How I Got Into Large Format Film Photography and How You Can Too

How I Got Into Large Format Film Photography and How You Can Too

2560 1706 James Tocchio

[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.

[Images of Max and his camera were made by Bradley Rooks, whose work can be seen on his website and Instagram.]

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
8 comments
  • My journey to LF was similar – MF wakening me to the idea that bigger was better, then logic pushing me to biggest was best. A couple of practical tips I picked up on the way: 1. For cameras that require a darkcloth the best I’ve ever found is two extra large tee-shirts, a black one sewn inside a white one. The neck stretches around the back of the camera and you stick your head in through the bottom. The black makes it dark enough to see the groundglass and the white reflects the heat. 2. The easiest developing tank is an old Beseler print developing tube (from the 70’s) on a Beseler motor base (there were similar systems by other manufacturers). You can develop 2 4×5 sheets of film at a time with a minimum of chemicals and absolutely no chance of scratching the negatives. And don’t get me started on the joy of keeping your verticles vertical with a little front rise!

  • This may sound argumentative, but I do not mean it to. As someone who used to do a lot of LF photography I question the images you have chosen to accompany this discussion about getting into LF. And before I go any farther, I respect the time and effort you put into writing this.

    To me, this discussion needs context. People are not just trying it to try it. There has to be something about LF photography that is compelling enough to encourage the trial. Those reasons will be different from one person to another, but it is hard to ignore the desire for more detail and the ability to control focus in ways that are impossible with cameras in which you cannot alter the lens to film plane relationship.

    So to me, the examples you chose to include could not be more misleading. Other than #3 and 5, all three of the others look like the critical focus was missed, and the aperture used was insufficient to yield enough depth of focus.

    On the one with the pickup truck, besides the fact that it appears the negative was printed wrong side down (all lettering is reversed), the side of the truck facing the camera screams to be sharp along it’s whole length. Instead, by the time your eye follows that plane to the rear, it is completely soft. In that case, I suspect the aperture was ok, but the lens needed a slight swing to bring that surface into sharp focus.

    The two of the guys on walkways, I am perplexed why they were included. The guy holding the twin lens camera is completely out of focus (however the sprigs of plant growth above his head look to be sharp.) The other one where the guy has his hands in his pockets, that entire image is soft.

    I don’t want to get into creative license etc. We can all use the tools the way we want. I get it. But isn’t the point of using “selective focus” to draw the viewer’s eye to a certain part of the image? And if you are trying to show a LF novice why they might want to consider it, why aren’t these images better examples of same? What part am I to see as the critical part in this photo of the guy with hands in pockets?

    If you want to see results from LF that really show the rationale for using it, see the work of Clyde Butcher. https://clydebutcher.com/

    For me, were I not to have any knowledge of view cameras, this article fails to compel me to explore it because I don’t see anything that illustrates the reason to do so.

    • You make some good points. In Max’s defense, he did directly address his opinion of his own photography twice in the article. he said outright that he doesn’t consider himself a talented photographer and that he has just begun the process of LF photography, as well as the process of figuring out how to make a good photo. He’s still learning, and that’s sort of the point of this article, I think. To just let people know that it’s okay to jump in without knowing what you’re doing, and it’s okay to enjoy shooting cameras even if your photos aren’t quite ready for the gallery show.

      What you say about including the reasons for shooting LF over another format is another great point. As editor, I take the blame for missing that and I’ll have Max whip up a paragraph or two on the reasons people might be interested in trying LF photography.

      Thanks as always for your thoughts. You’ve made this a better article.

  • This may sound argumentative, but I do not mean it to. As someone who has done a little LF photography I appreciate the images you have chosen to accompany this discussion about getting into LF. And before I go any further, I respect the time and effort you put into writing this.

    To me, this discussion has context. Some people are just trying it to try it. There doesn’t have to be something about LF photography that is compelling enough to encourage the trial. The reasons will be different from one person to another, and certainly one is the desire for more detail and the ability to control focus in ways that are impossible with cameras in which you cannot alter the lens to film plane relationship. Because there are so many variables, we all know we are not likely to produce our masterpiece on the first or even the hundredth try.

    So to me, the examples you chose to include could not be more appropriate. Other than #3 and 5, all three of the others look like the critical focus was missed, and the aperture used was insufficient to yield enough depth of focus. Boy, I’ve been there!

    On the one with the pickup truck, the fact that it appears the negative was printed wrong side down (all lettering is reversed) makes me wonder – is this a code, a secret message? The side of the truck facing the camera is completely soft – by the time your eye follows the plane to the front the sharpness sucks you right into the photo. Brilliant! Another way to do this photograph would be to use a slight swing to bring it all into sharp focus.

    The two of the guys on walkways look like works in progress. The guy holding the twin lens camera is completely out of focus (however the sprigs of plant growth above his head look to be sharp.) The other one where the guy has his hands in his pockets, that entire image is soft. When you reshoot these it will be informative to see the before-and-after comparisons.

    It’s fun to get into creative license etc. We can all use the tools the way we want. I get it. One point of using “selective focus” is to draw the viewer’s eye to a certain part of the image. And if you are trying to show a LF novice why they might want to consider it, these images are a good starting point. I’m not sure about the photo of the guy with hands in pockets, but I love the truck.

    If you want to see results from LF that show a different rationale for using it (and photos far more beautiful than I will ever create), see the work of Clyde Butcher – https://clydebutcher.com/.

    For me, with my limited knowledge of view cameras, this article compels me to explore LF even further.

    Thank you for your insights. Now, where did I put my Sinar?

  • Thanks for your article, Max.

    Great that you are discovering the wonderful world of large format photography. Good effort with your pictures too, this is one camera that takes some time to earn one’s stripes. As you say it’s a craft that comes with numerous challenges and I agree that its heavy, difficult, expensive, and massively time-consuming and yes a negative from one of these cameras is unlike anything a from a smaller camera. It does take a little practice and often a few failures along the way.

    When I first started shooting large format in 1985, I bought this nice little kit, a Tachihara 4×5 wood field camera and a 150mm Schneider lens, plus some film holders. I already had a tripod (I did get a wooden one later on) Although previously I had shot a little bit with a large format camera and also medium format this camera was my first real serious dive into the world of large format photography. The dive in was not easy. After a few months, I lost interest due to technical and other challenges, and the camera sat unused in a closet in my apartment.

    To kick off 1987 I thought to myself that I was going to either sell the camera or use it, I chose the latter. I also traded in the 150mm lens for a 120mm Schneider which I liked better. The day I made that decision I got lucky as I made a nice landscape scenic of a lake not far from my home that showed just how beautiful large-format could be, lots of nice intricate detail. It took me about another 2 years before I felt I was getting proficient. I have shot continuously with the large-format cameras for over thirty years. Best of luck with your photography.

    Gary Nylander
    Kelowna, B.C. Canada.

  • Hey thanks for jumping in….it is great to read articles written by learners like me! I feel as if I am starting to make some nice images with my 35mm Contax SLR, but each roll still teaches me plenty if I am willing to learn. My medium format journey is much nearer the beginning, and I have much to learn, but every now and then I capture something that makes it worthwhile. I do have a Speed Graphic which will continue to act as an ornament until I feel ready to take the plunge into LF. Keep going and keep learning…I am loving the journey, reading good photography books and going out and practicing what I have learned!

  • It isn’t LF, but if one doesn’t want to tote a huge beast of a camera around, one could get a Fuji gx680. Oh wait, it is a beast. It has the feel of LF in its v/h lens movements and actual lenses, but you get more shots since you aren’t using sheets and they are ridiculously cheap. Eats batteries though. Thanks for the article, in the defence of the author, he stated several times he wasn’t a pro. Clue, this site is called Casual Photophile. I took the shots to be artistic use of scheimpflug’s law.

  • Damn this slippery slope! I experienced a very similar route – had a fancy for an AE1 (the camera my dad used to teach me about photography as a kid), ended up with a bunch of other 35mm cameras instead. A couple of years later I found out medium format was a thing, and fell in love with 6×6 images, particularly on slide film. Then discovered a liking for 6×9 folding cameras… The size of those negatoves!
    Then it happened – I grabbed myself a Harman Titan 4×5 pinhole and took it to the Pyrenees along with some delta100, HP5, and a box of chemicals. After a week of shooting pretty much on the fly (or as much on the fly as possible with a pinhole), and developing in the hotel bathroom each night I was totally hooked. Have toyed with the idea of getting rid of all other gear and just shoot LF from now on.

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio