Back in the tilt, shift & swing of things

Alfie re-discovers the joys of camera movements.

There’s something distinctly satisfying about picking something up that you haven’t touched for years and getting right back into it almost immediately. The old cliche of ‘it’s like riding a bike’ is perfect in this case: I haven’t been near cameras with lens and film-plane movements for donkey’s years and, starting with Charlie’s Graflex last week then getting my hands on a bellows setup for the Mamiya, I’m now right back into it like I never stopped. That said, yeah, I’m riding the bike but am a bit wobbly at the moment as I’m still finding my balance but it feels great to be back in the saddle….

What the hell am I going on about? I’m talking about large format cameras – in the case of Charlie’s newest acquisition – and cameras with a bellows attachment, in the case of the digital medium-format Mamiya I have on loan from Jeff. But basically we are talking about cameras where one has the ability to get the lens and film planes out of their normal, perpendicular, arrangement. This means tilt, shift [the two you'll have heard about through the now myriad of iPhone apps and Photoshop tutorials] and swing.

As I have been asked already this week, ‘why bother doing this on an expensive and unwieldy camera when you can get an app on the iphone that does it?’ Good point and here is my answer, in a few parts:

1. The iPhone – or any other tilt-shift ‘fake’ process is still dealing with images that were originally taken in cameras where the film/sensor plane and lens plane were perpendicular to each other. True tilt-shift setups allow you to get away from this and get the film and lens plane at angles to each other. Yes, the ‘fakes’ can fake it pretty well but it ain’t the same, trust me.

2. Most tilt-shift fakes leave out the fact that you also have another momevent to play with on the cameras: swing.

3. Pretty much all tilt-shift fakery I have seen leaves out the fact that you can, on certain cameras, apply all the movements to the FILM as well as the LENS plane. All tilt-shift lenses for 35mm cameras also suffer from this shortcoming. Movements of the film plane [or 'rear standard' to give it its proper name] achieve radical changes of perspective. Front movements deal predominantly with changes in plane of focus and moderate changes in perspective. Rising-front and falling-front [front-plane shift] achieve perspective correction but if one were to combine both front and rear movements, the effect on correcting the perspective is dramatically enhanced. Changing the shape of objects can only really be achieved with rear-standard movements. For a quick explanation as to what this all means, click here.

4. It’s a lot more satisfying to see the new plane of focus and the resulting bizarre depth of field through a viewfinder or on a ground-glass screen that it is on an LCD monitor or iPhone.

5. The cameras are so heavy that they are great for building up muscle-tone if you are daft enough to use them hand-held which both Charlie and myself are.

6. Using these cameras will give you a unique insight into depth of focus and – more importantly – plane of focus.

7. Use of camera movements will also demonstrate that the current fad for ‘bokeh’ is only half the story as far as blur is concerned, and that bokeh is not just about aperture size, as it is with cameras that have no ability to alter the plane of focus away from the perpendicular. But that is also about moving the lens and film plane. Allowing you – should you so wish – to have someone’s eyes and the tree 15ft behind them in focus… and nothing else.

8. Similarly, deep focus goes to a new level with these cameras: have a foreground object and a distant background you want in equal focus and sharpness? Camera movements are the way to go. You’ll achieve the same result at, say, f/8 that you would need f/22 for on a ‘normal’ camera. Leaving you those three extra stops of light to keep the shutter-speed up.

That is probably enough verbal for a while, so here are some piccys to enjoy: a few tests that I have performed this week with the Mamiya Auto-Bellows and 1940′s vintage Kodak Ektar lens setup. Pics of the camera itself are in the next gallery down and see the bottom of the page for details on a forthcoming workshop about this whole subject….

Photos made with the Mamiya and bellows set-up

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Photos of the Mamiya rig and one of Charlie’s camera too

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Why the old Kodak lens?

Bellows are usually used for macro work, allowing you to get the lens away from the film-plane. Just like using extension tubes but with far more extension. All the lenses for the Mamiya will fit on the front of the bellows but it is almost impossible, given their construction, to get infinity focusing. The back of the lens is usually recessed into the lens barrel anf therefore too far away from the film plane to achieve distant focus. But, taking the Kodak off and putting the normal lenses one would use on this camera back on means you have awesome macro ability… another advantage of the bellows camera in general.

The Kodak lens has 113mm of back-focus and is a pancake design which means its rear elements are close enough to the film plane to achieve infinity focus when the bellows are fully collapsed.

Forthcoming workshop on camera movements

I am organising a workshop soon – when the rain gives in for a little bit – on which we can use the Mamiya setup and also some 35mm lenses for DSLRs. Both Canon and Nikon have PC [perspective correction] lenses and I will be renting those from GinIchi for the day of the workshop; one 85mm lens to do some portraits with and a wide-amgle for some architecture.

Details coming asap. If you are not already on our mailing list, use the sign-up form on the right-hand side of the page. Thanks.

Massive thanks to Jeff

Jeff Laitila has unwittingly become a camera patron for me and I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am that he is able and willing to lend me such awesome equipment to experiment with. Having access to this equipment has put a real spark back in my work and I shall be forever in Jeff’s debt for having given me the unique opportunity to live with it all for long enough. Jeff is also an awesome photographer. Be sure to check out his Flickr stream here.

Some of the alternatives to the kit we used

  • Free-lensing – hold the lens in front of the throat of the camera, where the lens usually fits on. Usually works best if you have a Live View function. Interesting article at PhotoJojo about it here.
  • Build your own tilt-shift lens: great article here about how you can put something fun together which will turn out some great results.
  • The Plunger-Cam: tilt [swing] only, no shift. But fun. Read about it here.
  • LensBaby: these are fun but have no real shift capability.
  • Buy a used large format camera: the monorail ones are cheaper than the field cameras. Monorails are for studio and the field cameras [Wista, Graflex, Linhof etc] were built to shoot outdoors. Monorails have lots more movement of front and back standards but are a bastard to use outdoors. I know cos I was daft enough to do it at college. In Tokyo you can find used monorails starting from as low as 25,000Yen with a lens. The Topcon is probably the best value for money in terms of field cameras, weighing in – if you are lucky – from about 45,000Yen.

Please drop us a line if you have shots from any of these kinds of setups and we’ll publish them here.

About Japanorama

Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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