The View Up Here

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Playing with a View Camera

Posted by Tom Benedict on 18/02/2012

Back in the mid 90’s, my wife bought me a Bender Photographic 4×5 monorail camera kit. These kits came as a set of precision routed pieces of wood with some really good instructions on how to assemble them into a working view camera. Shortly after she got me the kit I came down with bronchitis. Not the best conditions under which to work with wood, but by the time I was well I had a new camera.

Bender 4x5

When it was done I outfitted it with a Fujinon 150mm lens, loaded up some film holders, and began my foray into large format photography.

I believe that every photographer should try their hand at large format photography at least once. To be honest I think every photographer should keep a view camera around and use it from time to time. Not because of the movements, which are a real joy to use, or the large negative, which is a joy to look at. It’s the ground glass.

The image on a view camera’s ground glass is upside down and backward. To many people this sounds like an awful burden to have to work around. I believe that it is the view camera’s greatest strength. It forces the photographer to see in terms of color, shape, and arrangement rather than as discrete objects placed within a scene. The view becomes an abstraction: a collection of geometric shapes that can be arranged by moving the camera. Sky ceases to be sky and becomes a wedge of blue. Trees cease to be trees and become green or brown blobs. People cease to be people, and hint at motion or action. The everyday melts away and the view takes on the appearance of an impressionist painting.

Bender 4x5 in Waipio Valley

And that, really, is the point. Photography is no different from painting when it comes to composition. Yet few photographers are willing to step outside the boundaries of their lenses and their cameras to embrace another art form. The view camera encourages this.

I’ve been in a photographic funk for several months now. I stopped doing kite aerial photography and even found that ground photography didn’t come easily any more. My daughter helped get me back into ground photography, and only last week I finally got my camera back in the air. But maybe I need something different from each of these. I think it’s high time I pulled out my view camera again and spent a little time remembering how to see.

– Tom

2 Responses to “Playing with a View Camera”

  1. Looks cool, I’ve a 6×6 (or 6×4) medium format in a bag that I haven’t touched yet (film of course).
    Are there any shops which still selling large format negatives ?

  2. Tom Benedict said

    Here in the US B&H Photo and Video still sells 4×5 film. I think Adorama does, too, but don’t quote me on that. The last time I was in a camera store was many years ago, so I don’t know if they tend to carry it any more.I don’t know how long this is likely to remain true, though.

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