Chapter 2… Get your hands on my leg!

Many times in my Groundglass career I was asked, “Why do you have so many different types of cameras?” Simply put, specific assignments called for particular sizes (formats) of film, or the distinct functionality of certain cameras.  One accepted rule in commercial photography is the larger the film size, the better the quality regarding the final print.  Similar to today’s theory on digital cameras – the more “mega pixels,” the bigger the image size – therefore a higher quality image.

Film formats are proportionate to standard photo print sizes. For example, a single frame of 35mm roll film is proportionate to a 5 x 7 inch photo print if enlarged 5 times.  A sheet of 4 x 5 inch film is proportionate to an 8 x 10 inch print enlarged only 2 times.  Reducing the number of times film is proportionately enlarged allows better print quality in the end.  Knowing how a customer will be using a photo determines what film size and which camera to use in production.  An automobile photo displayed on a billboard requires shooting in a larger format, opposed to taking a “head and shoulders” portrait found in a press release.

There are distinct advantages in shooting with a large format “view camera.” Most people associate these cameras with old-fashioned glass negatives and flash powder. But view cameras are still accepted as an industry standard for studio, landscape and architectural photography. It’s a very simple machine consisting of a lens board, a film board and a flexible bellows in between.

In architectural photography, simple geometry plays a factor in producing an accurate, high quality image.  A view camera can correct for parallel distortion by using the “rise & fall – tilt & swing” features integrated on the lens and film boards. The rule here is if the subject plane, lens plane and film plane are parallel to each other, you can eliminate converging lines – or distortion.


The picture below was taken with a conventional single lens reflex camera and a wide angle lens. Notice the NCB Building in the center appears to be wider at the top than at the bottom.  And the buildings along the frames edges are leaning out to the left and right. Could this be geological plate shifts or architectural design flaws?  No, it’s just wide angle distortion. Click on any picture to enlarge and see more detail.

From the exact same spot using a view camera and applying the subject plane, lens plane and film plane parallel rule, you can see the effects of correcting distortion in the picture below.

All things considered, view cameras do have a number of quirky features associated with them.  First, the subject matter you are capturing appears upside down in the viewing screen. There are no mirrors between the lens and viewfinder to correct the image as with a conventional SLR.  Additionally, the viewfinder needs to be void of ambient light when focusing and composing a shot. That is why you’ll see photographers with a black cloth draped over their head looking through the viewfinder. And, in most situations, a view camera requires a sturdy tripod to support its bulkiness.  This makes the whole package a little more cumbersome, and set up becomes much more calculated.

Enough with education… on to the real world.

JMB Property Management, a Chicago based firm, was responsible for several Cleveland properties including the National City building on 9th Street and Euclid. Through client networking, I was contacted by JMB to do a number of projects that promoted the benefits of leasing office space in National City’s tower.  One particular assignment was scheduled for September 19th, 1988, which coincided with a Monday Night Football game between the Browns and Indianapolis Colts. This was billed as “Light-up Cleveland” night by city council members due to the exposure of downtown on national TV. The National City building needed to be a jewel in the evening skyline.

The JMB property manager, Steve Parks, asked me to shoot exteriors of the building by day and night from the exact same location. This would be used as a side-by-side artistic comparison for future printed promotions. Steve made arrangements with the Ameritrust building on the opposite corner of 9th and Euclid to use their roof-top as the shoot location. This was the best vantage point to capture the entire NCB building without having to maneuver through power lines, traffic lights and pedestrians.

Flashback to mild acrophobia – the Ameritrust rooftop is 35 stories above ground, with the optimal shooting angle for the NCB building being a ledge with no safety rail. My checklist included a bulky view camera and tripod (two of its three legs set inches from 300+ feet straight down), an upside down viewfinder, a black cloth to cover my head, lots of film and prayers, smile and submit the invoice.

From the building exteriors above, you can see that the daytime conditions were perfect – great lighting on the building, cobalt blue sky, and puffy clouds. And with bright, sunny conditions, I could set the shutter speed high. This greatly assisted in the clarity of the photos unlike the shaky aerial shots in Chapter 1. There’s no need for retouching or enhancements here, but a change was in the wind.

The weatherman indicated a front moving in from the west with a chance of late evening rain. I had arranged to be at the Ameritrust building by 7:00 p.m. to meet with Steve and the Ameritrust’s operating engineer who would let us on the roof.   My wife, Lenore, also joined us.   She thought this would be a unique experience to see Cleveland lit up from the geographical center of town.  Lenore also has no fear of heights or wildly spinning amusement park rides.  She made a great unpaid intern.  Arriving with our seemingly hundreds of camera cases and gear bags, we entered a special elevator that had non-stop rooftop access. As the doors opened 35 floors later, we were greeted with a gust of wind that set all of us back on our heels. What I didn’t hear from the weatherman was that ahead of this front were sustained winds of 35-40 mph. This was not an issue on the ground where downtown buildings act as a shield.  But there was no defense at this altitude.

The wind was howling as we exited the elevator.  Our attention shifted to a low drone from the sky above. Pitching and rolling like a crab boat in the Bering Sea, the Goodyear blimp was trying to make its way toward Brown’s stadium for aerial coverage of the game. It didn’t take long for the captain of that ship to realize the seas were too rough for any camera work. He circled for about 15 minutes, and then headed south back to Akron. There will be plenty more games to cover in the season, but only one chance for “Light-up Cleveland.”

Lenore helped me unpack the equipment while keeping a safe distance from where we needed to position the camera. My commission was to shoot from the same spot 8 hours earlier when it was sunny and calm. Mounting the anything-but-aerodynamic view camera to the tripod head was like opening an umbrella – well, in a windstorm.  And to make this assigment more challenging, the shutter speed for proper exposure at night had to be about 20-30 seconds. That meant that the slightest movement during that half-minute would affect the clarity of the shot.

Slowly and cautiously, I inched the tee pee-like apparatus to where it needed to be. Even though the “breeze” was fairly warm for September, there was the chilling possibility that 25 pounds of aluminum and steel would blow over the edge and land on someone’s dome. My palms assumed the sweaty position. Do I call the time of death? Do I pay a retoucher huge money to blacken the sky from one of the daytime shots?  Steve gave me a look that had, ‘I really need you to do this tonight’ written all over it. “Could you use an extra set of hands?”  The Ameritrust custodian spoke louder than normal so that I could hear him over the gusts. “Yep,” I said with a shaky voice, “everyone needs to put your hands on my legs now.” For some strange reason, all three knew exactly what I was referring to.  It was a professional quip that they understood!   Like clockwork, assuming the 2, 6 and 10 position, they huddled below me and firmly grasped the tripod leg closest to them with both hands. It was somewhat reminiscent of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

I crossed my fingers, clicked the shutter for 30 seconds, and repeated this process about 25 times.  The other simple rule of photography is when in doubt, shoot a lot. My stabilizing team did a fabulous job for the 30 minutes of shoot time (breaks were included.)  Steve was happy with the results, no one fell overboard, and the Browns went on beat Indianapolis 23 to 17.  Last one out – please shut off the lights.