“My main vision is to create a completely modern take on LF (large format) photography,” says inventor and photographer Aleksi Koski on why he experiments so much with photo tools. One of his recent inventions is the RFModule, a digital rangefinder that’s compatible with nearly any kind of camera. We caught up with him to learn more about his device and where he sees the future of large-format photography.
You’ve got to love people who spend their time and resources on creating something new and innovative for the photography community. Aleksi Koski is one such person who’s spent considerable time creating a rangefinder for almost any kind of camera. It’s called the RF Module, and he’s designed it in such a way that pretty much future-proofed it. He’s making it easier for large-format photographers to practice their craft, rightfully pointing out that, once medium format and 35mm cameras became mainstream, large-format cameras lost importance. And he hopes the name Aleksi Koski is someday immortalized.
The Essential Photo Gear Used by Aleksi Koski
Aleksi told us:
- Phase One Powerphase FX+ digital scanning back
- Patent Etui 9×12
- Metz 34 CS-2 flash
The Phoblographer: Hi Aleksi. Please tell us about yourself and how you got into photography.
Aleksi Koski: I got into photography as a way to force myself to face reality, as before that I was making some images using computers. Like really early photoshop stuff; I think it was like Photoshop 3.0 then. Photography was a way to observe my surroundings instead of getting lost in fantasy. I wanted to observe my life and engage with reality on a deeper level.
Though I have kinda come full circle, I’m moving into more internal and symbolic work. But it’s totally different from what I used to do as a kid. I really like reality; I like the limitations of reality. I’m a highly materialistic person.
Lots of people seek escape; I seek the exact opposite. I’m from Finland, and we have this word for which I have not found a good translation. “Inhorealismi” – it’s compromised out of two words. Inho = disgust and realismi = realism.
But instead of meaning disgust for realism, it’s more about being able to see even the disgusting side of reality. And by this, coming to terms with reality. Not trying to escape it in any way. To submit to reality.
To understand that, without limits, nothing would really have any value. I don’t know if I am the only one who gets comfort from the idea that a large enough moving mass would simply smash me into pieces, and no amount of fantasy would change that. That there are clear limits that can’t be evaded.
I think the best way to describe it would be that it’s the opposite of romanticism. Uncompromising realism would probably be the best way to translate it.
I dislike romanticism. Religious mentality, escapism. I think these ideas are anti-reality; they spit in the face of reality and demand fantasy. Demand something “more,” like religions with their infantile fantasies of everlasting life and some sort of eternal reward from all the frustrations experienced in life.
Instead of accepting and understanding the absolute marvel that life is, you escape it. That somehow, the fact that you are made out of flesh and will eventually die makes existence less spectacular. Reality is the antidote to narcissism.
The Phoblographer: Tell us about some of the unique camera gear you use.
Aleksi Koski: When it comes to camera gear, I’m quite specific and quite often mod my gear to suit my purpose. I shoot almost entirely on film, as film works for prints extremely well. There are really no limits to the size of prints you can do from film; it’s only about the quality of your scanner. The end result is always a print on the wall, in my mind.
Only lately, I acquired a Phase One Powerphase FX+ digital scanning back. It’s a 20-year-old piece of kit that still beats a lot of modern digital systems. It’s a large format scanning digital back that does real 132MP. Meaning it gets RGB values for every pixel. I have never been a fan of Bayer sensors; the overall image quality to me seems kinda poor and lacks micro-contrast, as it’s always upscaled. Prints usually end up looking a bit mushy. As it’s a scanning back, it’s only really useful in the studio, but my work has moved in that direction lately, so I like it. Saves me some money on color sheet film.
The other thing that has defined my gear is price. I always go for the cheapest possible gear. I’m completely utilitarian when it comes to the gear I use.
Actually, it has always been price and size. I want the smallest possible and cheapest possible camera. I have no interest in Leicas and all the fancy stuff; I avoid these cameras as they just cost too much. You know, the stuff that everyone thinks you need and is the BEST. My needs are usually really specific; I know what I want and need. There is no best camera, as the tool needs to fit the job.
And most of my 35mm and even large format was shot in conditions where I just needed to be fast and have something I could operate in any mindstate. At that time, I was in a fancy photography school, and my life was kinda a mess. And then I really enjoyed the mess. I was determined to dig deeper. Well, I got kicked out of that school eventually. I was high all the time.
One of my favorites was Patent Etui 9×12; I modded a 90mm wide-angle lens on that. I had a piece of string attached to it for close-up focusing. I got that idea from Olympus XA4, which has this ingenious close-focusing wrist strap. That you could use to measure the closest focus distance point. I also installed a PC flash sync socket on the lid so it would be easier to use a flash. I shot basically everything with a flash. That’s the fast way. No thinking, not much focusing. On my Bessa L, I had a 20mm Russar with a small extension washer to get it to focus at around 0.5m I had marked on the lens. I had no finders on either the Patent Erui or Bessa L. I also have a Bessa R, and people always complain about it as it’s plastic. But that’s exactly what makes it good; it’s the lightest rangefinder there is. I have smashed the finder grass on it a couple of times, but other than that it has survived quite a lot. People are just way too snobby about their gear. And have idiotic demands for their cameras. Usually, it’s some weird collective decision made on some forums.
For flash, I absolutely love these small Metz 34 CS-2s. It’s the most powerful I have found in a small form factor like that, and it’s automatic so I could just point & shoot.
As I was really into LF, but also wanted something I could actually carry around. I got into the European 9×12 folders. That’s where the Patent Etui came from, as it’s the absolute smallest LF camera there is. I also had some with rangefinders, you could occasionally find them with Kalart rangefinders, and they cost next to nothing. Actual usability was rough.
Those 9×12 film holders were horrible. They were heavy, leaked light, and scratched my film. But they were much more compact than 4×5″ holders. And the cameras are considerably more compact. 9×12 is actually a really nice format.
Nowadays, my work is kinda different, and my needs are really different when it comes to cameras.
Currently, I also do stuff like microscopic photography and all sorts of experimental studio stuff, so I build all types of camera systems based on what I want to do. I kinda think it’s part of the craft; you need to be a master in your craft. And as cameras are the tools of photography, being able to create your own has always been in my head part of the mastery of this craft. And that’s only the minimum requirement for art. You need to be a master at your craft.
The Phoblographer: I’m curious about the reason for the name Conflict Cameras. What was the reason for this unique name?
Aleksi Koski: The name Conflict comes from my interest in psychoanalytic theory and relates to my view of what art essentially is. For a person to create art, there always needs to be an underlying conflict in the person. Art is a manifestation of this conflict, either by means of perversion or repetition. Where the person essentially tries to “win” it, controlling and reliving it. Through what is called a magical reversal. I think art is a highly personal process; it forces you to face yourself in quite a brutal and honest way. That’s what really makes it hard, to be basically staring at yourself all day long. It’s easy to start hating everything you produce.
But there is always a possibility to use it to understand the underlying conflict, to understand yourself. I don’t believe that everything can be art. It can’t; art is a process. Without this process, there can’t be art. Art can be recognized exactly from this process; in artistic work, there is always some sort of a “red string.” Even if the artist themselves does not notice it, it’s there.
Most photography is just pattern recognition. It’s people with cameras recognizing a pattern that has been previously accepted as a photograph. And now, as we start to have neural networks, it won’t take long until our cameras can do that. Actually, I think it’s already possible. I think I saw this function on some mobile phones. The software can reframe your photo based on a neural network that has been trained on photographs. I came up with a similar idea probably 10 years ago that I could build a drone and load it with a neural network that would simply recognize photographs. It would be a fully automatic camera. It was mostly just a concept to highlight this formalism that is so prevalent in photography. That, if we could create a totally automatic camera, we would not need photographers. And this would essentially highlight how pointless and repetitive most of it is.
Sure we all start from that, but only if you start to recognize not the patterns of photographs but the patterns of yourself in your own work. And really start to hone into them, hone into the part of your work that you can’t change. I think the biggest mistake people make is to take inspiration from other photographers. Never seek inspiration inside your own craft. That’s how you just end up emulating someone. We need to have a really wide exposure to different disciplines and ideas. To be truly interested in the world.
A lot of people are afraid of conflicts, but it’s not the conflicts we should be afraid of. It’s our inability to face them and solve them that we should be worried about; that’s where all the problems arise. Because in order to solve conflicts, you need to be able to bear guilt. And guilt evasion is exactly where our problems come from, just like how we really can’t bear the collective quilt of destroying our environment. And come up with all sorts of manic solutions, mostly denial. Or we become moralist judges of others. While if we actually faced up to this conflict and accepted the guilt. It would force us to change. Become better.
I have always been fascinated by the question; how can we lie to ourselves? How can it be effective? Who is lying to who? Because that’s essentially what all the defenses are, lies we tell ourselves.
Personally, I really needed photography. It was a way to make sense of my environment. And to understand my life that seemed to make no sense at all. And eventually, I was able to progress into more symbolic work, to symbolize the core conflicts I was processing. And now I’m doing the type of work that I did not really even consider as photography at some point. Maybe it’s no longer photography but more like pictures of sculptures.
And I think that’s good; I don’t really want to limit myself to photography. I always had issues with the so prevalent romanticism in photography. Photography has too much photography in it. You need to have a philosophy behind your work, your own philosophy. A reason. The pictures, in the end, are meaningless; they are more like the waste product of the process. It’s the process that matters, what happens inside your mind. We need to evolve, and the idea of an artist repeating the same image until their death is just sad. I think that the perverse method, compulsive to repeat.
The Phoblographer: Tell us about your RF module. When did you come up with the idea for this? what was the inspiration behind it?
Aleksi Koski: The RF Module was something I came up with around 2011, I think. The main point was to fix the issues I had with LF handheld cameras. There existed only a few rangefinders that were made out of polaroid cameras, and the frame lines were always the originals. So you never had accurate frame lines.
I came up with this design and made a few really crude prototypes before I got into 3d printing. It was not really possible for me to make anything functional. The idea worked, and the crude prototype worked. But fitting it all into a relatively small box was impossible then. It was just a pile of parts on a piece of plywood.
I was frustrated with how people kept selling the idea of a handheld 4×5″, but none of them actually worked in real life. I already had my Patent Etui that was much smaller than all the box cameras people 3d print nowadays, but that was only good for f/22 with a flash. And even then, you missed half the shots.
So the RF MODULE simply fixes a problem without caring about any of the nonsense people attach to analog photography. Like “I can’t have batteries in my camera” and all that. Or how everything needs to be mechanical etc. I have no interest in that; I don’t shoot film for some “analog experience.” I shoot film because it works for prints extremely well. It’s an extremely good and flexible medium, even in the digital era. It’s future-proof. And it just looks really good.
Just that in LF there really did not exist any functional cameras. Sure, you could set your Speed Graphics rangefinder and be stuck with one lens in a camera that kinda big and clunky. Or hunt for some rangefinder cams for specific lenses.
In medium format and 35mm, there is every possible type of camera. You can find several rangefinders, autofocus cameras, etc. But LF handheld cameras are from the 30s; after that, press photographers moved into medium format and 35mm. And LF existed only as studio and field cameras.
I really like reality, I like the limitations of reality. I’m a highly materialistic person.
The Phoblographer: What can the RF module do? what range of camera brands and models is it compatible with?
Aleksi Koski: The RF module is basically like a modern Kalart rangefinder. Kalart rangefinders were popular rangefinder units. It was quite easy to attach to different cameras and was sold separately. It’s the same rangefinder that usually comes with Speed Graphics.
So the idea is similar, that it’s a rangefinder module. That could be installed in various cameras. Just that it digitalizes the link between the camera and the rangefinder. Thus you can calibrate basically an infinite amount of lenses into it and cameras also.
You can move it from one camera to another. It’s still a fully optical rangefinder with a combined finder.
And as the frame lines are also digital, you can use different formats on them. For example, panoramic formats. Move from a 6×9 camera to a 4×5 or to a 6×12 holder. And as the frame lines are digital, they are also perfectly correct. So for parallax & focusing distance. So you can finally get perfect frame lines.
It also has an integrated semi-spot light meter. So basically, it gives you all the tools you need to operate your camera. It really can turn any old camera into a fully modern beast.
And as it’s 2022, it has an insane amount of power with a dual-core processor, wifi, and all that. So I can add new features via firmware updates if needed.
The Phoblographer: Is it the first such rangefinder ever? Besides being fully electronic in its functioning, what key features you have developed as possible world-firsts?
Aleksi Koski: Yes, I think it’s the first of its kind. And it’s exactly because I have been so much into LF that I build it. As in medium format, you would not have had a need for that. Neither in 35mm; why would you? You can just buy a really nice rangefinder camera.
But in LF, there was nothing like that around. So there was a need to come up with this. And as I had years of frustrations with cameras with no finders, I had plenty of motivation. It was so cool to actually get it done; it had been sitting at the back of my mind for so many years.
The Phoblographer: are you saying it can even be mounted to digital cameras for RF functionality?
Aleksi Koski: Yes, basically you could use it on digital cameras. I would like to test it, but I have not yet come up with a good way to track barrell/helicoid lenses. The current method works only with rack-focus cameras. It would be kinda cool to use it on some mirrorless camera.
I just need to figure out the best way to do it. It’s definitely fast & responsive enough. It’s at a point where it’s hard to distinguish it from a mechanical rangefinder.
The Phoblographer: What has been the reception to this product so far? Has there been any interest from photography brands to produce/market it?
Aleksi Koski: I think the RF module has kinda gotten less attention, as I have mainly promoted my 45AF project. And I’m developing it on the side and currently prioritizing the 45AF. The thing is that producing an optical rangefinder is expensive and hard.
There was one dude who apparently came up with the idea about 2 weeks before he saw my version and wanted my designs. There are always a few of these people. Who knows when there will be some lame Kickstarter using these core ideas.
As none of this was done before, I think I was the first one who made any of these types of hybrid finders.
A rangefinder is an optical measuring device; that’s why you don’t see many new rangefinder cameras being made. Each unit would need to be adjusted & calibrated etc. All the mirrors and lenses need to be really exactly in the right position. And stay there.
I don’t think it would make much sense as a mass-produced item. That’s why all the stuff that is mass-produced now is mostly shortcuts. I don’t think we will have film cameras like we used to. It’s way too expensive to manufacture cameras like that.
And I’m not really into that. I would like to produce my own stuff and concentrate on niche stuff. I’m also really interested in small-scale manufacturing. It’s just an insanely interesting time for it. It’s possible to basically build a small factory with quite a small budget. Microcontrollers are so cheap nowadays, so easy and accessible.
I just want a few cameras out there floating on the used markets. You know, to be immortal 🙂 And a Wikipedia page; I need one of those.
I was so into old weird cameras; the discovery was so much fun. Weird, quirky, and beautiful cameras. Like Globuscope 4×5″, Peckham Wray SLR Press Camera, and the aforementioned Patent Etui 9×12.
There will be people like me in the future finding all this stuff. I like people who made their own stuff, like Peter Gowland, who made the 4×5″ TLR Gowlandflex cameras and pocket views. And he did it as a photographer. He had a clear idea of the tools he needed, and then he built them.
It’s definitely fast & responsive enough. It’s at a point where it’s hard to distinguish it from a mechanical rangefinder.
The Phoblographer: What challenges (aside from technical) did you face while making this? Was there much support from your peers when you began?
Aleksi Koski: I think the biggest thanks always go to the open-source people, the people who built and managed libraries for different components. Those save so much time, and quite often, the people are extremely helpful and into their stuff.
I’m not so good at coding; I’m kinda not so good at anything. But know enough of everything so I can put stuff like this together. The truth is, I don’t really seek any sort of peer group or support. I’ve always been an outsider. And this is the first time I have really shown anything I’m doing to any sort of audience. I don’t really have a need to do so. If I wasn’t selling this, nobody would ever hear about it.
I guess that’s another reason for the Conflict name. I kinda need to keep this interesting for me. What I produce will be good enough that it does not need to come with backrubs, branding, and all the social media nonsense hype. It has real use value; it does not need any signal value. I’ve done this long enough to understand what are the key issues. I have an actual vision of what is needed; what are the tools that need to be built.
In a way, what I’m selling is kinda personal. I could have just made these tools for my own work. They are kinda my “tricks of the trade.” But guess I have enough tricks up my sleeve to share some of them.
The Phoblographer: Where do you see this product five years from now? Is there a roadmap for its next stage, or is it just a passion project for now?
Aleksi Koski: I still have some ideas. I want to test and develop a few other focusing and finder modules and probably a camera that takes these different modules. But this will be the only rangefinder, as I previously mentioned. Rangefinders are insanely hard to manufacture.
It still needs a bit of finalizing work, mostly just to make it look a bit more final and easier to put together so I can start selling some units.
But my main vision is to create a completely modern take on LF photography. I think 4×5″ especially, is an extremely good format. It’s small enough to be shot handheld, and even in the digital era, it just offers such a different look. So I have stuff planned for years to come.
I think 4×5″ could easily be shot alongside digital, even professionally, if you need a bit different look. All you need is reliable modern tools to do that.
And you don’t need to be filling rolls; you can just shoot the sheets you want. And it’s easy to go from color to b&w. If you want to shoot film alongside digital, LF is the way to go. There is such a large range of lenses, from modern, sharp stuff to the old fast press stuff. Shoot a few frames of 4×5″ for your editorial, and it will pop! You can make insanely large prints from 4×5″; there really is no limit to the size you can get from it. And it will always look stunning, as you don’t have some fixed megapixel amount you need to upscale and produce sharpened mushy prints.
I think it will take a long time before we have a digital sensor of 4×5″ size if that will ever happen, except LargeSense of course. But that’s not exactly portable, but it’s cool. He made something that did not exist. That’s what it’s all about. No point in making something that already exists.
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