[A note from James – Large format film photography is a different world. I know enough about it to know that I don’t know enough about it. At least, not enough to write with expertise on the subject. I reached out to my friend Max, who’s a couple of years ahead of me in the race to large format mastery, and he’s been kind enough to provide this article, which is all about his first steps into the lush world of large format photography and how you can jump in too. Enjoy.]
Have you ever wanted to shoot large format film? If the answer is “yes,” then just go and do it. Don’t be scared of the process or the cost. You’re definitely going to screw up along the way. But there are lots of resources to help ease you into the format. And when you get a final image that meets or exceeds your mental visualization, I bet you’ll be hooked. And yes, large format photography can be expensive. But more and more small businesses are creating products that make it a bit more affordable to burn big film. The time has never been better for hobbyist LF photographers.
In a recent conversation with Casual Photophile’s founder, James Tocchio, I was asked to write an article that retraced my introduction to large format photography and what I’ve learned that could help other would-be large format shooters get started. I immediately objected. Where would I begin? As far as photographers go, I’m not the most accomplished, and the people who use this particular format tend to possess far greater technical skill and artistic vision than I.
After reading James’ message I put my phone down and stared at the table in front of me. On it sat an 8×10 camera, a 4×5 camera, multiple lenses and a jumble of film holders piled atop its not-quite-large-enough surface. I love these cameras, this type of photography. If I can help someone else fall in love with it too, surely that’s worth a try. So I picked up the phone and told him I’d do it.
Why Shoot Large Format Film
Large format photography has its pros and cons compared to smaller format photography (120 and 35mm, etc.). The most obvious advantage of large format is that it produces a larger negative, which typically come in sheets from 4×5, 5×7, and 8×10 inches. Compare this to the image area of a 35mm film frame (24x36mm) and it’s clear that large format is, well, large. This increased negative size means that large format photography is capable of capturing far greater detail than smaller formats. A 4×5 camera, for example, makes a negative that’s 14 times the size of 35mm. That’s a lot of detail. This increased real estate means that prints and enlargements made from a large format negative will exhibit much finer grain compared to identically sized prints made from a smaller negative.
The other big benefit to shooting LF photography is the ability to control the lens angle relative to the film plane, something that’s impossible on most 35mm and 120 film cameras. By tilting or shifting the lens or film plane, it’s possible for the large format photographer to selectively focus and influence the final image in ways that a rigid camera cannot.
The downside of shooting large format compared to smaller formats? With large format, we give up portability, speed, ease, and a lot of money. LF cameras are big. The film is expensive. And making a great image is hard. But really talented and experienced large format photographers can do amazing things utilizing the unique characteristics of these cameras and the film they use. And that’s what motivated me to try it.
My Journey to Large Format Film Photography
Over the past few years, and throughout my introduction to film photography, the idea of large format shooting always intrigued me, and sort of scared me. Many of the images that had proved to me photography’s ability as a medium to stir emotion and illuminate personal values and perspectives had been created with film that was too big to fit onto a roll or into a canister. Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Chuck Close, Irving Penn, Dorothea Lange, and so many others, utilized relatively massive pieces of cellulose and glass to create work that was impactful and lasting, due in part to the format on which they shot. From a boxy Graflex SLR, to a 20×24 Polaroid process camera, the medium they chose to use gave something special, something bigger, to the things and places and people that these photographic legends saw, captured, and developed.
To the casual photophile it must seem nearly insane to take a sheet of film the size of a piece of printer paper (and the effective equivalent of a whole roll of 135 film) and use it to expose a single image. Place an 8×10 monorail in front of your average Canon AE-1 wielding, craft beer drinking, film newbie, and I doubt you’ll see a person experience a format conversion on the spot. But here’s the thing – large format, for all of its bulk, is a sneaky beast. Hardly anyone just up-and-buys an 8×10 camera and sets off shooting. No, it’s an insidious slide down a slippery slope, and before you know it you’re hooked on the big film.
For me, the slide began with a Rolleiflex. I was in my sophomore year of college, and I found a deal on a 3.5E. I got the camera and started snapping. A few months later when I finally had enough cash to mail off my film, I experienced my first images on medium format film. I was floored. The 6×6 centimeter negatives (and accompanying scans) were completely different than anything I’d ever seen from a 35mm roll. The rendering of that Schneider lens on a piece of film that big was a revelation. Soon I’d picked up a Mamiya 7, adding another centimeter of exposable space to my images and further increasing my admiration for large negatives. The snowball rolled on.
I tried several times, unsuccessfully, to bring myself to enter the large format realm. My first attempt at truly big film wasn’t actually with a traditional view camera. I found an amazing deal on a Fuji G617 (the very same camera recently reviewed here on the CP) and began to try my hand at producing 6×17 negatives. A couple of rolls in I was unconvinced, and sold the camera to James. The limited capability of that camera, in terms of composition owing to the extreme aspect ratio, of a panoramic camera meant that it stayed in its case for the majority of the eight months that I owned it (much to my shame).
The next attempt was a Tachihara wooden field 4×5. It came in a package with a Jobo film processor, film, a meter, holders, lenses, filters, and everything I could possibly need to start shooting. But I got cold feet. Life was beginning to get hectic, I was facing a move for work, and I thought that I would never be able to make time to use it all. Looking back, I deeply regret selling that kit. I sold it without ever using it. I sold it out of an irrational fear. I turned my focus to medium format, and wrote off the idea of ever moving up to large format.
A lot happened in the next year. I learned to fly a plane, and then a helicopter. I moved again, twice. I got a raise. I got bored. I ran the gamut of medium format cameras, trying pretty much every grail camera you can think of. Then, on a whim, I bought a 4×5 camera and an 8×10 camera. They sat unused, throughout a period of work insanity, until a friend of mine and I decided to take out the 4×5 and see what would happen. That afternoon, I discovered, I was hooked.
The truth of the matter is that I didn’t even have to wait for the photos to be developed to know that I had found a method of photography that was enthralling. The physical inability to quickly frame a shot and take it naturally creates a situation in which the photographer must look more critically at the subject and his or her photography. It’s a meditative process; a real Zen and the Art of Photography thing.
And it’s good that I love the process so much, because frankly, I’m not the most talented artist in the world (or maybe on the block). I miss focus, I sometimes take boring photos. I say this to remind you that you don’t need to be an incredible photographer to enjoy photography. You can be like me, a person for whom it’s enough to simply experience the craft, enjoy being outdoors and with interesting people, and occasionally make a pretty decent photo.
In comparison to my slow entry into analog photography, a span of four years in which I casually explored 35mm and 120 film, my large format journey has been incredibly short and much more intense. I found myself one afternoon not too long after that initial large format foray, staring at a collection of five view cameras in three different formats, and wondering what on earth had happened to my self respect/bank account balance. Things have calmed down (ever so slightly) from that initial rush of enthusiasm, but the feeling that comes from seeing a massive, just developed negative still cannot be beat!
I’m not a photographer by profession, but I am by a not-so-slight obsession. My day job is amazing, but there is very little that replicates the feeling of shooting and developing your own work on big film. The slight terror that you may have misjudged the light, bumped the camera, or otherwise damaged the image, can be a lot to think about as your hands bumble around in a dark bag, taking the film from holder to tank. Another round of panic crests, as you dump chemicals into the drum, hoping desperately that the recipe you read online will work. Then, in the most nerve-wracking moment of the night, you finally have to look at that special piece of plastic you’ve paid for and worked to see transformed. You get to judge how well you viewed the reality in front of you, and how artistically you captured it with the bulky and antiquated tools you’ve chosen.
The results, when things are done the right way, are breathtaking. I’ve only started down this road of big film, and the small number of developed images I have, even those that are hopelessly marked by my general lack of photographic skill, have proven to me that this is a different kind of image making. Not better in any objective way than any other photographic method, but definitely more enjoyable and rewarding to me than any other way that I’ve tried to make images. It may not be for everyone, but I think that if more people tried it, they would be just as hooked as I was, walking out with a 4×5 for the first time and not knowing what might come of an afternoon and an entirely too-expensive box of Ilford HP5+.
Okay, so my stumbling journey has hopefully motivated you to take your own first steps. Let me preemptively answer some of your most important questions. In just a few more paragraphs you’ll know everything you need to know to hit your favorite camera shop and walk out with all the large format gear you’ll need to get started.
What camera should I buy as a beginner in LF photography?
The answer to this question is kind of dependent on what you want to shoot. If you’re a person who’s looking for the quickest and cheapest way into big film, I suggest looking on Facebook marketplace for a 4×5 monorail camera that you could buy. Most of the time they can be found with lenses, holders, and sometimes even film, for $250 or less.
If you’re a person who intends on carrying a camera with you in a backpack, a folding field camera is probably a better choice. These come in a variety of styles, from brands like Wista, Tachihara, Toyo, and Intrepid, just to name a few. In general, I recommend that people try 4×5 photography before they jump to 5×7 or 8×10, but if you feel called to the really big stuff, just go for it! 8×10 gear is considerably more expensive, but there are always deals to be found!
What other gear am I going to have to buy, besides a camera, to start shooting?
In order of importance, I think a good basic list is as follows: lens (with a lens board that fits the camera you’ve chosen), tripod, cable release, a film changing bag, film holders/film, and development equipment/chemicals.
Large format lenses are almost always mounted with leaf shutters. The shutter/lens combo is mounted on a board that fits into the front standard of the camera. These can easily be found in a large number of FB groups (and obviously on Marketplace), eBay, and Craigslist, or at camera stores, physical and online. A cable shutter release makes it easier to use these lenses. Film changing bags are a necessity; they allow you to take sheet film from its box and place it into the holder that will go into the camera after the composition has been created on the ground glass. And, hilariously, that’s all you’ll need.
If you’ve ever wanted to try large format photography, just go for it! Find a dusty, aged monorail camera on Craigslist, or Facebook marketplace, and just give it a shot. Your journey is not going to be without hiccups; you’ll incorrectly measure chemicals, accidentally expose film, make a poor metering decision, miss focus, shoot an unintentional double exposure or two, and sometimes have days where you set up the camera to frame what you think will be a perfect shot, only to discover that the image you see (inverted and reversed) in the dim ground glass, is not at all worth pulling the trigger. You might have to decide to pack the camera up and wait for that image to come to life another day.
Yes, this craft comes with numerous challenges – ask anyone who shoots big film and they’ll tell you the truth that it’s heavy, difficult, expensive, and massively time-consuming. But ask those same people to show you their images and you’ll suddenly see a fiendish look in their eyes as they proudly produce a negative unlike anything you could ever get from a smaller camera. With a little practice (and a little failure) you’ll know exactly where that look comes from.
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