CLYDE BUTCHER: A Seat-of-the-Pants Photographer

////CLYDE BUTCHER: A Seat-of-the-Pants Photographer

CLYDE BUTCHER: A Seat-of-the-Pants Photographer

Casey Key, Florida, 2014 © Clyde Butcher

Casey Key, Florida, 2014 © Clyde Butcher

Known as “the Ansel Adams of the Everglades,” Clyde Butcher is widely admired for the majestic beauty of his wall-sized black-and-white photographs of the Florida Everglades, national parks and the American landscape. When Photographer’s Forum interviewed him in 2000 (Spring/February 2000, Vol. 22, No. 2), he would carry his 11×14 view camera and gear in a 65-pound backpack as he sloshed through swamps and trudged across dunes. Large-format negatives were necessary to make large silver prints, and Butcher’s prints were up to 8×12 feet. But now, he has switched entirely to digital technology and produces even larger prints.

Butcher has received over three dozen awards for both his photography and his conservation efforts, including the Marjory Stoneman-Douglas 101 Year Birthday Award, Sierra Club Cypress Award, Everglades Coalition Award, Sierra Club Ansel Adams Conservation Award and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photographers Association. In 1998, Butcher was admitted to the Florida Artists Hall of Fame. More information on his awards, lectures, books and exhibitions is on his website at

Butcher has galleries in Venice and Ochopee, Florida. I met with him at the Ochopee Gallery, on the Tamiami Trail midway between Miami and Naples, surrounded by the utter chaos and stunning beauty of the Everglades.

Ken Lassiter: How does an established photographer make the transition from large format film to today’s digital cameras? When did you first entertain the idea of trying digital photography?

Clyde Butcher: Actually, I’ve been in the digital world for over 15 years because for all my books, I scanned my negatives and gave separations to the printers. I had to figure out a way to Photoshop my scans so the books looked like my silver prints. I spent a lot of time crashing my computer while I taught myself Photoshop by pushing buttons until I got the results I wanted. That was all I did digitally for 12 years, until I got my first digital camera in 2014 and started experimenting. That camera was a 17 MP Canon DSLR with a 17mm tilt-shift lens. I loved that lens but wasn’t all that happy with the results, although the quality was better than I thought it would be. A friend of mine got a 36 MP Sony mirrorless camera, and I asked him how he mounted his Canon tilt-shift lens onto it. He showed me how to use the tilt-shift lens with adapters. One of my favorite lenses now is the Voigtlander Super Wide-Heliar 15mm. I love the latest version since it was designed especially for digital cameras. Somehow, they eliminated the edge problems you usually see with extreme wide-angle lenses.

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Florida, 2015 © Clyde Butcher

Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Florida, 2015 © Clyde Butcher

KL: How big are the camera sensors you’re using now?

CB: The prints you see in the gallery were made with a 36 MP Sony mirrorless camera or a 50 MP Canon DSLR. I just made a photograph in Myakka River State Park with the Canon and a 17mm tilt-shift lens. By taking two images ”” shifting the 17mm lens to the left for one shot and then to the right for another ”” and putting the two images together, I get a 78 MB file. That makes a tack-sharp 8×10-foot print! I just started playing with a new 42 MP mirrorless camera. The sensor is different so I expect it to produce different results ”” sort of like the difference between shooting Tri-X and T-Max 400 film. I’ll have to experiment to learn the differences and how to exploit them for my work.

KL: Do you ever use panorama techniques for your large images?

CB: All the time. I use a Cambo Actus attachment on the Sony. It has a bellows just like a view camera with tilt and swing, plus left/right and up/down shift movements. I have a Mamiya RZ 75mm shift lens so I can set up the camera for panoramas. I shift the lens 20mm left and then back 20mm to the right and shoot five images in a row. I make several rows to cover the whole subject and use panorama software to assemble the images into one 2 GB file ”” tack sharp! I love panoramas!

KL: What techniques did you change when you switched from film to digital?

CB: I didn’t change anything. That’s the beauty of my system. I use my shifts, rises and falls just as I’ve always done on my large format camera. When I was shooting film and using an orange filter, I lost two and a half stops. With a deep red filter, I lost four stops. Now I don’t have that problem. That’s an exciting advantage to digital photography.

KL: Do you check your image using the LCD on the back of the camera?

CB: I rarely look at the LCD image. I shoot digital exactly how I shot black-and-white film. Since I assemble images using shift and panorama techniques, the LCD shows me only one part of an image. I can see the image in black-and-white in my mind. I understand what angle of view my lenses can capture, and when I set up my camera, I use it to focus rather than compose. I level the camera, focus at the hyperfocal distance and tape the focus so it can’t change. Then I can shift the lens any which way to cover what I want in the photograph. If I want more sky, I raise the lens. More foreground? I drop the lens. I shoot like I have a point-and-shoot camera. If I want maximum sharpness when shooting, say at f/11, I use the hyperfocal distance setting for two stops larger, like f/5.6.

KL: Do you ever use a point-and-shoot digital camera to make test shots?

CB: What are test shots for? I never make test shots. Although I’m shooting in color, remember, I’m making blackand- white photographs. I don’t need that golden light so beloved by color photographers. I never made contact prints of my film negatives, either. I looked at the negatives and found one I liked and printed it ”” the same with digital images. I’m a seat-of-the-pants kind of photographer! I seldom take more than six shots a day.

Read More in Photographer’s Forum :: Spring 2016 / Vol. 38 / No. 2

By |2018-02-21T16:39:51-07:00February 15th, 2016|