Paul became a photographer almost three decades ago, after studying graphic design and photography at Southport College, Merseyside. Afterwards, he worked as an assistant in a commercial studio in Liverpool, where he began using an MPP 5x4in camera for architectural work and product shots. He took to the format immediately, loving the precisely engineered equipment, the methodical process and the outstanding quality of the results.
This camera and some of its iterations are called the “Texas Leica” for the reason that it looked like a giant version of a Leica M3. With a 90mm f3.5 lens affixed to the camera, you’ll be able to shoot loads of awesome landscapes. Oddly enough though, the camera was mostly used for photographing tour groups. However in the years afterward it was used by many photographers to do portraits and landscapes.
Paul used a long lens to ‘compartmentalise’ this forest scene
For the landscape shooter, the system’s widest lens is a 31mm f3.5–which isn’t extremely wide when you consider landscapes but more than wide enough for most photographers. There are also load of telephoto lenses.
Paul is one of the UK’s leading landscape photographers. He has produced two books of photographs, Aspects of Expression (2008) and Chords of Grey (2010). A new book on infrared photography will be published later this year. He regularly runs tours and workshops through his company Aspect2i (www.aspect2i.co.uk). To see more, go to www.paulgallagher.co.uk
When you’re shooting landscapes, you should expect to be taking a lot of gear with you. Good zoom lenses are very rare in the medium format film world so you should probably just accept that you’re going to use a lot select prime lenses. These lenses need to be made very well and that is one of the parameters that we’re looking at here. On top of this, keeping the electronics down quite a bit is also something that is attractive because of the way that the elements can work out.
Paul thought the play of light on the foreground grasses and the curve of the field were beautiful
There are a large number of lenses available for this camera that are all very good. But what you’ll really want to keep in mind is the relatively compact size here. The camera doesn’t have interchangeable backs, so you’ll be stuck with one roll of film at a time–which means you’ll need to finish it no matter what.
While today’s digital cameras and a bit of smart editing can help you create pretty awesome landscape photos, I genuinely believe that very little can beat great good old 120 film when it comes to image quality.
The process is much more involved and requires you to get a lot more right in the camera, but the results will be very worth it if you’re willing to do more in the beginning and much less later on.
Paul also used 5x4in kit for his personal landscape work and predominantly concentrated on the landscapes of northern England and Scotland, later using a hand-made Walker Titan XL. During the 2000s, while digital kit grew massively in popularity and came to dominate photography, Paul opted to stay with the high-quality traditional methods he loved using. He dabbled in digital with a Nikon D700, but 5×4 was still king.
Every landscape photographer that uses their Pentax 67 II holds onto it not only out of total love for the camera, but also because they know how excellent it is. The camera is a tank with a very loud shutter and build quality that is quite literally designed to take abuse. The fact that it’s the 6×7 format and not the 645 format also makes it capable of shooting a larger image than even their new 645 DSLR can.
Although Paul had used black & white film almost exclusively for many years, moving to digital encouraged him to incorporate colour in his images. Previously, he thought colour was an unnecessary addition to images and had a particular dislike for Fujifilm Velvia.
However, digital capture made Paul completely reassess his attitude towards colour.
The Contax 645 can also be used with modern digital backs if you choose to do so–or can ever afford to purchase or rent one.
‘As I was starting to shoot with digital platforms, rather than black & white film stock, my benchmark then was a raw file and full colour. I got to a stage where I was looking at raw files and thinking, do I really need to remove the colour? Maybe I should start exploring the colour information. So I started slowly and gingerly experimenting with leaving the images in colour.
‘Even after using 5×4 for so many years, I found the quality of the images produced by the D800E was astounding,’ Paul says. ‘Until then, nothing came close, but I could instantly see that digital had reached a point where it was as good as – or better than – 5×4 film.’
The most risky part about this camera is the fact that it focuses via a bellows system. So just ensure that there are no light leaks or holes and you should be fine.
Most of all, you probably want something sort of lightweight. My absolute favorite tripod for shooting medium format photos is the Vanguard Auctus Plus 383CT because it’s well built, allows you to have a lot of control if you’ve got the right head and supports all the weight that your camera can throw at it.
Very few people can handhold a Mamiya RZ67 Pro II, though there are some who can without getting camera shake. The camera is an SLR that uses the bellows system to focus, and is much more complicated than many SLRs. For example, removing and attaching the lenses requires you to use a ring around the lens and to line the ring up with specific dots. To take the lens off, you’ll need to make sure that the shutter is cocked and then undo the connection ring. Cocking the shutter is also different because of the lever used instead of the winding knob that many SLR cameras have. It just means that you’ll need to be much more careful about all that you do.
When Paul moved to digital, the one thing he says he could not do without was the camera movements on a 5×4 that allowed him to alter the plane of focus and achieve front-to-back sharpness in his images. However, he found he could achieve similar results by using the Nikon PC-E Nikkor 24mm f/3.5D ED lens.
As one of the latest medium format cameras made, you should know that the lens on the LCA-120 is incredibly sharp and the camera is fairly well built. Of course, it’s also the lightest camera on this list because it’s essentially a large film point and shoot camera. But there are also problems like putting a filter on the front. That indeed can be tough but a bit of DIY hacking can get it done really affordably.
However, some things don’t change. He still loves photographing wild and remote landscapes, and he continues to shoot with the same fastidious attention to detail as he did in his large-format years.
‘The ice in this Iceland lagoon is in a constant state of flux. The blues are astounding,’ says Paul
Long considered by many photographers to be the best film medium format camera ever made for wedding photographers, what’s great about this camera is not only its autofocusing abilities and TTL metering, but the fact that it can use Zeiss lenses. In fact, the system has f2 lenses–which is incredibly tough to find with any medium format camera system because of how thin the depth of field is at that aperture.
‘Regardless of what it says on the label, I wanted to use the “tilt” function of the lens function for my landscape work,’ says Paul. ‘I’d used tilt in virtually every landscape I’d ever done and felt handicapped without it. However much you stop down a conventional 24mm lens, you can’t get the degree of sharpness throughout the image that’s possible with a tilt-and-shift lens. It’s just physics.’
Though Hasselblad has many other more complicated SLR cameras, we’re including the 500C here because it sold so well that the company only recently discontinued it. Sure, there is the Bronica SQ-A that was also very good and is a favorite of many photographers–but the 500C still receives lots of support. This camera is by far seen as the very typical 6×6 square format SLR camera that many others are based on. You can use the top down viewfinder, a prism finder, and other accessories to make this camera really rock for you. There are a large assortment of lenses you can use, too.
This portfolio of work has been very well received and marks the beginning of a new and productive period in Paul’s photography. He continues to shoot black & white as well as colour, but now feels comfortable using both.
‘I think going from colour to black & white is a difficult process because you’re removing something that you’re used to seeing in real life. However, going the other way, from black & white, in which I’ve just used form, line, texture, tonality and luminosity, was very different. I could still use the same recipe, if you like, but I was just allowing myself to add a little more spice and seasoning to the ingredients.’
Paul’s Lofoten images, some of which are featured on these pages, show that the introduction of colour has done nothing to lessen the impact of his work. Deserted, ice-strewn beaches, rocky outcrops, distant mountains and stormy skies predominate in images that are both technically accomplished and emotional, and which distil the essence of these remote locations.
That all changed in 2012, when the 36.3-million-pixel Nikon D800E was released. For Paul, this camera was a game-changer.
‘I only ever shot ten sheets of Velvia in my professional career,’ he says. ‘I remember looking at the images and thinking the colours were so gaudy and saturated. I really didn’t like it and I was one of the few pros who didn’t shed a tear when Velvia was discontinued. I shot negative film on the rare occasions I shot colour, because the colours were so much more muted.’
‘I’m not one for shooting the obvious subjects, so when I first went there, I got a road map and just explored tiny back roads and dirt tracks, and often ended up somewhere very remote. This made me feel very isolated, but it also allowed me to soak up the place.
‘As soon as I got the D800E, I put it entirely on manual, so I could have full control over the exposure and aperture settings. I set it at ISO 100 for maximum quality and only shot raw files. In other words, I used exactly the same approach and methods I used with 5×4. I use the same process now and still shoot no more than 20 images a day.’
The perspective control (or tilt-and-shift) lens allows you to tilt the front of the lens forward, enabling you to alter the plane of focus. If you turn it through 45°, the ‘tilt’ function becomes ‘swing’, which allows you to alter the plane of focus from side-to-side. The tilt-and-shift is often regarded as a lens for architectural photography, as the movements also allow the user to correct converging verticals in-camera.
‘To be a large-format photographer is to be completely and utterly fastidious, and to have a systematic approach to everything,’ he says. ‘That has to become second nature, or you’re not concentrating on what you’re photographing.
The last light of the day, with the contrast of the yellow leaves on the smaller trees against the darker tones of the pines
Paul Gallagher believes that one of the most exciting things about being a photographer is to re-invent yourself, or at least to allow yourself to develop. ‘As a photographer, you’ve got to do that,’ he says. ‘I look at images I took ten years ago and I wouldn’t put them on my wall now. I’ve left that point behind and moved forward. Change gives you the stimulus to continue exploring.’
In addition to the technical changes in Paul’s work, he also started exploring landscapes beyond his beloved north of England and Scotland. He was particularly drawn to the austere beauty of Lofoten in Norway. The mountainous archipelago, located inside the Arctic Circle, and its muted colour palette, mainly consisting of blues and greys, was ideal for Paul to explore his use of colour.
‘In the Lofoten environment, moving from large format to DSLR and from black & white to colour, all came together,’ he says. ‘The landscape is similar to Iceland and it’s predominantly coastline, but the quality of light is quite different from Iceland.’
Still though, it’s one of the best cameras that Mamiya ever made and it (and the lenses) still go for lots of money.
With the camera on the boardwalk edge, Paul got the diagonals he needed with the steel beams pushing out into the reflected clouds
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‘I think that if you do it that way, your work still retains its visual signature. You’re still shooting the same kind of image, but with a little bit of icing on the cake. My aim is that my work will continue to evolve as time goes by. Heaven forbid that I’m still doing the same things in 15 or 20 years’ time.’
While Paul’s large-format kit gathered dust, he started going on shoots with his new, 50% lighter kit bag. However, old habits die hard, and although the camera offered a range of state-of-the-art, hi-tech functions, Paul proceeded to cheerfully ignore most of them.
The camera is great for landscapes and portraits, but we’re not too sure it’s great for much else besides stagnant subjects. It’s heavy, so handholding it requires you to have quite the strong arms.
Although he visited popular tourist areas, Paul couldn’t wait to get as far away from them as possible.
Pentax has made a huge splash with their Pentax 645 digital cameras; and their older film cameras were also very good. It is capable of shooting very fast shutter speeds, has a bulb mode, mirror lockup, a Polarizing window with the lens shades, etc. What you may not like is the automatic film advance–if the motor goes after a while then you’ll be kind of stuck. This is one of the reasons why photographers love the manual advance.
The 24mm PC-E lens remains Paul’s main workhorse lens. His other lenses are a 70-200mm f/2.8, which he mainly uses for woodland shots, and a 16-35mm f/4, which he specifically bought for photographing the northern lights in Norway. Generally, Paul avoids using zoom lenses. ‘I firmly believe that the best zoom lens is your legs,’ he says.
‘For me, this period has been about allowing my work to naturally evolve, but not to force it,’ he explains. ‘I just decided to try it and I’m very excited by the results.
‘This shot was taken just after a blizzard in Lofoten,’ says Paul. ‘There was another storm imminent, hence the black skies. I had to work fast’
Paul explains how a tilt-and-shift lens aided his new digital approach
Paul Gallagher photographed landscapes in black and white on large-format kit for 25 years, but now shoots colour on a DSLR. Photographers have to evolve, he tells David Clark
‘I did go to the famous places, such as the village of Reine, and they are absolutely beautiful, but I was always drawn back to somewhere that was off the beaten track. It’s a really fascinating place and the weather changes all the time, radically transforming the appearance of the landscape. If you braved the worst weather and got breaks in the blizzards, the landscape and environment came into its own fantastically well. It was absolutely staggering.’
Landscape photography: Why I swapped medium format for a Nikon DSLR
While the camera had an improved second version, we’re recommending the first because it’s more affordable and still gives you what you need to get the shot.
Paul speaks as someone whose landscape photography has undergone a number of changes during the past few years. He was a confirmed film user who moved to digital capture; a large-format camera enthusiast who downsized to a DSLR; and an exclusively black & white photographer who changed to shooting in colour.
There are loads of great medium format film cameras but if you’re into film then you probably can’t beat these.
All images by Paul Gallagher. Reynisdrangar, Iceland. ‘The pillars in the sea came and went with the passing cloud,’ says Paul. ‘The main challenge was the sea spray building up on my filters’
Regarded as the world’s best medium format film rangefinder, you’ll never want to buy a digital camera again when you buy a Mamiya 7 II. With a fairly large number of lenses available, a light body, and with loads of features that make it perhaps the absolute king of medium format cameras, you can’t complain at all. Well, there is one thing–the shutter is so quiet you may not even think that you’ve taken a photo.