Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New Dogs, Old Tricks

Format blending: take an old, dubbya-dubbya-two era Speed Graphic press camera, a modern micro-four-thirds digital camera, a piece of wood, some hardware, and viola, instant digital camera-obscura format blending. I had this crazy idea when the other night's restless sleeplessness afforded me the opportunity to let my mind wander as it so easily does if permitted, and usually it migrates onto some creative subject like photography.

I have been amused over the last few months, while perusing the internet photography discussion forums, that, while there's this concept of a lens's optical properties lending a photograph certain aesthetic qualities that are unique to that particular focal length, lens design and format size, there are whole new generations of people who are just now discovering these basic optical principles that have guided photography since its inception, as if before the era of computers and pixels none of this had existed, as if there is no past, just a perpetually changing present. Retro-tech, like old cameras and basic optical devices, remind me of that past.

I like the convenience aspect of some of the new digital gear, specifically the Lumix G1 I currently use, which seems to be a photographic jack-of-all-trades, being a good street shooter as well as an able landscape camera. But I also like old photographic methods. Large format negatives. Paper negatives. Contact printing on silver gelatin paper. Large format cameras. Adapted optics. Box cameras. The thing with these newer digital cameras is that their format size -- the size of their light-sensitive parts -- are so small that a normal angle of view demands a lens of extremely short focal length, short enough that you can't see the same optical qualities that you can with larger formats of the same angle of view, whose longer focal length lenses exhibit shallower depth of focus and a different perspective. There are also other optical qualities I like to explore with large format, like purposefully aberrant image quality, with out-of-focus, blurry edges, using single-element lenses, plastic fresnel lenses, or pinholes. Many of these alternative optical elements just aren't practical to apply to small digital cameras directly. What to do?

The thought struck me, during my night of tossing and turning, that what I needed is a large-format-box-camera-like device which, instead of projecting a lens's image onto film, would simply project its image onto a ground glass view-screen, enabling the resulting image to be viewed (or rephotographed) directly off the rear of the box. This would function like a test bed for all sorts of alternative refractive optical devices, whose image could be captured using the little G1. A digital camera-obscura.

This morning I thought about my old Speed Graphic, that workhorse of an old camera, stored in my closet along with other camera gear, whose ground glass, though marred and scratched and less than ideal, would make a handy test subject for the concept. I had also already made up a second lens board that uses an objective lens from a set of binoculars, which, operating wide open in aperture, exhibits lots of off-axis blurry optical magic. And the Speed Graphic's bellows permits focus adjustments as well, permitting the G1 to view the focused image on the Speed Graphic's ground glass just like a press photographer during the war would have seen.

The result is this collaboration between two entirely distinct generations of camera technology, cobbled together for some common purpose. The results are interesting, though not perfect. The ground glass is scratched and is less than ideal for the purpose, as it has a central hot-spot of overly-bright exposure; a modern fresnel lens view-screen would solve this problem, something I should perhaps consider upgrading to, but then I wonder what the old Speed Graphic would think of a new view-screen. Wouldn't want to get its hopes up. Although I do suppose it's taken notice of the old typewriters in the same closet that seem to get a lot of use lately, so perhaps it's onto me.

In the future I hope to finish a better version of this concept, with a fresnel screen brighter and of more even light distribution, such as a tail-board-style nested box structure with built-in camera mount in the back for the G1. Think of all the old magnifying glasses, and other refractive elements such as enlarger lenses, salvaged optical elements from industry, zone plates, etc., just waiting to be put into service as camera-obscura lenses, and all their goofy, swirly optical magic they have to offer. What they have to offer, technically, is far from the optical engineer's ideal; but what they seem to do well is project a little bit of magic, the kind you just can't measure with numbers, charts and graphs; the kind of magic where you know it when you see it and feel it deep down inside.


Blogger Olivander said...

This is wonderful. I tried to do the same thing a few years ago, but with a much less sophisticated setup (digicam on a 2nd tripod behind a 4x5, darkcloth draped over both cameras). Needless to say, I failed.

It's an extreme form of TTV (Through the Viewfinder) photography. I usually use the brilliant finder of a Brownie Starflex.

9:27 AM  

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