Digital large format work : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Digital equipment is rapidly taking over small-format photography, even with many professionals. How good is it now -- and how good will it soon be -- as a replacement for film in large-format work such as portrait photography?

-- William Van der Mei (, April 21, 1998


Seeing all the hype in the press and advertising literature about this subject, I've been concerned about it's possible effect on the availability of conventional materials, particularly color. My sense is that, up till now, commercial photographers have been a very large market for large format color film. Because Kodak and Fuji have been able to sell so much to the commercial shooters, they keep these materials in production, which means that the materials are also available to amateurs such as myself. My concern has been that, as more and more commercial studios switch to digital, there will no longer be an adequate market for the manufacturers to keep conventional color materials in production. As one with absolutely no interest in digital work, this possibility frightens me.

The only reassuring thought is that film manufacturers have kept large format B&W materials in production, even though one would assume that the market for this (mostly non-commercial photographers) is probably not huge. I would like to think that they would do the same with color, but manufacturing costs for color are probably significantly higher.

Does anybody have any thoughts on this?

-- Rob Rothman (, April 22, 1998.

I have seen output from digital large format that looked very good indeed. I believe it was a Leaf(?) digital back. It was used for product shots, as it is a scanning back, so I dont think it would be good for portraiture. In typical magazine sizes, it looked very good. I dont know the availability of CCD's that would be large enough for large format and also provide single shot capture. Digital will make rapid advances in all formats, and will eventually replace film. Digital at its best has many benifits, including ability to edit and preview shots, and, if done right, imortality. Just think, no more bracketing, paying to process mostly throw aways, etc. I dont know the time table for this change in technology, but it will probably happen even quicker than any of us expect.

-- Ron Shaw (, April 22, 1998.

Ron, I hope that your prediction is wrong, but I fear that it is right. At the risk of being branded a Luddite, let me make the case for the continued existence of conventional photography.

First, insofar as the rapid development of technology entails continuing obsolescence of equipment, it is not necessarily a good thing. Traditionally, a camera (particularly a view camera) has been a lifetime investment. Once a photographer has settled on a setup with which he feels comfortable, he can forget about buying new gear and settle down to the more important business of making pictures. In the digital arena, this promises not to be true. Consider what has happened in the field of computers: almost before you buy a new machine, it is obsolete, not merely in the sense of not being state of the art, but obsolete in the sense of no longer being usable. One must devote a great deal of energy to learning about and buying new models, instead of using what one has.

Second, what is true for the machinery is even more true for the skills required to use it. If William Henry Jackson were to come back to life today, he could step behind the darkcloth of a modern view camera and feel right at home. While there have been huge technological strides in the areas of lenses and films--strides which have greatly improved the quality of the final product--the technology has been largely invisible to the photographer. Granted, when we start using a new film we have to get used to its tonal or color characteristics, but the basic photographic skills that we've learned over the years continue to serve us.

In the constantly changing digital world, this will likely not be the case. The rapidly changing technology means that we will have to spend a great deal of time and effort constantly relearning technique--time and effort which could be better spent applying our technical skills in the pursuit of art. Even in the world of conventional film, we've seen this happen with 35mm cameras: many of the new models seem to be designed so that one as to spend a lot of effort in learning camera-specific information (which button do I push?) instead of learning and applying skills of more universal application. And by the time one has learned to use a given model, it's already been replaced, so that one has to start from scratch learning the camera-specific information for the new model.

Finally, my real concern is not with the existence of digital photography, but with the potential non-existence of conventional materials. Consider what would have happened if, after Fox Talbot came along, manufacturers had stopped producing oil paints. The world would have been deprived of some good art (and some bad art too). Fortunately, that didn't happen. While the Winsor & Newtons of the world are smaller than the Kodaks and Fujis, they remain in business producing their materials for a limited market. The problem today is that the same companies which produce film are the ones which are moving into the digital arena. We can, therefore, to expect that they will continue to produce only the more profitable products. While digital photography can and should exist alongside conventional materials, I'd really hate to see it replace it.

-- Rob "John Henry" Rothman (, April 23, 1998.

I agree with you Rob. I didnt mean for my earlier post to sound to dismal, but we see this technology shift everywhere. Im sure film will be around for the rest of my lifetime (I hope), but in 50 years? 100? If so, it will be a very small nitch market. Fortunately, all of our skills wont be wasted. Large format movements, lighting, composition etc. will still apply. However, I can imagine a time when even large format will dissappear. What if resolution of the CCD increased so much, that a tiny one would give all the resolution needed? You could use very short focal length lenses and get almost infinite DOF. Anyway..who knows exactly what path technology will take? With all the advancement made in the last 20 years in digital imaging, one thing you can be sure of is in another 50 years it will be many orders of magnitude improvement, and the only ones who care about film will be old codgers snoozing away at the Shady Pines Senior Center :-)

-- Ron Shaw (, April 23, 1998.

This might be an appropriate place to raise a question I have been wondering about. Is a 4 x 5 camera still necessary for commercial architectural photography? A high-res scan of a medium format transparency, with verticals corrected in Photoshop, would be more than adequate for magazine reproduction, I assume. Can anyone working in this area comment?

-- Stewart Ethier (, April 25, 1998.

I do by no means claim to be an expert in digital photography (nor, for that matter, in conventional one), but I would like to caution against too confident predictions about future developements of technologies. Video is on the market since many years, and feature films are still recorded on conventional material, expensive and cumbersome to process as it may be, albeit sometimes with lots of digital effects. I think, at least for a foreseeable future, the interaction between analog and digital photography may become still more complex and commonplace as it is today. I may as well be wrong, but anyway, the future is an unknown country, and we all live here and now with the aesthetic and technical concepts available to us, where conventional photography is an important medium of communication and art.

-- Lukas Werth (, April 26, 1998.

I'm no Photoshop expert, but I don't think that correcting the verticals in Photoshop will give you the same effect as correcting them with a LF camera. Although you can rotate the building parts so that they look vertical, Photoshop will distort other parts of the image (i.e. it needs additional digital information not contained in the original medium format negative/slide - to accomplish this, Photoshop may use an interpolation routine to "guess" the type of pixels that are mixing).

Granted, a Photoshop artist can "fix" the image after the verticals have been corrected, but what are the costs of using a digital artists (i.e., the amount of time involved to do this correction) versus sending out a photographer with a LF camera and getting it "right" the first time.

-- Stuart Goldstein (, April 27, 1998.

I believe, as in all else in our present economic environment, that demand will dictate where large-format photography will go. For commercial purpose, because that's where cost and speed are most in demand, and both the large companies and those that must fill their needs can afford the cost, digital will progress very rapidly.

I first heard of digital cameras in '96 for food photography, now many studios are using them. My limited use of the 35mm Nikon and the 4x5 Leaf were fun and interesting, but the quality was hardly what we were accustomed to. So where does that leave those Luddites among us, in the best sense? The sheer pleasure we take working with the tools we grew up with, will continue to be our tools. Because we do it for the love and the passion we bring to it, and not for economic reasons, will continue to work as we have. Let's hope that the manufacturer's will not leave us behind. But, take heart, I first heard this argument in the '50s. And look what has happened: archival printing, paper, and equipment was hardly known when I started. Yes we lost some papers, chemicals that were available back then, but traditional methods and good old-fashioned photography are still with us

Don't look at digital as the end; it may be a beginning.

-- Remo Cosentino (, February 10, 1999.

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