Topic: Camera (5 posts)

Big Changes

Since recovering from my hip surgery back in November I have begun to work with a mirrorless camera: the Sony A7R Mark ll. This is turning into a difficult transition. I believe I've written before that I do not look forward to new equipment and have never adjusted well or quickly to something new in my camera bag. 

This time is no exception.

Neal's new camera advice. Do not buy a new camera just before heading off on a trip to photograph. Do not buy a new camera when starting out on a new project. Do not use a new camera to shoot a project on any kind of deadline. Get the new camera when you've got some weeks, or months, to become familiar with it, to work it into your way of photographing, your methodology.

Actually, I do enjoy new lenses, learning how they see and render, where they are best and not so good. But cameras, particularly current digital cameras with complex menus? Not one bit. There is nothing worse for me than being in front of something really good and not being able to get it because I don't know the tool used to capture it. 

The Sony has me in fits, excited by the prospects but still confused how to use it and work with it. The Nikon I know, have used for years and, although the D810 and the lenses I have are too heavy and cumbersome, these are tools that get me the results I want: excellent files with great resolution allowing big prints. 

The Sony is still an unknown not because of it but because I am not good enough with it yet.

I am persevering, reading tutorials and user experiences on line and reading Gary Friedman's Guide, which by the way is 630 pages!  For instance: there are 16 pages just to explain his setup. Argh!

I read and study, set the camera and go out and make pictures with it. Come back home, work the files and start again. Each time, learning the system a little better, understanding some new setting.

But the camera is major. The files are killer at 42 mp. The lenses so far are really good (with the possible exception of the Sony 24-70mm f4, which seems a little soft to me) and the camera is allowing me to do things I've never been able to do before. It is smaller and lighter by far and, although the setup and use can be confusing, it allows many presets and options. 

Photography is changing  in big ways (again!) and the advent of really superb  mirrorless cameras may predict the demise of the conventional DSLR. 

What's my plan? To become good enough and confident in my abilities in this new format (for me) that I don't need both systems, Nikon and Sony. To start to sell off the DSLR equipment and turn those dollars into more lenses for the Sony.  The only aspect that could change is if Nikon wakes up and offers a mirrorless camera of exceptionally high quality that allows use of their existing lenses as well as builds over time lighter lenses for the new format.  Not holding my breath on that one.

Both Canon and Nikon are completely asleep at the switch so far. BTW: I am writing (in January 2016) this after Nikon made a big deal of announcing the new D5 and the D500 at this year's CES show in Las Vegas. This is a yawn of major proportions as there is no new technology in either of these cameras. "Much ado about nothing" does not impress this career photographer one bit and probably shouldn't impress you either.

One caution: if you are somewhat new to photography, are unsure about your results or your work in relation to others, be careful of the "if I just had a new camera" syndrome. Chances are, you should work on your picture making skills and ideas more than investing in a new camera. Yes, newer cameras have all the bells and whistles and yes there are genuine technological advances taking place but for most these matter not so much in the reality of the actual photographs they make. For instance, there's little point in joining the pixel race of more megapixels unless you need to print large. 3K for the fancy new camera that you've been lusting after or 3K on that trip to shoot those stone walls that you saw that time outside of Bath, England in late afternoon sun in early June? Or driving to rural Pennsylvania to shoot abandoned steel mills, flying to Belgrade to shoot the weekly farmer's market on Saturday mornings, or to the tip of Baja to... you get my point.



Stay tuned.

Topics: Equipment,Camera,commetary

Permalink | Posted January 20, 2016

Rollei SL 66 Part 2

I know you've been holding your breath for the second installment on the Rollei SL 66 camera I wrote about last week. Well, here it is.

When I wrote Part 1 I said that the Rollei was a system camera, just as the Hasselblad was. But Rollei clearly was working to surpass Hasselblad with the SL66. Here's it is, dismantled a little to show you its various parts.

And here it is assembled in the way I would use it if hand holding

with the 50 mm Zeiss Distagon lens alongside. I didn't use the 50mm lens much as it was vastly inferior to the 80mm Planar that you see on the camera. The grip was nicely designed as you could focus as well as operate the tilting lens function with your left hand while steadying the camera and advancing the film with your right. You can see the cable release on the handle of the grip as well. This allowed tripping the shutter with the left hand. Many people almost never hand held this camera, but I did. I would wear a Pentax Spotmeter on a strap around my neck as the Rollei had no meter.

Actually, over the years I used two Pentax meters. I used one of the earlier ones for years, with a very nice Zone VI scale glued on it to show the Zones. That was fine, if large, until I was shooting one day in Portland, Maine on a bridge high above a road below. I distinctly remember leaning over the railing and watching the meter float down to the pavement underneath the bridge after it slipped out of my hand. It exploded into many parts just before it was run over by a truck. 

By that time Pentax made a newer meter.

Which served me well over many years. It was ridiculously expensive and tended to eat batteries but was accurate and smaller than the first one.

I can remember Ansel Adams standing in the woods holding an SL 66 in an ad for Toyota, saying that for every visit to a Toyota dealership you made the company would plant a tree. This must have been in the late 70's or early 80's as Ansel died in 1984. I don't remember ever seeing Harry Callahan with the Rollei, although I know he was using it (along with the Hasselblad Superwide) when he was making his Cape Cod pictures.

Other photographers I knew that were using the Rollei? Well, Aaron Siskind was very loyal to the camera in his later years. Both he and Harry came from decades of using large view cameras and were looking for something smaller and roll film based to make their pictures with. I believe Aaron always used his on a tripod. I borrowed his 120 mm lens occasionally. Closer to home my friend Fred Sway bought and used one. Fred had hired me to teach at NESOP (New England School of Photography) in Boston in the mid 70's. He was the director of the school. He and I made pictures one spring in Bermuda with ours, staying at a student's guest house. And lastly, Robert Goobler, now long gone, had become a close friend when we were graduate students at RISD. He lived in Toronto and taught at Ryerson. Rob bought one and we did a cross country trip together shooting with our Rolleis. I believe Brett Weston used a Rollei SL 66 as well. Brett was Edward's son and is famous (infamous?) for burning all his negatives before he died.

The Rollei had a built in bellows, allowing it to focus very close. It also had a guide on the left side

that acted as a calculator to tell you how much exposure to add to compensate for the lens being so far from the film plane. 

Lastly, the cameras were a little finicky. I remember being out one day in downtown Providence with mine after I'd fixed its focusing issues (see Part 1 ). I wanted the subject to be in parallel but it was up higher so turned the camera upside down to frame a storefront window and held it high above my head. When I tripped the shutter I heard a slight "click", but no "thunk" noise of the mirror going up and down. The camera was profoundly jammed and had to go back to Rollei for corrective surgery.  Do not, I repeat, do not ever take a picture with a Rollei SL66 upside down.

The Rollei was not my first foray into high quality photography, the 4 x 5 was, but it was the most profound as I made countless pictures with it that communicated my ideas and feelings and growth as an artist faithfully and beautifully. I used the camera to make my MFA thesis work in 1973,

which was a series of pictures made in junkyards.

The Rollei SL66 was a camera made to be many things and was, perhaps, a design ahead of its time. It was a technical tour de force and a superb tool for making pictures. Even though I no longer photograph with it, I am keeping mine for there is a great deal of history in the Rollei SL66 for me.

Topics: Camera

Permalink | Posted November 3, 2015

Rollei SL66 Part 1

I don't usually write about equipment but the Rollei SL66 was such an important camera for me and many others I think it is appropriate. Plus, I just gave one of my two Sl66's away. 

This from the site Rolleiflex SL66

First single lens 6x6 camera by Rolleiflex: the SL66
They conceived a camera based on the construction elements of a studio camera, with the focusing rail on the left side. This was done so photographers accustomed to Rollei Twin Lens Reflex cameras would feel comfortable to find all operating elements in the same places: focusing on the left side, film advance and shutter release on the right side. Weiss and Prochnow had the camera ready, in time for the 1966 Photokina photographic fair in Cologne. Hence the name of the camera, SL66 for 1966 and 6x6, the size of the negatives.
At the time, development of the camera had cost Rollei about 3.5 million German Marks, which, at today's value, would be more than $ 10 million. A very large amount of money for a small company like Rollei this is, and shows how dedicated Rollei was to this new 'super Rolleiflex'.
The SL 66 consists of almost 1,000 single parts, all metal with the exception of only about 10 plastic parts (apart from the leatherette covers).

The Rollei SL 66 with the 40 mm Distagon lens and the grip which helped in hand holding

I bought mine in 1971. In those days, photographers wanting to step up in format from 35mm and still be able to hand hold would look to 2 1/4 (120mm) for higher quality due to the larger negative. Twin lens reflex cameras were made by Yashica, Rollei, and Mamiya. Single lens reflex cameras were made by Hasselblad, Bronica, Mamiya and Pentax. Photographers' highest quality choice was Hasselblad. With Carl Zeiss lenses, superb build quality and a reasonable size the Blad was expensive and a system camera. You could work with different models, format backs, reflex finders, add on meters and a long list of lenses, all at high cost. It was used on space missions by NASA, microscopy, National Geographic and countless studio photographers all over the world. You get the picture: Hasselblad was the Leica of 2 1/4 cameras. Many people think Hasselblad is a German camera. But it's not. The lenses are of German design but the camera is made in Sweden.

The original Hasselblad space camera: the 500 ELM

But the Rollei represented another step up in the line of available 2 1/4 SLR's for it was designed to do many more things than the Hasselblad. 

In the spring of 1971 I had just been accepted to the RI School of Design for study in the graduate photography MFA program. Harry Callahan had been my teacher for the junior and senior years at RISD and had a Rollei. (If you don't know about Callahan and his photography I recommend searching for it on line.) He was making wonderful prints off of negatives shot with the camera and I was looking at buying one, with an 80mm Zeiss Planar, a right angle prism finder and the grip. But I was concerned about the cost. If I remember right this was adding up to about $2000 that I didn't have. I went to Harry and explained I'd bought whole cars for a lot less than that. He asked me if I was serious about making pictures over my career. No one had ever asked me this in such a straight forward way. I answered, "yes." He said $2000 was very little to pay for something that could serve a lifetime, for a tool that I would make my pictures with, pictures that had a place in my heart for me and perhaps others as well. I decided on the spot. I ordered one, had it shipped to a friend's parents in Worcester to avoid the sales tax and waited for what seemed like forever. As soon as they called I jumped in the car and drove right up there from Providence. When I got it I was in heaven, reading the manual, dismantling it, playing with focus and it's tilt function.

The Rollei SL 66  showing the camera's tilt function

Yes, it could tilt its lens 6 degrees up and 6 degrees down. Big difference from the Hasselblad which was always fixed in parallel to its lenses. As I was working on a senior thesis project I began running film through it and making prints for class. But I couldn't get a sharp picture out of it. My classmates thought it was a bad lens so I sent it off to Rollei in New Jersey. It took about a month to get it back and Rollei said all was well. More tests and the same problem. This went on for a while, with me feeling like I'd spent way too much money for something that wasn't any good. No way was I doing the thesis with this camera as the pressure was on to make the final prints. So I shot it with one of the school's 4 x 5's.

Finally we shook loose what was going on. The focusing screen, which is removable on the SL66, was in its housing upside down. Lots of people were handling this camera when I received it as I was the first in school to own one and we never did know if it came that way,  or if someone mistakenly reversed it or if I did. This meant I was focusing on a different plane than where the film resided in the film back therefore guaranteeing blurry results.  All became right with the world when I turned the screen over and shot and processed film. Bingo! I can still remember what that was like. I was in the word of clarity, transparency, depth and sharpness. Life became really really good again.

By the time I started graduate study the next fall I was making pictures that were right up there with my classmates and my expectations for the camera were fulfilled. Odd to think that the tool we use holds such significance in the manner of the work we make but it does. Photography has always been reliant on its tools, its technology. For some the camera is everything. But Harry Callahan taught me that it was important to use the best device you could afford, that this after all, was your work and that the tools we use needed to be bought in awareness to their intended purpose. The best paint brushes, the best and most permanent oils.  An enlarger that is rigid and stable. An enlarging lens that is faithful to the clarity and sharpness of the negative.These days the computer and storage that are up the task of handling files of large size, the display that depicts your work with clarity and depth, the printer that conveys your work in a full range of colors and prints a deep black, and so on. His advice has served me well over now a long career of making pictures. 

Thanks Harry for that.

My friend Gail now has a second Rollei SL66. I was honored to part with it as the Rollei is the primary tool she uses to make her art. And her first Rollei is showing signs of being very tired. 

Funny, I have often sold cameras to buy new or different ones. In 1984 I sold a Hasselblad Superwide that was about as important to me as my right eye to buy the one and only 8 x 10 camera I ever used: the 8 x 10 Toyo Field. 

But I still have my Rollei.

Neal Rantoul, 1972, made with the Rollei and 80mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss Planar lens

Coming up: Part 2 of the Rollei SL66 experience. And some insight into who photographed with one.  Hint: think Aaron Siskind, Ansel Adams, etc.

Note: you can read about more of my early work here.

Topics: Black and White,Camera,Analog,early work

Permalink | Posted October 31, 2015

View Camera

Forgive the digression  to something technical, but it is often said that working within different formats in photography is like working in different disciplines. I have a hunch this is far more important within photography than outside of it. By this I mean that the tools we use to make our pictures carries great importance to us. We covet the good ones and swear at the bad. We also like to think that the pictures the camera makes affect the outcome tremendously. While that may true, to the non photographic world out there it probably matters far less.

From the years 1984 to 2006 my main photographic tool was the 8 x 10 view camera.

This above is me from a February 1986 Polaroid SX-70 in the rocky area outside Prescott, Arizona.

For 22 years I carried that heavy, cumbersome, bulky, expensive, high maintenance camera, with an incumbent load of labor attached every time I'd prepare to use it, make a picture, process the film and make a print from the developed negative. A flexible kind of camera? Hardly. Hand hold it? Not so much. Use long lenses in 8 x 10? Nope. 300 mm is the standard lens for the format. Wide angle? Yes, but limited, about 210mm being as wide as most people go. Fast shutter speeds? Almost never and fast in the format is most likely around 1/125. Fast lenses? No, most lenses are f5.6 at wide open aperture and my long lens, at 360 mm, is wide open at f9!

Why would anyone put themselves through that to make their pictures? Quality, pure and simple. A big negative means less enlargement and that means better sharpness, very clear rendition of details even at large magnification and the ability for the picture to have great depth of field with fewer penalties as in smaller formats. If that sentence confuses you, look up "diffraction." Most 8 x 10 inch lenses stop down to f64 and some go to f90. 

Working with only one camera brings simplicity to the discipline. I didn't need to  question what I would bring when teaching in Italy in the summers: the 8 x 10. While on sabbatical leave, driving through the American Southwest: the 8 x 10. Countless day trips photographing projects near my home in Cambridge, MA: the 8 x 10. Skeletons and deformed body parts in glass jars at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia: the 8 x 10. PWA's (People with Aids) in the studio in the late 80's: the 8 x 10. That simplicity combined with the very large negative made for pictures that just were, meaning that the foundation laid by this very large beast of a camera insured, that, while there were many things I could not do with it, what I did with it was of the very highest quality. Not a bad benchmark to have.

Would I go back to shooting this way? I don't think so and that is why I am thinking of letting it go. And finally, how does what it does compare to the way I  now work with a digital slr camera? Within certain limitations (size of print) digital is now so good and so incredibly flexible (I use Aperture, Photoshop, Nik software and the Image Print RIP) I see no reason and have no desire to go back to a camera format that was the prevailing image-making tool in the 1860's. 

No equivocation in that last sentence, was there?                                                      

Topics: Camera

Permalink | Posted October 25, 2013

Camera Craft

I have tried to keep this post away from tech talk and will continue to practice this rule but felt it appropriate to delve into what I call " camera craft" in this post, meaning the use of the tool that is our camera.

Starting to write on this topic reminds me the post on the studio (Studio Move) where I found myself saying that at some point it becomes an issue of commitment to your art. The camera is like that. In order to get the best output it is necessary to make a commitment to the gear we use.

I have always been pretty much a "one camera" photographer, with a couple of notable exceptions. What that means is that I am not usually someone who has many cameras and pulls them out to get different results. I have always just wanted the best results possible. So, I have bought the best camera I can afford.

Harry Callahan, one of my teachers way back in graduate school, was simple but eloquent on the topic. I was trying to rationalize the purchase of a Rollei SL66 in 1971. Rollei was the "other" German company making a 2 1/4 SLR camera (compared to Hasselblad). It cost new what a good VW Beetle would cost used. Harry said that cameras were cheap and by that he meant that here was this tool that would be the crucial device that made your pictures and, if you were committed (there's that word again) to being a photographer for your career, then the camera was inexpensive when factoring in how long it would last and how much you would get out of it. I bought the Rollei and it was my primary tool for many years. I still have it today.

Once you've made the decision to buy a good camera (and not succumbed to the hype about these things) and have a lens or two in hand, next up is to learn its settings and how to get the best out of it. New cameras take time to learn and, I think, are a pain. I never would advise anyone to buy a new camera then go on a big trip and try to do well with it. How can you make good pictures with something you don't know? So, it is important to spend time with it, learn its menus and what it does and configure it the way you want. Also learn the lenses you have. Each lens is a trade off: sharpest here, best at this aperture, prone to diffraction there, bad in the corners here, poor zoomed out (if a zoom) all the way, and so on.

I never cared much for 35mm cameras. I owned them and did get serious for awhile shooting with a Leica M3 in infrared, but for the most part the negative was too small for the results I wanted. For over twenty years I shot almost exclusively with an 8 x 10 inch view camera. 

This became the benchmark for me as I judged other, smaller cameras. Of course, nothing lived up to this high bar in image quality but it served me well as a standard by which other cameras could be compared. But now that I photograph using a digital camera, I make some series of pictures that use it like a view camera, putting it on a tripod, stopping the lens down to its best aperture, even tilting or shifting one of the lenses (a 24 mm tilt shift lens) occasionally. Ironic that my present camera is about the same size and weight as a 35mm SLR was. To convey just how far technology has come: Are the pictures it makes so very different than what the 8 x 10 produced at regular print sizes? Not so much. 

Last point. Don't use a good camera in a less than best way and expect it to give you "best"results. Hand holding the camera at a marginal shutter speed with the lens wide open and the ISO set too high does not a good picture make. The tripod (yes, a good one, usually meaning expensive) is your friend. When in any doubt, use it.

Good photography, as I try to practice it, is always working at the limit of how good the camera, the user, the lenses, the printing is at a certain period of time and in my lifetime this has always been improving. What a wonderful thing! But this also implies a certain trust that the technology is always going to improve the medium. Of course, some would disagree and say that since the world has embraced  digital, photography has been hurt and the old silver gelatin technology is somehow, "real photography". This is analogous to those claiming that vinyl is a far better vehicle and more realistic to the actual performance than digital for recorded music.  I don't believe this.

I digress. Back to "Camera Craft". It is important that you know your camera, its controls, its assets and limitations well. You should also know what given apertures look like with your lenses at given settings and focal lengths. How much depth of field you need at the print size you work at, how your camera can handle a dynamic range that is wide or modest, and so on.

I remember Dianne Arbus talking to us in a class at the RI School of Design when I was a student and saying that in the early days of being a photographer she denied the equipment she was using, meaning that she didn't think that the camera and its use was important. But Lisette Model, who had been an important mentor to Arbus, convinced her that it was important to be careful, to learn exposure, the camera and making good prints. The premise, of course, is that if you wish to make a statement, tell a story, drive a point home or show something beautiful you can't if you aren't using the tools of your chosen discipline well.

Once again, you can subscribe to these blogs. I urge you to do so. It is easy and reversible every time you get an email notice that I've put out a new blog.

Please email me with your comments.

Topics: Camera

Permalink | Posted January 24, 2013