A 4×5 In My Pocket (a new strap, too!)

  • Post category:Photo Gear

About fifteen years ago I switched from shooting 4×5 film to shooting small sensor digital. The switch was a big one–I had to give up resolution and important controls regarding what was in focus and the shape of things as projected on the film. But what I gained was mobility, instant feedback (think “endless free Polaroids”), and an extraordinarily convenient way to manage and post-process images. Color photography was no longer a nightmare. Black and white, well, you got used to it.

The switch wasn’t something I did as part of my creative process. I switched simply because I had moved to California and there was no longer any room for a darkroom. No finished basement (or basement of any kind), a house far more expensive and far smaller than my old house, and I had young children and all of those chemicals made a mess.

Digital, however, unexpectedly changed my approach to photography in important ways.

First, it was expensive to get shooting–the cost of the camera was higher than film cameras–but was essentially free after that. That allowed me to shoot far more and to conceive of a creative process that took advantage of this economic dynamic. For example, I did a project on ocean waves where it was impossible to see in the viewfinder what exactly the image looked like at the instant of exposure. My hit rate for the specific effect I was after was very low and the answer was to shoot more photos. To end up with two dozen or so final prints I made 25,000 images. No big deal, they didn’t cost me anything.

Second, when I shot with film cameras–4x5s primarily–I often used Polaroid instant film to check the exposure (in fact, I often used Polaroid film as the final print). Using instant film in this way is a highly valuable exercise for both the student and the working photographer, allowing on-the-spot feedback on what you are doing, allowing you to work a little bit like a painter, reacting in real-time to the work as it is created. Digital had that all built-in. Shoot, examine the shot, shoot again. Sure, that resulted in many photographers blasting away and peeking dumbly at every shot–“chimping” the image, to use the common derogatory phrase–but with a little discipline it offered a cost-free, instant way of seeing your work on the screen in a way that allowed examination, and maybe improvement.

Third, organizing digital images is easy, or at least far easier than film. With film, you put the negative in a special sleeve. You wrote on the sleeve beforehand (so you wouldn’t imprint the fragile negative with your writing) and identified it with some personal numbering system. These went into boxes. Roll film was tougher since all of the images on one roll had to go together, which made subject-based systems all but unworkable. It all seemed fine only because we didn’t know any better. Digital brings one of the things that computers excel at–organizing data–to photography, not only storing and arranging photographs, sorting them in all manner of complex ways on-the-fly, but preserving copies for safe-keeping in case your computer was stolen or destroyed in some mishap.

Despite all its benefits, a digital photography system had pronounced disadvantages compared to shooting film, especially large format sheet film. Two of these disadvantages are ones I missed every time I made images with my digital camera.

1) Resolution. My little Fuji XT-3 produces wonderful images and the out-of-camera color can’t be beat, but its small sensor size bugs me. Somewhere deep inside of me, I’m a 4×5 shooter and, though I know that the prints from the APS-C size sensor will do just fine up to 16×20 and even 20×24 inches–plenty large, I miss that level of pictorial detail that seemed just beyond seeing.

2) Camera movements, by which I mean the ability to move the film and lens out of parallel with each other. This functionality gives the photographer the ability, for example, to increase the area in focus in a landscape image and to correct distortions, scubas those caused by tilting the camera–that building image where the building shrinks toward the top.

There are ways to mitigate both of these faults with my little Fuji. For increased resolution I would often shoot many images, turning the camera a little with each shot to shoot a row or grid of overlapping images, which could then be stitched together to form enormous, high-resolution files. This could even be done handheld if the subject was far enough away. It took a little time and sometimes, even with a specialized tripod head made just to facilitate these sorts of images, there would be a screwup, a missing image, and a hole in your stitched result. And you had to wait until you were back at the computer to see the finished image, which eliminated one of the primary attractions of digital.

High-resolution came naturally to 4×5 film. For digital you had to work at it.

Which brings us to the Fuji GFX 100s camera. It was released last week–mine arrived Tuesday.

I’ve waited fifteen years for this camera. It offers all of the benefits of digital and, at last, greatly reduces or even eliminates some disadvantages compared to film.

It’s as big as my first digital camera, a Nikon D300, which is to say a handful and not really pocketable, but it’s a 4×5 in spirit and could almost fit in a large jacket pocket.

It shoots an image almost twelve thousand pixels across–40-inches in a print–and there us a super-high-resolution mode that can be used when the camera is tripod mounted and shooting a still subject. And at any given size the Fuji is sharper and more detailed than my best 4×5 ever was.

It doesn’t have front tilt to get all that landscape foreground in focus but it does have built-in focus stitching, a technique where you tell the camera where the nearest thing is that you want in focus and where the furthest thing is and then the camera will shoot many exposures which can then be combined, using only the sharp portions of each exposure, into one seamless deep-focus image.

It doesn’t have a way to a way to raise the lens to avoid geometric issues but with all of that resolution you can correct the problem in software and the resolution you loose will still leave you with plenty to spare for almost any practical purpose. It’s a partial solution and works in many cases.

Not all of the capabilities of a view camera are possible but several of the most important are available.

A 4×5 in your pocket. At last.

What I really started out to write about wasn’t the camera at all. It was to be a short review of a camera strap. The camera was just supposed to be there in the background, but then I wrote the first sentence and then the second and then I surfaced a while later writing “A 4×5 in your pocket. At last.”

Everything on this blog is a first draft. There is no other way.

The strap in question isn’t the one that came with the camera but one made by Peak Design. It’s their “Slide” model and they make informative, humorous videos to explain all of their products.

It comes in two colors and, breaking with tradition, I skipped over the black and bought the gray. It looks much better in person than it does on the web, with the gray being a shimmering multi-gray pattern, a monochrome version of my Apple Watch strap.

The material used for the strap, some sort of fine webbing, is soft and easily bendable, and there are no seams along its length–which means that it doesn’t dig into your neck, even when wearing it for prolonged periods. That’s nice.

My strap, the larger of the two models, has a bit of padding, which works, and one side has a grip texture. Flip it over one way and it slides (thus the name), flip it the other and it grips–a requirement for using the strap draped over your shoulder.

The reason they highlight the ability of the strap to slide is that, being a camera accessory maker which emphasizes innovative design, the strap can be quickly and easily shortened to allow you to hang it around your neck like a tourist, and then quickly lengthened it to hang it cross-body like a cool kid on Instagram. Not only cool but you can then swing-slide the camera up to your eye from that cool-kid position and the reduced friction due to their choice of strap material makes the movement smooth and easy.

Perhaps the most innovative feature of the strap is its quick-release mechanism. They have you attach a small plastic disc to your camera lug. The disc has a loop of thick cord permanently affixed to it and you thread the loop through the lug and push the plastic disc through the loop on the far side (a cow hitch, if you speak Boy Scout). No metal hoops to scrap against your ungodly expensive Fuji GFX 100s, no scratches. The dangling plastic disc then clips into the strap ends, locking into place.

You can attach similar attachment discs to other cameras or bags, tripods, whatever, and even use the same strap for all, if you like, unclipping and reclipping the strap to whatever you wanted to carry at that moment.

If you use the camera on a tripod for prolonged periods, especially in a studio, it’s nice to take the strap off and get it out of the way.

Like the Fuji GFX 100s, the strap is much more expensive than other straps but it promises to be so much closer to perfection than the others. It’s the best strap I’ve ever used.