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 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.
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.
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.
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?