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Sunday, April 2

Clicking with the SL66E

Over the last few weeks, I've been looking at lots of Michael Kenna photographs and reading the interviews he's given which are posted on his website. Of all the various "genres" of photography there are, his moody images, along with the work that Bill Schwab produces, are what excite me. It's the sort of stuff to which I aspire.

Both men use medium format and usually print square images on 10x8 inch paper. They both seem to give the highlights a light toning in sepia to warm them up and selenium tone the shadows to give them more body and introduce a subtle duo tone effect. Beyond the technicalities, it's all about having an eye for a photograph. No change there, then.

We're always told to develop our own style - something that might have been easier half way through last century than it is today when those things one can pursue to achieve that end have already been pursued almost to death. Sometimes, in the case of Yosemite and Bryce Canyon, even beyond. As one who agrees that imitation is amongst the sincerest forms of flattery and not being in a mood to spend years attempting to make my photographs instantly recognisable, I have no qualms about following in Kenna's and Schwab's footsteps. Ripping them off, in other words.

It helps that I'm drawn to the same sort of subjects and like to give them a similar look. The obvious camera outfit to use for the medium format, square approach is my Rolleiflex SL66E but it's not one that's seen a lot of air time. It's heavy, not readily hand-holdable and just a bit quirky. At least, that was my view of it until I decided to give it an extended run. It also coincided with the purchase of a ball head for the Induro tripod I have - a support that's so much lighter and easier to use than the over-engineered Benbo.

It's fair to say that I'm now happier using the Rollei than at any time in the past six years of ownership. I've even started hand-holding it - and it's not as bad as I'd imagined it would be. It's still quite cumbersome and quirky, though!

The breakthrough has come just through repeated use. I've used it on and off in the past but, after a couple of films, I'd pick up a 35mm SLR for weeks or months on end so that the next time I reached for the Rollei it would seem unfamiliar again. I never put enough films through it for the camera functions to become second nature.

I went back to Grange Orchard a few days ago with the Rollei when there was a nice evening light and took a few shots showing the trees in a brighter mood than the misty atmosphere of my previous visit. The main reason for this was to take some photographs with the 40mm Distagon on the camera. With a small project like an orchard it can be difficult building some variety into the shots so different lighting and times of day, different seasons and different focal lengths have to be pressed into action.

The Distagon's a bit of monster with an angle of view that seems wider than the 24mm lens that is supposed to be its 35mm equivalent. It's ideal for capturing a different perspective. I'll no doubt take a few more with it in the orchard in future.

The first pic in this post is an old church across the River Tay in Fife. I stopped by to photograph its abandoned, roofless interior but it's been filled with old doors and fence posts which completely killed any atmosphere it might have had.

Wandering about with the SL66E around my neck, I noticed this view of it from behind that was quite nice. It seems to have an old-fashioned look to it but I'm not quite sure why. The film was Tmax 400 and the Planar is a nice sharp lens with good contrast that wouldn't normally be my first choice if I was trying to capture the olde worlde feel. Maybe it's just the ivy in the foreground that gives the scene a slightly gothic look?

I've also been snapping away with the 250mm lens on the Rollei - handheld as well which requires a steady hand. These films have still to be developed so I've yet to find out if I've managed to pull it off. Perhaps it's just as well the Induro is making my tripod work a good bit easier...


Allan Castle said...

Beautiful work. I feel that the photographer is revealing his soul and shooting from his heart. The work must resonate with you. Thank you for writing and sharing the photographs.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Great stuff Bruce - I knew you'd get the SL66 mojo working again!

They've really captured the light and the feel of the places well and I can't wait to see more. I take it the ballhead is working wonders?

As for the long lens, well the theory is more mass and weight = steadier photographs, isn't it? Looking forward to seeing those as well.

Well done that man.

DavidM said...

Once again, the Square and the Bruce dance. A great partnership. Not quite as simplified as Mr Kenna. He seems to reduce composition quite astonishingly, almost as if he were constructing initial caps for an unknown language.
There's no reason to tread exactly in Mr Kenna's footprints. Bruce and the Rollei seem to enjoy texture, as in the picture of the old church which inexplicably, looks "old".
May I suggest that modern, as in "modernist", is generally perceived as being without texture – all those gleaming white sunlit walls and smooth glass; even those smooth iPhones. If we wanted to show an "old" modernist building (modernism, after all, is nearly a hundred years old) we might well search for texture, weathering and overgrowth.
I hope the divorce from Benbo went smoothly. If you still hanker after it, why not pop a Rubik's Cube in the bag?

Dave Jenkins said...

Really like the photo of the old church.

I think you may fare better with hand-holding than you expect. I found that with reasonable care I was able to hand-hold a Pentax 6x7 down to a shutter speed of 1/30th second with reasonable consistency.

MartyNL said...

Love the old church, too.

Not because it is or isn't like a Kenna or Schwab, but because it's like a Robbins.

Bruce Robbins said...

Thanks for the nice comments everyone. I've probably given you all an unintentional bum steer by going on about Kenna at the start. The photographs in this post are obviously nothing like his or Bill Schwab's. The thrust of the post was about getting comfortable with the SL66E. I'll hopefully take some Kenna-type pics in due course.

Dave Jenkins said...

Make you own pix, Bruce. If I want to see Kenna's I can buy a book.

DavidM said...

Good advice Mr Jenkins.
I should point out that a tripod has two functions.
Firstly, to keep the camera steady, but there is a much more important function. Haven't we all noticed that a decent tripod transmits a signal through the shoulder it's carried on, telling us to pause, because there's an unnoticed photographic opportunity close by and we should stop, take the tripod off the shoulder and look around.
I've noticed that my tripod, which is not distracted by looking out for footholds and muddy puddles, or worrying about WW3 and what to have for tea, often has a better eye than I do.
Three functions perhaps? A robust tripod would be handy for fighting off werewolves and zombies, but I have never put this to the test.