It’s Not Just the Better Resolution: This Is Why Digital Cannot Compete With Large Format

It’s pretty well understood that large format is in a league of its own for resolution and depth of field. The real difference, however, lies elsewhere. 

In this video by Mat Marrash, Marrash covers one of the most important and arguably confusing topics of large format photography. That is, front and rear camera movements. Marrash may well be one of the most knowledgeable and respected film photographers you’ve never heard of given his lack of an Instagram, and his Large Format Friday series on YouTube having only recently started. He was featured alongside several big names in the film world in 2019’s Film Photography Paideia for his close association with The Film Photography Project.

This video is ninth in his series exclusively about large format photography that has been a helpful primer to me and others who are looking to increase their knowledge on a photography format that couldn’t be further from the digital SLR and mirrorless cameras we’ve come to know.

In digital photography, tilt shift lenses can be purchased to perform some of the same functions but those lenses are generally very expensive and are offered in a much smaller selection. These lenses, however, cannot perform functions of front rise/fall or rear tilt – all of which provide important functions that can really take a photograph to the next level. Photoshop can emulate some of these additional functions but there’s no substitution for the real thing. Despite some of the functions being possible in Photoshop, the idea of incorporating rise/fall, tilt, and shift into one image which is viewed upside down on the ground glass is admittedly quite intimidating to me as the only practice I’ve had with large format has been with an old press camera where there are limited to no movements. 

Are you experienced with large format photography? If so and you have any examples of shots where you heavily leaned on the front and/or back movements, please share them in the comments. 

James Madison's picture

Madison is a mathematician turned statistician based out of Columbus, OH. He fell back in love with film years ago while living in Charleston, SC and hasn't looked back since. In early 2019 he started a website about film photography.

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If that's of interest to any one, Sinar had an exercise book (black and white but that's not relevant to the purpose) in the 80's. I have mine somewhere at the studio, but you may find one on Ebay.

I tried searching for it but didn't find anything. Do you know the title of the book?

I didn't see it on eBay elther. It will take me a few days before I get to it but I will look for it at the studio and let you know. The cover is in color and I think that's the book with a dark brown bowl with chop sticks on it.

For sure. I'd like to know what it is so I can track it down if possible.

Did not see it at the studio and can't find it at home so far. I am following you now and when I find it I'll let you know. It's not the kind of thing I would have sold or recycled; so it's misplaced for now. Also, just saw this. It's not the cover I had and mine was purchased probably around 1990.
And this

The book's name is Photo Know-How: The Art of Large Format Photography.
By Carl Koch and Jost J.Marchesi

My copy is in French and I just located it today - Photo Know-How: Cours de Photographie grand format.

I truly believe they are the same. I never followed the exercises in the book so mine has no personal note. It's important you find one that's still virgin since it's partially an exercise book. We were getting the training at school and a rep from Sinar came from Paris for demos too. We did some of the book's exercise but didn't have to take notes.

You can find them for sale $50 to $250 on the web

By Carl Koch and Jost J.Marchesi

. . .I would also like to jump in here and recommend "The Camera" from Adams. He´s mostly known for his film processing techniques, but this first book of his three part series explains the mechanisms from small to large frame (analog) cameras very well - including illustrations and example images.

I'm almost through his autobiography now. I'll look into that set for reading after. Thanks for sharing!

His books were used as my text books in college, along with others.

Ironic to see this article right after I ordered a pack of FP4 4x5 sheets.

Large format is a lot of work but the image quality is unparalleled (if exposed/developed correctly obviously). It's actually not a super expensive investment either - you can get a nice Cambo or Toyo or Graflex monorail 4x5 for $120-200 and a good starter lens for about the same. If you have the equipment already to develop 135/120 film, you can do 4x5.

Ha! I've only got a couple sheets left of a box of FP4 I bought a while ago. Have you shot it before? What do you think?

Not sure I agree with the last bit there on the processing equipment. I had been doing 35mm and 120 for a while but had to buy a bigger tank and 4x5 insert. Wasn't a particularly big investment but still.

I love FP4 for 4x5. I wish there was an Acros 100 4x5 because that's my favorite 35/120 film, but alas there is not.

I just use the same tank I have for 35/120, remove the spindles, and put two sheets of 4x5 in at a time. Works just fine if you kind of bend them into a taco shape. Only two at a time but given how conservatively I shoot the stuff, not a problem for me.

I wish I was shooting 4x5 when the original Acros was still around. Given the price of Acros II, I don't know that I'd consider shooting it as my go-to B&W even if they did start making it.

Oh, that's a neat trick! haha. Have you seen the new reel from FPP? It seems like it would be so much better than what I'm using now.

Oh wow, that looks really great. Holds 6 sheets. I'd need to get the 3 reel Paterson tank as I just have the two reel one. Gonna look into this. Sold out on their site but wonder if it's sold elsewhere too.

Edit: Ilford makes a pink and blue (?) insert for the Paterson 3 reel tank for 4x5 sheet film (6 sheets). It's $7.25. Ilford Mod 54 Mk27. I'm definitely buying one of those.

I can't tell the difference between that and the Mod54 at B&H for $60. I guess it's the same thing but nearly 90% cheaper? That's weird... It's not pink and blue. The Mod54 I have is red. The blue stuff in the pictures are showing you what the 4x5 sheets look like when they're ready to go.

I'm surprised and a bit disappointed to hear the FPP reel is already sold out - it was only recently released. It may just be me but I can't stand the Mod54. If I were doing everything over again, I'd get the FPP reel without a doubt.

You could theoretically fabricate a 4x5 or 8x10 digital sensor and accomplish the same exact thing. Hell, you can even do it with a 35mm sensor as long as you implement a bellows system. This has nothing to do with the limitations of digital photography and everything to do with camera design.

There are a few bellows systems for 35mm - they're just kind of massively expensive.

You can get a bellows focusing mechanism for the Nikon F2 among other 35mm cameras and it is not capable of movements. Even then, the Mamiya RB/RZ67 systems use bellows focusing mechanisms and are not capable of movements either. Bellows do not imply front/rear rise/fall or tilt or shift.

I'm not sure I understand your criticism. "You could theoretically fabricate a 4x5 or 8x10 digital sensor..." Well, you can "theoretically" fabricate an automobile that gets 500 mpg. That doesn't mean that it is available today and providing the desired utility. The fact that "theoretically" a digital camera that can do everything that the large format film camera can do can be fabricated, doesn't mean that it has been, or has any probability of being developed within the foreseeable future for a price that is practical. So, are you suggesting that a large format film camera doesn't today uniquely provide the combination of capabilities suggested in the video?

I get what you mean and you're correct, though I would say that all of those options are prohibitively expensive for a huge percentage of photographers. Shooting 4x5 film isn't a huge investment - easily under $450-600 to get a decent camera, lens, board, holders, and pack of film. Assuming you have a good tripod already.

Since the digital option isn't a fiscally realistic option for most people, I understand the title and intent here.

Try 25 years with a Sinar E and Leaf DCB2. I used that combo in the late 90's. But it's really not a trend today. In fact even Broncolor no longer carries Sinar in it's line of products. Lenses are extremely expensive and for most photographer it is not worth the cost as they'll never recoup their investment. I don't believe this article is about comparing view cameras to digital in a production environment as in the day to day lucrative operation. But no doubt, backs on view cameras are out there, just not in great numbers.

Perhaps you're looking at nicer lenses than I would use. I just picked a 210mm Rodenstock for $200 a couple months ago and see Schneider lenses go for similar prices too. Compared with a good, used native E-mount lens for my Sony, LF lenses are pretty inexpensive.

I hear what you're saying but I don't think the content of the article states that there does not exist a way to retrofit a digital camera to a 4x5 camera. Indeed, I have seen it done and another person has left a comment that they do this.

I'm not sure why exceptions that exist and went unmentioned makes this post "click bait." If I said 6x7 cameras have a larger negative size than 35mm and thus better perceived resolution when viewing prints of equal size, that would still be true. Just because someone could get a 35mm back for their 6x7 camera doesn't mean the other information is "simply wrong."

And the nice thing is you can get the both of best worlds. I have the Fuji 4x5 adapter that lets me use my GXF100 on my Sinar view camera

That's quite the setup. There's a guy here in Columbus, OH with a similar setup on a Linhof.

Large format adjustments are crude at best only by (I don’t want to say YEARS!) many hours of experience can one somewhat have enough confidence to adjust a complicated scene. Also cameras having front and rear complete movements were usually not taken out of studio.

The negative and inter negatives required steps by hand trial and error including custom contrast masks for each sheet of film that might require a month to get a print that was satisfactory to the photographers. This I’d where post processing did the heavy lifting resulting in immediate results. Color sheet film is today expensive.

A company called CapCam had a university in Basel Switzerland write a program to automated some movements associated with there camera using micro motors to adjust the camera mostly for focus along the plane. The camera is not very useful outside with any source of wind because it big and not aerodynamic.

I would suggest anyone who would like to go through the opening and time travel to rent first....unless your the sort of person who wasn’t afraid to jump out of a plane your first time from 15,000 feet!

PS don’t miss the many hours per day in the darkroom let alone dust spotting a large piece of film.

Once you go digital it’s really hard to go back.

This can all be reproduced with digital cameras using stitching both vertical and horizontal to create images of any size you like. You can correct for tilt shift effects in photo shop with filters like perspective or warp as there is a whole tool box of ways to reproduce this. You no longer have to deal with the mess of film and developing and get instant results and don't need to haul that monstrosity around in the wilderness.

But there is not a good way to shift the focus plane when stitching.

Sure, why not. I can have infinite depth-of-field, a shallow depth-of-field (like the Brenzier Method), or anything I can imagine when stitching and especially when focus stacks are selectively added to the image...

Yeah, I guess anything is possible these days.

I spent many years shooting 8x10 large format and I'd say that digital has surpassed film in nearly every way, not to mention resolution, smoothness of tone, as well as focus and perspective control. First, focus stacking and stitching allows for much higher resolution than a single shot from LF. This includes both landscapes and portrait photography. If the situation wouldn't allow stitching or stacking, it likely wouldn't support the use of a large format camera to begin with. Further more, the adaptive wide angle filter, in Photoshop, gives for complete curvature and perspective control of the final image. Finally, the use of a small digital camera certainly trumps the logistics involved in the use of large format equipment and the development, scanning and printing of film. Put simply, I can beat large format most of the time with a small digital hand camera.