Tools of the Trade
Other essays in this series

Antelope Light Dance 40"x50"
Stretched Canvas with Wood Trim

June 29th, 2005
The response to my comparative article between 4x5 and the Canon 1DsMark 2 has been remarkable (if you have not read this article you can find it here).  This essay is a response to the feedback I received. 

First, I do not plan to stop using, discard, sell or otherwise “chuck” (as some put it) my 4x5 in favor of the 1DsMk2.  In fact, if we look ahead several years, my guess is that I will be using 4x5 longer than the 1DsMk2.

Why?  Essentially because the 1DsMk2 is a step along the way to increasingly higher resolution digital cameras.  As of June 2005, and comparing single-capture digital cameras, it is second in line behind 22mp digital backs such as the Phase One P25.  In passing, and according to 3-way tests I conducted between the 1DsMk2, P25 back and 4x5 scanned film, the P25 advantage over the 1DsMk2 is real but not that dramatic.  4x5 is still the overall winner, in terms of resolution, by a fair margin.

On the other hand 4x5 has been an achievement in terms of photographic image quality for over 50 years. I believe first that it is here to stay and second that we will, sooner or later, have digital 4x5 backs that are easy to use in the field and practical for landscape photography. I do not consider the current “4x5” scanning backs practical for landscape photography because A-they need to be tethered to a laptop and B-they require exposure times of several minutes causing anything that moves to be blurred.  The cost, interestingly enough, is not that much of a consideration for me as it is competitive with the cost of the 1DsMk2 or the Phase One P25 back.

What am I saying here?  In short that the 1DsMk2 will be replaced by a 22 or 32 or 45mp version sooner or later, or by a medium format digital camera with higher resolution, or by some other device, while 4x5 will continue to endure as it has for many, many years.

Case closed (at least for me). Let’s move on to another subject: that I currently use both the Canon1DsMk 2 and the Linhof 4x5.  Why? Because both have unique advantages and disadvantages. 

On the advantages side the 1DsMk2 is fast and simple to use and thereby allows me to create photographs that have to be captured extremely quickly.  The 4x5 offers huge resolution, camera movements (tilts and shifts) and is perfect for photographs that I plan to enlarge to wall size. 

On the disadvantages side both have shortcomings.  The 1DsMk2 cannot generate the same definition as the 4x5 in sizes above 16x20 or so. The 4x5 cannot  be set up and used as fast as the 1DsMk2 and developing & scanning film takes longer than importing & converting raw files.  These two cameras are really different tools used for different purposes.  Together they allow me to capture a larger range of images than if I worked with only one of them. 

Not sure if this is true?  Thinking I should stick solely to 4x5 and live to its limitations?  Or that I should use just the 1DsMk2 and equally live to its limitations?  Well, I beg to differ.  Let me give you an example.

I love river running.  So much so that each year Natalie and I offer a different river running workshop. This year it is the San Juan River. Next year it is the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.  Both expeditions have photography as their first and primary focus.

You can’t use 4x5 on a boat. I don’t care how much you try, how dedicated you are or how hard you are willing to work at it.  It’s just not in the cards.  Yet, many stunning photographs are to be taken while boating, either action shots of other boats or stills of the scenery you are passing by.  Being in the middle of a river gives you a unique viewpoint allowing you to capture images different from those you can capture from the shore.  For this the 1DsMk2 is the perfect tool, and I will have it with me on our upcoming river trips.

When you are on shore things are quite different. You are on firm ground and you can take your time photographing in a deliberate manner. This is the ideal time to search for the most exciting photographic location, set up your tripod and work with 4x5. 

Now you can certainly do everything with 35mm digital, either the 1DsMk2 or another comparable camera.  But if you have large format you will be going further by opening the possibility of making huge enlargements from your images.  As I pointed out, sizable enlargements are one of my specialties and one of the reasons why customers world wide purchase and collect my work.  Those are my needs (yours may, and most likely, differ) and I need to cater to them.  The combination of 4x5 and 1DsMk2 allows me to meet those needs perfectly.

To those who believe that everything can and should be done with 4x5 I say this: give it a try!  I also suggest you read this essay about how having two cameras, in this instance 4x5 and medium format, is the only way you will get the shot.

Eventually we need to be reminded that cameras as just tools. No matter how much they cost, no matter how technically advanced they may be, no matter how enthralled we are with owning and operating them, they are just means to an end and this end is creating stunning photographic images.  To me the challenge is finding the proper tools for the job.  I believe it is a challenge that all professional photographers face at one time or another. 

Traditionally photographers have been known for owning far too many cameras and for buying far more cameras than reason dictates.  The times, in this respect, they are not a changing (sorry Bob).  What has changed, is that we now find that for some photographers on the cutting edge of technology, these cameras are a mix of film and digital capture. Such is my case.  Personally, I don’t see any problem shooting both film and digital simultaneously. However, my guess is that a number of photographers see my approach as a conflict. 

Those who see it as a conflict believe that one must either embrace digital or embrace film.  For them it is one or the other, black or white, left or right, right or wrong. “No way!”, they say, “can one be in love with both approaches to image capture.”  “Way!” I say. Way! because I am not in love with image capture.  I am in love with the resulting image.  And to me, when the print is made and the photograph displayed, it matters little how it was created.

Alain Briot
June 29th, 2005

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