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Digital Tools for Architectural Photography

A Critique of Current Options

By Richard Sexton

For the past 30 years I’ve plied my trade as a commercial architectural photographer and for 23 of those years (1980-2003) my primary camera in this endeavor was the classic view camera.  Over the years, I used a Sinar F, a custom configuration of the Arca-Swiss, now available as the F-line field, and finally the Ebony 45SU and SW45, which were my favorites for architectural work when shooting film.  In 2003, I purchased a Canon 1Ds.  During the film-only era of photography I had used Nikon gear along with a Leica M rangefinder for its wide-angle offerings. (Schneider 21mm Super Angulon and Cosina Voigtlander 15mm, both of which were better than Nikon’s retrofocus wide angles.)  I became a Canon user in the digital era because of their full frame cameras, tilt-shift lenses, and the versatile EOS mount, which via adapters could accept tilt-shift and perspective correction lenses from Mamiya, Nikon, Schneider, Varioflex—virtually any manufacturer who made a lens that emulated view camera movements. 

The versatile Canon EOS mount, via adapters, can accommodate a wide range of TS/PC lenses, and because of the limited number available, it’s good to be able to use all of them. Neither of the lenses shown is currently manufactured.  The Mamiya 50, because it was designed for a larger format (645), has 6mm more movement than the Canon 45 TS-E and is a stellar performer when it only has to cover FF DSLR format.  Nikkor’s 35mm PC, from the film-only era, is a good FF focal length that Canon doesn’t offer and is the only good PC lens Nikon has produced to date.  Because both these lenses are manual focus and manual aperture, they have the same functionality on a Canon EOS platform as they do on their native platform.  The adapters I’m using are from Novoflex, but there are others on the market. 

In 2006 I purchased a Phase One P20 back, which I used on the Mamiya 645 platform and with a modified flexadapter, on the Ebony SW45—an application I described in a previous LuLa essay you can read about here.  

In 2009, I upgraded from the P20 to a P45 back.  My current Canon body is the 5D Mark II and in between I’ve also used the 1DsII and the original 5D.  So, currently I’m shooting architecture with a Canon DSLR system, plus a Phase One MF digital back with a Mamiya system and an Ebony view camera with a flexadapter.  So, I have a fair amount of gear in the arsenal—more than I want to think about and lug around in the field, quite honestly.  What do I use in specific situations and is there a clear workhorse?  The answer is the Canon 5DII is the workhorse, and for architectural work, it’s the system of choice about 90% of the time.

There are four main reasons for this: The image quality of the 5DII is more than adequate for what the industry generally requires and that can be readily observed in printed form.  The lens range, particularly the TS and PC lens offerings, is greater than what Mamiya offers and is comparable to what is available with view camera and technical camera systems.  The 5DII has a very well implemented live view function, which is indispensable for architectural work (more on that later).  The 5DII is more efficient—faster to work with and lighter to haul up to the top of a bell tower or to clamp to a stair rail, and is a smaller kit when stowed in the overhead bin of an airplane.  The attributes that have come to define a Canon DSLR system as the superior choice for architectural photography have evolved only very recently, literally within the last few months.  As with everything else in the digital revolution, we’ll see how short lived the relative advantage might be, but for me, the advantage for the moment is clear and the most significant feature is live view.

TS and PC lenses are manual focus.  They are rather slow when compared to comparable focal lengths without movement. The most valuable ones are wide angle with relatively significant depth of field, even wide open.  So, focus doesn’t “pop” in and out distinctly as it does with longer lenses.  Once movements are applied, it’s even more difficult to see the viewfinder image due to lens fall-off.  Live view, as it’s implemented on the 5DII, is the equivalent of an electronic ground glass complete with grid and built in 5X and 10X loupe.  With live view, in combination with a Hoodman loupe, an L-bracket from Really Right Stuff or Kirk Enterprises, a tripod mounted 5DII with a TS/PC lens attached, is, in effect, a digital view camera.  Focusing has never been more accurate, on any system I’ve used in 30 years of photography.  My P45 has + firmware installed and offers what Phase calls “live preview” when the camera is tethered to a computer.  And this works just fine when you’re in the studio, but in the field, it’s just not practical in a number of situations and when it is, it’s slower and more cumbersome than shooting untethered.  Wireless tethering might make things less cumbersome, but isn’t an option at present.  Shooting architecture frequently involves clamping cameras to tall step ladders, or shooting from cherry pickers, or hanging over parapets, and tethered shooting just isn’t practical in these situations.  But, beyond that, I’m philosophically opposed to tethered shooting in the field.  Tripod mounted camera setups are time consuming and cumbersome enough without hardwiring a laptop to the rig.  I can work more quickly, maintain better mental focus on the subject, and am just not as distracted, when I’m working untethered.

There are a number of MF camera solutions geared specifically to architectural shooters, such as the Sinar ArTec, which Michael has reviewed recently here. Cambo also has a nifty wide-angle camera for MF digital, as does Arca-Swiss, among others.  These systems are similar in that they are metal camera designs, which use barrel mounts for focusing, and offer rise/fall/shift movements, and some of the designs have tilt/swing capabilities, as well.  For precise focusing, all these systems rely on the traditional ground glass. 

This is their major limitation, in my view.  It has nothing to do with the precision of the ground glass alignment or the geared micrometer drives for the lens movements.  The limiting factor of these systems is human vision.  And this limit was well known long before anyone had ever heard of digital imaging.  During the film-only era of view camera photography, photographers had the option of a number of film formats starting with 120 roll film and going all the way up to 11x14.  By the 1970s, 4x5 was far and away the most popular, and was the mainstay of architectural photographers worldwide. It provided the best combination of image quality, bulk and weight, and general usability. 

So, why weren’t there any 645 or 35mm view cameras during the film era? There were several reasons, but the primary one is these formats were too small for photographers to see what they were doing.  Though it was rare, the smallest film format anyone ever used for view camera photography was 6x6, which is 50% larger than 645 and almost twice as large as the P45’s 36mmx48mm sensor.  Even if precise focusing isn’t a problem in a given situation, the ability of the photographer to accurately gauge the effectiveness of tilt/swing movements is virtually impossible to judge on a dim ground glass image that is only twice the size of 35mm film.  Either live view, or the ability to immediately check focus and movement accuracy on a bright, high-resolution LCD screen, is the solution to this limitation of human vision.  But, currently the built-in screens on Phase One backs lack the scale, brightness, or resolution to accurately confirm the precise focal plane, the effectiveness of a tilt/swing movement, or depth of field limits. 

During the film only era, when shooting 4x5, whether in the field or the studio, the final Polaroid test was always shot on type 55 P/N, which yielded a print and a negative.  The negative was covered with Polaroid gunk on the emulsion side, but the back was dry and clean and you could hold it up to the light and examine it with an 8X loupe to check focus, depth of field, and the effectiveness of any tilt/swing movements employed.  Much of the time additional fine-tuning of focus, aperture, or movement was necessary, and another test was made before shooting final film.  When the PN film looked good, you were then ready to shoot final film.

In the not too distant past, I wrote favorably about the ability of wide-angle view camera designs, specifically the Ebony SW45 to be adapted to digital capture with MF backs.  Yes, there were some focusing issues then, but no more so than when using large format film on the same cameras and everything is relative.  At that time DSLR systems didn’t have live view.  They had smaller, lower resolution LCD displays than they do now.  My reasoning was that traditional view cameras fitted with sliding adapters and MF backs functioned about as well as DSLRs did at that time in terms of focusing accuracy and providing immediate feedback to the photographer regarding the viability of the capture.  But, today the landscape is different.  DSLRs have larger, higher resolution LCDs.  They have live view and some have built-in leveling indicators that eliminate the need for spirit levels.  They have scalable grid overlays, and vastly improved lenses.  New MF systems from Leica and Pentax are foregoing modularity and incorporating DSLR-like LCDs and features into cameras that are essentially nothing more than DSLRs with a larger, higher resolution sensor.  Could this be the future of MF technology?  Is this the only way to get DSLR features with MF capture? Personally, I think modularity is important too.  The ability to use a digital back on different camera rigs, including custom-designed ones, is a huge asset.

If I could design my own MF digital view camera for architectural work, it would be quite similar to the ArTec, and most of the others, but I would eliminate the unwieldy sliding mechanism and the ground glass.  I would use the MF back for focus, for metering (via histogram review, or better yet, live histogram overlay), and for capture.  Just place the back on the rig and hit the live view button.  The LCD would be large, bright, high resolution, and could be articulated for extreme camera angles.  Controls could be placed underneath the articulated LCD so that the screen was as large as the back itself (similar to the LCD dimensions on Leaf backs currently).  Live view would feature a scalable grid, a moveable focusing area, and up to 10X magnification of the focus area.  (Essentially, I’m describing the live view capabilities the 5DII already has.) 

As within reach as such a solution would seem to be, it doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.  There are issues with the refresh rate, heat, and power consumption requirements for live view with CCD sensors, I’m told.  My response is—Fine, if tethering is essential to live view with a CCD sensor, write an App that will accommodate tethering to an iPod touch or a similar device.  Add a USB port if that’s what it takes. Scores of compact point-and-shoot cameras with CCD sensors feature live view, but currently, to my knowledge, no MF backs offer untethered live view, which is why in critical situations, I reach for the 5DII.

Beyond the excellent implementation of live view, my reliance on the 5DII has been bolstered by another recent development—the 2nd generation Canon 24mm TS-E, and the unprecedented 17mm TS-E.  Personally, I don’t even own the 17.  A lens that wide, with movement, just isn’t a high priority for me, but I could see that it would be for many architectural shooters.  The new 24 TS-E is my workhorse.  The angle of view is ideal. The lens is sharp corner to corner and suffers only minor corner sharpness fall-off with extreme movement. Chromatic aberration is virtually non-existent. And there’s no perceptible barreling. The presence of this lens in the marketplace completely changed my opinion about the possibilities for retrofocus lenses.  Before this lens was introduced, I had never experienced a retrofocus designed TS lens that could match the true wide-angle designs for technical cameras, such as the Rodenstock and Schneider digital wide angles.  Plus, the 24 TS-E is very good wide open, which can’t be said of the traditional wide-angle designs of either film or digital vintage.  I only wish Canon had realized years ago, when they introduced the 1Ds, that the platform needed much higher quality wide-angle capability.  Thankfully they caught on eventually.

Another lens advantage DSLRs have is a wide selection of very fast lenses designed to perform well when used near their maximum aperture.  For Canon, these are lenses like the 50mm f/1.2, 85 f/1.2, 100 f/2, 135 f/2, etc.  They are highly revered by sports photographers and photojournalists, but can also be equally valuable to architectural photographers.  I recently completed a commission for New Orleans Museum of Art photographing individual sculptures in situ.  I wanted to use selective focus to emphasize the subject so that the sculptures would be as crisply focused as possible with the background as out of focus as possible.  To further emphasize the subject, some photography would be done at night when only the sculptures were lit and the background was dark and out of focus.  To accomplish this, I used Canon’s fast primes and live view.  I photographed with the widest aperture possible that provided adequate depth of field for the primary subject.  I couldn’t have done this as reliably without live view and without lenses designed for use wide open. 

For this commission, photographing individual sculptures in the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden at New Orleans Museum of Art, I wanted the primary subject to be as sharply focused as possible and the background as out of focus as possible.  Fast Canon primes and live view made this possible, even when photographing at night.  [Sculpture is Grand Val de Grace, 1977, by Jean-Robert Ipousteguy]

Almost all MF lenses are designed to be stopped down and are relatively slower than the fast prime offerings of equivalent focal length by DSLR manufacturers.  Digital lenses for technical cameras are universally designed to be stopped down to a mid-aperture.  There are no fast primes from Schneider or Rodenstock, and if they had them, no one could afford them.  But, these types of lenses are available on DSLR platforms. This is just another example of the value of the lens arsenal DSLR systems bring to the table. 

I don’t want to create any confusion about the fact that a Phase One P45, or any number of other MF backs, are capable of producing superior results to the Canon 5DII.  The P45 has almost twice the resolution and superior dynamic range, by over a stop and maybe more.  With extremely long exposures, the dynamic range seems to become even better when compared to the 5DII. 

It bears mention that the reason I use the P45 and am focusing exclusively on it in this essay is because the P65+, the latest, best, and highest resolution back Phase currently offers, is pretty compromised for many architectural situations. The first problem is that it’s full frame and Mamiya’s current wide-angle offerings are severely challenged already by the P45, which is a crop sensor when compared to 645 film and the P65+.  Mamiya’s 35mm, which is thankfully getting an update, and let’s only hope they started over from scratch, is a poor performer with the P45 by any measure: It barrels, has considerable chromatic aberration, and is soft on the corners at all apertures.  A kit lens on an entry level DSLR could be no worse at a comparable angle of view.

My solution for this focal length was to have the excellent photo machinist, S. K. Grimes, custom fabricate a wide-angle body to accommodate a barrel mounted Rodenstock Digitar.  I use a Fotoman viewfinder on it and focus with a Canon 40D fitted with a 135mm f/2 using live view and then I dial in that distance on the barrel mount of the Rodenstock.  I then stop down to f8, the optimum aperture for this lens.  Focus is faster and more accurate with this method than I can achieve using the flexadapter’s groundglass on my Ebony SW45. 

My solution to the poor performance of Mamiya’s 35mm wide angle is this custom camera body fabricated by SK Grimes, and is an adaptation of their PaqPro system.  The primary component of the body is cannibalized from an old Graflex XL body, which is then customized for the 35mm lens, and is a fraction of the price of technical camera bodies.  The barrel mount and lens are custom calibrated to the sensor position, so that the distance markings on the barrel mount are extremely accurate.  There is no provision for ground glass focusing and I didn’t want any.  I use a DSLR with live view to determine the optimum sensor to subject focal distance and I then set the barrel mount to the correct distance.  It’s more reliable than ground glass focusing, which is limited by human vision.  This system, by the way, allows interchangeable lenses.  You will need a barrel mount for each lens, and a different viewfinder, but other wide-angle focal lengths can be fitted to this body.

The files from this lens literally pop off the monitor screen—tack sharp corner-to-corner, superb color and contrast, no CA, perfect rectilinearity.  The difference in image quality between Mamiya’s 35 and the Rodenstock 35 Digitar is simply astounding.  I cringe just thinking about the flaws the P65+ would reveal in Mamiya’s wide angles, including even their new 28mm D lens.  Second problem with the P65+ for architectural shooters is the lack of long exposure capability.  A dimly lit opera house, a candle lit dining room, or a Tuscan villa lit by moonlight, will likely require exposures measured in minutes and not fractions of a second.  The P45 produces the highest quality long exposures I’ve ever seen on any photographic medium, including b/w film.  This is a capability so vital to my work, and that of most other architectural shooters, I can’t imagine being without it.  By the way, the 5DII is no slouch on long exposures either, just not up to what the P45 can deliver.

A night shot of the new World War II Museum in New Orleans (Voorsanger/Mathes Brierre Architects) was taken with the Phase P45 back and Mamiya 80mm f2.8.  Dynamic range in a single capture is superb and the exposure was a relatively short 8 sec.  Good shadow detail, good highlight detail, and no noise.  The long exposure capabilities of the P45 back are one of its greatest strengths for architectural photography.

Because the P45 is better than the 5DII in terms of resolution and dynamic range I use it whenever I’ve got a lens in my Mamiya or view camera kit that’s up to the challenge of its resolution requirements, or the light level is high (think broad daylight) and the subject is at or near infinity.  But, when I’m in a tight interior space and need an extreme wide angle, and will be focusing much closer than infinity and in very dim light, I always rely on the 5DII. Because of the extreme challenges of shooting with natural light in these kinds of situations I’ve perfected a common post-production technique to achieve superior dynamic range than the P45 can offer in a single exposure, by blending together two 5DII exposures—one exposed for the shadows and the other exposed for the highlights.  The final result produces a blended exposure with noise free shadows, superb highlight detail, and smooth tonal transitions in both the shadows and highlights.  The time it takes to do the blends in post-production is generally less time than it would have taken to set up fill lights to achieve a similar effect in a single capture.  In fact, one of the great advances of digital capture when shooting architectural interiors is the ability to work in challenging lighting situations without having to resort to supplemental fill lighting, which isn’t as natural looking and is time consuming to set up.  Blends can’t always be utilized because of subject movement and outdoors this can include wind and sudden changes in lighting conditions.  But, with architectural interiors, blends are reliable virtually 100% of the time. 

This photograph of an abandoned stable in Tuscany was taken in a backlit interior so dark I couldn’t discern the wall color with unaided vision.  Focus was via live view and two exposures were made, which were blended together in post-production.  One exposure was optimized for the stable interior.  The other was optimized for the window detail.  The two exposures were 5 2/3rd stops apart.  The blends were done manually at opacities less than 100%, so the expansion of dynamic range probably averaged about 3 stops.  This site was about a mile from the nearest gravel road and the hike in and out involved hills and in these situations, size (and weight) matter.  The Canon 5DII, 3 lenses, and a carbon fiber tripod were all that I took with me.

I also combine stitches and blends together to expand tonal scale and resolution.  One of the most useful features of PC/TS lenses is that you can use their movements to stitch 2 captures together, expanding the resolution of the capture, and the angle of view of the lens.  The main reason I don’t own the 17 TS-E is that I can use the movements of the 24 TS-E and stitch together 2 captures that when combined will have a similar angle of view of the 17, and almost twice the resolution of a single capture with the 17.

This image is a stitch from 2 captures with the 24 TS-E employing rise and fall movements to increase the angle of view.  The interior hallway is lit entirely by the light entering through the transom and the cracks in and around the doorway on the right of the frame.  A blend is involved also, with one exposure for the room and the other for the transom.  The stitched file is equivalent to that from a 36.67MP sensor.  (Because of some overlap of the 2 frames, it’s less than double the 21MP resolution of the 5DII.)  The stitched file with blend is comparable in resolution to that from a P45 MF back and the blended dynamic range even better than what can be achieved with a single capture with the P45.  Angle of view is roughly equivalent to an 18-20mm lens on a FF DSLR.

Architectural photography developed as a specialized field largely because of the technical challenges the subject posed to photography. Specialized skills and specialized equipment were necessary to meet these challenges.  When digital capture came along and ultimately became the dominant technology, not just for shooting architecture, but other subjects, a lot of changes were necessary and the changes were far more complex than just replacing a sheet of film with a digital sensor. 

Lenses had to change, camera designs had to change, as did lighting, and photographic technique.  Architectural photography is one of the small, complex vertical niches of the photographic world.  So, it should be no surprise to anyone that it would not be the top priority of the various manufacturers seeking to provide new digital solutions.  The current state of the art of architectural photographic equipment reflects that circumstance.  Those MF digital back manufacturers whose sensors can match or excel large format film in resolution and tonal scale, don’t all offer features architectural photographers need like state of the art LCDs or untethered live view.  The DSLR manufacturers have all those latest features on their cameras, but lack the high resolution sensors and extended dynamic range of MF systems.  Therefore, there’s no clear and distinct choice for architectural photographers, as there was in the old days, when the only decision really was which view camera system to go for. 

For now, and for me, and most of the architectural photographers I know who are shooting digitally, we are doing so primarily with DSLRs.  Sinar, Arca-Swiss, Cambo, Rodenstock, Schneider, and the other proud camera and lens makers, have made great strides in adapting their precision tools to the digital age.  But, in my opinion, they can’t get much further and can offer no universal advantage to a DSLR, if these solutions are relying on the traditional ground glass for composing and focusing an image for digital capture.  The existing, and likely future, digital formats are too small, the precise requirements for lens movements and focus too extreme, and the limits of human vision too immutable, to rely on a traditional ground glass when extreme wide angle photography, in relatively low light, on a format that’s measured in millimeters, rather than centimeters or inches, is the available tool.  I had to master ground glass focusing and composition with wide-angle lenses years ago, and I’ve helped teach others to do it. 

I remember years ago teaching classes in architectural or view camera photography watching over students meticulously focusing and articulating their lens movements to achieve the composition and depth of field they desired and then unpeeling their first Polaroid test exposure to discover that one or more corners of the frame were vignetting or the focus wasn’t tack sharp.  And they would go back to the drawing board wondering how they could have overlooked such glaring defects.  A few years back, when I purchased a 40D, the first digital camera I owned that featured live view, I put the camera on a tripod, hit the live view button, and zoomed in on the critical area I wanted to focus on.  It was like a myopic being handed his first pair of glasses and gazing out to the horizon.  Eureka!  A better way of doing it.  Where has this button been for the last 30 years!  If you’re an architectural photographer, shooting natural light interiors, it’s a feature you really want to have, whatever equipment you’re using. 

October, 2010


Richard Sexton

Richard Sexton is a noted fine art and media photographer whose work has been published worldwide in magazines such as Abitare, Archetype, Landscape Architecture, Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Preservation, Smithsonian, and Southern Accents, among many others.  He is the author/photographer of 10 photographic books to date and his work is included in the collections of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, The Historic New Orleans Collection, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and numerous private collections.  Complete information about his work is available on his web site: www.richardsextonstudio.com.   

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Concepts: Photography, Camera, Focal length, Wide-angle lens, Digital single-lens reflex camera, Digital camera, Photographic lens, View camera

Entities: New Orleans, Tuscany, Sydney, Canon, my Mamiya, Nikon, Polaroid, Nikkor, Kirk Enterprises, Leica, Pentax, New Orleans Museum of Art, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, DSLR, LCD screen, tethering, Vistas, TS, sec., Michael Reichmann, Schneider, Cosina Voigtlander, Cambo, Michael, Rodenstock, S. K. Grimes, Rodenstock Digitar., Walda Besthoff, Jean-Robert Ipousteguy, Richard Sexton, Grand Val de Grace, Louisiana, DSLRs, 5D Mark II, 5D.u00a0 So, CCD, iPod

Tags: live view, camera, view camera, architectural, ground glass, digital, architectural photographer, DSLR, dynamic range, wide angle, Mamiya, focusing, focal lengths, wide-angle, view camera photography, MF digital, technical camera, human vision, New Orleans, sensors, Phase One, architectural work, digital view camera, long exposure, traditional ground glass, architectural photography, New Orleans Museum, untethered live view, live view button, lens movements, camera designs, single capture, digital back, film-only era, architectural shooters, solutions, ccd sensors, fast primes, Canon DSLR, image quality