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How an H4D-40 is trained to act like a 19th century large format camera

04/04/2011 California-based photographer Barry Goyette is doing some lovely work replicating the Tin-Type photographic process.

Trained on traditional film based cameras, Goyette began working on the Hasselblad digital platform with the introduction of Imacon's 132c. "I was always obsessed with image quality, even in school, and the Imacon was the first system that I felt matched what I was currently getting from medium and large format film. I had tried several 35mm digital systems available at the time, and none of them left me feeling good at the end of the day." Whether the work was for a client or himself. The Imacon back, mounted to the Hasselblad H1, changed all that. "In fact it changed photography for me in a profound way. The taking of the photo has always been just a starting point for me. As someone who designs and prints almost all of my own work, I spend a tremendous amount of my energy "finishing" my images, and so having a tool like that first Hasselblad/Imacon solution (and now the H4D-40), allowed me to get there so much quicker, without compromising an inch on quality."

© Barry Goyette

© Barry Goyette

But it was on a trip to Cuba a few years ago that Goyette met his match in a young photographer who he lovingly describes as "a dinosaur": Lisa Dodge, a young protege in the highly obsessive world of large format wet collodion photography. She introduced him to a number of skilled practitioners of this antique technology, and he was very impressed with the Ambrotypes and tintypes they produced with their wooden cameras, stopwatches, and mobile darkrooms. "There is something incredibly rich about the finished product whether on tin or ruby glass. I could definitely see the attraction". Yet after sitting through a session where the photographer was able to pull 7 or 8 plates over 3 hours of shooting under ambient light, most of which were ruined due to camera movement, wind, or the delicacy of the process, Goyette was quite sure he had no interest in returning to the 1860's. "I'm too lazy for all that I guess. But it got me thinking about how I could achieve a similar type of work using nothing but contemporary digital processes."

For many photographers, this means adding a few layers of texture in Photoshop and calling it a day. But Goyette was after something more like the experience of holding a finished tintype. "There's something cool about a photograph on steel. You pick it up, and it’s a whole new experience. The first time I showed the work, I'd watch people keep their distance like a normal gallery show...but then I'd go over and pull one off the display shelf and hand it to them. There were a lot of "oohs" and "oh my gods"' because a tintype (and certainly a contemporary one) is something that most people have never seen or held in their hands. Goyette began experimenting with several of the new metallic inkjet papers on the market. "Pearlescent is a better description. These papers are mostly used to add snap to color images and mimic Kodak's popular metallic photographic papers, but they look surprisingly similar to a tintype when the printing in black and white". Once mounted on thin gauge steel, and varnished properly, Goyette's tin "types" look amazingly like the real deal. Goyette handed a few of his finished prototypes to Dodge, his suspicious-about-anything-digital mentor, "after critiquing the varnish on one, she looked at the next and just started shaking her head. Success by any other measure, I guess".

Additionally, the historical context of the technique led Goyette to begin experimenting with how to train his Hasselblad H4D-40 to act more like a 19th century large format camera. First off, the wet plate process was orthochromatic, (blue sensitive) which causes skin tones and foliage to darken, and makes the skies extremely light. Goyette experimented with black and white conversions and blue over-the-lens filtration to mimic orthochromatic film. But there was also the issue of depth of field and exposure time. He began asking around and found out that his wet plate friends were getting exposures of 2-10 seconds wide open in full sun. This meant adding 8-10 stops of neutral density to the front of his 100mm f2 lens. It's nearly impossible to manually focus the camera with that much ND on the lens, but to Goyette's surprise the autofocus in the H4D functioned perfectly. And he likes the sharpness he can get nearly wide open with the 100mm f2. Goyette feels the technique could be improved with the addition of an H4D-60 and Hasselblad's innovative HTS/1.5 to his arsenal, "that and if they could design a few lenses with tons of distortion for me" laughed Goyette, referring to the antique lenses prized by his collodion loving friends.

Not content to merely reproduce the look and feel of an antique process, Goyette has been adding more obvious digital distortions, bits of color, and contemporary subject matter to his tintypes. "Trying to duplicate the tintype was a lot of fun for me, but once you get there you realize how limiting that approach is. I'm just now starting to bring elements in that challenge the "form" of the tintype on a lot of creative levels. "We're installing a large format, multiple-panel tintype in a few weeks, I think it's going to be spectacular when it's done.

More images by Barry Goyette at:

Text by: Nick Tresidder