Adventures in Large Format Photography: A Beginner's Perspective

Adventures in Large Format Photography: A Beginner's Perspective

It happened. After years upon years of drooling over large format photographs in books and on the internet, I finally pulled the trigger. I got a 4x5 camera. Many of the masters I've looked up to used large format for their portraits and I've always wanted to try my hand. Here are my first observations of trying to tame the beast. First thing I noticed: this isn't easy.

First, here's a little background about my path. I started shooting on 35mm film well over a decade ago, quickly making the transition to digital in 2004 when the original Digital Rebel came out. After using that for a while and upgrading bodies when I saw fit, I eventually tried my hand at medium format with a Mamiya RZ67. The feel of using that tank of a camera, coupled with looking into that big viewfinder, gave a sense of immersion in my photography that had been absent with digital. There's a sense of warmth and a connection with your subject that's harder to achieve with a digital camera. I was in heaven!

Fast forward a few years, and I'm standing in line at my local camera store, ready to make the leap to large format. Of course, it helps that they had a old, well-worn, but loved camera, complete with a lens for $100. Score!

The ground glass, heavily taped up for who knows what reason. The knobs on the side manage some of the movements of the front and back standards, of which I know nothing about!

The first question that popped into my head was: "What the hell am I going to put this thing in?" With the monorail, it's 20 inches long, weighs almost 9 pounds, and is just awkward to move in general. I ended up settling on a large tool bag that I found at Home Depot for $30 as a short term solution.

Once I set the camera up in the basement and knocked some of the dust off it, I went through the process of familiarizing myself with the system. But first thing's first, I want to look through this bad boy! Wait. How do I look through this bad boy? All I see is black. Oh cool, the shutter is closed on the lens. I'll just fire the shutter and keep it open. Wait, how do I do that? Enter Google: cock shutter, push preview tab, fire shutter. Check. There's that image I've been craving! I think. Ok, let me focus. How do I focus? After finding the right knob (there are many), that beautiful upside-down and backwards image finally slides into focus. 

Large format film holders. They're big. They're beautiful. They're a pain in the rump.

For me, perhaps the most daunting part of the process was that after you finally manage to compose the image, you then have to put the film in, completely blocking your view of the subject. You can't see what's going on on the ground glass after you've put the film in, so you have to have faith that your subject hasn't moved enough to screw everything up. Every ounce of me wants to check that the composition is still ok that second before I squeeze the release, but I can't. Bellows compensation is also something I haven't had to deal with. Long explanation short, as you extend the bellows to focus, the farther the lens moves away from the film plane, the more you have to compensate for the distance the light has to travel. If you don't compensate, you will severely underexpose your image. How much do you compensate? There's some math involved, but I chose to skip that and use a free app for my phone to calculate the number of stops of compensation: Bellows Factor for Android. I'm sure there's an iOS app that does the same thing.

Apps like these save a lot of the headache of figuring out how much to compensate your exposure.

After loading my first piece of film into a holder (loading large format field is worthy of its own post, so I won't go into it here), I compose an image, load the film, and take my first shot: a stool. I develop the film, let it dry, slap it on my tablet (poor man's light box), take a picture, reverse it in Photoshop, and there it is. It's the most glorious stool I've ever seen. It is Pulitzer worthy. It's the stuff of legend. Or, at least I feel like it should be. There was so much effort involved in getting this one image. One. I should frame it. No, that's stupid. It's a stool! But man, did I work for it.

Tadaaaaaaa! A stool! Obviously, I would scan an image I wanted to do something with, but with this one, I just wanted to make sure the camera worked.

I think that's kind of the point of large format. Every composition you attempt is well considered, because there's so much involved in attaining it. Not only do you have to slow down, but you are a cog in the machine of making this image. There isn't a computer behind the scenes making the decisions for you. So much of yourself goes into the image that you can't help but be attached to it, even if it is just a lousy stool.

Alright, so I've taken my first image of the stool, and as cool as that was, I need to get some people in front of this thing! So, last night, I lugged my camera to the bar I work at, set it up upstairs with a simple backdrop, and took some portraits. Man, was it nerve-racking! I've been shooting people for years, but the work flow is so different with this camera that I felt like I was new again. Talking with your subject, developing the image, and operating the camera, all without the shield of having a camera attached to your face is a different level of immersion in the craft.

I did a quick time-lapse of the setup of the shoot last night, and I'll post the images once I develop them, but maybe the movie will give you an idea of what's involved.

So far, I'm having a blast not knowing what in the world I'm doing. I definitely recommend trying it out for yourself. You will only come out better on the other side.

In my next post, I'll develop the film and show the result. Hopefully, I didn't screw it up too badly! Have you dabbled in large format photography? What tips do you have for beginners that they might have overlooked?

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Martin Lamneck's picture

I used a 4x5 Large format camera to do my senior thesis in college. I only graduated in 2014 but I was lucky enough to attend a university that put a lot of focus on film and darkroom work. In my opinion 4x5 and 8x10 are two of the most challenging and also the most rewarding formats. I loved the article and I'm glad to see that people still find large format relevant in a time when 100MP cameras and higher are becoming more accessible. There is nothing like the quality and beauty of large format negative.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks! I definitely would like to incorporate the format into some of my work as time goes on so hopefully it will be more than a novelty for me. Hope you keep following along as I try not to make too many mistakes!

Robert Raymer's picture

Love 4x5. Just started shooting with one again a few months ago and I'm about to start a portrait project with one as soon as i have a bit more time. I love film in general and find that each format ha its own character and qualities, but I especially love that the larger the format the slower you have to work, the more you have to think and focus (pun intended) on what you are doing and the more satisfying the results/disappointing the failures are.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yeah, the stakes are definitely higher when you put so much energy into every image. My big fear is that ill go to develop the negs and theyll be completely jacked.

Mr Hogwallop's picture

Eventually you will make most of the mistakes, including bringing the empty holders on location and leaving the loaded ones on the shelf.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Ha! Man, that would be horrible.

Trevor Warr's picture

I managed to shoot a job in a hire studio in LA ( I'm based in the UK) and mix up the pile of used and unused slides thus double exposing every shot. An expensive mistake that, luckily I was able to re-shoot the next day! Client not happy though as they were paying for the studio.

Just graduated with my photography degree, and while at school I fell in love with 4x5 film. I'm very modern and didn't think I would like it. It took me several sheets of film to get everything right because I kept rushing, but once I did get my negatives back, I fell immediately.
The one great thing I love about 4x5 is the fact it makes you slow down. You have to take your time to figure out what you are shooting and make sure your focus is right. But once you do, it really is a great feeling and a beautiful thing to look at.

You will benefit by supplementing the camera with a subscription to ViewCamera magazine. I don't work for them but have subscribed since the first issue. Worth every penny. The articles and information are all Large Format specific.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Thanks! Ill definitely look into it

The tape on the ground glass are probably framing marks for a roll film back. Or it could be reference points for a particular composition that required multiple exposures. I am betting on the former though.

I shot 5x7 for a number of years and enjoyed its deliberate operation and exquisite detail. I rarely used the movements as I was shooting portraiture.
What really struck me was the necessity for very small apertures if I wanted any DOF at close range such as portraits. THAT is where I realized I needed to learn studio strobe lighting to get reliably sharp portraits.

Landscape was easy but a drag to haul that camera around. I also realized why Ansel Adams shot most of his images about 15 feet away form his station wagon. :0

Brian Carlson's picture

One of the things I really love about large format (4x5 and above) is it really changes your interaction with the subject, particularly when your subject is people. They seem to appreciate having their picture taken with such a contraption. It fosters conversation and intimacy. I found that people let their guard down more when I photographed with a 4x5. One question: are you personally developing the film? Also, too bad they're not making Polaroid type 55 anymore. That stuff was amazing.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yep, I develop my own color and black and white. I'm still pretty new at it, but thats part of the fun for me. I looked at the new55 peel apart, but it's a bit steep for my blood. Maybe when I have a better handle on the whole process

Anonymous's picture

I've a monorail technical... and its a camera thing to use-if a bit heavy! The thing I learnt quick was... cost. The cameras are reasonable but film 4x5 can be alot, and then theres the developing. It was becoming insanely expensive to get sheets developed into contacts then choosen ones to scan...and time consuming going back and fourth-couple that with a Lab that destroyed 19 of my sheets on opening a delivery. I promptly took it all inhouse, invested in a scanner and chemicals and took the cost (over time way down) and the risk too.

They are a stop in the tracks subject matter though, people love to stop and talk about them, and such fun to use. Enjoy.

A friend was dropping off some E-6 at A&I in L.A. back in the 90's. Another fellow came in with a box of 8x10 sheet film and handed it to the counter person. He fumbled it and it dropped to the floor and popped open spilling the film on to the floor.

Awkward for everyone.

The photographer then learned about taping the box.

Hans Rosemond's picture

It sounds like I have a long string of screw ups to look forward to!

Anonymous's picture

Damn that sucks.....

In this case, box was taped so was the dark bag/pouch on the inside and wrapped securely. Cant help what other morons do I guess.....

I have had quite a few screw-ups myself. Mainly from rushing too much. Out of my first 15 or so shots, none of them really came out at all. I had the cable release in the frame in a few. I kept forgetting to calculate the bellows compensation for quite a few. I even tried to do some night shooting and didn't quite grasp the concept of reciprocity factor. I thought that when the chart ended, so did the time. I didn't understand that the graph and time would keep going at a constant rate. I ended up wasting SEVERAL hours on a night shoot and got nothing to show for it when my negatives came back. It sucked and I almost gave up. Luckily. my instructors told me pretty much everyone makes those very same mistakes. So I kept at it
As Brian Carlson said, when you are shooting people, it's a much different experience. People do love being in front of that camera, it gives, I guess, an old-timey type vibe. And the detail you can get on a portrait is almost second to none. I have a few on my website and I absolutely want to shoot more.

Simon Patterson's picture

That was a very interesting article and well written. The time lapse was handy, too. I find myself keen so see the follow up to know how your images worked out.

Ross Floyd's picture

There is something magical about these things, and that is coming from a guy who almost exclusively shoots with Medium-format digital.

One thing that also might help is if you buy or find a shutter speed tester, to find out if your shutter speeds are accurate. This will really reduce the learning curve of producing consistent images.

Modern dslr shutters have a lot going on to maintain accuracy and are digitally regulated. With large format lenses, you are dependent entirely on the mechanical stability of the shutter, the lubricant and the cleanliness of all of the parts. This will tell you if you need to compensate for you shutter when exposing in additional to all of the other tilt/shift, bellows extension, film speed factors you need to take into consideration.

The real fun part now that you have a taken and produced an image, is to start manipulating and experimenting with all the tilts, shifts and swings that each standard allows you to do with this camera and no other.

The rear standard (the film plane) controls perspectival shifts, and the front (the lens plane) controls your plane of focus. Both things are fixed in dslrs, unless you are using a tilt/shift lens, and even then you are just manipulating the plane of focus.

Get all that down and apply it to a creative pursuit and it is such a boss feeling!! I really didn't feel like a real photographer until I started using one of these.

Super excited for you!

Also, how are you processing your negs? Tray, tank or those stand up racks? I think that would be interesting to talk about.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I'm processing using a tank with a Mod54 adapter. Working well so far! I'll look into the shutter speed tester as well. I just don't want to throw too much money at it while I'm still new. haha

Ross Floyd's picture

Usually you can get one for around $100 and to will save you a ton of time and money

Ross Floyd's picture

we used to set up small trays for each chemical and process completely in the dark! after we found out our JOBO tanks were leaving streaks

Bravo! I want to get a 4x5 camera. I also want to get an RZ67. I started shooting 35mm film in 1980 with my Canon A-1, which I still use today. I added a used New F-1 in 2013, and also a 5D Mk III.
But I still enjoy the film process.

Hans Rosemond's picture

The RZ is probably my favorite camera. It's amazing. That said, im having a lot of fun with the 4x5....accidents and all! This weekend ill share the experience so far and some results