Composing on the GG, or not : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

A friend and I were having a discussion recently, which led us to an observation about technique.

I have just finished my first year of using a 4x5 camera. In that time, I've found this forum to be very helpful for learning about equipment, technique, approaches, etc.

One thing that gets discussed a lot is dark cloths: which is best, lightest, darkest, best seal against light. From these discussions, I have to assume that some people spend a lot of time under the dark cloth, evaluating their image composition on the ground glass.

Thinking about this, I realized that I spend very little time looking at the ground glass. I mostly use it to check my framing, and for focussing. To check framing, I usually look at the corners and edges of the ground glass for reference points, and then look around the camera and find those reference points in the scene itself. I almost never spend any time evaluating the composition on the glass.

My friend and I were discussing this, and he pointed out that my last twenty years of 35mm photography were with Leica M rangefinder cameras, and not SLR's (my first four years of photography were with an SLR). He had recently changed from years of Nikon SLR's to a Mamiya 7 rangefinder, and found the transition difficult.

Our observation is that SLR users develop the habit of composing in their viewfinder. More importantly, they evaluate composition in the viewfinder. With a rangefinder camera, on the other hand, the viewfinder does not serve well for evaluating composition. With an SLR, you have a nice bright image with a black surround, but a rangefinder such as the Leica and Mamiya have frame lines, clutter, and additional image area around the frame. Thus a rangefinder user develops different habits for evaluating composition. The viewfinder is only useful for checking framing and focussing.

So, it may be that photographers who move from SLR cameras to large format tend to prefer a well-sealed dark cloth in order to create an environment similar to the SLR viewfinder. Photographers who come from a different background have different habits.

-- Michael Chmilar (, March 06, 2002


Good point, I learned with a 35mm rangefinder and made a recent move to LF and spend very little time looking at the GG, I don't even have a darkcloth, I just pull my jacket or shirt up over the thing, check the corners, look at the focus, then smoke a cigarette or just pick my nose or something and think if I really want the picture or not, I maybe pop my head back under for a second or to just to remind me while I am deciding, but all the decisions are made away from the thing. I even put a 35mm viewfinder on top of the camera which is more or less like the 135 lens I use to save time looking at the GG...

-- adrian tyler (, March 06, 2002.

I compose with a viewing card. Then I know where to put the tripod and what focal length lens to use. I still like it nice and dark to view the GG. Viewing upside down and backwards on the GG will sometimes help me see composition issues/problems I didn't notice with the viewing card. The image on the GG is magical and I will sometimes just enjoy looking at it when I'm done with focus/adjust. I've used both rangefinder and SLR, but prefer the viewing card. It is 1:1, bright, no distortion, and allows full movements.

-- Gary Frost (, March 06, 2002.

largely, i compose in my head as i stand and view a scene. of course this is facilitated by years of being very familiar with my lenses. but i also use a reflex viewfinder and i very carefully study the composition with that. the problem of moving from small format cameras to large is a real one - with small cameras, your eye tends to pay most attention to whatever the primary subject of the photo is, and you can easily overlook odd things sticking into the image frame, or peripheral subjects or distractions. using the GG for composition is a vast improvement over this, since the GG acts as a "picture" that is abstracted in comparison to the much more "camera view" of an SLR - it makes it much easier to see all the elements of the image in a more balanced manner. this is the reason i take much care using the reflex finder - though it is very fast and easy to use compared to a dark cloth, it takes you away from being able to use the GG as a picture, and puts you back into the SLR-type camera view.

-- jnorman (, March 06, 2002.

Groundglass ... composition and focusing? Ah, so that's why the back of the camera is clear. And I thought the glass was just a marketing gimmick! And to think of all the years I've wasted looking thru a cardboard cutout, then eyeballing down the standards until I think I got a decent composition ... I always knew reading this forum was time well spent!


-- Hyperfocal (, March 06, 2002.

I agree with JNorman. For me, the greatest thing about LF is that it allows you to compose the image and carefully. It eliminates a lot of wasted shots. I enjoy just setting up the camera and studying the ground glass, even if I don't expose a negative. The ground glass lets me see if the picture will be worth making or not. Sometimes moving the camera a few inches one way or another makes the difference as to whether the picture is good or not. To me, this is one of the beauties of LF.


-- Doug Paramore (, March 06, 2002.

I set up with a general idea, but I still use the ground glass to get the framing and composition I want. Move a little closer, turn it a little this way or that way, use a little rise etc.

-- Steve Gangi (, March 06, 2002.

Most folks when out photographing see something that makes them stop and say "Wow" and then set up the camera and make an exposure of that which had caught their eye. The majority of the responses to Michael Chmilar's question confirm this is so.

Now, consider that, by definition, you can only respond to something that you already know on some level, whether that knowledge can be articulated or not. If that is true (and I believe it is), then by making photographs only of what caught your eye you are confirming what you already know, rather than learning something that is entirely new. As a consequence, little or no personal growth takes place. Over time, the work becomes repetitive (not necessarily imitative) and stale.

To experience personal growth as an artist it is imperative to get beyond responding only to what you know and respond to things that you don't know. But how can you do that when it is only possible to respond to things you already know? That's the paradox.

The answer is in creative use of a view camera. Use that which caught your eye and caused you to set up this cumbersome equipment as the starting, rather than the ending, place. Rather than deciding, more or less, where you want the edges of the photograph to be before you look on the ground glass, allow yourself the freedom of playfulness and move the camera around--to each side, up and down, and even in a 360 degree circle.

Here is what may happen: you begin with what you already know; then as you move the camera you may find that what caught your eye is now only half in the picture. You now have a new starting place. Move the camera around again. And again and again. It is not unlikely that what you finally end photographing will be nothing like that which caught your eye, and in fact may be something that, were it not for looking on the ground glass you never would have noticed. Sometimes it may even happen that you can make no sense whatsoever of the subject that the camera is focussed on, although it looks beautiful, and that even when you come out from under the darkcloth it still makes no sense. But if it looks good on the ground glass, make the exposure. You will later learn about what you saw as a result of looking at your photograph. The next time out what was previously unknown becomes known, because of the act of your having made the photograph. Literally, you will begin to see more.

The painter, Alfred Leslie, once said, " There is a direct relationship between what we see and the quality of life." In the context of the article he wrote, "what we see" referred to how much we see. The implication is that the more we see the richer our life will be. By not limiting yourself to what you already know through the act of using a view camera in this way, your photographs will not be repetitive and personal growth will occur. e.e.cummings: "An artist, whose every agony is to grow."

I hope in this brief summary of an extremely complex and often intuitive process that I have made this at least somewhat clear. Some things are better demonstrated than explained in words.

-- Michael A. Smith (, March 06, 2002.

I think you may find major differences in how people photograph when you find why they do so. In news work, whether 4x5 or 35mm (Yes, some of us still shoot some news stuff with a 4x5 on occasion) you have to tell the story & are often limited as to where you can be, especially with sports & similar venues. This in part dictates how you can photograph. With commercial work you can at times be very creative & at other times you are stuck with a widget the maker wants to look like every other damn widget ever photographed. You are stuck. No matter what you do it has to show THIS angle. So, you set it up and much of the creativity is in perfection with your lighting.

Other times commercial work is more free & allows you creativity with someone else paying the bills. A nice job when it comes.

Then you get to your own work and the sky is the limit. All have similarities in how you may work & view the world within the bounds of the ground glass. If you hurry you miss a lot. Hurrying is not the same as working quickly & efficiently, not by a long shot. I think one generally works better if they are able to give full attention to the ground glass whether they have a preconceived idea or explore under the darkcloth with the world shut out.

You see something and stop & interpret the world, not just capture something on film. If all you want is a representation of what is there you might as well buy postcards as that is what you will be taking... and generally not very good ones either. If you want to interpret what you see, put your vision into play, you will spend whatever time is needed checking out the ground glass as you finesse the image, fine tuning it til all is right & to not expose film would be a crime against creativity.

The ground glass is where you see the image no matter how much pre- visualization you may have done.

-- Dan Smith (, March 06, 2002.

OK bolt down the hatches... I think that it is far more difficult to get a spontanious and "liberated" picture with LF than with 35mm or MF, the very act of placing the gizmo, the GG, the cost, the meditation all lead towards cold, composed, retentive type work. For me GG is the antisisis of this problem, as a new LF user I stuggle not to get drawn into the "studying the whole thing too much", which means more spntinaity, less GG.

-- adrian tyler (, March 07, 2002.

I used to compose in my head until I started using a 120mm on an 8x10. ...especially close-up. Moving the camera a few inches laterally or up and down produces a drastically different composition.

A W-A viewfinder to locate the exact spot for the camera before setting up has made this process a lot easier.

-- Bruce Wehman (, March 07, 2002.

I have tried just about every gizmo available to help with this. I'm afraid the GG is what works for me and for a simple reason. Every other gizmo (viewfinder, cutout card etc) - you look THROUGH them. With the GG, you look AT IT. Which is exactly what you do with a print - you look at it. So, looking at the GG is what provides the most direct and spontaneous way to 'visualize' the print for me. Different things may work for different people but this is what works for me. And I don't think it is any less spontaneous than working with any other things. Cold, warm, spontaneous etc are very much a function of your intentions, not materials. You may choose materials to assist your intentions, but materials don't direct intentions. You could use viewfinders in very cold, analytic ways if you wanted to. Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, March 07, 2002.


N. Dhananjay said it so eloquently: Cold, warm, spontaneous etc are very much a function of your intentions, not materials. You may choose materials to assist your intentions, but materials don't direct intentions. You could use viewfinders in very cold, analytic ways if you wanted to.

I'll continue: Spontaneity is a function of who you are not your method of working. Using the ground glass in a creative way leads to discoveries that one can react to spontaneously (or not). Paula and I find that the intensity of the process of using the ground glass as I described above leads to fresh, spontaneous (intuitive, not cerebral) discoveries. Maybe you are simply incapable of using the ground glass that way. The process I described needn't be slow and meditative, although it can be. It can literally happen in a few seconds if your attention is fully focussed. From your description of how you work it appears that your coming to LF from using a 35mm rangefinder has hindered your ability to focus and concentrate your attention. When under the darkcloth there are no distractions. Maybe that experience is simply too intense for you. These comments are not made in the spirit of being critical, but simply as an observation based on your writing in this thread. They are made in the hope that they will be helpful to you.

-- Michael A. Smith (, March 07, 2002.

Thanks for your comments Michael, I am very unexperienced in LF, and have really only been "obsessed" by photography for a few years, coming at it from the graphic arts, (I am a graphic designer), so what I do have that helps me is many, many years experience editing and art directing the photographic work of others, I can tell at a glace which photos work and which don't, how to combine to tell a story and even make the best of really bad work.

This I try to do by instinct, simple looking and feeling, so the intense experience which you talk about experienceig on the GG - the moment that make me stop in my tracks - is the very experience I try to remain open to outside of the GG, the rest should be simple, technique is not my particular interest, if the picture is really there then perhaps it doesn't matter too much if its all in focus or whatever.

Anyway, I am perhaps a little unorthodox, but there is room for everyone, no?.

Now let's think about spontenaity, expression through photography and lets go to the bookshelf, pick 10 books of LF and 10 books of 35 or MF, lets look at HCB, at Kerez, ok ok we can find real comlete work in LF Talbot, Aget, but do the sums and we will see that LF does tend to produce colder, less spontaneous art than smaller formats, obviously LF has something else when you can get one ...

Thanks again for your comments I hope that my opinions change and continue to change and evolve, but at the moment I want to look and experience "intensity" "intuitivity" even without the camera, come back another day, or just keep the picture in my nut for a while...

-- adrian tyler (, March 10, 2002.


pictures are perhaps better than words (older ones I'm afraid)

-- adrian tyler (, March 10, 2002.

My initial posting was an observation on how we each have different ways of working when composing a photograph, based on our past experiences and "habits". I think it led to an interesting discussion.

Michael A. Smith proposed an interesting exercise for exploring a subject, and finding new, interesting, and unexpected photographs of it. I know that Michael teaches workshops on this topic, and I read his response with particular interest.

In Michael's description of the exercise, evaluation of the composition on the ground glass appears to be essential to the process. As one who admits to spending very little time eyeing the GG, I have pondered this for a few days, and would like to raise this question: Is examination of the ground glass image essential to this exercise in finding unexpected images? It may be so, but I'm wondering if anyone has other suggestions for attaining the same goal.

-- Michael Chmilar (, March 12, 2002.

i use a linhoff viewer from the master technika, to help establish the camera position...after that, looking at the ground glass is more about sensing the visual energy of shape and line, than it is about any concern with the bounderies of my first picture conception...if the composition doesn't happen quickly, than i move the camera a bit and start over...for me, looking at the world upside down at the ground glass seems to be the most effective way of seeing the composition behind the composition and sometimes takes me to a visual/compositional place that's a total

-- tom gage (, March 13, 2002.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ