Begin with a viewing card. A viewing card is essentially a mat board with a hole in it, and it is much easier to look through the hole in order to explore a composition with a viewing card than it is to set up the camera. You might imagine a film director getting “artistic” by holding up his hands to frame a scene, index fingers and thumbs at right angles. The viewing card performs a similar function, however they are created to match the format of our camera. That is, the hole is cut to 8”x10” or 5”x7”, etc… Ansel Adams used viewing cards religiously and taught his students their value and I don’t leave home without several in my backpack.
Also, moving the viewing card closer or farther away from one’s eye will have the effect of “zooming in” or viewing a wider angle. This helps determine lens selection.
The tripod goes up only after the composition is determined and the lens has been selected. The camera is mounted on the tripod and unfolded (they fold up quite nicely to fit in the backpack). The lens is locked into place on the front standard, and everything else tightened down. The composition I saw through my viewing card will be visible but out of focus on the glass in the rear standard.
One of the benefits of using a view camera is the ability to focus the camera via tilting the standards in such a way that you get a very wide range of focus. That is, objects up close and all the way out to the horizon can be in focus. Or you can create a very narrow range of focus, say the intricate details of a flower remain tack sharp while the background appears soft and out of focus. These techniques take some practice at first but can soon become second nature.
Exposure is calculated once focus is achieved. For some in-depth reading on this topic one may want to explore Ansel Adams’ Zone System. Briefly, the photographer will find the darkest area of the composition and give it a numerical value, and the same will be done for the brightest area. This is done looking out on the scene, not in the camera. The range between these numbers becomes important later and determines how long and what kind of chemistry to use to process that particular negative. The actual exposure setting is determined from there, with overall lighting and the photographer’s creative goals influencing this choice. A longer exposure may “smooth out” the appearance of moving water, but it might also blur leaves if a breeze picks up.
Keep in mind that all this applies for black and white photography. Working with color film has other considerations.
Now, ever nearer the moment of truth, the choice of filter is made. If any is used at all. The goal in using a filter is to modify contrast in the image, and filters do this by letting in light of their color and blocking light of the opposite color. An example scene might include yellowed aspen tree leaves against a blue sky, where a yellow filter will create lighter looking yellow trees and a slightly darker blue sky. An orange filter has a stronger effect and a red filter even more. A polarizing filter is sometimes used in combination with colored filters to further increase contrast.
All of these filters require an exposure adjustment, and you can easily calculate how much to adjust your exposure by taking a reading with your light meter twice: once with and once without the filter (or filters if you are using multiple filters on an exposure).
Finally, close the lens (don’t forget this step or you will ruin the film), cock the shutter, and test it to confirm that everything is set correctly. Re-cock the lens.
A film back is placed into the rear standard and the dark slide is removed. The sheet of film is now open to the pitch-black interior of the camera (provided the lens was closed in the last step). Pressing the cable release opens the lens and exposes the film. However, a cautious photographer may wait a few moments for tree leaves to still, or some other element in the scene to arrange itself just so.
All that builds to what is a barely audible “click”, at which point the dark slide is replaced in the film holder and the film holder is removed. Given all that set-up, the photographer may flip the film back around and expose the second sheet of film, either making a modification to the exposure or filters, or just as a backup in the event the first piece of film is somehow compromised.
And then it all goes back in the bag and the hunt begins for the next scene.
So there you have it. That is how an image is made using a view camera. Of course, the darkroom, where much more of the “magic” happens, awaits us…. Stay tuned for more or subscribe to our email list and have updates sent your way as they’re posted.