Tech Time

Liz Kuball recently wrote a nice post on Cameras and Formats. Some are of the mind set that indeed it’s not the tool but the eye that makes the picture, others feel having the right 4×5 and lens combination could possibly allow one to solo like Jimi and his 63 pre cbs Fender Stratocaster plugged into a Marshall.
These last few weeks have been plagued with little technical malfunctions while photographing. Nothing I would let stop me from working it out to make the pictures I want to make but frustrating nonetheless. Yesterday though the big hit came. My medium format film camera died on me. It’s the camera that I’ve used for the last 5 years to make oh-so-many of the Copia pictures. It’s a simple device but like most electronic things today, has a limited life.
More problematic is that Contax the camera manufacturer went out of business some time ago. Now I know that film camera’s days are numbered and I honestly have no aversion to digital cameras but the ones that seem to me to have the quality I’d prefer are digital backs attached to a medium format camera with a price tag of 5 figures. (I’ve been pretty impressed with the H3D II). Do I need to make huge prints? Not always. But thinking back to the bigger question of camera format, fidelity and optics do have a profound effect on the way we understand the image. In fact most of the pictures I’ve been making this summer are either with my phone or an 8×10, opposite sides of the equation indeed.
So I’m faced with the dilemma of changing the way I photograph to accommodate a digital SLR (never a fan of putting my eye to a viewfinder); trying to drum up the funds and credit to buy a $30,000 digi back; or getting another used Contax body and picking up where I left off. I keep telling myself it shouldn’t seem to matter but certain cameras are incredibly good at making certain types of pictures, (as well as the process of understanding/conceptualizing the image when seeing it in viewfinder).
Good thing in the meanwhile the 8×10 and 4×5 don’t take batteries. Your thoughts? Donations? 😉


  1. Posted August 15, 2008 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Where may I leave a (small) donation?

  2. Posted August 15, 2008 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Mamiya 7II because all the real photographers use rangefinders…apparently the 43 on it is sharper than the HSW. Or there is always the Alpa if you really want to spend some money.

  3. Posted August 15, 2008 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the shout-out, Brian. Sucks about your camera. I wish I had an answer. . . . But I know whichever camera you choose, you’ll make it look easy.

  4. Posted August 16, 2008 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    have u considered a rollei tlr from the 50’s or 60’s with no electronics-batteries. the lenses are magical !!

  5. Posted August 16, 2008 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Nippon has fixed contaxes for me as recently as a couple months ago. Did a new shutter and CLA. There are parts available. it might be rescuable.

  6. Posted August 16, 2008 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    i think if i was you,..i will buy another contax… if you still working with your large format, but love the process of the contax…
    I try to think if my mamiya 67 died.. ( but i have no large format at the moment!!!).

  7. Posted August 16, 2008 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    All good advice. Thanks gang. I’ll certainly see if I repair the camera first but am more curious about the timeframe for film cameras in general. As well as the lack of a affordable medium format digital.

  8. Posted August 16, 2008 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Not sure if you’re very interested in going the digi slr route but I would look into the new Nikon D700, you can use live view on the 3 inch lcd instead of the view finder and its high ISO performance is incredible. Plus the new Nikon f2.8 wide angle zooms rock. This system would be considerably lower in price than a medium format digital back, although it’s only 12 megapixels I’ve heard rumors of a 24mp version coming out in the coming months, I’ve also up sampled 12mp files in Camera Raw and made really nice looking mural prints. Go to calumet and play around with one for a few minutes…you might be suprised.

  9. Posted August 16, 2008 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    First, film cameras are not going anywhere. Ilford, Kodak and Ilford are still very much into making film.

    Second, check the price on the repair of your camera.

    Third, look into a Hasselblad 501cm. No electronics. Built to last.

  10. Posted August 17, 2008 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    I think film here going to be around for a long time to come (a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have said that). Still lots of camera and film manufacturers (Hasselblad 503CW, Mamiya 645, etc – new TMAX and Portra films from Kodak), with TONS of good used equipment on the market. Go with digital if you like what it has to offer, but not because film is going away.

    Just my two cents….

  11. Posted August 17, 2008 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    up here in canada all photography has been banned, so stop complaining, eh?

  12. Posted August 18, 2008 at 9:49 am | Permalink

    Sorry about your camera mishap.
    At the end of the day, you have a great eye so, even if you use a box camera, you can make it happen!

  13. Posted August 19, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I feel your pain. I’ve been eyeballing a creo scanner – trying to fluid scan on my epson is just not getting it done. And those $200 drum scans are eating my lunch.

    I would recommend fleabay or the for sale forum on for used equipment. MF digital might suit your shooting style and I think your work should be seen big. But man, it’s expensive!

    Me – I’m applying for a grant!

  14. Posted August 19, 2008 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    All good suggestions. Thanks.

    Craig, my friend here in Chicago runs Blackpoint Editions. They do great drum scans for about $75 last time I checked.

  15. Posted August 20, 2008 at 9:02 am | Permalink

    dood – am in the same boat – my contax is acting up as well. i’m contemplating the digi switch as well – all da best


  16. Posted August 20, 2008 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to say, you might need both.

    Buying a used Contax body in this market should be the cheapest and most logical option for you.

    However, I’d strongly recommend purchasing a good DSLR and becoming accustom to a new work flow while continuing to use film.

    It can take a long time (upwards of a year) to make a full switch to digital. The results are so different, no matter the camera.

    Digital is not an easy way out!

  17. Posted August 23, 2008 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    I’m gonna have to agree with “the dedicated eye” on this.

    I think that photographers heading forward in this day need to have knowledge of both analog and digital.

    I wish any one of us could provide an easy answer for you, but that just isn’t really viable.

    The truth is, your at a cross roads.

    I think “ruben” also makes a good point. You are a good photographer with a good eye and no matter whcih route you go, you’ll find success. The learning curve for digital isn’t hard to overcome, it’s just taking that initial plunge that can be scary.

    Lastly, the equipment you are likely to be using will be on the expensive side. I highly suggest renting and trying a couple models before you buy. Maybe do an A/B test with two camera models, same time, same subject, same lighting, etc. See which gear gives you the best results.

  18. Posted August 24, 2008 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    I have used some digi SLR’s and rented several of the medium format backs for editorial jobs.
    Most recently the H3D II for a job for Newsweek. A good camera and could easily compare to the 645 Contax but again the price.
    They can be great for editorial work as one doesn’t have to fuss with all the scanning. But I still find the 4×5, for portraits esp., had such a psychological effect on the way someone presents themselves for the camera.

  19. Posted August 24, 2008 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    Not to be dense, but could you please explain the whole psychologically presenting themselves part a little more. I have not used a 4×5 for a portrait, but my experience is more about how I set the tone, than the camera, but then again, I might be dense.


  20. Posted August 24, 2008 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    When you have the camera on a tripod and spend the amount of time it takes to compose, focus etc.. it gives the sitter more time to get comfortable. More importantly having someone present themselves for a camera and not for a person looking through a camera seems to reinforce the idea that other people will be looking at the them and not just the photographer.
    This is not at all a rule or a universal, there are millions of ways to make portraits but in my experience this can happen more often with a 4×5.

  21. corinne
    Posted August 25, 2008 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    I have the opinion that a different camera brings something different. For example the format (6×6, 4×5″, etc.) forces to a different way of looking at things. Also, as you said, the way someone presents themselves for the camera can be different if this is a camera with or without a viewfinder.

    Your feelings about the camera is the most important thing and of course the money will decide too 😉
    I still find the digital back far too expensive, bearing in mind all other digital accessories to buy or update – from the battery to the computer I mean. If you have many commissioned works to do, then that could be a great investment.
    To rent a digital back is still a great solution and then continue your work with a film camera.

    Good luck with your decision – and keep us updated of your choice!

  22. Posted August 25, 2008 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    I am going to have to jump into the repair your (or buy a used) Contax boat.

    I work at a camera store here in Chicago and have access to pretty much all of what is out there at the moment. I have little doubt that a Phase 645 with a digital back would solve all your problems, but that is an incredible monetary and time commitment.

    How much of your workflow is digital right now? Are you scanning all your film and printing digitally more often than not? If your end result is digital starting digital won’t hurt your workflow, but if you would be converting your whole workflow you’d have a bigger headache.

    It can of course be done, but I have found it much more frustrating to get digital to do what the films I love already do (EPP, Provia, Astia). Perhaps that is an inability on my part to utilize the truly complete control digital gives you, but I personally find that the limitations of film inspire much more creativity than digital ever has.

  23. Posted August 25, 2008 at 10:13 pm | Permalink

    Yes I often use both and all my prints are digitally output (lightjet, chromeria). I drum scan everything and do all the corrective work. It’s a bear but worth it to give me control over the whole process.
    At the moment I’ve been in no hurry to make any decision for a few reasons, one being I’ve been using mostly the 8×10 and 4×5 as of late and two being I wouldn’t have the 5 digit figures to invest in a digit back if I wanted. Most likely will repair/replace the Contax for the time being and further investigate those digi backs. I do find it interesting that people often say the backs ‘will eventually come down in price’, not that I’ve seen.

  24. Posted August 25, 2008 at 10:21 pm | Permalink

    The Mamiya ZD back is cheaper than a 1Ds Mark III, so the trend may be in a cheaper direction but it is certainly a very, very slow one.

    If you are shooting 8×10 and 4×5 I am sure you are well aware of what will always separate large format film from any other medium: the ground glass. I think for some of us that simply is where the images is made. For me, at least, it is.

    Best of luck with the Contax repair/replacement.

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