What a tangled, twisted road this has been. When I finally built up the courage to try out large-format photography a little more than half a year ago, I knew that I was in for a bit of a rough ride. But with a healthy serving of ruined film, swear words, and YouTube lessons under my belt, I've come out semi-clean on the other side. Here are the most useful lessons I've learned thus far. Hopefully I can stave off some frustration for those of you who feel like taking the plunge.
1. You Will Screw Up
There's no substitute for ruining a few sheets of film to up your learning curve. Large format is unforgiving, and any number of things can and will go wrong. I still make really basic mistakes and will lose a sheet or two due to bad technique or rotten luck. However, I believe that's one of the reasons why large format photographers are so passionate about their work: every sheet counts. Every time I trip the shutter, I know that it's not only an investment of money, but time. I've painstakingly set up a shot, metered, composed, waited for the "perfect" moment, then fired away. The stakes are high every time I commit to a photograph. The fact that messing up is a possibility every single time is part of the draw to the format. But that brings me to point number 2.
2. Take Backup Shots
You have two sheets in every holder. Unless you're absolutely confident that you got the shot with that first sheet, back it up with the other one. It's cheaper to back up a shot with an extra sheet than enduring the pain of missing the shot completely. Maybe, if it's a portrait, your subject moved a bit. Maybe the light changed a touch. Maybe you made an error while loading that particular sheet. Just take the extra shot. It'll hurt less in the long run.
3. Clean Your Holders
Dust, hair, dirt, and grime can get inside your film holders, particularly if you shoot on location like I do. Dirty holders can scratch your negative, cause blank spots on your photos, and otherwise wreak havoc. A cheap paintbrush and rocket blower will do fine.
4. Develop Your Own Film
I know, I know, you don’t have the room, or it’s hard, or it’s too expensive, or blah blah blah. I’m here to you tell you, although it’s usually cheaper to develop and scan your own film, this goes double for large-format film. Plus, it’s more rewarding to be a part of the process for as much as possible. I’ve yet to hand print my own images, but that’s the next step as soon as I can convince my wife to let me convert part of the basement. Luckily it’s Girl Scout Cookie season, so maybe I can bribe her.
5. Invest in a Decent Flatbed Scanner
If you can’t get decent scans from your images, unless you’re printing them in the darkroom, there’s no point in taking them in the first place. Even the best flatbeds are middle of the road when it comes to scan quality, but luckily with large format work there’s so much information in the negatives/slides that you don’t need the ultimate in sharpness. That said, get something that’s capable of scanning large negatives without stitching. It’ll decrease your workload. Large format work is labor intensive already without adding unneeded time to your scanning workflow.
6. Use a Loupe
You can get a cheap loupe that’s perfect for 4x5 work for very little, and there’s no substitute for fine focusing. Even if it’s really bright outside, the sweet spot for focus with large format work, even when stopped down, is easy to underestimate. You’re dealing with razor-thin falloff from the focus point, and every centimeter counts. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve eyeballed it to where I thought I was in focus, brought out the loupe, and found that I was way, way off. Don’t be lazy. Use a loupe.
7. Use a Meter
I know, meters aren’t needed anymore. That’s not true for large format work, especially when you’re dealing with exposure compensation from bellows factor, any filters you have on your lens. It’s just easier to make sure you’ve got it right with a meter. You could lug around another camera with you (and I do for proofing) but it doesn’t help you calculate for bellows. It’s an investment and it will be used all the time. If you're into landscapes, a meter with a spot function would probably be more up your alley, but they can get pricey. I'd recommend looking for a used one.
8. Get a Sturdy Tripod
The larger the format, the more motion blur at the camera level is going to show up. Unless you’re shooting at really fast shutter speeds, blur will show up and it will piss you off. Don’t let a flimsy tripod ruin your shot. I use a sturdy Manfrotto on a ball head that is rock-steady and dependable. If I were shooting 8x10 I’d use something even sturdier. If you plan on hiking, you might want something lighter, but don't skimp.
9. Push Through the Pain of Loading Film
Loading film can be a bit tough in the beginning. You’re doing everything blind and when you can’t find the little notches or things don’t line up like they should, it can definitely be a source of frustration. Trust me, it gets easier. I wouldn’t call myself a master, but where it may have taken me 5 minutes to load a holder in the beginning, it probably only takes 45 seconds now. You’ll find your groove. Don’t give up because of something small like that. It’s intimidating, but one of the easiest parts in the long run.
10. Flip the Dark Slide (My number one cause of lost film)
In a traditional film holder, the dark slide label has a black side and a white side. When you take a photo, you flip the slide before putting it back in, indicating that you’ve taken the exposure so that you don’t double expose the image. Don’t forget to do this. For the cheap seats in the back, let me repeat: don’t forget to do this! I’ve ruined more sheets of film by double exposing than any other causes combined. It’s easy to do, and even easier to forget to do. You don’t have the luxury of getting the shot again, and there are few things that suck more than seeing a blank negative come out of your tank. Because that means that your backup just sat there and did nothing while you double-exposed your first shot. It’ll happen to you, but hopefully it’ll only happen once.
Well that’s my list so far. I’m still learning the ins and outs and having a great time doing it. If there are any things you’ve learned that may help those getting started or if you need clarification or elaboration about any of my points, sound off below.