Large Format Photography 1 – Getting Started – Equipment
Before I kick off this series on Large Format Photography, there are a few things I need to clarify first.
It may seem a bit as a contradiction for my website, that has always been targeted at more advanced black and white fine art photographers, to find a blog post on ‘starting’ something. The reason is a simple one actually: I’ve always focused more on the artistic side and the digital post-processing side of black and white photography and the ‘genres’ within one can create fine-art photography. Much less on the gear side of it.
When starting large format photography, not only do we need to initially focus on the gear side but also on the process side of it as working with film, and especially with large format, is different than working with a digital camera or even with an analog medium format camera.
A few months ago when I announced to start writing on large format photography, I stated that I will be focusing on and advocate the hybrid workflow. Meaning, everything from the camera to the developing of negatives will be analog, and the final processing, including the print, will be within the digital workflow I’ve always recommended on my website. In Ansel Adams’ words, ‘The camera’ and ‘The Negative’ will be analog, ‘The Print’ will be digital. So the process side of large format photography will be a hybrid workflow where everything after developing the negatives will be the same as I always advocated in the articles on this website. This doesn’t mean that I disapprove of having a full analog workflow where also the processing with traditional dodging and burning techniques and the final print takes place entirely in the analog darkroom, it is just not what I prefer or like to advocate.
Finally, before getting to the essence of the series, a word on the debate between digital and analog photographers. Whenever I see a film photographer talking about digital photography, the film photographer often does this with a misplaced type of arrogance, sometimes bordering against disdain, towards digital photography. Too many times I notice that this attitude is based on very subjective ‘facts’ that are simply incorrect. I’m not going to take any sides in this series. Nor am I ever going to say that analog photographers are ‘real’ or ‘better’ photographers. But there’s a case against the average digital photographer whose ultimate goal is to have a large following on Instagram with photos, that aren’t an expression of an authentic feeling, but always an expression of a catchy tune that has proven to be a recipe for success and popularity. I like to think that analog photographer’s rejection of digital photography, is an aversion against those types of digital photographers, not so much against the medium itself. As for myself: I like both digital and analog photography. There are things I can’t do with a large format camera that I can do easily with a digital camera. Street photography for example. And there are things I can do with a large format that I can’t do with digital: portraits simply look different and are more deliberate and touching the essence. I will explain this in another part of this series why I think that is. But the thing I like most about analog photography in general, which is especially truer in large format photography, is that you need to slow down and be patient. Very patient. One of the reasons I like long exposure photography for example, is that it forces you to slow down. As a digital long exposure photographer, I very rarely create and publish more than 10 images a year. And when I go out shooting with my digital camera for an entire day, I would come home with on average 8 images. Consistently. I love the deliberate waiting-and-be-patient game in long exposure photography. Now, with large format photography, the entire shooting process till the moment I have it imported into Photoshop for the first time is doubled, perhaps even tripled. And then I’m talking about regular shots, not long exposure shots with the large format camera.
What you need: equipment and considerations
I want to kick off this series on large format photography at the very start: what do I need, equipment wise, when I want to consider taking up large format photography and what do I need to consider when shooting large format? Next up in this series will be articles on taking photographs with a large format camera, developing film, scanning and processing it. Also articles on how to shoot long exposure photographs with large format and using large format for architecture.
- As mentioned before: you need to be patient, a lot more patient than with the slowest form of digital photography.
- You always have to slow down and be very deliberate about what you shoot and how you shoot it. So if you’re a photographer who relies on action and dynamics in photography, then think twice before taking up a large format camera. It’s not going to work, most of the times. If you’re a wedding photographer, then better don’t do it.
- There are 2 moments where your large format photo can fail: when taking the shot and when developing the negative. If you waste 1 shot of film, you’ve basically wasted a few hours of work and $5 per wasted shot on average.
- Large format film sheets don’t come cheap: a pack of 25 sheets of 4×5 film will cost you around $40 for film that’s easily available anywhere in the world. If you want Fuji’s famed Acros 100 film then you pay double that price for 20 sheets of film. If there’s a place where you can still get it, as they are discontinued since May 2018. I’m not even talking about 8×10 or even larger. 8×10 film is double the price of 4×5.
- Chemicals are not that expensive and you don’t need a real dark darkroom for developing film anymore. Unless you want to wet print your photos and want to go all the way analog.
- Large Format is especially great when shooting objects that are static and when you need ultimate control over depth of field: landscapes, architecture and still life. Also portraiture, but for different reasons than architecture or landscape. I will discuss that in a separate article.
- Setting up a shot with a large format camera can be quite daunting and time-consuming. The most important reason for that is that you can’t see what you shoot through a viewfinder, let alone on an LCD display: you see everything through the ground-glass and you’ll see it upside down. Focusing is quite tedious as you do that by looking through the ground-glass while being covered underneath a dark cloth, with a focusing loupe. That is if you can see something at all. What you see through your ground-glass depends very much on the available light. Low-light and large format photography is a pain. So it’s a process of looking at your subject, go back under the dark cloth, zoom in with your focusing loupe, then focus by either moving the lens panel back and forth or by moving the film plane panel back and forth, or both, then look up again, back under the cloth and zoom in and focus again, etc. And now I’m talking about the focusing part only and composition. I haven’t yet discussed taking a light meter reading and determining the right exposure for your shot. Not as easy as with a digital camera! I will discuss this in a separate article. But before I can actually take the shot, it’s easily an hour later.
A Large Format camera
Obviously, you need a large format camera. There are various formats, but large format starts with 4×5 (inches that is, for those who are used to other analog formats where the format is indicated in centimeters or millimeters) and go up from 5×7 to 8×10 to ultra large format sizes like 16×20 or even 20×24. The most common, and most affordable, sizes are 4×5 and 8×10. I would recommend starting with a 4×5 and perhaps sticking with that size as 8×10 large format makes it not only bigger and heavier to carry around, but the film and film holders are also much more expensive and harder to get by.
You could consider buying yourself a used camera on eBay or at the more traditional camera stores. Prices can vary from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars for a Linhof 4×5 Master Technika large format in good condition. But here’s a good, reliable and cheap alternative: Intrepid cameras in the UK are selling new 4×5 large format cameras for around four hundred dollars. They are an excellent deal and have been tried and proven by many experienced large format photographers like Ben Horne who were all very positive in their verdict. Here’s a video review of the 4×5 Intrepid Large format. Even their 8×10 large format is around $600.
Below a few images from the new Intrepid 4×5 MK3 camera.
Of course, due to the low price, it may not look as good as, for example, a Linhof camera and it may seem not as sturdy and solid either. But in fact, it is very useable and reliable and it’s simply a very affordable way to get started with large format photography. A lot of value for your money and you don’t need to worry if you can trust that seller on eBay.
I’m using a 4×5 Gibellini camera myself, and I’m happy with how it performs and how it looks. If you buy a used large format camera, then make sure that the camera isn’t leaking light through the bellows for example. Also, take a look at the quality of the ground glass and if there aren’t any scratches on the glass. Not that it is very hard or expensive to get a replacement ground glass, but a proper scratch free ground glass is important. Most ground glasses are interchangeable as long as they use the so-called Graflok 45 mounting standard. The latter are things you don’t have to consider if you go for a new Intrepid 4×5 large format.
Large format lenses are usually purchased as used lenses and are not expensive at all. You can get a good used Schneider or Rodenstock lens for a few hundred dollars. Lenses for large format cameras are different than the lenses we’re familiar with on a DSLR. It consists of a front element, a rear element, and a shutter. And unlike the DSLR or Medium format lenses, there’s no focusing ring as focusing takes places by moving the lens panel or film panel. But the lens, and more specifically, the shutter, contains all the controls, rings and levers, for adjusting the aperture, the shutter speed, cocking the shutter, opening the aperture blades for composing the shot and releasing the shutter. Usually, those lenses come with the Copal shutter. You can purchase them separately too, but if you’re starting then keep it simple and go for a lens that comes with the Copal or else the Compur shutter included as a whole. Shutters as the Copal and Compur shutters are worth an entire article but I won’t make it too technical here. Usually, you would need three different lenses to make good use of a large format camera: a wide-angle, a medium angle and a longer lens. But don’t think in terms of 17mm for a wide-angle lens on a large format camera as you need to use a factor 3 to come up with the equivalent lens for a 4×5 large format when you compare it with a digital full frame camera. I’m not talking about 8×10 or larger as that has a different factor. So wide-angle in 4×5 large format means you need to have something around 75mm, which is ideal for architecture and also landscapes. Then for the more all-around lens, you’d need the equivalent of 50mm on a full frame, which is a 150mm lens for large format. I use this for landscapes, and also for still life. Finally, the long lens on 4×5 large format is usually around 210mm. This is a good lens for portraiture. And those are exactly the lenses I have: a 75mm and 210mm Schneider lens and a 150mm Rodenstock, all with Copal and Compur shutters.
But you’re not done yet: you need to have the lens board to attach the lens to the camera. And it depends on the camera what size lens board you need. Therefore, if possible, try to find a lens complete with lens board that will fit your camera or else buy the lens board separately from the same brand as your camera but then you have to make sure that the lens will fit onto the board. Decisive for that is the size of the Copal shutter: #0, #1 or #3. Intrepid cameras have made it easy when you buy their 4×5 as they also sell lens boards for the Intrepid 4×5 that will fit all Copal shutter sizes.
Not all large format cameras come with two bellows but I have the standard bellows for the medium and the longer lens and a bellows for wide-angle lenses that gives you more room for lens movements as the lens is closer to the film panel. It is not always necessary though as it depends on the type of camera, lens and what you do with it.