How To Get the Large Format Film Effect With Any Digital Camera

How To Get the Large Format Film Effect With Any Digital Camera

With the rise in photographers choosing film over digital, large format film cameras are becoming more sought after. But can this look be recreated with a digital camera? Here’s how one photographer did it. 

Large format film cameras have been around for years, dating back to the 1800s. While they’re considered to have old technology, I would argue the images they capture hold up to modern digital cameras. Large format film is known and admired for its insane detail. When 8x10 film is scanned, it is possible to achieve flawless resolution at over 700-Megapixels. Of course, this is providing you have a lens capable of seeing that much detail. Additionally, large format film has spectacular dynamic range and extremely shallow depth of field, allowing for some interesting effects.

One of the drawbacks of shooting on such a format is the costs involved. Yes, you can pick up a used large format camera for considerably cheaper than a modern digital camera, however, you are left with many expenses every time you shoot. With the need of film stocks, developing, and scanning, the costs add up. In the digital world, the closest things available are medium format cameras, like the Hasselblad H6X. Unfortunately, not only does this model come with a hefty price tag, it just isn’t a close enough comparison to large format. 

I spoke with Alexey Shportun, a photographer from the Ukraine, who figured out how to digitally recreate the large format look. And no, it isn’t a Photoshop plugin. Alexey took it on himself to build his own make-shift camera rig from scratch. However, it’s not as you would expect.

The Setup

Alexey explained his idea was to create a basic large format camera, but replace the film plane with a white matte screen. So, instead of exposing light onto a piece of 8x10 film, the light would travel through the lens and be projected onto the white screen, creating a visible image. Alexey was then able to photograph that projection through a small hole at the front, where he mounted a digital camera.

Of course, this whole rig has to be covered in a black sheet to protect the projection from external light. Otherwise, you would get washed-out images. Alexey noted that the image field of the lens was 40cm when focused to infinity, and the distance between the rear of the lens and the white screen was 30cm. Additionally, as you can see in the illustration above, the digital camera has to be facing in the opposite direction of the scene.

This method essentially allows you to shoot digitally using a large format lens, but also have the same field of view with no cropping. Photographing this large area gives you an insanely shallow depth of field, along with interesting characteristics. The images Alexey has produced with this setup look stunning and I love the emotion some of them have. You are, sadly, limited when it comes to color and dynamic range. Ultimately, these elements come down to your digital sensor and how well it can replicate the colors and tones it sees.

While building the rig, Alexey decided to add a tilting function to the white screen, allowing it to lean back or forward. This made for a tilt-shift effect, making the focus shift in interesting ways. Normally, this is something only possible with specific lenses designed for tilt-shifts.

The Experiment

Alexey started experimenting in large format film photography back in 2009, where he built his own camera out of plastic with a cheap modified lens. He told me how he used expired negative black and white photo paper instead of actual film. This made for a cheaper, but experimental alternative. Several years later, he came up with the idea of using ground glass and white screens to photograph. Through some trial and error, he captured some unique images.

I liked the idea, but I spent a long time trying to combat graininess and vignetting. I experimented with various frosted films, Fresnel lenses, even made vibrating grounded glass. In the end, I achieved the result that satisfied me, photographing a 20x30cm polymer film with a Fresnel lens.

Alexey said that the materials were largely bought from a local construction store. Some even found it in his garbage. However, due to the DIY nature of the build, he explained how this has lead to a significant impact on the camera’s appearance and usability.

The Challenges

Alexey explained how he found it rather tricky to build the rig, due to his lack of experience with using handyman tools. Building a camera from scratch is certainly no easy feat. Additionally, Alexey struggled to buy all the necessary materials within budget. As he was doing this experiment as a hobby, he did not want to dig too deep into the family budget.

The main challenge when it comes to shooting is the complicated multi-step process needed to frame a shot. Alexey told me he had to first focus on the white screen with the digital camera. Then, to frame the image using the rig, making frequent adjustments to both cameras and lenses. It’s certainly a slow process, and not a method designed for quick snaps. In terms of design, the rig itself is very cumbersome and not exactly the most travel-friendly.

At the moment, my task is to make such a design of the camera so that any person can create it for himself.

Lastly, Alexey detailed his discomfort for shooting an image whilst facing away from the scene. He said it was an unusual idea to not be standing behind the camera. I can imagine how it would go against a professional photographers natural urges to do so.

What’s Next?

A lot of people are attracted to the look of large format film, but many are put off by the expensive nature. Not to mention the photochemistry involved to develop the image, which is bad for the environment. Maybe this unique cross-breeding technique could be a stepping stone into making a digital large format a thing.

Perhaps one day we will be able to see the classic large format camera with a touchscreen instead of frosted glass. And at an affordable price.

You can follow Alexey Shportun’s work on his Instagram page.

Images used with permission by Alexey Shportun

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Tom Anderson's picture

Tom Anderson is a video director and cinematographer from the UK. Part-time, he teaches Film & TV for Pauline Quirke Academy in Cambridge. Tom holds a BA Honors degree in Media Production from the University of Lincoln.

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This is brilliant.Thinking outside thebox, to create stunning large format mages. Keep up the good work.

!!! I found this most interesting as I was just thinking today about a similar setup with a medium format Ansco PD16 folding camera. Although I was thinking of having the digital camera behind the ansco. I had not yet fleshed it out though. I do hope this fellow would forgive me if I were to use a technique similar to his.

Thanks for your comment, Charles! I encourage you to follow his Instagram page as there's lots of great inspiration there! :)

good idea

As someone who has used large format cameras for 48 years now, I can only say this is the stupidest thing I have ever seen.

Hi J.D! It is a 'negative comment' because it failed to add any value or merit. Have a nice day! :)

Based on your experience, why do think this is stupid please?

Well, there’s dancing a polka in my underwear in the dead of winter while reciting the Gettysburg address backwards. Yeah, not nearly as stupid. (Actually, that sounds pretty entertaining). As a fellow large format person, I have to say that I understand your sentiment but would never criticize an experiment such as this. Maybe there’s value, maybe not, but there’s definitely value in exploring the combining of analog and digital processes. Personally, I definitely prefer to put a sheet of film in my 8x10.

Hi Douglas! Thank you for your comment, though it seems forgot to address why it's the "stupidest thing" you have ever seen.
If you look at the images it has produced, they are stunning. So, forgive me for not understanding why you think the way you do.

Stunning? Dresses are stunning. There are two reasons to use a large format camera today, perspective correction and high resolution. This "technique" does neither.

Hello Friend! Please tell me where we can get acquainted with your photos?

Hi again, Douglas. Thanks for your answer to my question. I disagree entirely. There are many photographers who choose large format for other reasons. Just because those are the only 2 reasons to you, doesn't make it so for the entire community. No matter how long you've been taking photos, you are not the gatekeeper for large format.
Bottom line is: A photographer decided to do a creative experiment which lead to some interesting and stunning photos.

Tom, you better just get off of Douglas’ lawn. You’re being an annoying kid. 😁 sorry, Douglass, but that’s the impression you’re giving: the grumpy old guy. I’m an avid 8x10 user and the reasons you give to shot large format doesn’t interest me. I only use 100+ year old lenses (except for a couple of 1940s soft focus lenses), so high resolution isn’t a priority. Perspective correction…sometimes. It’s a good tool that I use if I need it. There are other benefits of the format that resonate with me and I’m sure other large format users could add to the list. The possibilities of this experimentation definitely could be stunning as well as any dresses, of course, just the stunning ones.

Well I should clarify Justin's point, I am a crabby old man! The is an image quality that large format offers, especially in the contact print that is unequalled. It is beyond some sharpness. (I love the old lenses too)

I really respect the large format users who stick to their rules. But if you really want more people to enjoy photography, you should not reject any ideas that could introduce the new guy. Bokeh is the main reason I choose to try the large format, but it will not always be the main reason.
open your mind, and let more young or old guys enter the large format area, then it will not be a dying technology.

I agree that this is another misleading article, as the bottom line is that you are ultimately recording the image on a small sensor not a sheet of 8x10 film after it's been projected onto a white background. To me, this just adds another layer in the middle which gives the soft focus that you're displaying. A short depth of field can be created by a wide-open lens. While the largest camera I've ever shot with is a 4x5 Calumet, the quality of a large format image is because of the large negative size. Why else would 6x6 cameras like a Hasselblad still produce stunning images? Using a defocus smoothing lens would give you the same softness. In my day we would get the same effect by smearing vaseline on the lens. While I agree that it's an interesting effect it does not give you the same results as using a large format camera and an 8x10 sheet of film. Ansel Adams is turning over in his grave right now!

Hi Lyle! Thank you for your comment! May I ask - How is it a misleading title? It states "How To Get the Large Format Film Effect", note the word "effect". Nowhere in the article does it claim that this technique gives you a true large format digital image. That would require an 8x10 digital sensor, which as far as I know, doesn't exist.
I'm sure Ansel Adams is proud of all the creative techniques photographers from around the world employ to further their artistic possibilities, rather than judge people for wanting to experiment against the grain.

Your sure of what A. Adams thinks? Did you know him? I met him once, introduced by my photography teacher at the Corcoran. He was in Washington DC for the hanging of one of his images in the White House - a first for photography! I thought he was kind of crabby, but I guess that happens some times when you meet your heroes.

there is no significant difference between shooting the screen and watching a film, not to mention nowadays people usually see pictures on computers and phones.

This is amazing, what a great read and stunning results!

This guy ( took this thought to the next level a while ago already. Really great, both of them...

SUPER BRILLIANT !!! Kudos & Salut !

Back in the early '00s there was a device for video to do something similar. However, in that setup the image was projected onto a screen that was filmed form the rear. Similar to filming the ground glass of a LF camera.

I had doubts about it but could not verify the quality however the principle is sound.

It's called a redrock and it had pluses and minuses. Both of these work the exact same way cheap film to video tape/digital conversion boxes work. It's all just takes a the centuries old camera obscura. Not a bad idea but thats what this is.

Hi Indy! Yes I'm so glad someone brought this up. They were called DOF adapters and I remember the hype when vibrating ground glass versions were a thing! As Randy rightly pointed out, there was a brand of DOF adapters called Redrock. I think thats the one I had... Cheers! :)

Dear Author he made a camera obscura, those have been around way way way way way way way way longer then the 1800s.

LOL, I came to say the same thing.

Really? That’s what you got from the article? He devised a method of digitizing the resulting image produced by a camera obscure. Unless Vermeer had a digital camera in the 1600s, I believe thats the point of the whole thing here.

I admire Alexey Shportun for his ingenuity and inventiveness - he has created what are for him, unique images. When he didn't have the money to buy a large format camera, with all the expenses that goes with it, he created another version. It goes to the saying "necessity is the mother of invention."

That said, you can create many of the images digitally that he has shown. High resolution cameras, in my case a Nikon D800 and D850, combined with either a 50mm 1.4D or 85 1.4D will give you a controllable depth of field, making it very shallow. Or using a 105mm macro. Add some vignetting and other FX in post, and you can arrive at the same result.

Then there are lens adapters such as the Lens Baby series that will create again create shallow depth of field with controllable distortion. (I'm personally not a fan of them).

If it's the softness you want with a sharp center, smearing vaseline on the perimeter of a clear filter as Lyle Mariam mentioned, or cutting a small hole through a pair of women's nylon pantyhose, then putting it in front of the camera lens, will again create interesting softness and vignetting.

I've played with other effects like shooting through crinkled clear plastic sandwich wrap like Saran Wrap, and even through a crumpled clear shower cap. Or cutting a whole in either white or black paper with jagged edges and photographing through it.The beauty of any cheap filter you make, placed right in front of the camera lens, is you get to see the effect immediately, and can adjust accordingly. And of course controlling your light, and the direction of that light will make a huge impact too, as seen in Alexey's backlit flower image.

I know there are photoshop gurus out there who will say you can now do much of this in post too with the blur, dodge and burn tolls, and the vigenetting and distortion correction tools in the RAW converter, plus a whole suite of plugins.

In summary, I admire Alexey Shportun for his workaround to create a large format camera "effect", but he has not reinvented the proverbial wheel, just modified it. Happy shooting, wherever you are. :-)

Cheers from Montréal.

Thank you for your great comment, Frederic! I too admire Alexey's ingenuity, despite what some of these comments may say.

Regarding getting that soft look, you mention some great DIY options, some of which I've tried before! However, with Alexey's method, it's far more than just a soft look. There is actual depth of field. Measurable depth of field. Something you cannon replicate with vaseline.

Agree. you can not get a 40mm 0.6 (full frame) by any of these socks or vaseline thing. but just find a cheap fujinar 300 4.5 and find a suitable box, you will get this amazing bokeh on the screen.

To make shooting easier, you can mount a tablet or laptop to the backside and use desktop software to control your camera (if available). So you're looking at a large screen to compose, kind of like large format, and you can control everything on your camera without having to stand in front of the capture side to do it.

Great idea! I can see this making the shooting process easier. Thanks, Christian! :)

I don't understand why the photography community is always so critical and condescending. Stupid? Not really. The results are compelling. Can they done achieved in other ways? Maybe. I still liked the article and encourage more creative development. I would have liked to know what lens was chosen for this contraption but I suppose it doesn't matter too much.

I Love this!!! Shallow depth of field is so beautiful! A full frame sensor or 35mm film doesn't come close to the shallow dof a large format can capture (with the same field of view/distance). I found an article in comparing a full frame digital camera to a 4x5 film. Here is a quote from the article "This is why the 180mm f/2.9 lens being used on the 4×5 camera in this comparison produces images that look like full-frame shots captured at approximately 49mm f/0.76."

Hi, I was just on my way to build something like that. I just wonder, or did I miss something: does the DSLR need a wide angle macro lens? If yes, what type do you, or anyone here, recommend for a FF camera?

The big problem with a homemade rig like this is keeping the two standards perfectly parallel. While something like this is fine as a proof of concept, to build it properly with the right tolerances would be really expensive so I doubt it would actually be that cost effective. Shooting the ground glass from rear would be easier because you could adapt an existing 8x10 camera by extending the monorail and adding a third standard to hold the digital camera.