Here’s a crazy idea: shoot something you have wanted to shoot for some time, and shoot it on a camera that you have wanted to shoot with for some time. And get a team behind it, but be able to maintain your own vision.
This is how I found myself being able to develop the idea for a fashion shoot based on the four seasons, and being able to shoot it on a Mamiya RZ67 in a well-equipped studio with twelve people (!) helping out. How do you get a group (in this case, a commercial photography class) to go along with what you want to do? Have a good idea that is better developed than the other proposals. Being persuasive helps, too.
The task at hand was to execute a group project–a shoot to which everyone would contribute something. I knew that I wanted to shoot something fashion-related, to gain the experience and the portfolio pieces, but also that I lacked the fashion and styling sense to pull it off on my own. I knew the look that I wanted to go for, and how to get it, and all I needed was the help. And in a big group project, there are always the one or two people who really come through.
Aside from the luxury of having a very talented classmate (Mr. Bob Smith) design the headdresses, and having three classmates working as lighting assistants on two sets, I also had the opportunity to shoot with the RZ67, which is one of those classic cameras that I just feel I should have my fingerprints on somewhere if I want to be taken seriously as a film photographer. I have been loving shooting with my Bronica ETR-Si (a 645 format camera), and I loved working with the 6×6 Bronica SQ until I sold it recently; the RZ seemed like a logical next step in increasing the size of the negatives I work with, which for me is parallel to increasing the seriousness and care with which I shoot. And the expectations of the finished product. Others were putting buckets of work into this project, and I wanted to make sure that the images coming out of my camera were doing justice to their work.
The RZ is a huge camera; even though I am a fairly sizable guy, it borders on too big to hand-hold. The viewfinder, to someone who is used to working with 35mm and 645 cameras, seems as large as a movie screen. The focusing mechanism, on the side of the camera rather than on the lens itself, is closer in feel and function to a view camera than to other SLR designs. That being said, it actually allows for much more precise focusing, in my limited experience. And the quality of the lenses! Ahh, the lenses!
The camera, of course, is just a tool. It’s a very popular thing to say that the camera doesn’t matter, that a good photographer can take great pictures with any gear. And that is true to an extent. But what also warrants consideration is how a proper tool–I mean one that is really and truly special, one that you approach with a certain amount of reverence, even–can actually cause you to function better as a creative person. I found this to be true when I first cooked on excellent cookware, and put my food on good-looking plates. I know that it happened when I finally grew up photographically and started shooting with an SLR again instead of point-and-shoots (yes, even a D40 was once a jump up in quality). The RZ is this kind of tool. I anticipated using it. I approached it as a collaborator in the shoot, not simply a tool. I had in mind that I would let it influence the way I worked, and it lived up to the challenge. I would not, and perhaps could not, have made these images with a 35mm camera. I also used my 645 on this shoot, and ended up liking those frames somewhat less than the 6×7 frames.
If there is a downside to the pervasiveness of digital photography, it is that it has made us forget, or in some cases it has kept us from learning in the first place, the way format affects photography. The 35mm system was never the studio standard in the film years; it was a portable, lightweight system for amateurs and photojournalists. Now, it is the industry standard for virtually all photographic applications. This is not the place to get into the optical qualities of various formats and the technical limits of small sensors and film frames. But shooting with a different kind of camera can challenge you to shoot in a different way…maybe it’s a more careful way, maybe it’s a slower way, maybe it’s more static, or more dynamic, or maybe, because you only have ten frames before you have to reload, you have to conceptualize much better before you start going nuts on the shutter. With only ten shots, maybe you don’t shoot the same thing over and over, but instead push the model and yourself toward something else. Maybe your contact sheets end up more interesting and more varied. Maybe, because it is film, you don’t stop shooting once you ‘have it’, because, even though as a good photographer you know when you have it, you want to be sure, and so you shoot some more, and that is when you actually get it.
Some photographers I know are actually afraid of medium format systems. They don’t know how to function with them; they can’t figure out how to work with a flow on camera that is slower but more detailed. Some are not confident in their manual focusing, or even in how to use a light meter (and heaven forbid that you set the camera to something other than what the light meter says!). This is a problem; this is a limitation. Not because everyone should be shooting medium format, but because, by not shooting medium format–ever–they are missing out on contextualizing what is both liberating and limiting in the 35mm format. After working with the RZ, I was itching to get back to my F100 and just fire away. Thirty-six shots on a roll? That’s an eternity! Imagine what I could do. Then again, ten shots on a roll? That’s a challenge. Imagine what I can push myself to do.
All images taken on a Mamiya RZ67 with a 180mm lens. Color images are Kodak Portra 160. Black and White film is 100TMax. Film scanned on an Epson V700. Texture files captured digitally.