As I write this post, I am sitting at the garden table outside the idyllic cottage that we are staying in while on holiday in the North York Moors. It’s truly beautiful here and, under normal circumstances I would just be taking in the tranquillity and enjoying the warm, dry weather. However, this isn’t one of those “look at me, I’m having a wonderful time” posts that are so popular on social media. Instead, I am trying to cheer myself up a little and learn a lesson while I’m at it.
This tale starts back at home, with me thinking about the landscape series I wanted to shoot away. I’d recently been learning about the subtleties of landscape in my current course, which opened my eyes to the proliferation of photographs of the aesthetic or picturesque. I covered this topic during a recent blog post that you can see here if you’ve not read it already. blog post
My idea for a landscape series, was to capture the apparently futile attempts that people make to tame the landscape in some way and, in some cases, how nature takes it back from them. I wanted to shoot the images as documentary rather than picturesque, so no running water, strategically-placed ruined castles or beautiful sunsets lighting the rolling fields for me. The images needed to work together as a series that challenged the viewer to understand what they were about, while at the same time looking as though they belong together, which is easily achieved by using the same compositional approach. One of the early I had was to shoot in medium format and in a square composition. For those not in the know, medium format is a name given to images that are captured using a sensing area larger than 35mm but smaller than 4x5 inches. The term was derived principally for roll and sheet film that was available for a group of camera systems, the most common of which was 120 roll film that is 6cms in width. Shooting on a larger area has a number of advantages. The first is that the larger the sensor area, the higher the grain/pixel density for the size of image being projected by the lens, meaning that resulting photographs can be blown up in size without losing the detail. The second is that the lenses for medium format cameras create a different ‘look’ in terms of depth of field because they are designed to work with the larger areas. I know this isn’t a particularly technical explanation (I didn’t want it to be), but suffice to say, photographers refer to the medium format ‘look’, where the extra subject isolation and detail draws the viewer in. Truth is, a well shot medium format image is very beautiful indeed, far more so than a native 35mm frame. Now, I have a fairly large collection of medium format film cameras and 5 of them shoot a square format of 6x6cms onto 120 roll film. I have no favourites, but for this trip I wanted the flexibility of a system camera, so my Hasselblad V500c/m was the logical choice. It’s a legendary Swedish medium format SLR, popular with famous artists, wedding photographers and even astronauts, being the basic design for the cameras used on the Apollo missions. Those magnificent lunar surface and Earth rising shots? They were shot on a variant of the V500. It was also the first camera I bought when I went back to shooting film, so it should be the one I’m most familiar with, right? Not quite. Being the camera that took my medium format virginity, the Blad was quick to show me its quirks early on, some of which I’ve not seen in any other camera I’ve since collected. One of the great things about the camera is that it is completely modular. It can be easily stripped down to its sub-assemblies, which not only means that it can be easily cleaned and maintained, but there are a wide range of options for components like viewfinders, light meters, focusing screens, even the handle that winds the film. The individual film enclosures are swappable too, which was a huge benefit to the wedding shooting crowd, as it meant that they could carry several pre-loaded film ‘backs’ and have an assistant reload them as they swapped them out; picture a machine gun magazine but for a camera. The quirks of the design are intended to make sure that it performs properly when assembled, prevents mechanical damage or ruins the film being shot. No matter though, as after a few weeks of shooting the Blad, these were all well understood; back in 2016, that is.
The mighty Swede. Lenses with Carl Zeiss glass contain all of the controls apart from Shutter Release and Mirror Lock-up
Dismantled. Changeable everything, plus Yours Truly reflected in the internal mirror
One of the ‘features’ of how the camera operates is that the winder (mine’s a knob rather than a crank), advances the film in the back, winds a spring in the main body, and also one in the lens. The modular nature of the camera means that the shutter and its speed control, are in the lens and not the camera (unlike most other SLR cameras), so it needs winding up at the same time as the mirror assembly in the body. All sounds ok, but in order to keep them synchronised, the camera must be wound (cocked) in order to fit or remove the lens. If you try to remove the lens when both springs are exhausted, you’ll find that they are locked together, only to be released when winding on to take the next picture. Quirky, but not a problem. Furthermore, if you wind the camera without the film back attached, they then get out of synch which, unless manually reset, results in an additional frame being advanced and a piece of film wasted. Believe me, the stuff is so expensive now, that wasting shots is painful. Again, I learned this the hard way in the beginning.
Fast forward from that initial learning to this morning. I’d scouted the first images I wanted in the series while we were walking the other day and, as the camera is too heavy to walk long distances with, I resolved to shoot them properly on a different day. This morning, we loaded up and hiked up the incredibly steep Rosedale Chimney Bank, which has a heart-pumping 1 in 3 incline. When we got to the first composition, I set up the camera, metered the scene and pressed the shutter. The mirror in the camera dutifully flipped up, but the shutter didn’t fire. Strange. The camera and lens were now out of synch for some unknown reason and they were completely locked. Worse still, the issue had prevented the winder from releasing so that I could be turned to cock the camera for the next frame. I was left on a hillside with a large block of useless machinery. I quickly realised what was wrong and the gravity of the situation regarding fixing it. The fix for this issue involves the delicate process of resynching camera and lens with a watchmaker’s screwdriver to turn a tiny screw, that is right in front of the rear optic of a very expensive lens. Naturally, I didn’t have a screwdriver with me while in the middle of nowhere, even if I had been brave enough to attempt it. No option then, but to abandon the shoot altogether and trudge back down the hill.
Danger Close! The tiny screw that is perilously close to the back lens element. By the state of the anti-reflective paint, this has been operated before
What had happened was that over time and lack of use, the lens I’d selected lost some of its spring tension. When it came to shooting that first frame, the two springs were completely out of synch, with the obvious result. Back at the cottage, the process of resynching was carefully completed, and the camera came back to life.
The moral of this story? Technology, however clever, has some situations where it won’t perform as expected. This camera is nearly 40 years old and hasn’t had the maintenance regime that other machines of a similar vintage would have (there’s lesson 1). Secondly, knowing this might happen, I should really carry a basic toolkit with me when I go out with a camera like this. I still might not be able to fix it while out in a field, but I would stand a better chance. In the end, the light is still good so the Blad and I will be heading out again this afternoon. At least the exercise is doing me some good.
New to photography or have you found an old camera like this one? Why not have some beginner's tuition to learn the basics? Drop me a line at [email protected] for more details.