Why I Use Vintage Cameras, Tripods, Lenses--and Film!

April 7, 2021

Why I Use Vintage Cameras, Tripods, and Lenses

I use vintage cameras, tripods, and lenses for several reasons. First and foremost, I use large format and ultra-large format film cameras because they provide the tremendous amount of resolution to print grand format, mural-sized prints of six feet by ten feet with the amazing realism and foreground detail necessary for the Hudson River School/Rocky Mountain Art tradition of which I belong. The foreground realism grounds the picture in reality, necessary so the romanticism of the background of canyons, buttes, mountains, and clouds does not send the entire enterprise into the realm of fantasy.

Second, when I began my fine art photography career, modern digital cameras simply did not—and still do not—provide anywhere near the resolution I need for grand format prints. A digital scan of one of my 11x14 sheets of film is over 1,500 megapixels, compared to 45 megapixels of in-camera resolution of current state-of-the-art Canon and Nikon cameras.

Third, after buying and using my first vintage large format, wooden field camera—a 1948 Kodak 2D 8x10 camera made of rich mahogany and cherry wood with brass fittings—I came to appreciate the engineering design and craftsmanship of cameras and tripods that were first produced during the zenith of the American Arts and Crafts period in the 1890s and continued to be crafted by hand until the mid-Twentieth Century. These cameras and tripods represent some of the best made American products from the time when there was great competition among start-up photography firms and great pride in workmanship and ownership. I began to search for vintage equipment and learned to restore cameras whose leather coverings had dried and cracked, to repair broken wooden parts, and in some cases to fabricate replacement wood components, to remove and refinish old lacquer, to clean and polish old brass and make replacement brass hardware. I came to love these vintage pieces and to treasure using them in the field even with their quirks and limitations.

Fourth, having been brought up by parents who came of age during the Great Depression, I try to be frugal when I can and to spend money on what matters most to me—in this case, to save money by bargain-hunting for photographic equipment, adding my sweat equity to clean up and restore vintage gear, and to put my money into buying film as well as buying objects of art to decorate my home that I value and treasure and which increase my happiness.

Fifth, I use vintage lenses for some of the same reasons I use vintage cameras and tripods and also because they have different qualities than modern lenses. Modern lenses tend to be much higher contrast and can render landscapes that are somewhat “harsh” as opposed to the softer, creamier “painterly” quality I often want to achieve in my grand landscape photographs.

Lastly, I have to say that it is fun to see people’s reactions to my old cameras when I am photographing in a National Park or some location that is a popular scenic view. Many people I encounter have never seen a wooden view camera in person, and they are fascinated. I enjoy answering their questions and letting them look at the image on the ground glass—upside down and backwards. Invariably, they are impressed by both the vintage equipment and the process of using it to make photographs—as well, of course, as the question why I use such antiquated equipment instead of just whipping out my smart phone. Once I tell them about making six feet by ten feet pictures that have great details and resolution, they get it, and they see the connection to historic and accomplished landscape photographers they have some awareness of, like Ansel Adams.

My 1898 11x14 Rochester King Film Camera Video