The Big Camera (Essay Five)
My Deardorff is still one my favorite cameras. Starting to shoot Tintype with it, but it is a bit slow going. I don’t have the time I need to devote to the learning curve of tintype exposure.
I shoot some black and white with it as well, and will be taking a box of Ilford with me to Santa Cruz later this week.
These days, like many photographers, digital is the first medium… it is far less expensive and it is very fast. We like that, and with the way the pace of today is going, fast is necessary.
These cameras are not fast. These large format cameras are slow and deliberate, like many things that have not changed with the times. From a 350MM lens with the fastest shutter speed of 1/50th to a maximum aperture of f-8, this big ol’ wooden camera demands careful, and measured engagement.
The day this camera came into my studio was a turning point in my photography. I think I needed this thing to slow myself down and really learn what I was doing. The studio was rocking and we were shooting nearly every day. From JC Penny to Diamonds to products from a half dozen companies, the pace was fast – and getting faster.
We were pumping out shoots at a rate that was nearly dizzying. The cameras were 35MM for fashion and 6×7 for fashion and corporate. A lot of 4×5 for product, and the amount of Polaroid we burned through was staggering.
I wanted to slow down on my personal projects and when I saw this beautiful old camera, I simply couldn’t resist.
The style of Deardorff is a flat bed camera that folds in on itself and becomes a very compact unit. However, that design also means that the back tilt is on the base instead of on the axis.
And that is a big change from rail cameras which are mainly tilted from the axis of the film. On axis swing and tilt means that the film does not change distance from the lens.
But when you tilt from the base, even the slightest change means the film is no longer in the focus plane… and reaching around to the front of that lens to tilt it a bit more or less was an adventure.
The lens is a 14 inch lens (350mm) which means it focuses at infinity when it is 14 inches from the film plane. In other words, the smallest this camera could be was 14 inches long. Focusing down to tighter and closer compositions means pulling the bellows out… sometimes way out. It was common to have the lens 24-30″ from the back… and that takes a long reach.
It was pretty beat up when I got it. It had a “working stiff” look to it. A real down to earth show up and ger er done kinda camera. I put some more dings and scratches on it for the next ten years.
One day I refurbished it a bit. Not too much, just enough to keep the look of the classic workhorse, but smoothed out some of the more egregious scratches and marks.
The thing about this camera was it took some effort to shoot it. A lot of effort actually.
The lens, a 350MM lens, is the same focal length on your 35MM… a 350. And when it is focused on something 10 feet away, even at f-8 it has the same DOF that your 350MM on a 35Mm has.
Not too much!
Depth of Field issues were also compounded by the shutter speed / aperture. This camera had to be shut down to small apertures to get even a modicum of DOF and that meant slow shutter speeds.
I mentioned that it is a deliberate camera to use, didn’t I?
Now we add in “Bellows Draw” which is the same as the Inverse Square Law in that the farther the lens is from the film, the more time you must give it for compensation. The light of the lens moves farther away from the back of the camera, and the ISL kicks in.
The lens is a 14″ lens. At 28″ it is twice the distance from the back… and two stops are added to the exposure.
Exposures of f-8 at 1/10 or 1/25 in full sun was not unfamiliar.
Oh, and I should mention that the image is backwards AND upside down. At the same time. Backwards and upside down.
This makes one slow down, take deep breaths, move gently and with consideration when composing. I would spend quite a bit of time under the dark cloth making sure the field of focus was exactly what I wanted. I would stop it down waiting for my eyes to get accustomed to the dark to check the DOF and focus.
With loupe to eye, there was such an amazing amount of detail to be looked at on the ground glass.
I think it somewhat Zen like when using this camera.
The images are so unique – think a normal lens shot at f2 for most subjects. And in close, the lens would simply devastate the DOF of almost any image.
Loved doing portraits on it. Getting the eyes in focus meant that the ears and tip of the nose weren’t.
As I got better at shooting the 8×10, my other work improved as well. Spend a weekend with this thing and when you come back the eye is sharp and the composition comes faster.
The big camera became a partner in the old days, and now we just hang at the studio together listening to Coltrane and kickin’ back.
I miss shooting with this behemoth, and hope to get the tin type thing down this summer so I can take it on a road trip to shoot portraits up north.
(NOTE: All images taken with my Android phone)