lenses sold for much less than its European counterparts.

If you haven't used a Pentax 67 let me describe it for you.  The 6x7 centimeter format writes to film that runs horizontally through the camera like 35mm film. The camera is set up like a 35mm DSLR on super steriods. It's bigger, by far, in every dimension. And it's painfully heavy.

The camera usually came with an eye level prism finder which was available as a metered or non-metered prism. My biggest gripe with the Pentax 67 was the fact that the viewfinder covers less than 88% of the actual frame.  Since the mirror was huge and the shutter curtains equally enormous every frame required lots of mass to go flying around inside the camera. The noise would make digital-only camera users gasp and the recoil of the mirror slap was enough to cause a concussion if held to tightly against one's head.

The way most people I know used the camera was to put it on a tripod, compose, focus and then hit the mirror lock up button, wait for the internal chaos to calm down and then trip the shutter. In many ways this made the Pentax 67 more like a view camera than a handheld camera. And it was equally slow to load. 

A roll of 120 film would give you 10 exposures. To load the camera you opened the huge back and swung it to the right. Then you pushed a button to release the empty film spindle on the left and moved it into the spindle holder on the right. Next you would insert a new roll of film into the left chamber, lock it into place and then pull the paper leader over to the empty, right hand spindle and insert the leading edge of the paper into the slot on the plastic spindle on the right hand side.

In my experience the paper would slip out two out of every three times I tried to wind it on prior to closing the back.  Once I got the film to "lock on" and wind properly I could close the back and wind the film advance lever until the camera stopped itself--ready at frame one.  Ten frames later you'd go through the whole process again. This made the camera a really piss poor tool for high frame rate studio portraiture....but it sure trained you to be frugal with your frames...

The usual solution for studio shooters was to buy two or three additional bodies, since they were relatively cheap, and then interchange cameras while shooting fast. Assistants hated working with these cameras because of how fiddly they were to load and how quickly their photographers could go through ten frames.

The camera was a decent studio performer since the lenses were pretty uniformly sharp and contrasty. The big negative with its plethora of surface area silver was also a big plus; clients loved seeing the bigger images on light boxes. The biggest downside of the camera was the slow sync speed. The camera was limited to a 1/30th of a second sync speed. You really had to be careful when shooting flash in brightly lit environments because you ran the risk of color contamination from sources other than your primary light source.

So, why did we use them? Because they were optically good and a whole set up with a good lens cost less than a bare Hasselblad body at the time.

For a working photographer some of the cost savings was offset by the fact that Pentax offered no Polaroid back for the camera. Camera repair wiz, Marty Forscher, made an after market back for the camera but it required the back to be replaced with the Polaroid back = Permanently.  So one dedicated one body just for proofing.  And that meant that the Polaroid back couldn't be used as a way of testing all your different backs for technical issues when out in the world shooting.

Eventually I got tired and bored carrying around a bag with three shooting bodies and one proofing body and all the assorted hardware that goes with them. I switched to the Hasselblad system and bought a bunch of film backs instead. The silver lining to my short tenure with the big rectangle was the fact that prices rose quickly during my time of ownership and I was able to move the whole system on to the next brave photographer for about what I paid in the first place.

What does this have to do with today's world of digital photography? Nothing. But I do have to think that we were willing to go much further in our pursuit of a good image in those days. Not out of some superiority of character but out of sheer necessity.

On a personal note:  I feel oddly unmoved by any of the new cameras that have come onto the market so far this year. Not sure why. I was sitting in the orchestra seats shooting Pagliacci for the Austin Lyric Opera when I came to the conclusion that I had all the camera and lens I needed right there in my hands. If I had used full frame sensor I would have needed a fast 300mm lens with all the cost and handling considerations that would come with it. When I shot portraits yesterday I realized that using ISO 50 or 64 was giving me an amazing dynamic range that yielded great skin tones and good detail with lots and lots of dynamic range and no noise. 

My local camera store called to let me know they had reserved a Sony a99 camera for me but rather than jump up from my computer and rush to the store I yawned and took a nap. The camera will be in stock if I need it. The panic buying of newly introduced camera gear seems to have abated or the makers have become better at filling the inventories on first launch. In the past we rushed to buy the new cameras because we felt that we were keenly aware of some real shortcoming in our current cameras that desperately needed fixing. Now we're just looking with mild curiosity at some outlier specs.

If you were working with a Nikon D2X when the Nikon D700 came out you couldn't get to the store quick enough because, for the first time in Nikon digital history you'd be able to shoot both full frame and high ISO. It was heady to go from shooting at ISO 200 and under to being able to crank up the ISO to 1600 or even 3200 without undo anxiety.  

If you worked with a Canon EOS 5D the introduction of the 5D mk2 bought you a doubling of resolution and a much more solid platform. Of course you'd rush to get that!

But the difference between the 5D2 and the 5d3 for most of us? Not so much.

In fact, all the cameras introduced in the pro, semi-pro and advanced amateur segments of the market in the last year or three are more than adequate for almost any kind of commercial photography. Buying more camera is an exercise in buying into a small percentage of improvement that may be more about bragging rights and working at the bleeding edge than any real need to deliver work that pleases clients.

Some of my peers are upgrading from 5d2s to 5d3s but not because they need some incremental improvement in image quality; most of them are just refreshing. Getting rid of bodies that have 80 or 90 thousand clicks on shutters that are rated to 150,000 actuations. Turning over inventory before they reach the troublesome zone. Reloading the tax break for depreciation.  But none of them have come back and gushed over any sort of performance improvements.  A few people mention better autofocus but that usually leads to a rejoinder from my friends who shoot architecture and still life: "You mean these cameras have autofocus???"

In the Nikon camp there are probably not many who were unhappy with the performance of their Nikon D3X cameras. If they buy D800's it's probably because of the price point.

There will always be new people coming into the market and they'll be excited about the new offerings. There will always be techno-amateurs and they will always wait with cortisol-laden-adrenaline-laced breath for the latest and greatest technical achievements. But in the realm of diligent image makers and people who charge for their work, it seems like we're entering a period of calming equalibrium. Cameras that work well and exceed need. The prices will drop, the AF will get faster and more flexible, but the IQ is already so usable.

If you buy a new camera to replace a pro camera bought in the last year you are buying it because it has more fur-lined cup holders or built-in grip warmers or some such thing. How do I know this? Because I'm as big a new camera freak as you'll meet and I feel a sense of camera buying calm I haven't felt since the days of mature film cameras.

What am I buying these days? More great photo books. I just bought a hardback edition of Josef Koudelka's Gypsies, and I have a whole list of similar classics for my collection of 20th century masters. Funny thing, while most of our miracle digital cameras depreciate in value the minute we unbox them most of the photo books I've bought in the last twenty years have sky-rocketed in value while consistently delivering real value to me in terms of joy and inspiration.  Long after the gleam and white hot desire for the turboflex 2013 wears off I'll still be sitting down in a comfy chair browsing through a book of Elliott Erwitt images or Diane Arbus one frame dramas. And I'll find some new resonance in them every time I return to them.

What else am I buying these days? Experiences. For every day that I ignore the march of progress  in the consumer camera space I wind up with more energy to go out and look. And by looking distill down what it is I want to see and then what I want to make into my own art.

As the camera itself recedes the subjects come into clearer focus. And isn't that what we really wanted when we started this journey?

Hope you're having a fab week. We're trying to wrap our brains around all this Formula One stuff here in the center of the universe....