Thursday, August 02, 2007

Experiencing the Pentax 67: An interview with photographer Chris Willson

Mt. Fuji, by Chris Willson

The Pentax 6x7 system, soon to be 40 years old in 2009, has been venerated by many photographers who enjoy working in medium format, both in the studio and outdoors. Despite its size and weight, photographers have been occasionally known to use it handheld without mirror-lock up. It's achieved a great reputation for its solid construction, which is much like a beefed up classic Spotmatic 35mm body. The optional wooden grip is now almost iconic. Each iteration of the camera, including the latest 67ii, has never been expensive or difficult to maintain. Although they don't have interchangeable backs or a high flash sync speed, every camera member of the 67 family boasts that they can use some of the best and fastest lenses in the industry without the Zeiss name premium.

I recently talked with professional photographer and writer Chris Willson (pictured right) about how he uses the Pentax 67 system in particular for his portfolio and assignments. I was interested in how Chris came to use the Pentax 6x7 format and what he goes through when taking Pentax's largest SLR out on location. Not surprisingly, his talent makes it seem easy to get the brilliant shots he's got under his belt. He captures the color and vibrance of daily life in Japan with a deft eye for classical connotations. Chris was kind enough to be very open about how he made the transition from 35mm to Medium Format to achieve the look he desired for his magazine work. He also gives me his thoughts on the potential of a 645D and tells the story of how one of his recent photographs required him to stake out a location 12 hours in advance to wait for an opportunity that would pass by in seconds.

Michael: Had you always been drawn to photography?

Chris: As a teenager I had a simple point and shoot camera which I used while exploring the UK and Europe. Later while backpacking and working in South America the same cheap P&S was a good way of capturing a few memories without worrying too much about it getting coated in mud, mold or mosquito repellent.

In 1999, I started teaching English in Japan. It was my first steady income (rather than living off tips in the Peruvian Amazon) and the first time I had ever been into a Yodobashi Camera store. The stores are found all over Japan near busy railway stations and are packed with all the latest electronic wizardry and of course several floors devoted to camera equipment. I bought my first SLR (a Nikon F60/N60) put in some Provia film and began taking photographs of the weird and wonderful land I was living in. Not long afterwards, I noticed that a local paper for ex-pats and the American military community was looking for freelance writers. I took some photos of Okinawan rock climbers, wrote a few paragraphs of text, and a month later I had my first ever published work.

Michael: How did you make the leap to Medium Format?

Chris: After a couple of years of getting articles published in local papers and the occasional national newspaper or magazine, I began looking at the submission guidelines for travel magazines. It became clear that many magazines preferred, even specified, medium format images. At around the same time I saw several articles in British photography magazines by Lee Frost, a photographer using the Pentax 67 system. It seemed to be just what I was looking for, the advantages of using a piece of film nearly 5 times the size of 35mm, but with the toughness, practicality, and wide range of lenses available similar to a 35mm system. Just loading the camera was tricky at first but slowly I worked out what I was meant to be doing. Five years and hundreds of rolls of film later I am still using the same camera.

There is something fantastic about looking at large transparencies on the light box. The larger size of the film has been useful in that magazines know they will stand up to being used for a spread across two pages and also when producing larger prints for sale.

Michael: Tell me about your Pentax 67.

Chris: The Pentax 67 is a wonderfully solid yet tactile piece of equipment. I love the clunk as you attach a lens and it clicks into place. I love winding on film manually and the loud crack of the shutter. I was discussing this same issue with a Japanese friend and he compared it to making green tea. Of course you can now use an electric kettle and tea bags to make a cup of green tea, but there is something deeply special if you take your time and make it the traditional way with a charcoal fire and powdered tea. Maybe part of photography is in the joy and satisfaction at each stage of the process.

Michael: Pentax MF cameras are somewhat different in that they don't accept interchangable magazine backs. Has that ever been a problem for you?

Chris: I think people who need to use Polaroids with the Pentax 67 just have a second body with a NPC Polaroid back attached. I think that not being able to use a digital back will be solved by just having a separate digital body such as the 645D.

Michael: Ah, the 645D... What are you looking for in the digital incarnation of the Pentax 645, based on what you've heard about the project at Pentax so far?

Chris: I expect great things from the 645D. I will be interested to use my large 67 telephoto lenses such as the 400mm with a 67 to 645 adaptor giving me a great setup for shooting wildlife images. Hopefully it will become available sometime in 2008. I expect that it will be a real flagship product with which Pentax can show the world just how good they really are.

Michael: For your location photography with medium format, what sort of gear do you pack along?

Chris: Basic gear is one 67II body and 45mm, 105mm, and 165mm lenses, along with polarizing filters and a set of Lee filter grads. Depending on what I am photographing I may also take the 35mm fisheye, 75mm shift, 100mm macro, or the 400mm. I use a Gitzo carbon fiber tripod with an Arca-Swiss head and attach the camera to this using a Really Right Stuff base plate. Also in the bag are several packs of Provia 220, model release forms, batteries, etc.

As I work as both a travel writer and photographer, images are usually going to be illustrating the text. Therefore, before I travel I need to find out which are the interesting places in a particular area, where and when the festivals are, and what time things happen. I then create a shot list of images I would like and add more spontaneous photographs on the day. Over the years, as my Japanese has improved and I understand the culture more it has give me better ideas about what I want to shoot and the ability to talk with people whether they are monks, yakuza or elderly Okinawans.

Michael: There's a lot of preparation that goes into your work.

Chris: One case of preparation being the key to success was when trying to get some shots of a huge firework festival at Itsukushima Shrine near Hiroshima. The shot I had in my mind was to try and get the famous torii gate silhouette with exploding fireworks behind it. I scouted out the location a couple of days before and found out where they were going to anchor the barges that would be the platform for firing off the fireworks. I then wandered around until I found the exact spot where camera, torii gate, and barge would be lined up perfectly. On the day of the event I arrived on the island at around 8 A.M. and there were already dozens of photographers but I was able to set up my tripod exactly where I wanted it. Over the next twelve sweltering hours (mid August) I sat by my tripod as hundreds of other photographers and thousands of spectators arrived for the show. At around 8 P.M. the fireworks began and I shot a couple of rolls of film. I got the image I had planned, but on one shot I had pressed the shutter a little late. Rather than capturing the initial burst I had the glowing embers of the firework creating a rising sun behind the gate. This lucky shot was my favorite of my two weeks in Hiroshima and one of my best of all time. Sometimes a little bit of luck is just what a photographer needs.

Michael: Thanks, Chris!

All accompanying photos for this article are by Chris Willson. All rights reserved.

To see more of his work, be sure to visit Chris Willson's website, Travel67.

For more information on the Pentax 67 System, check out these links:


John said...


I wish you had written this a few weeks ago. I just sold my 6x7 on eBay yesterday. Honestly, I need the money more than the camera right now, but I miss it dearly already.

Someday, when I'm rich & famous, I'll get another 6x7. Right now, digital is all I can afford.

Great article, though!

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MER said...

great and useful information

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