My 1500 Megapixel Digital Camera System
As I write this, in April 2021, the most-advanced Canon and Nikon professional digital cameras have just under 50 megapixels of optical resolution (i.e., the image data that is recorded on their 35mm sensors). Canon’s EOS R5 and Nikon’s Z7 II top of the line mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (MILC) both boast about 45 effective megapixels.
Technology changes fast. Only five years ago, in February 2016, Canon announced the EOS-1D X Mark II as the company's flagship camera, a 20 megapixel full-frame digital single-lens reflex (DSLR). The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, a professional-grade 30 megapixel DSLR, was announced on 25 August 2016. Canon’s current flagship model, the EOS R5, was announced by Canon on July 9, 2020, with a 45 megapixel full-frame 35mm sensor.
Full-frame digital sensors are based on the old 35mm film format, which were developed to utilize 35mm motion picture roll film. The 35mm size refers to the longer of the two dimensions of the film: 24mm x 35mm, or 0.95 inches x 1.4 inches. Current “full-frame” digital sensors have the same dimensions of earlier film stock.
The “megapixel” designation refers to the number of digital dots (or “picture elements,” pix-el, pixel) the digital sensor is capable of recording, that is, the area of the 24mm x 35mm sensor, as a product of the number of pixels and the pre-engineered diameter of each pixel. For example, Canon’s EOS R6 has a resolution of 45 megapixels, the product of 5,464 pixels on the shorter side and 8,192 pixels on the longer side. 5,464 x 8,192 = 44,761,088 or 44.8 million pixels or 44.8 megapixels (mp).
In English measures, the 35mm digital sensor, like the old film stock, has an area of 1.3 square inches.
By comparison, the 11x14 film camera I use has an area of 154 square inches, more than an order of magnitude (10x) larger.
By scanning one 11x14 sheet of film at 3,200 pixels per inch (ppi), the resulting digital file is 1,500 megapixels, or 1.5 gigapixels (34,560 x 44,160 = 1,526,169,600).
The picture below shows one of my 11x14 color slide films, Sublime Beauty, on a light box. The 24mm x 35mm gray rectangle in the lower right shows the relative size of a digital full frame sensor in today’s flagship Canon and Nikon cameras.
The picture below shows another of my 11x14 color slide films, Canyonlands Sunset, on the light box. The 6x17cm (2.4”x6.7”) rectangle above the film shows the relative size of the medium format film used for many years by photographer Peter Lik. Go big or go home, indeed!
My camera was made in 1898 by the Rochester Optical Company. This is the Rochester Optical Company King 11x14, the flagship of the ROC camera line. My 1898 11x14 Rochester King Film Camera Video
The King 11x14 is a “view camera” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/...), the original style of camera whose history extends back to the camera obscura, a type of pinhole camera in use since the 16th century as an aid to drawing and painting. The photographer mounts the camera lens at the front of the camera in a mechanical shutter that has levers for setting both the aperture (the size of the opening that admits light into the camera) and the exposure time (the length of time light is admitted through the aperture into the camera). The shutter has aperture blades that can be opened to project light onto a ground glass at the rear of the camera to enable the photographer to focus and compose the photograph.
The photographer closes and stops down the aperture, cocks the shutter, and inserts a film holder into the back of the camera, then pulls the dark slide from the film holder, and--when the lighting is optimal and a lull in the wind, presses a cable release to fire the shutter, opening and closing the shutter’s aperture. Exposures can be fast—1/30th of a second or less—or slow—several minutes—depending on the amount of available light. Exposing the film to light excites the silver halides coated on the film, and this exposure forms a latent image of the composed scene which becomes visible and permanently fixed during subsequent chemical development of the film. Loading film into the film holder, unloading, and developing the film must be done in complete darkness to prevent fogging the film or unintentionally exposing the film to light and ruining the image that was intentionally exposed inside the camera.
After developing the film, I scan the film to convert it to a digital image to take advantage of the superior quality of modern digital laser printing over the traditional wet darkroom process using optical enlargers. Thus, I use a hybrid process for my photography—19th century equipment for creating the photographic image in the field, mid-20th century-engineered photographic film, and late-20th century digital technologies for converting the analog film to digital, and laser printing to true photographic paper. True photographic paper, like polyester film, is coated with light-sensitive silver halide coating and red, green, and blue dyes. The paper, after exposure to the color image, is developed in a wet chemistry process, fixed, and dried to make a photographic Fine Art Print.
The 11x14 format is referred to as “ultra-large format” which is anything larger than 8”x10”. 4x5” and 8x10” cameras are referred to as “large format.” “Small format” cameras range from 24 x 24mm to 40 x 40mm. “Medium format” cameras fill in the gap between small format and 4x5 cameras. According to Serena Dzenis, award-winning Australian/Icelandic photographer, author and journalist, “When you consider this in detail, a single 35mm negative is more or less the size of a postage stamp. This means that the resulting image is not able to be enlarged to the same extent as an image taken with a medium format or large format camera without significant loss of quality.”
Advantages and Disadvantages of Ultra-Large Format Photography
Large and Ultra-Large Format Film Cameras are bulky and heavy. They are slow to operate. They are expensive to operate—the cost of film and developing can easily run $25-$50 with each click of the shutter. By comparison, modern DSLRs and MILCs are lightweight, fast to operate, and, though initially expensive to purchase camera bodies and multiple lenses, the cost for each click of the shutter is negligible. Hundreds, if not thousands, of images can be made in a single day. Plus, the features of today’s digital cameras—like Autofocus, High Dynamic Range (HDR), ISO sensitivity, image stabilization, zoom lenses, Continuous Shooting—make it much easier to accumulate multiple compelling images in the hands of a competent photographer.
So, why do I choose to use an Ultra-Large Format Camera?
My goal is to produce Ultimate Quality™ grand format fine art prints—prints 72 inches x 120 inches in size, with great detail and resolution that combine realism and romanticism—in the great tradition of the Hudson River School and Rocky Mountain School Artists Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederick Church, Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, Thomas Hill, and English artist J.M.W. Turner. I want to achieve the absolute best prints possible both artistically and technically. While I miss a lot of landscape shots that I could have gotten with a small, lightweight digital camera due to fast-changing light and clouds, and photographing wildlife is pretty much out of the question, the advantage of using large and ultra-large format film is the enormously greater resolution I can achieve from capturing an image in the field and how the much greater amount of information in the film can be mined when scanning the film and come through in the laser printing process.
Having printed my work at 72 x 120”, I can say with certainty that the results are worth the effort.