The View Camera in a Digital World
By Mark Dubovoy
I am always at my best with a view camera. Yet, I have observed that as digital photography has advanced and improved, many excellent photographers are retiring their view cameras in favor of Medium Format SLR’s.
Do not get me wrong, there are subjects (such as a football game) where the View Camera would clearly be the wrong tool and pretty much impossible to use. I am talking about subjects that are not fast moving and are amenable to being photographed with the camera on a tripod.
Personally, most of my work is Landscape Photography. I have moved from shooting 4x5 and 8x10 inch film to a scanning back first and then to a PhaseOne P45+ back. I have photographed extensively with the P45+ using a Medium Format SLR, as well as a Medium Format View Camera, and invariably I find that my view camera images are better.
I decided that it was time to investigate why this is so. Are there technical reasons to explain it? Are there other factors at work?
Art is all about passion. Yet few forms of art engender as much passion as photography when it comes to the tools used to produce a work of art.
Take painters for example: When was the last time you heard a heated debate about a specific brand of brush or type of paint?
By contrast, Photographers seem obsessively passionate about their equipment and their personal methodology. This passion leads to heated discussions, that sometimes lead to exaggeration and can even border on the irrational.
I want to make sure that the reader understands that I have no agenda other than to explore what works for me and why. What works for me may not work for someone with a different style, a different approach to the subject or a different type of Photography.
Also, I am neither married to a specific brand of equipment, nor in a battle against any other brand. I do not have any deals with any equipment manufacturer and I am totally free to express my opinions. I call them as I see them. The equipment I mention in the article simply happens to be what I own, but it is probably representative of what one can expect with similar equipment from other manufacturers.
RESOLUTION. In order to find out whether there are technical issues that favor the View Camera, I started out by taking a photograph of a printed circuit board using my Hasselblad H2 and P45+ back with the 55-110 mm. lens. The lens was set to 100 mm at F/8. I then removed the P45+ back, installed it in my Linhof M679 CS view camera and took the same picture using a Rodenstock 100 mm HR lens, also at F/8. The images below show the original scene, as well as an enlarged portion for direct comparison of the Linhof versus the Hasselblad.
Full Size Image
Note how the Linhof image has much more resolution and looks much more “alive”.
It is important to note that all sharpening and other adjustments were turned off in the conversion from RAW to TIFF using CaptureOne software.
When I first saw these images, I was very surprised by how much better the view camera image looked. In fact, I repeated the test with another Hasselblad lens, just to make sure I did not have a dud. The result was the same. The difference in sharpness resolution and dynamic range is very substantial. I had heard that the Rodenstock HR lenses are the highest resolution lenses available commercially, but frankly, I was not prepared for such a big difference.
2. FOCUS SHIFT
Every optical system suffers from focus shift. Think of the front element of a lens, and draw several concentric circles on it. The circles near the outside have a larger area and a larger perimeter, because the radius is bigger. Therefore, when a lens diaphragm is wide open, the outer part of the element dominates, and the best focus is achieved where the light rays coming from the outer part (closer to the edge of the lens) cross. Unfortunately, no lens is perfect, so the point of focus of the light rays hitting the lens near the center is not in the same position. In other words, as you close the diaphragm, which makes the area near the edge of the lens irrelevant, the point of focus shifts to the position where the light rays that hit the lens near the center cross.
The easiest way to see this (for those of you who still have access to an enlarger) is to take a negative, put it on the enlarger and focus with a grain magnifier. Then close the lens a couple of F/stops and the grain becomes blurry. The grain snaps back into focus with a slight adjustment of the focusing knob.
You may wonder why I bring this up. I bring this up, because with the extreme flatness and resolution of the P45+, focus shift is easily detected. The pictures below illustrate the point.
The effects of focus shift. Left: Without re-focusing. Right: After re-focusing at the working aperture.
Click on Image for Enlarged version
For the above example of focus shift, I used the Rodenstock 180 mm HR lens. I focused on the target at its maximum aperture of F/5.6; then I closed the lens to a working aperture of F/11. The image on the left is the center part of the original, enlarged to 100 % without any further adjustments. The image on the right was re-focused at the working aperture. I believe that the effect of focus shift is obvious, even though most of the Rodenstock HR lenses are symmetric designs and exhibit much less focus shift than other lenses.
There are other factors that affect resolution, such as depth of field and diffraction. In general, with the latest View Camera digital lenses I have found that a working aperture of one to two F/stops smaller than wide open provides optimum sharpness and resolution, while diffraction starts to become fairly evident about 4 F/stops smaller than wide open.
For instance, I found that with the Rodenstock 100 mm F/4 lens optimal performance is at F/5.6 and F/8, but you have to re-focus at those apertures. If you focus at F/4 and then close the lens, you lose some resolution because of focus shift. By F/11 there is enough depth of field to make re-focusing at the working aperture unnecessary.
Thus, F/11 becomes the lazy man’s aperture: No need to re-focus and still top notch sharpness and resolution. By F/16 I notice some softening of the image (probably diffraction induced).
The specifics obviously will vary for each particular lens, some will be much worse than others, but my point is that using autofocus on a DSLR with the lens wide open, and then having the camera shoot at a different aperture is likely to cause a loss of resolution because of focus shift. This seems to be an issue that is largely ignored by camera manufacturers as well as photographers (my guess is that in the days of film, where tolerances were not as tight, and film was never flat, this was not nearly as important).
I would therefore recommend the use of Live View at the working aperture whenever the equipment and the shooting conditions allow. This will get rid of focus shift errors, as well as other potential errors (mirror position tolerances, viewfinder tolerances, etc.), since you are seeing the actual image at the sensor. By the way, when I made the lens comparison between the Linhof and the H2, I did correct for focus shift with manual focus in both cameras. I also made tests using autofocus on the H2. The result was always a much better image with the Linhof.
Breaking waves and fog
3. DEPTH OF FIELD.
The bottom line is that depth of field using high end digital gear is narrower than what our traditional scales indicate. Why is this? Basically for the same reasons enumerated above. Depth of field scales and charts were developed decades ago, before digital sensors and before modern lenses. They were perfectly adequate at that time, but this is no longer the case. It is a complicated topic, but a useful rule of thumb is that you need to close your lens at least one more F/Stop to achieve the desired depth of field. In other words, if your lens scales or your charts indicate that F/8 will give you enough depth of field, you need to close the lens at least to F/11.
Dune and dead branch
Not to belabor the point about the extra accuracy of high end digital gear, I also find that the onset of diffraction is more clearly visible , and visible at larger apertures than I was used to with film.
After a number of tests similar to the ones mentioned above, I am convinced that the View Camera continues to have some significant technical advantages over Medium Format SLR’s:
Modern View Camera digital lenses produce better images. They have much higher resolution and better contrast. I have also found these lenses to deliver more consistent and much cleaner looking color regardless of focal length.
As the onset of diffraction is visible at larger apertures, and as depth of field is narrower than we were used to in the days of film, controlling the plane of focus with camera movements is more important than it has ever been in the past.
Therefore, from a purely technical point of view, I now know why my P45+ View Camera images always look better than those taken with a Medium Format SLR with the same back.
OTHER (NON-TECHNICAL) ISSUES
The other issues for me are non-technical, and in many ways personal. I know many people that take huge numbers of images per day, they shoot very quickly in what I would call a “photojournalist style”. Some of them produce outstanding work. This style clearly works for them.
This style does not work for me. I find that I always do better if I slow down, if I take my time and if I study my subject carefully. This leads me not only to better compositions and better technique, but I also find that I am thoroughly prepared and ready for the “magic moment” when the light is just right and everything coalesces into the creation of a special image.
While many people find the view camera process a hassle, I find it to be the most satisfying way to capture an image. To me, few things compare with the pleasure of seeing that upside-down/left-right reversed image on the groundglass, the pleasure of adjusting the image with all the mechanical precision settings in the camera, the pleasure of observing and carefully measuring the light, and finally that magic moment when I release the shutter. No, I do not like the weight and bulk of the equipment, but I will gladly pay that price for the pleasure of the process and the quality of the final image.
In spite of all the wonderful digital tools available to the Photographer today, a properly captured image always looks better to me than a digitally corrected image.
Therefore, since I know no better way to capture an image than using a View Camera, it will continue to be my tool of choice for Landscape Photography.
By Mark Dubovoy
Dr. Dubovoy is highly regarded as a technical expert in many aspects of printing technology and photography. As such, he is a regular writer of technical articles for PHOTO Techniques magazine and a lecturer at various workshops.
His photographs are included in a number of private collections, as well as the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Monterey Art Museum, the Berkeley Art Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Nanao Japan.