Large-Format Photography: 10 Lessons I've Learned After 7 Months

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.

Rabbi Joe Black, 4x5, Ilford HP5 Plus

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.

Terrell, 4x5, Ilford HP5 Plus

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.

Terrell, 4x5, Kodak Portra 400

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.

Rabbi Joe Black, 4x5, Portra 400

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.

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14 Comments
Michael Aubrey's picture

Good advice.

(11. Always use a mechanical shutter release cable.)

M L's picture

One of the worst jokes we played as assistants was to tell a new assistant from Ireland that had a big assisting job for still life was that the film in the USA was backward from how they have it in Europe, the notch goes on the left we told him all of us pretty drunk. He went on to load over a hundred holders backward and cost the photographer a huge job, I think it was for Cartier.

Simon McArdle's picture

That surely qualifies as WORST.

Peter Brody's picture

"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."

Printing film is the only part of film use I miss.

Jim L's picture

What sites or videos did you find most useful? PM if you don't want to list publicly.

Mr Blah's picture

5.1 Know the difference between resolution, DPI, definition and viewing distances when buy a scanner. You can get away with a relatively ok scanner since the negative are so big (less need of enlargement).

Peter Nord's picture

I remember about 60 years ago forgetting to close the shutter after focusing then pulling the slide. Did that just once.

Robert Raymer's picture

I agree with everything on here (including using a shutter release cable). I second developing your own film. Both black and white and color can easily be developed at home with little space. All you need is a daylight changing bag big enough to load/change 4x5 and a large daylight developing tank with a 4x5 insert. I do it in my kitchen.

Stephen Fretz's picture

If I shot 4x5 or 8x10 again I'd have to develop at home just because the processing has become insanely expensive. But ... it adds a whole new bunch of ways you can screw up. Water spots, scratches, dust (when drying) agitation and temperature mistakes, etc. With 120 C41 processing available for five bucks a roll, the baby Linhof or Horseman technical cameras look awfully good.

Jens Langen's picture

Nice article. I'm old enough to have had 2 decades of shooting large format for commercial work and would never go back. Even for personal work, you can refine your images so much more quickly with digital than with film. I think it's a misconception that film makes you work slower and therefore work better. With film your options are so limited that you'll never realize the full potential of your subject during the shoot- you're stuck with your first or second idea, and then have to go through all the trouble of realizing your already compromised vision on the back end with developing, printing, and/or scanning.

Hans Rosemond's picture

You have some great points but I think you leave out one thing. There's the process. I genuinely enjoy the process of shooting large format. I'll be the first one to say that quality is not the reason I shoot. I shoot for the love of shooting, and the whole process of creating that image is attractive to me. I think as professionals we tend to forget that we became (usually) photographers because we enjoy shooting. That said, for my commercial work I do shoot digitally. But if the work is for me, personally, I'll take my time and enjoy it.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Yep, thats my next step. Im thinking of getting one of those grow tents and using it as a darkroom for contact printing

Steven Brown's picture

Also remember if you are going to develop your own negatives you need to figure out what to do with the chemicals when you are done with them