Experience, Effort, Power, Depth: Anyone who can should.
Thoughts so far on 8×10
A few thoughts I’ve been noting down in my mind on my experiences with 8×10 so far, now that I’ve had the excellent Chamonix 810V for a month or so.
Even as a now pretty experienced large-format photographer with 5×4, it was with a bit of trepidation that I set out on the 8×10 journey. There were three reasons for this – and none really to do with Gear Acquisition Syndrome (if that kicks in a black Leica M6 TTL with 35mm Summicron would fit the bill, lol!).
Reason one: curiosity – as per Winogrand, good photography tends to get you thinking about the relation between the image-making and the world, rather than simply being straightforwardly or unproblematically representational. I’ve worked with 5×4 long enough to know that the ground glass is a transformational tool, and I simply couldn’t miss the opportunity to experience this with a glass four times the size. And what would the chosen scenes, looked at and enjoyed on the glass, turn out like when processed? Had to find out.
What I’ve immediately discovered is that nothing will quite prepare you for the three-dimensionality and complexity of detail of an 8×10 sheet. What this complexity and depth does is to add mystique and life to even the most mundane-seeming of subjects. 4×5 can do similar work, but 8×10 is the full monty.
Reason two: black and white. I’ve grown up a pretty strong collection of colour images on 5×4, mostly on the superb Velvia 50 film stock. But I’ve never really given black and white a proper go. I’ve probably exposed less than a box of Delta 100 on 5×4, and have wasted a load of chemistry that has expired without use. In the space of a month, I’ve now exposed 6 sheets of FP4+ 8×10, and am using Pyrocat HD staining developer, because of its properties with UV that assist with alternative process printing, and because of its long shelf-life – I can have it sitting around for quite a while and it should be fine to use. A variety of toning options for post-processing and prints – including on the digital scans via photoshop – avoid the worry of boringly similar flat and uninspired images.
Reason three: vision. I hoped – and though this is still a work in progress – so far this is going pretty well – that 8×10 would enhance my skills and creativity as a photographer. I’m still to try out a number of things – e.g. I’ve not yet even used my 450mm lens, or tried any closeup work with bellows extension – but so far the effort required in setting up and perfecting a shot does really make you think about what you’re trying to achieve. I hope to get even more creative as I go on and have only really been doing tests with the equipment so far, but the results have been pretty great. I’m hoping to take this to the next level over the summer when I hope to try out traditional alternative process contact-printing – perhaps Cyanotype and Argyrotype first, possibly moving to Pt/Pd if I can dare/afford to do so. I have a lovely plan to make float mounted contact prints on 12×16 paper in large frames – and all with no inkjet printer in sight. The challenge here will be the eschewal of all digital post-processing controls – a comfort blanket! Will my exposure, filtration, and developing technique be up to snuff?
One obvious worry with 8×10 is basic: what a faff? Well, not really – at least coming from 5×4. My kit for 8×10 weights about the same as my Linhof 5×4 outfit, and the Chamonix camera comes in a wonderful padded field bag. I worried that a wooden camera would be less stable and precise than my Linhof Technikardan. While in some ways this is true, but not so obviously, there are positive trade-offs. With the 8×10 it’s basically impossible to even make an exposure without the controls being locked down. Standards would move, and so forth. On the Technikardan, for a camera otherwise so brilliantly designed, it’s surprisingly easy to overlook one of the locking clamps/screws and have a slightly – or seriously – unsharp result. While it’s an amazing camera, its severity at times can make a fool of you – actually, I think this is part of the compromise Linhof made in creating a hybrid monorail camera. The simplicity of the Chamonix is its great strength, in fact. It’s a tried and tested design where every control works in an intuitive way. It has a good balance between simplicity and good movements/extensions, and the size/scale of the camera is such that it’s very easy at all times to understand what is happening. The easiest comparison here is with rear tilt, I think. It’s actually quite hard to figure out how to get rear tilt to work on the TK because the little control toggles get hidden under the dark cloth and are basically in the wrong place. Not so with the big wheels on the Chamonix. Unscrew, trust the groundglass, and re-tighten: simple. Similarly with front movements (even with very heavy glass, as Nikkor SW150 and W300 attest) – this will take more practice, but I’m pretty certain that with some judicious control of the knobs on each side, it will be possible to properly control tilt and rise and fall with one hand (with the other on the loupe under the dark cloth). The bellows is great, and the velcro on the top front is very handy for controlling the bellows with tilt on wide-angle lenses – though for major rise and fall a bag bellows will be worthwhile – hopefully the one I have now ordered will arrive in the coming days.
Working with 8×10 film is a great and surprise joy. The Chamonix film holders are truly excellent, and the film is surprisingly easy to load – even as I have a Harrison Jumbo tent because I’m using BTZS tubes without a darkroom and need the extra room for these. The possibly envisaged nightmare of hairs and dust all over the film hasn’t been a problem at all. Developing with BTZS tubes is very flexible when you have a couple of sheets to develop, but with the extra steps involved with Pyrocat HD, I’ve been developing these individually rather than in pairs, which doubles the time. There are other systems for developing 8×10 but they’re either similar (e.g. using a modified Patterson Orbital print processor) or very bulky and very expensive (the Jobo professional 3000-series tanks), or require a darkroom (no chance!). I’ve now devised a kind of hybrid process whereby I spin the BTZS tubes in my Jobo water bath – there’s just enough room to do this – this saves a bit of space, and also obviously allows the water temperature to stay pretty static – important if you’ve got a number of sheets to process sequentially over an hour or two. If I could find a way of speeding this up a bit then I’d find the developing more enjoyable.
Power and depth – those negatives are a thing of beauty. During the process of being interviewed for Genius of Photography TV series that I have on DVD and have been rewatching lately, Joel Meyerowitz – famed NYC Leica street photographer – gets out his Deardorff 8×10, puts up a single 35mm slide against the ground glass, taps the ground glass, and says: ‘Spatial power: if you want spatial power… This.’ Not wrong. The sharpness, contrast, and detail in 8×10 does really strange things to the perception of landscape and subjects that nothing else I’ve ever seen can.
If you’ve tried 4×5 and enjoyed it, then 8×10 will be more of the same (in all senses).
Two more images I developed last night and scanned this morning, from Otmoor (and the surrounding area), in Oxfordshire.
Dawn among the reeds
The Secret Stillness