Fotoman 6x17 by Jason Brunner

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Fotoman 6x17 by Jason Brunner

Post by Admin on Fri Dec 26, 2008 2:11 pm

Life with a Fotoman 6x17 by Jason Brunner

I always wanted a panoramic camera. When I was more of a gear head, I dug the way they looked, I dug the special-built purpose. In all of its brutality, I dug the whole idea, the whole ethos. Of course, I didn't have one. They were too expensive. Way too expensive. And intimidating. The desire that smoldered, moldered. The Xpan was released. (Yes, I'm old enough to remember that.) By the time I was looking at glass, the price was climbing, and I had graduated to bigger negatives. I never got the Xpan.


Fast forward to 2007. I had some money – not a lot, but enough. I was looking around for a 6x7 or 6x8 to replace my stolen RZ. (You know who you are.) By this time, I was shooting mostly large format for my expressive work – 4X5 and 8x10 – and loving it. My commercial work, for the most part, had slid to digital – thanks in no small part to creative directors with pedestrian tastes, little vision, and who wanted 900 half-baked snaps to cartoon out -- immediately. It was then that I realized I didn't need to shop for a MF system that was subservient to my commercial work because the system needed only to satisfy my personal desires. And that opened up a world of possibilities. It was also about that time that I ran across the Fotoman, or rather, it ran over me. Here was a choice of panoramic medium format cameras in 6x12, 6x17, and 6x24 that I could afford. They looked to be well-built. The lens choices that covered on the 6x17 was large. All the panoramic pining came came rushing back, filled my senses, and overwhelmed me. Like a big brown trout rising to a well tied fly, I bit, and bit hard.


Three days later, the camera arrived. I had ordered the 6x17 and a cone to use it with my already-in-hand Schneider 90/5.6 Super Angulon XL. The first impression of any camera is how it feels when you pick it up for the first time. When I hefted the Fotoman body, my first impression was that I could club somebody unconscious with it, and then turn around and make a negative. The thing is built. The body is milled out of a solid block of aluminum alloy. The fit and tolerances were good. Holding the body by the hand grips had an oddly familiar feel, as if the camera had been there before. A twitching feeling of fulfillment began to build.


Before I could use the camera, I needed to install my lens on the appropriately chosen lens cone that I specified when I ordered the camera. Installation and calibration of the lens and helical focus mount was straight forward and easy, following the instructions provided with the camera. The few other bits were a no-brainer. There’s nothing overtly complicated about this camera. My experience with large format lenses made it easier, but a medium-sized brain and a passing understanding of photographic principles seemed to be adequate for the job. The assembly and calibration took me about half an hour.


It was now time to go outside and try out my new camera.


First I set the viewfinder to 90mm to match my lens. My finder has a moving mask that is set by rotating a dial that surrounds the front objective of the finder. (The present Fotoman now comes with a different finder than the one that came with mine. No doubt it’s some kind of improvement, but I’ve been perfectly happy with the one that came with my system.) It was time to load the film. As the Fotoman was a different beast for me, I had actually read all the instructions, and good thing, because you load the film in the right side, and it takes up on the left. (Just remember that the big knob is the take up, and you’ll have no problems.) After loading the film, I turned the big knob until the “3” showed in the red window. Fotoman had engraved a 3, 6, 9, and 12 on the window plate to remind one of how far to advance the film for each exposure. The camera makes four exposures on a roll, and trust me, four is plenty. I made advancing the film part of my shot set-up, so I never get confused. I think of it like pulling a dark slide, or setting the aperture.


With my meter, a couple of rolls of FP4, and my new camera, I walked down to the canal at the end of the street. The trees on each side make a lovely canopy in the summer, with pleasant reflections dancing on the slow-moving water. It's my default exterior test-bombing range for cameras. Now here is where it gets interesting: no matter how much you think you have rattled it around in your melon, the 6x17 aspect ratio makes you think differently. At first, it can be unsettling. I'm looking at my canal, but now I'm looking at it from the perspective of a 90mm lens on a format that is pushing seven inches wide on two and a quarter. I whip out the meter. After my meter antics – with consideration for my personal speed for FP4 and the fact that I'm shooting under a canopy of foliage – I realize there is no way I can handhold the camera with those groovy handles and carry any depth of field, which, for this shot, I need. I trudge back to the house and grab my tripod. Now, a smarter person would have figured that out before, but I'm not that smart all the time. I was just digging the handholdy thingies. I have since decided that they are merely a serving suggestion, but that may just be me.


I mounted up the camera, and shot the rolls. The negs were sublime. At the time, lacking a 5x7 enlarger, I scanned them, and had a few printed at a lab. The lens lived up to its reputation, the camera delivered all that I could give it, and my panoramic itch got scratched, with my foot thumping the floor in-time.




Since that fateful day, I’ve shot with the camera in a variety of places. Things seem to work out the best when I go on dedicated panoramic expeditions, rather than taking the camera along with some others. I find it difficult to move my mind back and forth between seeing panoramic shots and the more standard rectangle. Sometimes, however, I'll be out with another system, and wish I had brought the Fotoman. When you see it, you see it, and it's the kind of thing that makes you come back, on purpose, with the 6x17. If you shoot MF chrome, the transparencies will knock the breath out of you. Recently, I managed to obtain a 5x7 enlarger. I fashioned a negative carrier out of matte board, and now happily enlarge my 6x17 negatives in my darkroom. The genuine prints are simply exquisite, and bring a stupid grin at every dunk.


When I ordered the camera, I also purchased a crazy expensive center filter to even out the corner fall-off inherent to wide large format lenses. After the fact, I discovered that I liked the subtle corner fall off, at least with the 90mm SA. The filter (that was apparently machined out of gold bullion) spends most of the time in its pleather holster. With seventeen square inches of of film exposed through the Schneider, it doesn't look remotely like a Holga cropped to pan. I would probably add the subtle fall-off when printing anyway, as St. Ansel directed.


You have to remember to take off the lens cap to shoot, because it acts like a range finder in that respect. You have to remember to set the focus, because it's not a range finder, in that respect. The depth of field calculator on the helical is simple to use, and works well. After you have advanced the film, you hold the large take up knob in place and back tighten the feed knob a tiny bit to put tension on the film. This, along with the camera's large pressure plate, assures film flatness. The idea of using the 6x17 press-camera-style has passed, and my Fotoman works almost exclusively from a tripod. For one thing, the format is cruelly unforgiving to anything that isn't level. Also, the compositions that I find ideal, seem to want the most depth of field that can be delivered.


And yes, you can screech up to the overlook, hop out of your minivan, and hose off 8 or 80 frames with your 16 Gigawatt Picanator, go home and make an arse negative in the chair of a pooter work station, trying to stitch Frankenstein together. However, there is no substitute in doing things the 6x17 way – and receiving the satisfaction of methodically composing and making a big negative with a native panoramic format, and printing it for real.


I may need this grin surgically removed.


J

To find out all the big brain stuff, available lens cones, accessories, etc, you can visit Fotoman's nifty website at http://www.fotomancamera.com

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