We move on to another historically important art photography capture genre, cameras that are used when maximum quality is desired, and size, weight, convenience, and speed of operation are all much less important. In the film world, this usually means a view camera using sheet film of 4 x 5 or larger. It’s hard to pick one digital camera for comparison. Roughly the same image quality as a 4 x 5 negative or transparency can be obtained with a medium format single lens reflex such as a Hasselblad H4D-60, or similar products from Phase One, Mamiya, Leica, or Pentax. These cameras offer a user experience similar to medium format single lens reflex film photography, and one that is quite different from the view camera experience.
Even though the medium format digital single lens reflex is the more popular choice, the closest digital experience to that of using a film view camera is probably obtained by using a digital back such as the Phase One on a conventional view camera. Since the sensors in digital backs are much smaller than 4 x 5, the appropriate view cameras are roughly 2 ¼ x 3 ¼. Even scaling down the size of the camera will leave some challenges in obtaining wide angle photographs, but with recessed lens boards, you should be able to make many wide angle lenses work.
Another approach that offers a similar user experience to a film-based view camera is to use a technical camera like the Alpa Max. These cameras offer similar capabilities to conventional bellows- and lensboard-based view cameras, although the controls may be quite different. If you want to use a 23 mm lens, they may be the only practical choice.
To come close to reproducing the film-based view camera experience, the user of a technical camera with a digital back, or a view camera with a digital back, should:
- Use small memory cards to preserve the feeling that exposures are precious.
- Avoid looking at the histogram; use a separate spot meter to calculate exposure.
- Don’t use HDR.
- Make sure you do all your perspective correction in camera.
- Make two identical exposures of every image. You won’t have any processing errors as with chemicals, but do it anyway.
Some things that are part of the film-based view camera experience that are probably nearly impossible to replicate in digital photography are:
- Loading film holders in a changing bag.
- Loading film holders in a motel bathroom with the windows taped up and towels draped over the door.
- Living in fear of dust on the negative before the exposure, and the resultant hard-to-deal-with black spots on the print.
There are other ways to digitally achieve images of extreme resolution: scanning backs and stitching. Both provide a capture experience unlike film-based view cameras. Using a scanning back outside the studio means lugging a computer into the field and not being able to photograph moving subjects. Stitching means having only approximate knowledge of your composition until you get home. You could argue that the stitching situation isn’t much different from using a moving-lens film camera like the Cirkut, Hulcherama, or Roundshot. But if stitching is used just to gain high resolution, not a sweeping panorama, then an 8×10 view camera can do some of the job with precise framing. There is nothing in the film world that approaches the resolution of massively stitched images like this one.
The bottom line: the parallels between doing high-resolution film and digital photography are not as simple or as exact as with 35mm SLR and RF cameras. The common way to get high resolution digitally, the medium format SLR, is more fluid and convenient than a 4×5 view camera, and does not easily offer the perspective control that is part of the view camera experience. Technical cameras and digital view camera backs offer an experience akin to that of operating a 4×5 view camera, but hardly anyone goes there these days. Usage of scanning backs is declining from a tiny base, and they are now curiosities in the field, although they have established a niche in studios, mainly for reproduction. Resolution equaling or surpassing that of an 8×10 view camera is most commonly obtained digitally by stitching, which feels nothing like using a view camera.
Still, it’s hard for me to see that one world is more left-brain than the other. Using the zone system means metering and placing tones and deciding on development strategies, a decidedly left-brain process, especially when compared to taking a picture and adjusting the shutter and f-stop so that the histogram shows a little daylight on the right. Previsualization can work in either realm, but to make it work with film you have to be a lot more calculating, or left-brain, in the time before you trip the shutter.