Sunday, August 14, 2011

Refreshing My Vision with a (Gasp!) Twin-Lens Reflex

I made the switch to digital in 2003 with Canon DSLRs and shot no film for seven years. But about two years ago I realized that I was becoming stale in my way of seeing. I think digital is better than film in most ways, but it does have some built-in traps. And a major trap, for me at least, is the tendency to shoot more and think less. It is just too easy to fire off a string of exposures, check the histogram, and think "Nailed that one. What's next?" My work was okay and my clients were at least happy enough to pay the invoices without protest, but more and more I was finding photography less challenging, less satisfying, and less. . .fun.

McDonough, GA Town Square and Courthouse

In an effort to shake up my vision, I dug my Rolleicord Vb out of retirement, ordered a propak of Astia 120 from B&H, and set off on a road trip for the book I was working on, Georgia: A Backroads Portrait. (Now press-ready -- preview it here: )

Looking down into that square viewfinder, I became aware of composition in a way I hadn't been in years. Even shooting transparency film, I allowed myself only two exposures per scene -- one at the meter reading, and one a half-stop under. And I spent some time walking around, evaluating different angles on the groundglass before making those exposures. When every click of the shutter costs a dollar or more, one tends to think about what one is doing.

It was refreshing, and in a way, very liberating. As Picasso said, “Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates invention." For me, it was a return to my roots, because the first major influence on my photography was Fritz Henle, known as “Mr. Rollei” for his dedication to the TLR. In the early years of my career I pored over his books, absorbing his classic sense of composition and his philosophy of always searching for the beauty in life.

As I returned to the TLR, I found that many of the things people consider drawbacks are the very things I now like. The square format, for instance: I find that composing to fill the square has done more than any other one thing to refresh my vision. Another “drawback” is the fact that one usually has to look down into the top of the camera to see the viewing screen. I like this, because for me it seems to shut out the rest of the world and allows me to concentrate on what I see on the screen.

A third thing I like about TLRs is that most of them don't have interchangeable lenses. That greatly simplifies things, because instead of trying to be prepared for any and all subjects, I can look for subjects the camera is suited to handle. That is by no means as limiting as it might sound –- in fact, it is liberating rather than limiting. Early in my career I owned a Yashicamat TLR and a Nikon F with two lenses. When I picked up the Nikon, it invariably had the wrong lens mounted, but when I picked up the Yashica, it seemed to always have the right lens.

(This photograph is from my aforementioned book. It was made with a Yashicamat 124 and Fuji Astia 100 film.}

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