Throwback

Crown Graphic 4X5

Crown Graphic 4X5

A very kind and generous person recently lent me a camera to play with for a bit. As you can see from the image attached to this post, it’s a Crown Graphic 4X5 camera that takes a huge 4X5 negative. These negatives are loaded into film holders and each holder takes two sheets of film.

I threw an Arca-Swiss-compatible plate on the bottom of it and took it out for a brief spin at Treasure Island today. While I likely won’t have the chance to get the film developed till next weekend, I had so much fun with it today that I had to write about it.

I got lucky – my favorite film (Fuji Neopan Across 100) was available in this size at Keeble and Shuchat in Palo Alto. At over $40 for a box of 20 sheets, cheap it ain’t – and that’s not counting development costs.

I ruined two sheets in my practice loading runs, so that’s $4 down the drain already. That leaves 18 images to make with this wonderfully anachronistic machine.

Setting up the Crown Graphic is a breeze. Throw it on a tripod, hit two buttons to open the front and back of the camera, pull the lens assembly along on rails until it can’t go any further, then twist the locking mechanism it into place. Open the shutter and lock that open and you’re good to start composing your image.

This is where it gets even more fun. Bill, the kind gentleman who loaned me this gem, also loaned me a blanket specially designed for this camera. You throw it over yourself and the camera body and peer through a viewfinder any DSLR user would faint over.

See, the Crown Graphic features full ground glass viewing. What does this mean? Well, it means that the “viewfinder” you’re looking through is actually a plate of ground glass that’s every bit as large as the negative. So not only are you getting 100% viewfinder coverage, you’re getting it at a 1:1 ratio.

If you’ve never composed an image like this, let me tell you – you’re in for a treat. Yeah, it’s a bit tricky, since the image is upside-down and horizontally flipped, but you still get a really, really good feel for what you’re likely to see on your final negative. It’s more like trying to hang a small picture frame than making an image – especially on a tripod with a ballhead with a decent load capacity and a workable friction knob. Fortunately, the Flashpoint FP-4 I got for about $70 on sale from Adorama is more than sufficient.

Once I got it all set up and my composition dialed in, I set about determining the exposure. No, there’s no Aperture Priority mode on this thing (it’s more than fifty years old, I think). I used a Sekonic L-508 light meter for my readings and took sample exposures with the Nikon D7000 I rented for the week to see what looked best. Finally, I settled in at two exposures – one at 1/250th of a second at f/16 and the other at 1/500th of a second at the same aperture. I was going for a look where the bright sky, sun and clouds were in sharp detail and the cityscape and bridge were silhouetted against them.

I threw the blanket over myself to get my focus dialed in and I have to say, I was surprised at how sharp things looked on the ground glass. I expected to try and get to a point where I simply had the least blurry image I could manage; instead I got a pretty sharp image on the glass. Whether this translates into a sharp negative remains to be seen, but I’m optimistic.

In went the film holder and two shutter pulls later, I had my images. I can honestly say that I have not felt such a sense of satisfaction over having finished an exposure since the first shot I took with my Mamiya C33.

The Crown Graphic seemed to attract its share of attention from the tourists milling around at Treasure Island too. There were a fair number of them, what with the holiday weekend, and they seemed to delight in seeing this anachronistic beauty. They peered at the ground glass and marveled at the image on it, asked a bunch of questions and even seemed somewhat awed.

Around me, DSLRs of all shapes and sizes were being slung from shoulders and lenses from tiny pancakes to at least one that looked like a Canon 100-400 L were being pointed at the city, Alcatraz, and both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges. But the Crown, that grand old lady, seemed to get more attention that any of the other modern machines around it. Curiously, though other folks struggled to get their tripods set up amongst the crowd and then did their best to keep the folks roaming around from walking right into them, the Crown on her Manfrotto sticks seemed to get a wide berth from people who did a sort of inward-facing circle, staring at the camera as they went around it.

I have always maintained that there’s something about the quality of film that can’t always (often, but not always) be duplicated with digital. The unpredictability of what emulsion will do when exposed to light, the tactile joy of film, the unexpected texture and richness of the images from the medium have a certain luxuriousness that I can’t seem to find in digital image making.

I honestly think there’s something to the medium in this case, though let me be clear: a pro with a point-and-shoot could create better images than an amateur with an 8X10 view cam. My personal fascination with and love for film is present not because I think film is better than digital, but because it’s different from the look and feel I normally get with digital image making. That’s an important distinction and, if you asked me to chose only one medium which I had to shoot in for the rest of my life today, I would chose digital over film without hesitation.

Film is, at least for now, a tertiary point of interest in the overall pursuit of my art and craft, but it’s one that does teach me important lessons that I take back and apply to the rest of my work. For that – and for the pure pleasure of working with devices as beautiful as this Crown Graphic – I’m happy to keep playing with film for at least a while longer.

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