Large format cameras are often thought of as difficult to run, but there is nothing impossible about with them. If you are organised and methodical they may be straightforward, if not exactly simple to use. Several photographers find the idea of using a large camera daunting because we are all accustomed to having so much automation in our cameras. Compare a large format camera to some ‘manual’ 35mm film camera and you may soon see that there is a whole new level to manual when you move up towards the largest formats. Most large format cameras are literally no more that an adaptable light tight box with movie at one end and a lens at the other. There is no metering, there is nothing battery powered. The only thing powering the particular camera is the clockwork shutter. Regardless of this, working with these big old monsters is perhaps one of the most satisfying experiences a photographer can have. When I use our camera I feel a real connection to a brief history of photography and take great pride in being able to produce amazing images without any help from software. This is ‘pure’ photography.
If you have ever toyed with idea of using a large format camera, or have just bought a camera and haven’t used it yet then this guide is for you.
What is Large Format?
Large is generally considered to start at 4×5 inch sheet film. as the name suggests film comes as individual sheets which have to be loaded into holders. A process that would be familiar to photographers 100 years ago. Large format film gives you 2 main advantages: The quality is unsurpassed, with images approaching or surpassing the equivalent of 100mp, and because you shoot single sheets, each sheet could be developed differently to suit the illumination situation you find yourself in. There are lots of dimensions of sheet film some historic, like whole, half and one fourth plate, others still available today like 4×5, 5×7 and 10×8. Of the 4×5 is by far the most widely available, and it has the most options in terms of film type. Colour negative, colour slide plus black and white film are all available, although the choices in colour are a little thin.
Taking your first Photograph
Unlike smaller formats there is quite a lot of equipment you require beyond a camera and some film to successfully make a large format photograph. The good news is that most experienced photographers may already own a lot of it, and things like dark cloths can be improvised from things around the house. With care you can put together all the equipment you need for a relatively modest initial outlay, and a lot of of the things you need can be bought second hand and sold for the same money you paid for them.
Large Format Camera
To get started you should pick a 4×5 camera. The other two common sizes are 5×7 and 10×8 however it is more expensive, the equipment can be much more difficult to find, and film supply may also be an issue. There are lots of different choices from costly, beautifully crafted field cameras to old studio monorails you can pick-up for a couple of hundred pounds. Light weight may be the thing that tends to cost money, plus traditional wooden field cameras go for more than monorails. Monorails are often the better and more versatile cameras, it is just which you might give yourself a hernia lugging one particular into the wilderness. They are also not as fairly as field cameras and I’m certain that has an impact! I am primarily the portrait photographer so I use a monorail, mainly because they focus more closely (i. e. have longer bellows) and are easier to use once set up. Guarantee the camera locks down properly as well as the bellows are light tight (shining a torch inside the bellows inside a dark room is an easy method to check).
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Check as well the camera has enough movements to suit what you should be use it for (this is a complicated subject but their is plenty of information online).
One of the great advantages of large format is that lenses are usually pretty much interchangeable between any camera as long as your bellows will focus them. However a lens board is needed to mount the lens. These types of lens boards are simply a flat bit of wood or metal with a pit drilled in them to mount the lens. They tend to be specific towards the brand of camera, and come in 3 main sizes Copal 0, Copal 1 and Copal 3. The common types are Linhof for field cameras and Sinar for monorails which are both copied across different makes and brands, although Toyo boards are pretty easy to find as well. Some cheaper second hand cameras use difficult to find lens boards (hence exactly why they are cheap). If you are looking to buy one of these make sure it comes with the lens boards you need to suit your needs, or the design of the particular board is simple enough that you can make your own.
Generally almost all relatively modern lenses are good. As your initial lens, I would recommend going for something within a modern Copal shutter from one of the main manufacturers – Schneider, Rodenstock, Fuji or Nikon. Your first priority should be putting together a reliable system, so that initial mistakes are easier to detect. Something like a lens with an untrustworthy shutter will cause you endless tremendous grief if you are not already confident in your skills as a large format photographer. Standard Lenses are around the 150mm mark, when you are getting into large format I will suppose you are experienced enough to know which type of lens you want. Just grow the focal length of your 35mm lens by three to get its large format equivalent.
Virtually all large format cameras need to be placed on a tripod to be useable. This is not an area to scrimp on, as a wobbly tripod will cause you endless frustration with blurry shots. As potential quality goes up, the more meticulous you have to be. Make sure the tripod you choose is strong enough plus tall enough for the camera you select. One good thing is no one wants humungous heavy tripods anymore, so they can be seen second hand quite cheaply. Carbon Dietary fibre is the Rolls-Royce option and very light and stiff, but there have been reviews of these tripods blowing over in windy conditions when they have a field camera on them with the bellows extended. The bellows act like a cruise turning your expensive wooden camera into firewood!
Many experienced large format photographers will use a hand held meter for establishing publicity, either a spot meter or occurrence meter depending on what they like to shoot. However you can just as easily make use of a DSLR and transfer the reading to you large format camera or obtain a light meter app on your smart phone. A DSLR is probably the best method when you are starting out as it allows you to ‘polaroid’ your large format exposure before you expose a sheet of precious film. You will likely find it better to overexpose the movie slightly compared to the DSLR reading, but again I will assume you have some transferring familiarity with shooting with film, so I’m sure you have your own preference.
Tip: Check film holders have good seals and the darkish slide is not cracked.
Essentially a light tight box that carries two sheets of film. You can generally pick these up second hand for approximately £10-20 each, make sure they are light and good condition, otherwise you get fogged movie, which is expensive and frustrating with this level of photography. If you are starting out you will notice that 5-10 holders is enough. Modern holders are made of plastic and are pretty bullet proof, some older holders (40 years+) are made of wood and can warp with age, so be careful of this.
There is still a decent choice of film available, the only downside is color is significantly more expensive than monochrome. In the UK black and white film is about £35-£40 for 25 sheets of black and white or £50 for 10 linens of colour film. To start off with I would recommend Kodak or Ilford 400iso black and white film, as it gives you a little more flexibility with shutter speeds plus f-stops which will help you get sharp pictures when you start. Film and developing is the most expensive part of the process, but remember if you get everything right you can produce images that could only otherwise be achieved with a medium format digital back. A system like that will set you back five figures.
A Changing bag or Darkroom
Film needs to be loaded to the holders in complete darkness. The easiest way to do this if you don’t have access to a darkroom is to purchase a pop-up dark tent, they are about 3ft cubed which is enough space to load film relatively easily on a table in daylight.
The cable release attaches to the shutter to ensure you may vibrate the camera during direct exposure
A cable that attaches towards the shutter mechanism so you can trip the shutter without moving the camera. These are relatively cheap to buy, that main thing to watch for would be to make sure the release is long enough so you can stand away from the camera. You may also use your body as a shield to shelter the camera in turbulent conditions.
A Loupe or Magnifier
This is something you can spend anything at all between £5 and £200 upon! Most popular when starting off are the 8x Agfa or Kaiser slide loupes that can be bought cheaply and will do the job.
The Dark Cloth
Without a dark fabric it is nearly impossible to see the focusing screen in bright conditions. If you don’t wish to go to the expense you can use the dual T-shirt method. Just put a black T-shirt inside a lighter color one and use the neck of the shirt to fit around the focusing display screen.
It is important to take information when shooting with a large format camera. You don’t have metadata with every direct exposure, and it is a lot easier to make mistakes. Be sure you write down your exposure, film kind and speed rating, and number your dark slides so that when you have a light leak you know where this came from!
The Wrap Up
Large format cameras probably offer the most bang per buck than any camera program. With a bit of ingenuity, you can assembled a 100mp+ camera system to get well under £1000, and be able to re-sell it for what you paid for it. It can also produce images that have a distinctive look that you can’t replicate with digital, and teach you skills that may be applied to produce excellent results in any camera system.
My Adventure with Large Format Photography
I have been shooting along with my large format camera for about four years. I saw a camera in the vintage camera shop and just fancied having giving it a go. I mainly take portraits. Follow the link to see examples of my vintage girls portrait project. There is something inspiring in using methods that Victorian photographers will be pretty familiar with. In the age of photography I don’t think we care sufficient about the long history of film digital photography or the pleasure and satisfaction learning and using those skills gives us. I like to do my little bit to keep these skills alive. My primary work in photography is as a wedding photographer and I can shoot a thousand images in a day, so large format photography is a good way for me to separate the pictures I take for my profession and those I shoot for fun.