Considering the Zone VI Studios 4″x5″ Sheet Film Field Camera & The Zone System for Learning Photography

A report in late 2020 about yet another Australian university art school choosing to discontinue or downsize its photography course offerings, with students wondering how yo access the school’s darkroom and loan equipment got me thinking about how students might best learn photography on their own if needed, specifically analog film photography. 

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Zone VI Studios 4″x5″ Field Camera. This is almost identical to the version that I owned and that was stolen from a Mayfair share studio in London, though mine was in much better condition.
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Polaroid Polapan 55 black & white instant sheet film, now sadly discontinued.

My recommendation to them is to forgo 35mm and 120 roll-film and jump straight into the deep end, 4″x5″ sheet film photography using the Zone System, if they really want to get to grips with the true nature and realities of analog film photography.

The old saying that “your first 10,000 photographs will be your worst” holds true whether you choose analog or digital photography so you may as well expend those 10,000 digitally rather than via analog film and save yourself a whole heap of cash as well as huge chunks processing and printing time and energy.

I learned photography by myself as a child in an isolated outback town by using pre-paid 35mm Kodachrome 64 colour transparency film then posting it off to the eastern states Kodak photo laboratory, racking up my 10,000 photographs while also working as a part-time press photographer for the local regional newspaper group.

An excellent camera system for learning digital photography, the Fujifilm X100V plus

If I were learning photography by myself during the digital era then I would have chosen to do it with Fujifilm cameras due to their excellent analog-style JPEGs, with the Fujifilm X100V being their best effort yet due to its 4K video capability, its apparently much-improved built-in 23mm lens (equivalent to 35mm in 35 sensor format) and its two conversion lenses, giving you a three lens set versatile enough to cover most documentary and portraiture situations.

Not to mention street photography.

The X100V is probably Fujifilm’s most appropriate camera for street photography if its speed of use matches if not surpasses that of its predecessor, the X100F, with the V’s up-and-down tilting LCD monitor a bonus, if you like that sort of thing.

Set your X100V for shooting Fine JPEG plus Raw, study the customized analog film simulation options shared by websites such as Fuji X Weekly and many others, apply and try them out, treat your JPEGs as if they are colour transparency film, file your raw files for processing later once you begin to make better photographs, and work hard to make the best 10,000 photographs that you can.

Having done that, reconsider your desire to work with analog film, processing and printing then choose to do it in 4″x5″ format with a film like Kodak Tri-X.

During the analog era I would have recommended Polaroid’s magnificent Polapan 55 black and white positive/negative film with its 20 ISO print and 12 ISO fine grain negative but ‘Type 55’ is now long gone from the world.

Linhof Technika folding cameras, fantastic if you can afford them and great for studio portraiture

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Graflex Crown Graphic 4″x5″ sheet film field camera for use in the hand or on a tripod.

I discovered that the university art school I attended after saving enough money from press photography had a couple of Linhof cameras stored away in a closet, marked as terminally damaged by students as there was no local technician capable of or willing to restore them to working order.

The Linhof Press 70 6x7cm roll film press-style camera was tragically too far gone but I found that the Linhof Master Technika Classic 4″x5″ kit had enough undamaged parts to work well as a sheet film camera and so I set about learning to be a studio portrait photographer as the school’s lab technicians were reluctant to sign the camera out for use on location.

Later I discovered a somewhat beaten-up Graflex Crown Graphic 4″x5″ camera in the window of a local camera store going for a low, low price and immediately bought it as a stand and hand camera for portraiture, then when I became aware of Fred Picker’s Zone VI Studios in Vermont, I invested in their hardware, film, papers and photochemicals in order to  push my understanding of photography as far as it could possibly go.

My two favourite lenses, Schneider-Kreuznach 90mm f/8.0 Super-Angulon and 210mm Apo-Symmar f/5.6.

The lens that came with my Graflex Crown Graphic was a slightly wider than “normal” 135mm, a “perfect normal” focal length I preferred to the “standard normal” of 150mm in 4″x5″, so I chose a Schneider-Kreuznach two-lens set-up as illustrated above for my Zone VI Studios camera based on the lens set that came with the school’s Linhof Master Technika.

I used and loved my Zone VI Studios field camera for many years until it was eventually stolen by another photographer in a share studio in Mayfair, by which time I had succumbed to severe photochemical dermatitis and stepped away from professional photography for some time.

Wooden and metal field cameras, 4″x5″ and 8″x10″, from Japan and the USA

My Zone VI Studios camera proved to be light, surprisingly strong and resilient in challenging conditions in the deserts of Western Australia, and it survived a fall when an assistant on a corporate photography job in the goldfields stumbled backwards into it during a shoot.

If I were to go back into analog photography I would have no hesitation in purchasing a contemporary Tachihara Wista camera, though a number of them are available secondhand from Japanese online sellers along with a reasonable selection of mostly Fujifilm Fujinon large format lenses, also secondhand.

Fujinon lenses and cameras were relatively unknown back when I was buying my large format lenses, though I once read an article where fashion photographer Richard Avedon praised the qualities of Fujinon large format lenses on his Deardorff 8″x10″ camera for documentary projects such as In the American West as well as his customary fashion photography.

While other Japanese camera and lens makers such as Nikon also made large format lenses, many professional photographers most praised German-made large format lens brands such as Schneider-Kreuznach and Rodenstock, neither of which now make lenses for large format cameras.

Most of my work was in documentary and portrait photography, but had it involved more architecture, cityscape and landscape I would have added a 75mm lens and possibly a longer focal length such as 240mm.

Instead I found that 90mm and 210mm suited my needs especially given I applied them to a range of film formats in my field cameras including 4″x5″ and 6x6cm through to 6x12cm using a Sinar Vario variable format film magazine for 120 roll-film.

The Pentax Digital Spotmeter, modified by Zone VI Studios

Although Sekonic makes some outstanding multi-function light meters, the legendary Pentax Digital Spot Meter remains popular for its simplicity and elegance, though it can only be bought secondhand.

I still have mine and I really should replace its rather tattered original Zone VI Studios, Inc. scale with a new one by James A. Rinner, available on eBay or was it Amazon?

Spotmeters permit accurate placement of exposure on a chosen Zone System tone for black and white analog or digital photography.

The Zone System requires the use of spotmeters like the Pentax Digital or Sekonics and I cannot recommend the System too highly as it is essentially the foundation of expose-to-the-right aka ETTR, an exposure metering and placement method that forms the basis of accurate digital video and photography exposure and processing as well as for analog film.

Some sheet film camera lenses, accessories and developing gear, developers and books

The images above show some of the hardware and photochemicals I relied upon when teaching analog film photography at several educational institutions as well as for my own work.

My enlarger was a Beseler 45MXT-style motorized 4″x5″ enlarger modified by Zone VI Studios with a cold light source in place of the condenser lens assembly in order to obtain a smoother tonal range and fewer problems with dust on negatives.

I recommend glass or filed-out metal negative carriers to show as much of the negative as possible rather than allowing standard negative carriers to crop your image for you.

During my magazine editorial photography days, I would present clients with prints showing every square millimeter of the negative including their edges and film codes and notches, and  art directors would often include them as part of the page design.

Doing so was especially popular when I was commissioned to make high impact close-up portraits in Polaroid 55 with my view camera and 210mm lens, using camera movements like shift, swing and tilt with the lens almost wide open to emotively emphasis some features while blurring others out of focus and thus importance.

I carried a Broncolor three monobloc flash unit kit with a selection of coloured gels, diffusers,  barndoors, mesh grids and a small lightbox, but nowadays I would opt for a Rotolight HSS LED light kit.

When developing Tri-X sheet film for images that I wanted to give the full negative printing treatment, I would tray-develop it, but if in a hurry I would use Paterson tanks with sheet film reels or I would have them machine-developed at a local black and white lab that used Jobo machines and tanks.

Sheet film reels have the habit of creating marks on the edges of your film whereas standing in pitch black rocking your sheet film in developing trays for hours on end ensured unmarked edges.

My preferred film developer was Agfa’s venerable and highly cost-effective Rodinal, but due to its high dilutions, long developing times and the need for stand development it could only be developed in tanks using the inversion-with-a-twist process.

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New Book by the Great Joel Meyerowitz, ‘Where I find Myself’, Coming Soon from Publisher Laurance King

The arts often cross-fertilize each other and inspiration is to be gained from anywhere and everywhere in the same way as fertile subjects for photography and moviemaking are often to be found just around the corner. 

Photograph by Joel Meyerowitz, from his website.

The colour and monochrome photographs of Joel Meyerowitz have been major influences on my own photography and moviemaking since seeing some of his colour photographs in a tiny little book decades ago, so it is wonderful to learn that Where I Find Myself, Joel Meyerowitz’s first major retrospective in book form, is due out soon to accompany a major retrospective exhibition in Berlin.

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