Behind the Scenes with Large Format Portraiture

It's not as hard as it looks. If you've ever been intimidated by, or even questioned the idea of shooting portraits on large format film, maybe George and Jack can help.

There's certainly an intense intrigue surrounding the taking of photographs with any camera that consumes huge, individual sheet negatives. George Muncey and Jack Harries begin their discussion around the commonly-asked question surrounding the immense cost of these negatives. It isn't until you actually put one in your hands and realize it is upwards of ten times the size of a 35mm negative that you truly understand the gravity of the medium. The living room conversation then gets taken outside where Harries and Muncey take turns producing natural light portraits of one another while Muncey (clearly the expert here) discusses each and every step behind the mechanics of shooting with a 4x5 view camera. Instead of taking the direct instructional approach to shooting film, this video utilizes a more candid and casual "fly on the wall" method. It is refreshing to watch someone teaching the ropes in a friendly, organic way as opposed to your regular one-on-one instructional film.

Some philosophy gets introduced as well when the pair finishes up their portrait session by shooting on some medium format roll film, and it's back to the living room for a discussion about the practical value differences between the formats.

Do you think large format is worth it, especially compared to 6x6 or 6x7 medium format?

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Sander van der Veen's picture

Is it because of the film, or what that the 4x5 image's look flat/grey? I miss some contrast, or is it me?

Robert Raymer's picture

These particular shots are a bit on the flat/low contrast side. It is not because it is film necessarily. A lot of different factors decide how the "final" image looks. As for the negative, the contrast has a lot to do with the film stock, as each reacts to different colors of light differently, which affects how the negative looks. Even black and white films react differently depending on stock. Exposure and lighting one the scene itself also have obvious effect on contrast. Then there is the combination of film, developer, and time, each of which has an effect. How the film is scanned, straight or with adjustments made in the scanning process as well as the scanner itself (pro vs consumer, drum vs flatbed) will further effect everything. And finally, and adjustments made in the post processing (for scans) or in the actual printing process (for prints) will all effect the final look.

Hans Rosemond's picture

The portraits are taken in pretty flat light, so that isn't helping contrast. It could be the film stock as well. I didn't see what film they were using. Also, as Robert said, a lot of it is going to be the scanning technique used, just like any other film.

I think they are using Fomapan, I use the same and the notches and color are the same, lovely film though and really cheap

Hans Rosemond's picture

Cheap is good! I'll look into it.

It might be hard to find in the US as it's a Czech company, that might make it a bit more expensive as well but it's definitely worth checking, I had lovely results with HC110.

Hans Rosemond's picture

From what I'm seeing is about $65 for 50 sheets. Still pretty cheap

Ahyeah definitely worth it to try it out! Here it cost's around 33euro for 50 sheets (the Netherlands)

"intense intrigue" and "immense cost"?
There may be interest and questions but I think you are being melodramatic for no reason.
Regularly do portraits with 8x10 and have done so with up to 20x24.
It is simple and easy with results worth the effort.

Doing fine portraits with the 8x10 is less costly than digital work once all the gear is taken into account. A simple darkroom, a single lens and familiarity with the gear and process works well.

Sean Molin's picture

I've shot my fair share of LF and I've always received a ton of questions about it like it's some mysterious force (despite not being that difficult in practice), and yeah, when each single shot can cost between $3 and $30, that's pretty damn expensive.

LF gear can still be extremely expensive. Most of the photographers I know making a living doing it have rigs rivaling digital costs not including film. It's just like anything, you CAN do it affordably, but it's not cheap in general practice.

Hans Rosemond's picture

agreed. Like almost anything else in photography you can spend a lot, or spend a little. I could shoot on a D90 and edit on a $200 PC. Just like I could shoot on a $200 Cambo, throw some roll film in it, and call it a day. An investment is an investment is an investment. Like anything else new, it will be intimidating. But using myself as an example, I was intimidated as hell by 4x5. Now it's my preferred medium.

Hans Rosemond's picture

I'll chime in here. I shoot both MF and LF and I can definitely say that the difference is worth it. But the process is completely different as well. You have to be in love with the slowness and zen-like method of large format. If you want to rush, a smaller format is better for you. You can certainly get a lot of quality out of 6x7 or even 645 (or 6x6), but it's when you print the images at larger than 8x10 that your jaw starts dropping. In a youtube video the difference is not clear at all.

LF is hard to get into I find.

I've been searching for a reasonable body and lense and I struggle to find a forum/blogpost/wiki with concentrated information. What confuses me is the amount of interchangeability (and so compatibility) of the lenses, body, backs, etc...

Have any good source? Also, is there a good begginer's combo ($/quality ratio...)


Hans Rosemond's picture

If you're just trying it out, I'd recommend going for a Crown/Speed Graphic. Not too hard on the wallet and if you find that you don't like it you can your money back by selling it. They've lost all the value they're going to lose. As for lenses, it depends on what you're shooting. Look for lens boards that fit the body you decide on. Each lens will only fit a certain sized hole. You're right, there are a lot of factors, but once you've got a few boards, it's easy to replace lenses. If you plan on shooting in studio, a Cambo monorail will do fine and you can find one for super cheap. Less than $200, probably.

Thanks! I was looking more at studio or field cameras mainly and couldn't fin anything less than 5-600$ on ebay... I might need to look deeper in old people's attics....

Hans Rosemond's picture

Check out KEH. Tons of good cameras and a 6 month warranty. Lots below $400

yeah! That's the type of tips I was looking for! have an imaginary internet point as a reward!

An older Calumet or Burke & James view camera with an older 150mm lens can be had for $2-400, 6-12 film holders and a cable release are not expensive. A light meter is not either. You can easily make a dark cloth.
Tripod? Plenty on the used market and you can use it with any gear you have.

Yard sales for trays for processing. My first were glass cooking trays and I still use some of them for darkroom work.

Contact printing works well and if you want to enlarge there are a ton of 4x5 and bigger enlargers around for low prices.

If you want to stick with contact printing for awhile you can do everything from developing film to printing images without electricity if needed. This link will get you to a lot of articles as well as discussion forums.

Note that it does not take a lot of gear, just dedication and interest. An old friend of my Uncle shot with one 4x5 camera, one lens and processed film in the basement at night and produced a half dozen fine books, 13 covers for Audubon magazine and worked with the view camera for decades very successfully.

Seems like a lot of grain on the LF shots.I guess from the lighting conditions they are probably not pushing the film. Why would that be?