I got a request a few days ago about my thoughts re small/large format and digital vs film. It seems to be an active topic so I hope the following can shed some more “light” on the subject!
Dear Mr. Ross,
… was wondering if you would be kind enough to answer a couple of questions regarding your use of large format cameras. In particular, I was wondering two things:
1. Why do you continue to use large-format cameras for your art? Do you find some benefit in them that you cannot obtain from a 35mm camera?
2. It is my belief from what I have read that you prefer film over digital photography. For example, I noticed your comment in response to the Popular Photography article, Photoshop and Photography – What is Photography? “I have never seen an inkjet print that could match the depth of image in a traditional silver-print.” Is my assumption that you primarily use film correct? Is there ever a time (from a fine art standpoint) where digital would be more beneficial in your mind?
I am sure you are frequently inundated with questions from fans and fellow photographers, so I thank you in advance for taking the time to read these questions, and hopefully responding to them.
Camera size: First, consider that you can only cram a certain amount of information in a given amount of space. At 24x36mm (1×1.5 sq. in) a 35mm camera has a negative with 1.5 square inches of area. A 4×5″ negative has 20 square inches and 8×10 has 80! So, given an equivalent film in both cameras, a 4×5 negative has over 13 times the information (detail) as a 35mm. Also, most 4×5 cameras have all sorts of adjustments allowing controls of focus and image geometry not available with “solid-body” cameras. Further, there is only one exposure on each piece of 4×5 film, so each image can be developed according to its own merits. Lastly, I personally kind of like the slower, contemplative approach often associated with working with a bigger camera.
Film vs digital: They both have their merits. I got a Canon 5D MkII several months ago and think it is a wonderful tool. Digital can certainly do things film cannot do – capture color and BW at the same time, have different ISO speeds with the twist of a dial, record a staggering number of images on a single memory card and offer instant replay immediately after exposure among other things. Downside- there is nothing permanent about a digital image. If an image has not been printed and its storage drive fails without backup, the image is gone forever. Currently, digital recording has nowhere near the tonal scale of a BW negative, and to some degree, a color negative. With Digital, many common scenes would require multiple exposures and subsequent HDR processing to record the brightness range easily captured in a single exposure on bw film. That said, there is just something I intrinsically like about working with film. I have an Epson 3880 printer and think it produces quite lovely prints – but they still don’t have the tonal depth of a silver-gelatin print. And it’s more fun to see the image emerge in the developer than watch it get spit out of a printer.
I hope this helps – I’ve only scratched the surface of the topic! Bottom line, any camera is only a tool. Each style has its own merits and drawbacks – they are just different, not better or worse! One can drive a screw with a hammer – but it may not produce the most satisfying results!