PICTURES OF THE WEST: Driving South

PICTURES OF THE WEST: Driving South

The story was published in the November, 2018 edition of the Medium Format Magazine. You will find the second part “Driving North” by Benjamin Everett in the December, 2018 issue.


Death Valley

There was a dashed line and darkness. The headlights revealed a steep road plummeting through a blur of rock and sage. My main concern was heat. The overhead panel displayed a glowing 94 degrees and it was well past midnight. What would that read at midday?  

Alongside me was a dream collection of Hasselblad gear: the 100 megapixel H6D and four lenses. I’d never shot medium format before and would be getting used to this kit over the next few days in the depths of Death Valley. Thereafter I’d be a free agent, logging nearly 4,000 miles of the American West in search of unique desert landscapes.

Six months before, on a whim, I’d entered the landscape category of the Hasselblad Masters competition, and won. In total, there were over 30,000 entrants across 11 categories. It felt a bit like winning the lottery. As part of the competition, winners were asked to shoot a series of images on Hasselblad equipment of their choice. These images would then be compiled into a beautiful hardcover collectors’ book. The pressure to live up to expectations was high.

Many of my artistic heroes were painters of the West. These wild landscapes lent themselves particularly well to interpretation. There is a fascinating correlation between the line quality found in art and design, and the lines nature tends to draw. For my series of images, I proposed exploring this across a variety of windswept dunes and Badlands. After a thousand miles driving from my home in the Pacific Northwest, Death Valley was the first real stop.

I spend a lot of time on the road. My Dodge Durango is getting close to the 200k mark, and I hope she can go as many more. Some may prefer the spaciousness of a camper van, but there’s something nice about the versatility of an unassuming SUV. The back seats fold completely flat and with a few foam pads, all six feet two of me sleeps blissfully.

Pulling into a quiet corner of the Mesquite Flats parking lot around 2 am, I shook my head while setting the alarm for 4:30. When it went off, just two and a half short hours later, I swung my legs down to the ground, and wondered how awake I was. Everything about the medium format gear was surreal, including its weight. The full kit came to about 40 pounds. I hefted this and took off for the dunes, enjoying cool sand under my bare feet.

Oceans and deserts are remarkably alike, silent and clean. Thoughts are distant like ships on the horizon, you see them a mile off cresting waves they roll towards you. For me, that space is a key to creativity. It’s an expansive emptiness that must exist before the good that fills it. 

You have to go away from the parking lot to a place where there are fewer footprints and pretty soon, none. I set up the tripod and locked down the H6D. It was time to start experimenting with compositions. The camera was friendly. We got along straightaway. The menu is sleek and intuitive, as are the controls. The large kachunk of the shutter was a startling transition from a DSLR, but I see it as symbolic of the effort required to lock in a 100mp file. It’s like the vault door slamming shut on a newly minted gold bar. 

It would be nearly month before I would see that digital gold on the screen, but yes, the files really are that good.

Drifting along, the lack of wind provided a perfect opportunity to experiment with lenses, something I’d appreciate later when the elements were not so kind. Quickly, the 35-90mm f/4-5.6. became a favorite. I’m used to prime lenses on my usual Nikon D810, so this range allowed me to move quickly. In the desert, it’s nice to have the freedom to compose different shots without disturbing the sand. As the sun crested the horizon, I made my way to the top of a large dune. Here, the 300mm f/4.5 shone. Abstract layer combinations lay in all directions. As raking light began to fall across the textured ripples underfoot, I switched to the wide angle of the 24mm f/4.8. The last of the four lenses, the Macro 120mm f/4 II, didn’t get used that day but after discovering its incredible sharpness, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

As the sun rose further, so did the heat. This kicked up wind and wind brought sand and the lens now on the camera stayed on the camera. My initial concerns about temperature were valid. By midday it was 111 degrees. I protected myself and the gear as well as could be expected. But that wind! If I’d only known how it would become a constant issue.

Having wandered far into the dunes, I was low on water and ready to return. The path back was punctuated by stops and starts. The light went flat with a slight heat haze, but the forms were still there, teasing you. Countless times I pulled the tripod from my shoulder saying, “Just one more.”

Arizona Badlands

On the road again, heading further south. There was a day lost to Las Vegas. During an oil change, the attendant showed me a tire gauge. “See this red area indicating danger?” “Sure.” “You’re way past it.” I pictured blowouts and precipitous plunges down canyon walls. “Go ahead with the replacements.”

Then it was over the Hoover dam and onward through Flagstaff. I spent the night on a utility road among sage and volcanic rock. Highway lights twinkled in the distance. 

Arriving at the Petrified Forest National Park, I was shocked to learn the gates close several hours before sunset. Apparently, it’s harsh light or nothing. 

Sitting in the Visitors Center, swirling a bad cup of coffee and concerned about the project, I had a moment of exasperation. Maybe Google has some answers. Pinching maps towards dark patches of crimson and gold, paved gray arteries led to dusty veins, and I’d found a road of new possibilities. 

Upon arrival, there was a slight hesitation. This appeared to be the remains of a Navajo State Park. I steered my new tires around broken bottles, potholes, a lopsided park bench, and the graffiti-covered remains of a derelict restroom. Towards the end of the road, on the horizon, a sliver of red indicated hope. The color grew. A band of white, a band of gold, another band of red – I jumped from the car and ran to the edge. Draped across the horizon was a giant Navajo blanket of rippling color, geometric ridges and geologic patterns. The connection between the indigenous people of the southwest, their art and their land is immediate. Everything is connected. I laughed out loud.

It was the most beautiful thing I’d seen all day. There was a desire to turn and say to someone, “Can you believe this!?” but there was not a living soul in sight.

Later that evening, soft golden light exaggerated the beauty of those rolling forms. I walked about, aligning compositions and timing exposures. This was exactly the light and location I’d hoped for, but the wind was becoming a problem and appeared to be getting stronger. Soon I imagined great towering waves of air, cresting and falling in explosive gusts across the entire ridge line. Bracing low, I was thankful for a sturdy tripod and hoped things would be better in the morning. Unfortunately, the wind buffeted the car all night and the sun rose behind racing stripes of grey cloud. It was clearly time to move on. 

Next stop, White Sands National Monument. This would be the first time I’d laid eyes on New Mexico, the legendary home of so many of the early 20th century painters I admired, including Ernest L. Blumenschein, William Victor Higgins, E. Martin Hennings, and Georgia O’Keeffe. 

The wind continued to howl as I headed south through rolling grasslands. Did the car swerve because of wind or distraction? At times, fields of small green juniper trees stretched to the horizon, endless in their arrangements of Zen. I passed perfect window-framed scenes at 70 mph and turned circles in the road to find them again. Did front-seat yoga, twisting to brace the camera against car-seat, steering-wheel and dash-board supports. Selective windows were raised and lowered to minimize wind and dust. When all batteries died, it was a relief. I might actually make it to a hotel in Alamogordo that night.

Lying spread out on the cool sheets of a king-sized bed, I listened to the air conditioner hum while battery lights blinked softly in the darkened room. Inspiration was electric. I’ve always admired these Southwest artists for their creativity and style. After the day’s drive it became apparent that half the gratitude goes to the landscape. It was exciting to feel so at home somewhere new.

White Sands

These are the sexiest of dunes, their smooth curves fast and low. The best experience is to spend a night in the heart of them. I reserved a site with the rangers and by mid-afternoon had hiked in and set up camp. It was a world that existed of two colors: soft white walls under a hard blue distant ceiling. With some time to go before the ideal light, I sat in the shade to meditate. The barely heard sounds of the park became more apparent. The wind was distant and muffled, like some great hourglass slowly pouring itself into the future, each grain heard tumbling in time. And then, the time is now. I’m up and taking pictures. It’s rare that meditation has blurred so directly into the process of photography. There was no destination, just the gradual motion towards a focused observation. No paths retraced, each fresh scene destroyed by moving through it.

The White Sand Dunes are wildly different from the gold ones of Death Valley and not just in color. Sand size and wind patterns create all new shapes to play with. Sweeping arcs rise up western faces to drop down steep walls to the east. Between each dune is an area of dry earth, reptilian scales of hardened soil that reveal sparse vegetation between the cracks. Photography there is often about excluding these low zones. Two compositions predominate: aligning crests of the dunes with a telephoto lens or focusing wide angles on the texture of broad slopes.

The sun dipped lower in the west and glinted off the blowing sand. Again, this wind! Each dune gained an aura of gold. When asked about the weather sealing of the H6D, Hasselblad answered a disconcerting, “None.” I wrapped the sensitive camera tightly in my windbreaker, feeling more clever than necessary by using the hood as a lens cover and battled on, heading west. Ridge after ridge of new and fascinating compositions. I battled stability, battled visibility, and finally gave up as the sun withdrew its final rays. ISO and shutter speed were no match for the gale.

Turning east, darkness had crept up from behind. A moment of disorientation rushed over me. I’d neglected to bring any kind of light. There was no moon, no footprints, and there was no trail. The dunes were a uniform blue turning quickly to a swallowing black. Soon I’d barely make out my feet below me. I fought a rising sense of dread. How could I have been so foolish? I’d read the warnings but passed them off as guidelines for city-dwelling tourists used to road signs and street lights. The wilderness was my home, I don’t get lost. Any judgements passed on others swung back with full self-critical force.

Looking back, this was the halfway point of my trip. Standing there in darkness, I would never be as far from home.

Breathing deeply, I focused on the horizon. To the east, the lights of Alamogordo were fixed stars, my tent was that way too. I found the brightest and set sail. At the top of each dune, this guiding light was visible. Plunging down a blank face, there was nothing, and there was walking forward into nothing. But then the light reappeared and I was on course. Up and down, trust then reassurance. After 45 minutes, I walked straight into a trail marker, and my tent soon after. Sleep was deep and easy. The gravity of my trip had shifted. It’s fascinating to watch a simple compass orientation affect your entire outlook. The fortitude to push south into the unknown became just as strong to go north and home.


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MF REVIEW: Fujinon GF 50mm F3.5 lens.

MF REVIEW: Fujinon GF 50mm F3.5 lens.

Portable, light and the only one you might need. 

Since the introduction of the Fujifilm GFX medium format system, we have seen eight Fujinon lenses designed specifically for the GFX50S, the GFX50R and most recently the GFX100 cameras. What links them all is their superb build and exceptional optical quality. After all, this is medium format, meaning any shortcoming in design or optical quality would be on full display. One of the trade-offs is the size—most GF lenses are large and quite heavy. 

With the introduction of the GFX50R, a rangefinder-style medium format camera, it became apparent there was a need for a smaller, pancake-style lens which would match the relatively portable and travel-friendly design of the GFX50R. This is when the GF50mm F3.5 lens R LM WR came to the fore. 

As an owner of the GF45mm F2.8 and someone who has shot quite extensively with the 63mm F2.8 lens, the question arises as to whether the brand-new GF 50mm F3.5 is worth considering as the only walk-around, everyday lens. 

That is exactly what I tried to find out during the testing process. All conclusions are mine. The lens was kindly provided to us by Fujifilm Canada for a review; no conditions or provisos were attached to it. 

Let’s get to it. 

BUILD AND FIRST IMPRESSION

The first thing that came to mind when I took the GF50 F3.5 lens out of the box was “Wow, this is small.” I’ve had the chance to shoot with every GF lens available and most of them are quite large—that should be no surprise. After all, this is medium format where image quality is everything. With this proviso, compromising on the quality of the glass just to make it smaller wouldn’t make any sense. 

Even in comparison to the GF63mm F2.8 lens, the GF50mm F2.8 is quite small. It weighs only 335gm(11.8 oz). The build quality doesn’t differ from the rest of the lineup. I tried to look hard to see where Fujifilm might have saved money but I couldn’t find it or at least it is not apparent. 

It is still an all-metal lens with a pleasant high-quality rubber grip and a dedicated aperture ring as are all the other lenses in the line-up. As seen in the other offerings, you can put the lens in the “A” or “C” modes with the latter allowing for a command dial on the body to control your aperture.  

The good news is that the lens’ front filter thread size is 62mm, the same as the GF45mm or GF63mm lenses. Another interesting feature of the lens is its unique metal arching lens hood; you will find two different size caps inside the box to bring back your childhood Lego memories. When using the lens with the hood it looks as if it had no hood at all. I quite like it. 

Last, the GF50mm F3.5 is weather resistant, which means I can attach the lens to any weather-resistant body and I don’t have to worry about rain. Hello Vancouver! Hello the R-A-I-N Project! 

For those who need specifics here they are: 

  • 9 elements in 6 groups
  • Angle of view: 57.4°
  • Max. aperture: ƒ/3.5
  • Min. aperture: ƒ/32   
  • Focus range (from the sensor surface): 0.55m 
  • Max. magnification: 0.1x 
  • External dimensions: Diameter x Length (Distance from camera lens mount flange):  φ84mm x 48mm
  • Weight (approx.) (excluding the lens cap, lens hood and hood cap): 335gm

FOCAL LENGTH 

Although we started with the lens’ physical qualities, its field of view is a much more rivetting story. 

The GF45mm F2.8 is 36mm full frame equivalent and the GF63mm F2.8 is 50mm —both classic viewpoints. Having said that, the brand-new GF50mm F3.5 gives us the 40mm focal length, just between the GF63 and GF45. What an interesting field of view! 

Once again, despite its unusual number, the 50mm focal length (40mm in FF) worked well when framing this scene. The 45mm would be too wide and the 63mm too tight. Strange indeed, but the more I used the GF50mm, the more I found how useful and versatile this lens is. It took me a while to figure out the exact framing of this shot. What you see on the left side of the frame is a wooden structure of some sort, which one gentleman was working on. It was placed outside for a while, then moved inside. It is amazing how visual opportunities appear in front of you if you attune your seeing to one focal length. 

When I received this lens, I didn’t know what to make of it. I had shot extensively with both 35 and 50 focal lengths (in FF terms) and am comfortable with both. Having said that, my “to go” focal length for most of my photography is the GF45mm, a  wider 35mm field of view in full frame terms. 

In other words, the GF45mm F2.8 was a more natural choice for me. I found little reason to reach out for the GF 63mm F2.8. I enjoy having a wider lens to make my frame visually richer and more interesting. This of course comes with the challenge of having more elements to deal with and more space to control in the frame. There are times, especially when I want to take some street portraits, when I could use the GF63mm F2.8 but it doesn’t justify buying another lens and carrying it with me. 

GF 50mm vs. GF45mm

The most vital question for me is whether the brand-new GF50mm F3.5 would solve this problem. Some of you may say, “That’s fine, Olaf, but this is F2.8 vs. F3.5.” You are absolutely right but let’s not beat the drum too loudly. When I see some people go mad over the look of the bokeh of wide-angle lenses it really turns me into a Grinch, even if it might be slightly too soon to become one. I even have a dog. 

The GF50mm F3.5 allows you to play with out-of-focus areas quite effectively. 

No, you don’t buy wide-angle lenses for bokeh. The difference between F2.8 and F3.5 is not enough to play a major role in a light-gathering sense. In fact, when taking a portrait with the GF50mm at F3.5 I don’t have to worry too much about depth of field because most of my subject’s face is going to be in focus (unless I misplace the focal point of course).

Did I notice the difference between the GF45mm and the GF50mm in real life shooting situations? 

ON THE STREET

Initially, yes. Even though the 5mm difference seems insignificant or as someone put it, “nothing to worry about,” I noticed it right away. I have to admit that in my type of creative photography every inch of frame matters. On the first few days of shooting I had several situations when I wanted to include more in the frame, but I couldn’t. The 5mm difference in the wide-angle world is much more than the number would suggest. After about three days of shooting one thought was buzzing in my mind: “No, this lens is probably not for me.” 

This is one of the situations when I wanted to have a slightly wider lens, the GF45mm F2.8, which allowed me to make the space more pronounced. The images still look great.  

Despite these concerns, I kept reaching for the GFX50R and GF50mm F3.5 lens almost daily. With time and some beer, I came to the realization that for the last ten years I have been mostly shooting with one focal length, that is, 35mm in full frame terms. Once you do it for so long your seeing becomes attuned to one focal length, and at times, I don’t even need a camera to frame the scene in front of me. With the new GF50mm F3.5, my seeing needed to make a major adjustment and it did. 

I always enjoy positioning lines and shapes in the frame. The GF50mm F3.5 was neither too wide nor too tight for such an exercise. It was just right to frame what was happening above our heads. 

On the second week of shooting, I became increasingly comfortable with the 40mm focal length. Interestingly enough, I was shooting as if I was working with the classical 50mm, framing my scene and then expanding it for extra elements to get to the 40mm. Starting tight with your framing is always a better idea than going with the “all-in” blunderbuss attack. It was a very interesting visual exercise and helped me to transition to this new focal length.  

The framing of this image couldn’t be any better with a wider lens. 

I especially appreciated the 50mm F3.5 lens when taking portraits. With the GF45mm F2.8 I often found it was too wide for the purpose. The GF50mm F3.5 was just right. I was able to frame my subject comfortably but also include enough complementing elements. In this regard, the GF50mm F3.5 worked beautifully.   

The image was taken on the ferry in Amsterdam. I noticed this woman and asked her for permission to take a portrait. The 50mm was an ideal focal length to have visual amity but enough distance to create some beautiful negative space. 

WHILE TRAVELLING

As someone who teaches photography around the world, travelling light and simple has always been my priority. When I travel, I usually do so with one camera and one lens only. Could the GF50mm F3.5 replace the GF45mm F2.8 for my travels? 

The first test was on my trip to Amsterdam. I packed the GFX50R paired with the GF50mm F3.5. That’s all. No backup camera unless you consider my iPhone as such. I don’t, but don’t get me started. Not today!  

Another peculiar thing I like about the 40mm focal length is the fact that you can shoot across the road without needing to be on the road. With the GF45mm I often have to shoot from the middle of the road to achieve the right framing (don’t copy me!). It is strange but somehow useful. 

PAIRED WITH THE GFX50R

When Fujifilm announced the GF50mm F3.5, the most fitting camera was the GFX50R despite the fact that I am more familiar with the GFX50S. A few months back, when I was testing the GFX50R, I liked the camera but when paired with the GF45mm F2.8 and the GF110mm F2 I found them together slightly unbalanced and difficult to shoot for an extended period. I left with one thought. If only Fujifilm could do the pancake-like lens for the GFX50R it would be a dream travel and street photography combo.  

Here is the GFX50R and the GF50mm F3.5 combo in the hands of a capable photographer. Indeed, it’s a very portable and neat pairing, perfect for travel and wandering the streets. Some of you might guess who the photographer is. 

Indeed, pairing the GFX50R and the GF50mm F3.5 gave me the relatively small, light and highly portable solution. Putting the camera over my shoulder allowed me to walk around Amsterdam without the nuisance of carrying a big SLR around my neck. In fact, it felt as if I was walking with an oversized X-Pro or X-T. 

I would have problems framing so tightly with the GF45mm lens. The GF50 was perfect for capturing this tight scene. The crack that goes from the top to the bottom provides a much-needed visual break. 

Given the combo’s weight and size, the thought of having the medium format system around my neck put a smile on my face. This special combo changes perception and expands the possibilities of what you can do with medium format today. (The only other portable solution is the Hasselblad X1D 2 along with the XCD 45mm 3.5 lens. Look for an in-depth review later in the year.) 

As I was navigating the narrow streets, bridges and canals, my camera was ready for action at any time. After shooting all day long I didn’t feel any fatigue after carrying the gear. In fact, the experience didn’t differ much from shooting with other much smaller systems.   

When I saw this scene, I had to run up close to the bus. The GF 45mm F2.8 would certainly be too wide for this purpose. 

PAIRED WITH THE GFX50S

The GFX50R was not the only camera I paired this lens with. I also decided to test it on my GFX50S. Up to now it had been the GF45mm F2.8 lens that never left my camera, with the exception of some portraiture work I did with the GF110 F2 lens. The first time the GF50mm F3.5 was announced I had to face the dilemma: 45 or 50? Should I switch? Of course, the main point of such a recast would be to make the system lighter and smaller. 

When you attach the GF50mm F3.5 to the GFX50S, it becomes a camera ready for adventure. It is not as comfortable around your neck as the GFX50R, but it has a different advantage. When the GFX50S is paired with the GF50mm F3.5, the camera’s fantastic grip allows for much more confident hold without using the strap. I couldn’t say that about the GFX50R. 

It is not that I am recommending working without straps or secured protection but the GFX50S matched with the GF50mm F3.5 is such a confident combo to hold in your hand. I take it out of my bag when I want to photograph and then put it back when I don’t. The balance of the camera and the lens is just perfect, especially for my small hands.      

AUTOFOCUS

Upon my return from Amsterdam, I continued shooting with the lens in Vancouver. 

At this point I had a great idea about the GF50mm F3.5 autofocus capabilities. I have to say that my confidence in the lens’ autofocus capabilities rose. Thanks to the lens’ linear motor, there are no moving elements. I could even say this might well be the fastest focusing lens in the GF line-up.  

If I could find one annoying thing about focusing, it’s distance. It needs 1.8 feet (55 centimeters), certainly not good for close-up photography. Sometimes I wanted to focus close—not micro-sort-of-close but closer.  

Lines are always a challenge. The GF50mm F3.5 was just perfect to get what I wanted. I wondered if I had had the GF45mm on my camera would I find this framing or would I go wider? Interesting!

IMAGE QUALITY

With the price point below US$1,000 let me remind you, for a medium format lens, the quality I am seeing is excellent. In fact, when I looked at the files and compared them, I was surprised how sharp this lens was. I could even argue that in the centre of the frame the GF50mm outshines the GF45mm and certainly the GF63mm (the weakest of the three). 

As mentioned earlier, I am not going to split hairs about the so-called bokeh. After all, this is still a wide-angle lens so if bokeh is your obsession you should probably be looking at the GF110 F2, not here.

The rendering of the lens appears to be more clinical and acute so it should appeal to those who seek this micro-contrast edge in their images. In fact, when I showed some images to my friends, they asked me if they were from the GFX100? Nope.  

CONCLUSIONS

When I was faced with choosing my first lens for the GFX system I decided on the GF45mm F2.8. Having said that, back then there was no GF50mm F3.5 lens available; it wasn’t even in the planning stage. Today, I would probably go with the GF50mm F3.5 instead, mainly for two reasons: the size, price and focal length. 

Furthermore, the GFX50R is now listed at US$3999 and the GF50mm F3.5 at US$995. For about US$4,000 you have a powerful camera system and entrance into the medium format world—something just a few years ago many thought impossible.  

For those of you who want to learn the craft of seeing properly and would like to enter or upgrade to medium format, the GFX50R and the GF50mm F3.5 is one of the best ways to do that. Furthermore, I would urge you not to add more lenses right away (unless there is a professional need for it) but to shoot with the combo for at least a year. Once you do so, you may well find out that the portable, light GF50mm F3.5 is the only lens you need for a while.

Quite a complex frame with many elements. This is another occasion when I thought the GF45mm could provide me with more breathing space, especially on the right of the frame. Would that make it better frame? I don’t know. 
Here, framing was of crucial importance and the GF50mm F3.5 gave me the perfect focal length to achieve my visual goals. 

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My path to medium format photography

My path to medium format photography

For years, I have been a proponent of “the camera doesn’t matter” philosophy, engaging in multiple and sometimes fiery online debates on the subject. In my core I still believe it but my views on the subject have altered drastically over the last two years. The revisions didn’t happen overnight but were formed through a slow and gruelling process of observation and honest self-assessment. They are side-effects in my search for new seeing, propensity for visual risk-taking and for meaning in my work. They are not the final answer but rather a snapshot of my photographic state of mind at this moment.

It was 2012 when I first bought the Fujifilm original X100. In fact, this small camera was a Fujifilm entrance into the digital camera business after a brief absence. It was the beginning of the X-series APS-C sensor-sized, mirrorless cameras. At the time, I was shooting with the Nikon SLR as were most of my friends. Even though the X100 was slow and quirky it totally altered the way I shot. Its small size, portability, electronic viewfinder, physical knobs and the fusion of old-fashioned design with the latest technology made me go out and experiment – photography became fun again.  

Over the years, the small X100/S/T/F became my camera of choice along with the Fujifilm X-Pro2 paired with a few other lenses. During this period, I moved through several transformations as a photographer: from landscape to travel, from classical street to visual experimentations, which are difficult to box into one genre. I became expert in going out, observing, experimenting and creating unique visuals. I gained traction and a large following. 

There was one thing that always rattled me for some reason – a thought that kept coming back to me like a boomerang. Given my dedication to seeing and the craft of photography regardless of the gear involved, these medium format thoughts were strange indeed. Each time I saw an image taken with medium format I somehow paused and pondered over it. Whether it was a portrait or a photo of a simple chair, the images had a depth and richness that pulled me in like a magnet.

Over time my obsession became a dream to shoot with medium format one day. It was a very distant dream, indeed. There were rumours about new, upcoming cameras but the only reasonable choice back then was Pentax, priced near $10,000 with one lens. 

Then the GFX50S came on the horizon, a camera which I had an opportunity to test not long after its release. Finally, I had a digital medium format camera in my hands. During this time, I had the chance to go with the GFX 50S on several trips as well as shoot some urban photography here in Vancouver. 

The files I was getting from the medium format were astounding but it wasn’t my biggest surprise. It was the way I had to alter my shooting to accommodate a much larger and more demanding tool. Along with my fascination for what my new companion could do came the feeling of confusion and evaluation. Why, after years of having the freedom of a small, playful tool which had helped me to produce so many great images, would I go back to a large, heavy camera like that? Aren’t you Olaf, the street photographer? After all, medium format doesn’t belong there. 

Those initial thoughts led to more questions and mental tribulation. Who are you as a photographer? Is your seeing articulate? Where are you heading? What are you trying to say with your photography? Strangely enough, the camera I didn’t even own knocked me out of my comfortable warm photographic equilibrium. As much as I tried to push back with “the camera doesn’t matter” mantra I had been preaching for so long, I couldn’t stop this whirlwind from gaining strength. And it was of my own making! 

Despite some concerns I soldiered on! My process of seeing and crafting images slowed down even more. I no longer felt the need to run around town or after my subject. I started observing more and more without pointing my camera. My thought process went from slow to snail-like to the point that on occasions I missed my small camera companion. I felt I had committed treason abandoning everything I believed in. 

For weeks, I was experimenting and shooting with medium format. Over time, the storm clouds inside my head started to dissipate. No, it wasn’t all clear and sunny right away but it became way more welcoming. I started to focus on the long-term projects and pulled away from the constant temptation of creating something new. It is not that I abandoned the idea. Quite the opposite! Now this new thing had to be articulate. I knew that I had to say something important with my photography. At that moment, the pieces started falling into place. This medium format camera I had been dreaming about for such a long time stopped being just an itch, but started becoming my seeing machine which aligned with my current visual aspirations and plans. 

It happened as I started work on my Renatus Project. This project of a lifetime – which I have been dreaming about for years – has finally started taking shape and since its start, I knew that it had to be shot with medium format. After all, I was dealing with remarkable human stories of people who had been through unimaginable drama but found redemption and kindness. These stories carry so much emotional and narrative weight that they must be matched with equally powerful visuals. 

At that moment, my seeing, my photography, my future and medium format came together as one. This was the point of no return. Of course, such deliberations are often met with the cruel reality of life and financing the medium format camera became a major issue for me. One evening, one of my students who had become a friend, called me with a proposition which absolutely stunned me. He said, “I would like to purchase the medium camera for you” adding “please let me do it and this way I could photograph with you.” Despite some initial objections, I humbly and gratefully accepted his generous gift and promised to make great use of it. 

Since then, I have worked almost exclusively with medium format and finally understood what Vincent Lions meant when he wrote “loss of interest in other platforms may occur” in his excellent piece, “Five unexpected side effects of medium format photography.” It was just the beginning. Who knew that my new tool would take my photography to unexpected but familiar places. 

For years, everyone agreed that medium format has no place on the street. After all, the camera of choice for street photographers must be small with fast autofocus. Regardless, I started photographing urban areas with medium format. And more self-discoveries occurred. I lost interest in traditional street photography and started creating visuals which could not be easily defined. 

Whether it is the first light hitting my hotel room or the mosaic of light inside the diner, I have been slowly and deliberately working to turn those temptations of light into my own imagery. What has become really appealing are the transitions of light occurring within the frame, which in medium format are gentle and borderless. I have learnt to use them as my painting tool over the canvas of my own imagination. Indeed, my medium format camera has become my new, irresistible brush.

In sum, I still believe in the truism that “the camera doesn’t matter” but based on my experience, a new tool might play an important role in the fascinating journey of self-discovery and seeing. 

We would love to hear your stories. My team and I will be happy to choose the most interesting and publish them in the next issues of the Medium Format Magazine and/or on this website.

 2019 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved. 

 

Above and Beyond

Above and Beyond

An excerpt from the PDF Exclusive “20 Stories” by Ming Thein. 

I am used to having two kinds of clients: the first type wants things that have already been done before. They don’t want to take risks because previous photographers might have over-promised and under-delivered, or they lack the imagination to see something that hasn’t been done before. Or they simply are unwilling to pay for creativity over duplication. These are the kind of shoots that never go into your portfolio because it’s not the kind of work you want to be known for, but we pros have to do them because they put food on the table and keep us in business, hopefully long enough to get the chance to work on a project when we have full creative control and feel the pressure of our own limitations. It’s the kind of project where the client is willing to seriously consider your crazy ideas and trust in your ability to deliver them. 

My introduction to Koenigsegg came through Hasselblad and DJI. I suggested to Christian (von Koenigsegg) that we combine a bit of everybody’s technology: long exposures on a moving car to show dynamism and suggest a journey; high speed flash to freeze the car to make it distinct; very large prints and expansive compositions to fully use the camera’s resolution, and then top it off with an aerial perspective by putting the H6D on DJI’s largest aircraft. Execution would be tricky as there were a lot of moving pieces to coordinate and a very small window in which ambient daylight would be sufficient to see the surroundings, but not so much as to overpower the car’s lights. It would require a long exposure and a stable aerial platform. Hon- estly, I wasn’t 100% sure we could pull it off. And there was a backup documentary shoot in the factory to detail the construction process for the times of day when ambient light wasn’t suitable for the outdoor car sequences. 

In the end, the shoot only produced five images, each one requiring a couple of hours of set- up, test positioning for car, lighting and aircraft. We had to have a coordinator in touch with air traffic control and override codes from DJI HQ to allow us to fly as the Koenigsegg test track was on the edge of a live airfield. In the end I landed up triggering the lights manually with the trigger in one hand, a radio in my ear to direct the driver, and an iPad with the camera gimbal controls in the other, with the pilot next to me. The only time I’d had to multitask more inten- sively was during another automotive shoot—a TV commercial where we added a crane car and crane operator to the mix. 

I always feel mentally fried at the end of these shoots but in a good kind of way when you know you’ve pushed your limits, the team’s limits, the hardware’s limits, and come out with something pretty special. I’m just grateful there are still clients like this giving us photographers the chance to keep pushing. 


PDF Exclusives is a series of highly informative ebooks in which great medium format photographers share their knowledge of the craft with special emphasis on medium format. So far, we have released PDF Exclusives from Vincent Lions, Patrick La Roque , Lloyd Chambers and Ewan Dunsmuir. We have three more in the works including some about medium format film photography.The best news? These exclusive publications are included in the price of the Medium Format Magazine!

To access the full PDF Exclusive “20 Stories” by Ming Thein make sure to SUBSCRIBE NOW and get immediate access to all previous issues of the Medium Format Magazine and highly regarded PDF Exclusives. Join your fellow medium format shooters from around the world who are already enjoying their MediumFormat membership.

2019 © OLI Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.

Medium Format Magazine – February 2019

Medium Format Magazine – February 2019

Medium format photography has never been so alive and well. This is apparent in the stunning work you will find in the February issue of the Medium Format Magazine. 

A fascinating interview with Damien Lovegrove begins the issue. This must-read conversation with one of the most accomplished and celebrated photographers is an account of a remarkable journey of visual and business mastery in today’s difficult world of professional photography. 

© Damien Lovegrove

In the next article, Alex Tseli takes his brand-new Hasselblad X1D on a photographic trip to a colourful and visually-rich Morocco. His honest and well-written account of the trip and his experience of using the X1D makes this piece an intriguing read. 

Don Craig, a professional photographer from Victoria, works for the government of British Columbia as a designer and photographer. He shares with us his experience of using the medium format Fujifilm GFX system in his work settings. I am confident many of you will find his article useful and thought-provoking. 

This month, Ming Thein tackles the issue of art and photography. Those of you who have been following Ming Thein and his “In Pursuit of Transparency” know what to expect – deep, thoughtful writing. Make sure to turn off all distractions. 

As you turn the page, you will encounter a trip to an unexpected but fascinating place. Michael Zahra takes us into the strictly controlled area around Chernobyl, site of one of the largest nuclear disasters in the modern era. When reading his account, vivid memories of my childhood in communist Poland, just across the border from Ukraine, came back to me. I well remember the time when the first news about the disaster hit the airwaves and the government started distributing the Potassium Iodide solution to me and my schoolmates. Make sure to read Michael’s fascinating account of this trip and see the stunning imagery captured with his medium format camera. 

© Michael Zahra

Lloyd Chambers continues his insightful series about maximizing image quality with shot discipline. This time Lloyd tackles the issue of optimal exposure. As usual, in his no-nonsense, to-the-point piece, Lloyd educates us on how to reap the full benefit of our medium format gear. 

This month Ibarionex Perello in his “Beyond Medium Format” column talks about “Feeling What You Are seeing.” He takes us inside a famous recording studio and shares his experience of shooting a recording session with great musicians. It is not only about the images!

Holger Nitschke shares his stunning portraiture work and asks a series of important questions about medium format and photography in general. His way of working with models and capturing unique portraits is something to admire and learn from.

Model: Michelle Hair/Makeup: Ilka Preuth Photo: Holger Nitschke

Finally, Alex Burke, our new columnist, introduces himself and writes about his large format photography. As we work to expand medium format film photography coverage, I am very pleased to have Alex with us and I’m looking forward to his series about film photography. 

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Go ahead and join thousands of medium format users enjoying our publication. Get access not only to the newest edition, but also to all available previous issues of the magazine and the PDF Exclusives. JOIN US NOW!  

9 Frames by Patrick La Roque

9 Frames by Patrick La Roque

The Medium Format Magazine is not the only publication available to our members. We also publish the PDF Exclusives – high-quality, in-house designed educational and inspirational pieces on a variety of subjects related to medium format film and digital photography. Our subscribers have already downloaded and enjoyed a number of such exclusive publications. Vincent Lions authored one about still life photography and Lloyd Chambers about the technical aspects of shooting digital medium format. The latest production was from Patrick La Roque – the master storyteller and visual virtuoso. In his “9 Frames – On Being Moved and Why” Patrick deciphers nine images and shares his mechanics of seeing and capturing them. It is a revealing and fascinating read. Here is one of the images with accompanying text by Patrick La Roque.

 

A few leaves in a simple space

© Patrick La Roque

For years, I’ve worked with an architecture and design firm that creates stunning spaces. I have a shed load of images from these projects that I’m extremely proud of and could have included here. But I keep coming back to this rather muted image. When I shoot spaces I’m always looking for small vignettes that tell a story beyond any grandeur. Sure, I’ll capture the spectacular super wide frames as part of the job, but I also try to find innocuous views, the kind you’d vaguely notice from a bed or a sofa while reading a book on a lazy afternoon. Because these, to me, feel like life as opposed to stagecraft. And this is one such image: I love the light, the angles, the tones and the leaves on the outside porch. It seems unintentional and real.

A small aside about general technique: 99% of my interior work is shot in available light as in whatever-light-is-part-of-the-space, natural or otherwise. In high-end designs, lighting isn’t random: every lamp, spot and window is intentional. Capturing this intent is something I consider important because it’s part of the initial vision. The trick is to remember that timeis also part of our gear because with a still subject and a tripod, the camera shutter can remain open for as long as it takes. So I keep my ISO low and set the camera to aperture-priority, turning the exposure compensation dial until I get an exposure that provides the look I’m trying to achieve. I use the built-in timer to delay the shutter (to avoid any sort of shake) and click away.

Unless we want to re-lighta space, there’s no need to overcomplicate matters in this type of situation. I do bring a small flash with me just in case and I’ve used it to create different moods. But as I said, this is the exception rather than the rule.

 


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