In 2006 or so a good friend of mine sold off his 150mm f/2.8 Schneider Xenotar large format lens. He listed it for $1000, which was a whole lot more than I could afford at the time, and yet, somehow, I ended up with it. The Xenotar is a bit of a legendary lens in the large format world, due to its f/2.8 maximum aperture. I had long wanted to give one a try.
Before we get too far into this, first a bit of background on me – for my day job as a photographer, I wouldn’t dream of shooting a job on film. Not only would my clients not stand for it, but it would also be crazy to do otherwise. You try to explain to a client the process of shooting Polaroids and then film… and then asking them to wait a day or two for contact sheets and scans – yeah, not going to happen.
I’m sure I don’t have to explain to this audience why digital is vastly superior in every respect to film when it comes to delivering images for a client. But for me and for this piece, I’m not shooting for a client. I’m shooting for myself, alone. And for myself, I shoot a lot of film. I don’t shoot film for personal work exclusively; if you watch the YouTube video that accompanies this essay below, you’ll possibly see another video of me extolling the virtues of bringing just one camera and one lens on a trip. Both times I did that exercise, I brought a digital camera. But I am drawn, very much, to shooting film for personal work.
The Schneider Xenotar 150mm f/2.8
Back to the Xenotar.
The lens itself is apparently amazing at f/16. I shoot it only at f/2.8 because as far as I’m concerned, there is no other reason to use this lens. Any randomly chosen, modern, multicoated 150mm lens will run circles around the Xenotar at every aperture, including wide open. Except, of course, the maximum aperture likely will be f/5.6 – two stops slower – which makes nothing short of a massive difference.
I’m reminded of something a friend of mine said about the Leica Noctilux lens; his rhetorical question was, “Why bother putting aperture blades into it? Either you shoot it at f/1, or you use a different lens.” I feel the same way about the Xenotar.
But when you are shooting it at f/2.8, the Xenotar is really rather nice. The edges do get a little mushy if you punch in too far – macro definitely isn’t one of this lens’ strong points – not when it’s wide-open, anyway. However, at about a head-and-shoulders-portrait distance the Xenotar really, really sings.
The lens is so fast that I don’t bother making an exposure adjustment for bellows draw – exposures right off the meter seem to work well. Overexpose your black and white by a little bit, under developing in Kodak D-76 or some other easy developer and hey-presto, you have some amazing negatives to scan.
Why shoot portraits on large format film?
Shooting with a large format camera isn’t easy. It requires a lot of attention to detail. At f/2.8 it’s even harder.
Shooting portraits with a large format camera adds to that challenge – even though it was the standard for years and years.
Shooting portraits at f/2.8 on a large format camera can get close to the top left-hand corner on a cost/benefit graph (as in, very expensive with questionable benefit).
The problem, really, is one of depth-of-field, inasmuch as that there isn’t any at all at f/2.8. Well, nothing more than maybe about a half-inch (1cm) of sharp focus before it starts to fall off. The falloff is beautiful but it’s also rather abrupt. Critical focus is well, is critical and obviously in a portrait situation, your subject must stay really still once you have them where you want them.
If they move just a little bit during the process of shooting the image will be soft. This requires your subject to stay still while you dance all over the place – using your loupe to check focus, wandering around under your dark cloth, loading film, setting lenses and finally shooting a frame. Thankfully, there are nice 400 ISO films out there (my personal favourite is Kodak Tri-X 320), so at least I don’t have to suffer with insanely long exposures like those wet plate photographers have to tolerate.
That’s a whole other world of crazy. But I digress…
Old. Ponderous with the 4×5 film. Expensive (several dollars per shot) A challenge to shoot with because of the lack of depth of field… Why shoot portraits with it?
This is a question that I really struggle with. There are several reasons why I do it, though… And I regularly use any or all of them as an excuse to shoot with large format film:
One: shooting with a large-format camera is the most basic type of photography. There is a lens at one end of the camera, some film at the other and dark space in between. There is no auto-anything and the image itself is displayed upside-down on the ground glass.
Everything is manual, and you have to really work to get any sort of image. Mistakes will often end up with fogged film or useless photos. As a bonus, you get to look like a total clown with a loupe around your neck and a dark cloth over your head.
Two: further to my points above, it’s really challenging. Your subject needs to understand that ‘don’t move’ really means ‘don’t move’. If the subject looks away, turns their head… The process starts all over again. Open the lens, focus, close the lens, put in the film and then make the exposure has to be done in lockstep or the photo is lost.
Forget to tighten a knob on the camera? The image is out of focus. Forget to close the lens? The film is fogged. I find that I have to give my entire attention to the process and the experience of shooting large format. If I lose my train of thought I pay for it.
And, as mentioned above, your subject also has to be completely on-side and a full participant in the process. Asking this much from a sitter can be hard to do, and it can be a strangely cozy experience. Generally, you’re in their personal space, and you’re asking for a lot of patience from them, even if you’re quick. You have to give specific direction and be willing to ask again and again for something if what you’re seeing is not quite right. It can be rather unnerving, both for the photographer and the subject if you’re not relaxed about it.
Most importantly, though, why I shoot large-format portraits comes down to the simple fact that I regularly get to look at the ground glass or the processed film and think, “WOW, that looks great.” I have been shooting for a long time and the photographs that really move me, amaze me and make me wonder are much harder to come by the older I get.
Photographs off the 4×5 move me. Portraits, especially, off the 4×5 move me. The only other camera that has the same ‘gasp’ hit rate for me is my Hasselblad 203FE with the Zeiss 110mm f/2 lens (shot wide-open as well, of course). My Nikon D3x with the old Mamiya 80mm f1.9 was close, as long as I cropped to the 4×5 ratio. I always hated the 2:3 ratio of 35mm film. Heck, I shoot 35 all the time and I still grate when I see that format.
But again, I digress. Before I hear comments about how one could easily achieve the same look with a digital camera and any of a dozen filter sets (Alien Skin; VSCO; Mastin – all of which I own and really like – among many others) it’s absolutely true. If you have the vision and the know-how as well as the initiative, you can crank out an image from a DSLR or a mirrorless camera that would closely mimic what I am showing here.
…but what a hassle.
Ideally, I opt to avoid all that choice and all those options. For me, one major reason as to why film is so great and why I love shooting it comes down to this: it eliminates most options and choices, in some cases completely. I find I thrive when I can shoot and not consider how I’m going to deal with the files. Plant an acorn and you will get only an oak tree. Portra film is going to look like Portra. Black and white film gives you black and white images.
A 150mm f/2.8 lens on a large format camera will give you a look that you could replicate on a computer but why do it when you can be out shooting with said camera and lens? I want to shoot. I don’t want to figure out how to make an image look like something afterwards while sitting behind my computer. Heck, I do that enough anyway.
I want to be amazed and challenged. Sometimes I don’t even mind being knocked down a few pegs because I let my technique get sloppy or I couldn’t be bothered to make the extra effort. There is nothing like messing up what you know is a great shot to keep you humble. I have missed more than my fair share of what I knew were fabulous photographs – both with digital and film. But somehow the film images are much more painful to miss – especially if it’s because I’m being sloppy.
To bottom line this article and the video above, I’ll say this: the Xenotar makes the hard work worth it.
Every single time I use that lens it puts a big smile on my face and I think, “I gotta do this more often”. Incidentally, Schneider also made a 135mm f/2.8 Xenotar for 6×9 film that I have seen used very nicely with 4×5 film, albeit with a bit of vignetting, which always seems to add a nice bit of mood to the shots.
So, there you have it. A review of a lens that I absolutely cannot get enough of and a process that keeps me asking for more: #filmisnotdead.
Ps. There are many more videos like the one above on my Youtube channel. Please subscribe!
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