In this Chillout TGIFridays episode, we begin our exploration into using large format cameras and lenses to do watch macro photography.
Large format cameras for watch photography
Large format cameras have historically been the mainstay in professional work, where maximum image quality is of critical importance. These are large cameras, often reduced to the essence of a camera – only a board carrying the lens (called the front standard), another board carrying the film (called the rear standard). And a light tight device (usually a leather or cloth bellows) between. They come in two flavours – one with full movements on the front and rear and connected via a single rail – called the monorail camera. And the other typically with only movements on the front standard and limited movements on the rear, and collapsible into a small box – called a field camera. For studio use, the monorail is most common. In this article, I will explore the Linhof Technica 45 as a field camera, the Rollei X-ACT2 as a monorail camera, and a Silvestri Bicam as a modern Technical Camera – a hybrid of sorts combining the features of both monorail in a compact field like body.
What is large format?
The classifications 35mm, medium format and large format are carry overs from film days. 35mm film is what we call full frame these days – the sensor measures exactly the same as that of 35mm cine film. The 35mm film itself was originally developed for the movie industry and adopted by Oskar Barnack of Leitz in 1913 to develop the first practical compact camera. Leitz put Barnack’s prototypes into production as Ur Leica (LEItz CAmera) in 1923. It uses the 35mm film stock, transported horizontally making a frame size of 36mm x 24mm landscape aspect ratio, instead of 18mm x 24mm of cinema cameras which transport the film vertically. The sprockets on the side aid the cinema cameras and projectors to move the film at the standard 24 frames per second for movies. Later, Kodak introduced the term 135 (ISO 1007) in 1934 as a designation for the cassette for 35mm film.
Medium format film has a larger surface, and the standard film stock is what is known as 120 or 220 (double the length) roll film. The film measures 60mm in one dimension, and frames are available in different widths. From 45mm, known as 645 format. This is the actual dimensions of the film being 6cm x 4.5cm for a 3:2 aspect ratio. The standard exposed image patch is smaller- measuring 56mm x 45.1mm. There is also the 60mm square format, with its 56mm x 56mm image area made very popular with the Hasselblad 500 series, 70mm as the 6×7 format, made popular by the Mamiya RB67 and RZ67 cameras have image patches of 56mm x 67mm, and the less common 80mm or 90m. Even wider sizes are available up to panorama formats like the Linhof Technorama 612 with a very big, image patch measuring 56mm x 118mm.
Large format refers to film stock which is larger than 120 roll film, typically shot as cut sheet film. The smallest is normally 4×5 (4inch x 5 inch, about 100mm x 127mm), 5inch x7inch, 8inch x10inch. Formats larger than 8×10 is typically considered ultra large format.
In the digital world, the scenario is slightly different. Currently, there is no single shot digital sensor larger than the one found in the Phase One IQ4 150 and Hasselblad H6D 100C, which have sensors measuring 53.4mm x 40mm, slightly smaller than the 645 format of film’s image patch of about 56mm x 41.5mm. No larger sensor exist in single shot mode, though large format sized scanning sensors exist for 4×5. An example is the various backs made by Better Light, a company which, as far as we know, is not active anymore. These work on a line scanning back, and can take minutes to make a single exposure. This means that these sensors only be used for still objects in constant light, and not for moving objects or with flash. Scanning backs have generally fallen out of use.
The most common size for digital medium format sensors is 44mm x 33mm found in the Hasselblad X1D and X1DII, the Fujifilm GFX 50S, GFX50R and GFX100. The Leica S Type 007 medium sensors are 45mm x 30mm, a very similar sensor area, but with a different aspect ratio. Interestingly, a new company has large format digital single shot sensor development – see here for more info.
Why large format?
Thus, large format photography is currently only is capable of using film. Working speeds are very slow, as the camera systems are large, cumbersome and frequently do not have interlocks, requiring the photographer to manually setup the camera in the correct order to make an exposure. This slowing down is not necessarily a bad thing, as a more contemplative working style can improve the photographs.
To make an exposure, there are a great number of steps that needed to manually performed by the photographer. Miss one, or get it wrong, and the photograph may not be exposed properly. The steps to make a single exposure are:
- Load the film in total darkness in the film holder.
- Set up the tripod. The large format camera is too large and heavy to be shot hand-held.
- Place the camera on the tripod.
- Build the camera up with the lens, and ground glass lock, most typically a Graflock back is used, where a spring loaded ground glass is used for focusing and can be sprung out of the way to insert the film holder, such that the film plane is in the exact same position as where the ground glass was, ensuring perfect focus.
- Put a dark-cloth over the back. This is needed to be able to view the ground glass, which can be very dim, especially in bright ambient light.
- Set the aperture to wide open – smallest f stop.
- Open the shutter on lens. This will allow the maximum amount of light into the ground glass to be able to see properly for composition and focusing.
- Look through the ground glass.
- Adjust the camera position for composition.
- Set the depth of field, and make shift tilt adjustments to ensure that the image is focused as desired. For cameras offering axis tilt, this is done by focusing the camera by moving the front standard till the center of the image is sharp. Then apply tilt to ensure the entire subject is in focus. In the process, you might need to go back and forth with shift and tilt until the desired effect is achieved.
- Close shutter on the lens.
- Measure the light using a light meter. A flash meter is needed for studio strobes. Calculations for bellows extension need to be made. And if shooting film, film reciprocity failure need to be added to the exposure.
- Set the shutter speed and aperture according to the light measured.
- Put in the film holder.
- Take out the dark slide.
- Take the picture by releasing the shutter.
- Put back the dark slide.
- Write the exposure information in your notebook.
- Take out the film holder.
After the film is exposed, the next step is to develop it in a dark room, and then to print or scan the image.
The main reason for using large format is image quality. The film size is very large, and captures detail extremely well. If you have ever seen a contact print from an 8×10 camera, you will understand the image quality that a large format system is able to deliver. This not only expressed in resolution and detail, of which there are tons of, but also in the subtle and nuances in the tonality, colours and range of these elements. Images have a 3 dimensional look. And because the lenses used are often longer, offer a more compressed perspective than very wide angle lenses used in smaller formats. By way of example, a normal lens in 35mm full frame is 50mm, but for a 4×5 format is 150mm.
Most large format cameras, particularly studio based monorails offer movements of the front and rear standards. This allows the photographer to change the perspective without moving the tripod, and to change the plane of focus using the Scheimpflug principle. I covered this in an earlier our Watchcapes of the Rolex Daytona, click here for that discussion.
For my final target to shoot watches in large format film, I needed to break down the process into several steps. Each a bit further from the comfort zone of full frame or medium format digital. These are the steps I am taking:
- Get familiar with the large format cameras. But to be able to see immediate results, and fine tune the technique, I will start with the use of a digital back on a large format camera. There are several options possible. I can mount my Hasselblad 39Mp back on a large format camera via adapters, but the rear LCD is very low resolution, and the CCD sensor does not offer live view. I sought a friend’s help to use his CFV 50C – a CMOS sensor equipped Hasselblad back with a sensor size of 44mm x 33mm offering 50Mp resolution.
- To familiarize myself with film, I put on a film back on my Hasselblad H3D and used that to shoot watches. The H3D is able to fit the HM16-32 film back. I will be documenting this process as I proceed. And will include not only shooting with film, but also developing the film and print making using an enlarger. I have already began this phase in collaboration with Adi Soon of Isochrono, and will be publishing our adventures soon.
- With familiarity of both the large format cameras and shooting film firmly mastered, I will then proceed to shoot large format using sheet film. Truth be told, I had experimented with this some decades ago, using a Horseman LX 4×5 camera and sheet film with a Polaroid back to check composition and focus. But I need to re-familiarize myself with the system as I have mostly forgotten the experience. I am also not able to find the negatives.
The digital back: Hasselblad CFV 50C
Step 1: Large format camera, digital back. The back I chose, is one I am rather familiar with – the Hasselblad CFV 50C back, which can be mounted on a large format camera. The sensor is 32.9mm x 43.8mm with 50 Mp on a CMOS sensor. This is the same sensor system which is also used in the H5D-50C.
The back offers live view via the rear LCD screen, which is useful in establishing critical focus, especially when tilt and shift is applied to the front standard. The back can also be used in tethered mode, connected to a laptop running the Hasselblad proprietary software Phocus. This offers live view and full control of the back from the larger screen of the laptop. In fact, during this session, we were able to connect the laptop to a 60 inch 4K HDTV to have a huge display of what the back sees. The back is connected to the large format lens via a cable connected to the flash sync output of the lens, so that when the shutter is released, it can give the signal for the back to capture the image.
The cameras and lenses
At my disposal via a good friend, I managed to try out 3 cameras.
This is a classic. Linhof is now part of Leica, and have been manufacturing cameras out of Munich since its founding in 1887 by Valentin Linhof. It is one of the oldest camera manufacturers in the world, and well known for their premium products. Their focus remains at the very high end, with superior German engineering and workmanship.
The camera offers front rise and fall by a rachet system, tilt and swing is not geared. All movements have distinct zero detents. The back offers tilt and swings, also not geared, and can be used for more extension if the maximum bellows extension is not sufficient.
Silvestri Bicam with Flexibellow
The Silvestri Bicam is a kind of a modern technical camera which offers movements, but in a very compact body. Rise and fall of the front standard is available via a geared system. And with the the Flexibellow attachment allows for geared swings and tilts on the front standard to implement Schiempflug. The lens we had was the Rodenstock Apo Sironar Digitar 55m f/4.5, the Schneider APO Digital 72mm f/5.6 and the Schneider APO Digitar 120mm f/5.6.
I did not quite have the time to play more with this camera, but we had the Rollei X-ACT2 during the same shooting session. On this monorail camera was mounted the Schneider Super Angulon 90m f/8, which was the same lens as was used with the Linhof Technika above. This is an exceptionally sharp lens.
The Rollei had geared movements with zero detents for both the front and rear standards, and offered a measure of precision and repeatability not available in the Linhof Technika. Though I understand the precision offered is not as high as the Linhof M679 or that of other high end large format cameras like the Sinar P2/P3 or the Arca Swiss Monolith Orbix series.
Next week: Part 2 – the Photographs
With this, I have covered the basics, and next installment in Part 2, I will share with you the photographs made by these 3 systems.