Field Test
The High-Res, High Quality Landscape Image

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When a writer friend heard that photographer Les Jörgensen takes landscape and location photographs using a high-resolution digital back on a view camera, and goes into the field with a computer, batteries, battery packs, a solar panel, tripod, and a full complement of the necessary wires and cables to lash the whole thing into working configuration, he asked, "And a mule?"

Well, no. But you can see where someone would conjure up the vision of a photographer of the mid-1800s, trekking off to the hinterlands with a cumbersome view camera, film plates, and supplies to bring back those extraordinary views of the territory.

Jörgensen, in fact, carries all his stuff--some 45 lbs of it--in a Lowe-Pro backpack. There's a Phase One PowerPhase digital back for his Linhof 2x3 view camera; lenses of 47, 90, 120, and 370mm; a Mac PowerBook Duo 230C; two batteries for the laptop; a Phase One Powerkit battery array; a Bogen 600 tripod; and a solar pack that on sunny days Jörgensen plugs into the battery pack to power and recharge as he shoots.

And that's not all: back at his base of operation--whatever hotel or motel is nearest his shooting location--there's a Yamaha CD writer and a supply of blank CDs. The PowerBook has a 6GB hard drive--plenty of space for lots of images, but at the end of every day of work, Jörgensen transfers the digital images from the PowerBook's drive to a CD. Well, actually two CDs. "One stays with me, the other gets FedExed home," he says. The reason is safety: "If the computer collapses or I drop it into a stream, I haven't lost more than that day's work. It's the same reason we do split processing when we shoot a studio job, and why we ship film in separate batches. I was recently in Scotland for two weeks doing this field work, and I spent a lot of time, a lot of money, and a lot of effort; why, through my own laziness, would I risk it?"

Okay, so we've worked out the logistics. But that still leaves the question, why? Why carry all this equipment? And why put up with the obvious limitation of a digital scan back--the long exposures necessary to make an image? Why try to do what an acquaintance of Jörgensen's, photographer Russell Sparkman, called "the impossible with the improbable?"

Simply, for the results. "There are a lot of reasons not to do this work," Jörgensen says, "but one big reason to do it: I get a beautiful 150MB digital file that has absolutely no film grain. I can print these pictures up to about 5x5' with incredible detail."

When he's not in the field, Jörgensen is in "the cave"--his New York City studio, where he produces still life advertising, editorial, corporate, and catalog images for a variety of clients. In the beginning he thought he'd be a "sticks, twigs, and stones" photographer. "I had spent a lot of time in the desert and park areas in and around California while attending Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara learning photography. I thought I'd be a landscape photographer, and landscapes are really what I enjoy the most." Of course, life being what it is, he ended up in a studio in Manhattan with a reputation for outstanding graphic, colorful still lifes. "My career took off pretty quickly in the early '90s," he says.

In 1993, Jörgensen took a course in the Mac and Photoshop at the School of Visual Arts because he "saw the industry going that way" and wanted to know whether to say yes or no to the process. Within three weeks he was doing photocompositions for The New York Times Magazine. "I was hooked," he says.

After testing several digital camera backs, he chose the Phase One for his studio work. "It's not at all foreign to work with--it's just a back for my 4x5. Everything else is the same." Today he feels that high-resolution digital cameras and their technology have gotten so good "that a digital image file is the equivalent of an 8x10 chrome."

The inspiration to shoot landscapes with his digital equipment came about a year and a half ago when Jörgensen visited the headquarters of Phase One, the makers of his high-res digital back. "I found out that the computer chip used in the camera back was highly infrared sensitive, and the chip was being used by various people as an infrared sensor in scientific applications and research. I'd always been interested in doing infrared photography, and on the way home a light went off: I could use the back with an infrared filter and do location infrared work--and see the results immediately on the computer's screen." Jörgensen quickly tested the idea in his studio and was soon ready to go out on location.

What Jörgensen produces are beautiful infrared images that, if not predictable, are certainly controllable. "You often don't know what you're getting with infrared," he says, "and the photographs often wind up being grainy. But with this method, I know exactly what I'm getting. I know my white point, my black point--I'm seeing the previews on the screen, and I'm changing f/stops or shutter speeds and making it as exact an exposure as I need." Digital, then, takes the guessing game out of infrared. "I always liked the look of infrared, but thought it was pretty crude; this makes it controllable," he says. The only addition to the digital process: an infrared filter on the lens--"the same as you would have if you were using infrared film."

A problem that film doesn't have, but a high-resolution digital back does, is the long exposures necessary for the digital back to scan the scene. "That's one of the reasons not to do this kind of photography," Jörgensen says. But, obviously, it doesn't stop him. "I just have to be aware of movement in the scene. I'm limited to photographing things that are fairly far away...or working on very calm days; that, or a ton of retouching."

While Jörgensen feels that the future will bring improvements to the technology, for right now, "the miracle is that it can be done at all." He likens it to the slow and deliberate photographic processes of the mid-1800s. "They made some gorgeous images back then, and I think we can make some gorgeous images right now."

The majority of Jörgensen's smooth-as-silk digital field images are part of two projects. One, "the Iowa pictures," began two years ago. "I started taking infrared pictures in the county in Iowa in which I was born and raised. The landscape of Iowa is changing drastically. The old family farm is disappearing. A lot of the old wooden buildings are falling down. What I remember, what I grew up with, is becoming more and more dream-like, and will someday be forgotten. Infrared pictures are perfect for that--they have the feeling of a dream and also the look of seeing the invisible, like seeing into another time."

The other project is comprised of photos Jörgensen took during a two-week trip to Scotland, during which the solar pack proved its value. "It keeps adding juice as I'm working," Jörgensen says. "I try to keep things topped off as much as possible. One day in Scotland I didn't think anything was happening, and then suddenly the sun broke through. I took off, hiking and shooting for six hours. If I hadn't had the power topped off, I'd have been in trouble."

When Jörgensen returns to his studio, the images come off the CDs and onto the hard drive of the office computer--the Mac clone Power Computing Genesis MP, which has 12GB of hard drive space and over 700 megs of RAM. The images sometime need a bit of manipulation in Photoshop--"not in terms of the highlights or shadows or tones," Jörgensen says, "but to remove a power line or an abandoned car sitting in front of an old barn."

What's he done with the digital infrared images he's produced? "Looked at them, showed them to my mom," he says. "Actually, my goal for the last year has been to get together a body of this work that would show a range of images, and now that there's a group of them, some of which I've published at my web site, I'll approach galleries and offer them for sale. I've also interested a stock agency in them." Among other possibilities are a book and a series of calendars.

If you visit Jörgensen's web site (www.lesjorgensen.com), be sure to check out his VR panoramas. You'll need QuickTime and the QuickTime VR plug-in components required for your system and browser (they're available free on the Internet), and with them you'll be able to take a 360° "motion picture" look at one of Jörgensen's infrared high-res digital photographs. He produces the VR panoramas by panning his tripod-mounted camera in a circle, taking 24 to 36 consecutive photographs, then using the QuickTime VR program to put the series together as a single image.

For Jörgensen, his work with the digital field camera is a wonderful convergence of new technology and old-style deliberation and care. The technology isn't inexpensive--he's invested about $60,000 in the contents of his backpack--but the results, those glorious images, are to him well worth the time, effort, and investment.

And he doesn't need a mule.

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