You’ve Never Shot Large Format? A 4x5 Learning Experience

Have any experience in a studio? Yes? No? Doesn’t matter. You should give 4x5 a try. It’s addictive.

In this video, Willem Verbeeck shoots large format for the first time. Verbeeck loaded some Ilford HP5 in the holders and gave it a go. It was entertaining to see him carefully go through the steps of shooting large format, having done that enough myself and still walking through the steps out loud just the same as I did on my first frame. After their portrait session, he went through some Kodak Portra 400 in his Mamiya RZ67, the younger cousin of the RB67. 

As someone who is still only at the beginning stage of shooting 4x5 in a studio, I found this video quite encouraging. I’ve only completely worked through two boxes of sheets and part way through a few others with every intention to continue on. The amount of detail you can get with large format is just unreal, far and above more than what’s needed for even an 8x10 or 11x14 print. The attribute that keeps pulling me back is in fact not the resolution, but the ability to adjust the front standard to get an angled plane of focus (I’m using a press camera, so no rear movements). I’m just a sucker for it. 

Do you have any experience with 4x5 to share? Please share any advice and/or work. 

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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It certainly makes you slow down and think about your intent. The Polaroids from a 4x5 are beautiful on their own, I would suggest trying B&W instant film.

I don't know that I've ever seen Polaroids shot on a 4x5. What kind of film does it use? Hopefully not FP-100

I remember shooting Polaroid 665 which is B&W with a printable negative.

4x5 polaroids aren't available anymore. They were both produced by Fuji (FP-100C/3000B) and Polaroid. Today, the Impossible Project aka. Polaroid Originals does produce handmade 8x10 polaroids, however.

After about a year, I still find 4x5 extremely, and seemingly endlessly, frustrating, as I keep making mistakes. Lots of moving parts (literally and figuratively). And I've been shooting 135 and 120 film for some time now. But when a negative works out, it's really, really nice. They print so well both in the darkroom and digitally. All I can say is, start with B&W if you're new to 4x5. Color is far to expensive to be learning on.

Shooting B&W to get started is good advice so long as someone is developing at home. have you tried putting any slide film through your 4x5. THAT is addictive.

I've come close to hitting the "purchase now" button on some 4x5 slide film. But I want to get a little better at operating the camera before I spend the money for that. I'm getting there though. And yeah, I develop the B&W at home--both for cost reasons, and I use Pyro developer so I can mess around with making Platinum/Palladium contact prints in the summer (using the sun).

It is many years ago I started my photo career shooting 8x10 film it was an easy learn ( even seeing upside down) I believe because it was a mechanical process. There were no "bells and whistles" for me it was an understanding of math. Shooting 4x5 was like shooting with a 35mm of today, and for me shooting with an F2 felt a bit strange in my hands... It was a time when you wanted to be a photographer shooting large format was a given I still have 2 of my 4x5 cameras but gave up using my 8x10 Deardorff a good few years back....

Those people who learned LF back when it wasn't a three legged unicorn approached it like any process. You learned the steps, made your photo, processed it and did it some more.
Tony Clark is on point about using B&W Polaroid as it drastically shortens the learning curve. I don't know if the P/N film is still available but if so, you also get an excellent negative.

While LF forces you to slow down, another huge incentive is that every exposure opens a larger hole in your wallet.

I've never tried shooting 8x10. I still find the process (and cost) of 4x5 to be enough. I cannot imagine carrying around an 8x10 camera. haha. For hikes I think I'll stick to my F2.

My dad attended a vocational photography program in High school in the 1940s (Google C A Bach, Fremont High School). He had to buy a camera to attend, and the camera he bought (and most students bought) was a Speed Graphic 4x5. The Speed Graphic was not only used in the studio but also hand held. It did come with a 6x9 roll film back, but looking though his negatives most of his shots were on 4x5 film.

Shooting your first will always be a memory.
I remember seeing a monorail for sale on Ebay and, knowing nothing about 4x5, hit bid.
It took about a week to arrive from London to Paris but when it did I had to use it, fortunately there was a box of film included.
Five minutes on YouTube and I thought I was OK with the process so as is the norm when I get a new camera my wife agreed to be the subject of the first frame and we headed down the endless flights of stairs from our apartment to the yard at the back of our building.
First obstacle was focusing, I only wear glasses for reading and had never had to use them with a camera but using the ground glass on the Calumet was a whole different experience and I just couldn't see.
12 flights of stairs (both directions) later, glasses in hand I tried again.

The next obstacle was developing, I hadn't considered I'd need a dedicated tank so had to hit the interweb again and discovered what is known as the Taco method, basically fold the film carefully emulsion inwards ensuring it doesn't crease, secure with an elastic band and pop in a tank.

Surprisingly this worked OK which is where I hit my next hurdle, how to scan as I only had a 35mm/120 scanner.

I ended up scanning in sections and stitching using a freeware program from Microsoft called MICE.

This was the result of that first shot.

Since then I have invested in a tank a scanner and two more cameras, it is fun and rewarding, but you can never really be spontaneous, everything takes a little planning.