Lessons Learned from Shooting Large Format Photography

Lessons Learned from Shooting Large Format Photography

Sometimes you just need to slow down. Last year, I shot just north of 95,000 digital photographs. That may not seem like a lot to some of you wedding photographers out there, but it was enough to make me take a step back and want something else. How many did I throw away? How many were made without thought or conviction? This was enough to trigger the impulse to try something new, and that something new was large format photography.

There is a lot of talk about shooting film and slowing yourself down being a great way to improve your photography flying around the Internet these days. It seems like everywhere you look someone is talking about an epiphany from their first roll of 35mm film coming back from the lab. Seeing your film come back is a great feeling, and shooting film is not something all of us in the industry are able to viably do in our businesses any more. It has become a niche for some, and a hobby for others.

I have been shooting 35mm on my days off for just over six years, but with the ease of using the cameras it was just like shooting digital. I needed something that would take me far away from my day-to-day shooting. So, I talked to a friend who had been shooting 4x5 for a few years about what it takes to get into the medium. In the end he offered to sell me his old Wista 45SP at a steal. That was a year ago, and I feel that taking this plunge was one of the best decisions for my photography yet. This is why.

More Intentional Photographs

By being as large, cumbersome, and expensive to shoot as it is, the 4x5 camera has forced me to be a much more intentional with my photography. When just taking it out the door is a chore, you really need to be committed to the process. The design of the field camera necessitates a tripod, which in and of itself removes the spontaneity of 35mm or even medium format photography. This has developed my ability to decide if a photograph is something worth committing to, something I really value and want to spend time on.

The 4x5 Kit: Camera, loupe, release, lens, tripod, and film holders. Total weight: 7kg (15.5lbs).

Being Present

Once you are over the initial learning curve of working the camera, large format still draws you into the moment. Once you have composed the frame in the viewing screen, closed the aperture, cocked the shutter, inserted the film holder, and removed the blade, you are ready to shoot. At this time, you are not able to look through a viewfinder and make changes to your focus or composition, and you are left with nothing but the moment you choose as the finishing touch on your photograph. Perhaps it is the look in your subject's eye, the movement of a tree in the wind, or a subject passing through the frame, you have to be present in the moment to notice these things.

The Darkroom

After the exposure is made and the film developed, you can take the film into the darkroom. Black and white darkroom printing is a skill I believe all photographers should learn. There is a joy in watching what you have created become a physical image, but there is also the effect it will have on your digital darkroom techniques. We can all benefit from simplifying our retouching and the subsequent changes that will make to the way we expose our photographs during a shoot. Of course in fields like beauty retouching, expectations leave little room for simple, sweeping techniques. However, when adding the finishing touches to an image, the broad and sometimes imperfect changes made in the darkroom can be replicated in the digital process to give the image a personal touch.

The Reaction

One of the biggest things I've noticed when shooting with this camera is the reaction it inspires in others. Korea is a rapidly changing society with no room for the old. I often encounter young people who simply have no idea what the camera is, and have had many conversations with elderly folks who share with me stories of having their family portrait made on one of these. I have been mostly using it for portraits of people I meet in the street. The awe and amazement the camera brings with it have made noticeable changes in the demeanor of the subjects I choose to shoot. People are calm and relaxed, curious as they give me the time to set the camera up. It's almost an excuse for them to slow down for a time as well.

The Ripple Effect

This is the part I expected least of all when I purchased the 4x5. My digital photography has been affected in the same ways. I have found myself being more intentional and present, catching myself pausing and waiting for the best moments to photograph, and shooting less frames. I have found that my retouching has become more "imperfect." I am making larger, broader changes instead of focusing on the color of a single pixel.

If you haven't yet, I recommend trying film photography. It doesn't have to be something wildly different from your day-to-day digital work like my decision to shoot large format. However, try to absorb yourself in the process. Get a roll of black and white film, shoot something you love, and see the process through. Be conscious of every frame on the roll, and try to make it something you would like to print. Develop the film yourself, take it into a rented darkroom and make a print. In a world where the majority of our photographs remain ones and zeros forever, it can be extremely rewarding to see a physical print that we created with nothing but light and silver.

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11 Comments

I've been on the hunt for a decent Hasselblad 500-series for this exact reason. A lot of the time I'm putting completely unnecessary pressure on myself to always get the shot as quickly as possible in order to "stay in the moment". I do realize that it has an adverse effect on my finished shots, but I just can't seem to bring myself to slow down. Hopefully an analogue, impractical and bulky camera will force me to calm the heck down.

Thanks for a great article!

Anonymous's picture

Thanks. A thoughtful article. Each time I read this sort of article I promise myself I will get out my 2 medium format pentaxes. 6x7 and 645.

Do it, Geoff. You know you want to! Put a few rolls through and feel that joy again!

Jeff Colburn's picture

Film is such a different experience than digital. I shot film for 30 years before going digital. I even shoot digital like it was film. My camera is always set to manual, I think and compose before I shoot and crop in-camera. I can spend an entire day at the Grand Canyon, and only go through 100 shots. I've never used a view camera, but always wanted to give it a try. Maybe I'll rent a setup and play around. View cameras always look like a lot of fun.

Have Fun,
Jeff

I envy you folks with your rental houses. Rental places here in Korea are so stock standard that we have to buy anything a little interesting to try it out.

I totally agree with your idea. Using large format camera make me slow tempo and think twice. Moreover those time spending never been bored. Anyway it is fun to see Hangul image from Fstopper. ^^ Maybe we can meet some other time. Have fun~

그러면 좋죠! 전 충무로 단골이죠~

I want to try 4x5 photography also. I enjoyed reading the article. I've been shooting film since 1980 and even though I now own a DSLR, I still use my Canon A-1.

It's a lot of fun, Ralph. The financial commitment is honestly the hardest part. Then it's all just photography again.

Things are wonderful for you guys on that side of the pond, as I said above. Over here, there isn't a second hand market like that. A second hand 4x5 will cost you $1000+, even the cheapest Schneider-Kreuznach Xenars are $300+, a box of TMAX or TRI-X is $170. And processing here is $3 a sheet unless you can afford to set up the tanks here. The 4x5 tank from Paterson is $250 here. Not everywhere is like North America. ;)

Unfortunately, that doesn't work out for us. By the time we have shipped a 2kg camera ($50-100 depending on the shipping company) and paid the 20% import tax, currency conversion fees and lost out on our currently very weak currency it would end up being about 30-40% more expensive to start that way.

My point here is not to start a discussion with you about how much cheaper North America is for film equipment but to illustrate that within film photography, this is an expensive route to take.

A second hand Nikon FM with a 50mm would cost me $200 here. I could shoot 100 rolls of film before I even got close to the cost of a 4x5. A second hand Hasselblad 500CM with an 80mm would be $1000. Again, I could shoot 20 rolls of film before I even got started with large format.