The formats are dead, long live the formats

For some years now I’ve been concerned, distressed even, about the loss of ‘the formats’.

Where a professional photographer shooting film would have likely had a number of different formats of camera to shoot different types of images; a 35mm for fast action and unobtrusive documentary, medium format for portraits and more controlled images, a large format sheet film camera for architecture or product shots.

Now in our post digital revolution photography world that doesn’t exist, a ‘pro’ camera these days is a high-end D-SLR, a Canon 5DmkII or a Nikon D3 / D3x. While these are made by different manufacturers these are broadly the same camera, their usage is interchangeable. A photographer with either of these cameras can shoot fast action sports, studio fashion, landscapes to be printed as big as a wall, product shots.

The many formats which would have been used by film photographers have disappeared, ‘pro’ camera design has homogenised on the D-SLR form factor and this is now used for the vast majority of commercial photography.

Is this a bad thing? Surely it’s helpful to use one camera for everything.
Less to carry, for a start.

My concern is that the different camera designs and their physical qualities lead (and sometimes forced) photographers to work in different ways, think in different ways, and ultimately make different images.

Many significant photographers have attained that rank through making work which is a direct result, the logical conclusion even, of the equipment they’re using.

blast furnaces of Germany photographed by Bernt and Hilla Becher

The large format camera; physically heavy, requires a tripod, slow to setup, allows adjustment of perspective projection and focal plane. You compose the image on massive ground glass screen which being difficult to see in daylight encourages the use of a darkcloth separating the photographer from the surroundings and encouraging careful study of the image.

Bernt and Hilla Becher, the result of large format camera design.

Catherine Deneuve by David Bailey, 1965. Copyright David Bailey.

The medium format twin-lens reflex. With the ground glass on the top of the photographer looks down into the camera, thus the camera is naturally held at waist height, no longer hiding behind the camera the photographer is free to have a more personal interaction with the model.

Thus, David Bailey is the logical conclusion of the twin lens reflex camera.

I could continue and talk about Capa being the result of the 35mm camera and so on, but you get the gist. Now with a single design of camera dominating the ‘professional’ world (nb. I’m not including ‘fine art’ photographers here), how can this continue? Perhaps a few photographers will attain this ‘logical conclusion’ for the d-slr camera, but then what, will photography just converge toward a reduced range of image forms?

Well, no, probably not.
My traditionalist brain seems to have prevented me from seeing what was right in front of me.
I still have multiple cameras which I use for different purposes; a DSLR (Canon 5DmkII), a compact (Canon G10), a phone (iPhone 3GS), and (when I’m lucky) a MF digital (Hasselblad H2D).
While I might try to shoot as much as possible with the 5D, inevitably sometimes I don’t have it so I shoot with the G10 or the phone. All of these cameras make images I enjoy and each of them pushes me to shoot in a different way.

As cameras have become smaller they permeate more of our daily lives and allow (or encourage depending on your point of view) us to make images never previously possible. It can be easy to dismiss these images as transient, trivial and often self-indulgent. But that is failing to recognise that just because they don’t look like the established idea of what Photography should look like, that only makes them more relevant for study. To make a prediction, it just means that that definition of Photography hasn’t caught up, this is the Photography of the future. To bring those ‘fine artist’ photographers back into the fold again I expect someone to be winning the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize with camera phone images within the next five years.

To follow my previous idea;

David Guttenfelder's iPhone images of the war in Afghanistan

The camera phone; small, unobtrusive, with you all the time. Used by so many people so often that it raises fewer eyebrows than any other camera.

Perhaps David Guttenfelder is the result of the camera phone ?

The traditional formats may have largely disappeared, but the new tools have given up a set of new formats waiting to be explored. More fool us for complaining about the loss of the old rather than shooting and defining the new.


This post is a continuation of the ‘Photography’s Evolving Tools‘ series.

[EDIT: a couple of typos and changed some phrasing for clarity]

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