The film photography community of the 2010s, defined by internet-based sharing and communication, entices us into leveling up. On forums, blogs, Instagram, and Reddit, we joke with each other about “Gear Acquisition Syndrome” and the more cynical of us love to sardonically fume, vis-á-vis memes, about the blind fandom that follows certain makes and models of camera. I myself fell prey to the level-up scheme spectacularly, resulting in my brief ownership of a Linhof Technika 4×5 field camera.
The level-up scheme exists in all hobby and professions. It says, “Now that you’ve done this, you’ve got to try this.” My first film camera was a Minolta X-700, an underdog darling of the analog community. Since then, I’ve owned approximately 30 35mm cameras. The level-up scheme tells you that while the Minolta X-700 was a great camera and experience, you’ve really got to try a serious camera like the Nikon F2 or a camera with next-level glass like a Contax. These are all things I’ve told myself. More and more, the most immediate next level is into another format. I got to a point where I felt like taking film photography seriously meant moving into large format (LF).
Famed, fine-art photographers whose work I admire and own (in photobooks) like Richard Misrach and Joel Meyerowitz, in addition to professional landscape photographers I admire like Michael Strickland and Alex Burke, all shoot with large format cameras. The arguments for LF as a format are convincing but what ultimately pushed me was my identification of LF with professional work. It was also an unexplored frontier full of alien techniques.
I set out to find a 4×5 camera with an affordable price tag — just to get my feet wet. With months of searching eBay and local ads, I found an auction for a Linhof Technika 4×5 camera that I ended up winning for a wicked good deal. Linhof is a high-quality camera manufacturer based in Munich and comparisons between Linhof and Leica are fair in regard to what each maker means for its format. Linhof began its life as a shutter design firm under the helm of Valentin Linhof, who produced the first in-lens shutter. The shutter endeavor ended early as Linhof sold that portion of the business to his partner, Fredrich Deckel, the man eventually responsible for Compur shutters. Linhof is now known for producing technical cameras, which are commonly considered to be cameras with a movable front or rear “standard” (as opposed to the vast majority of full frame and medium format cameras with fixed camera bodies).
A large format camera, at its most basic, is a rear standard to hold both your film and your ground glass for focusing, connected to bellows, connected to a front standard to hold your lens (which has an internal shutter). Focusing glass, bellows, taking glass. Technical cameras allow for movement of the standards for technical purposes, such as photographing architecture without distorting perspectives or altering depth of field for portraiture. Alex Bond has a helpful explanation of various types of movements and what results they produce.
Linhof’s historical high point is in producing luxury field cameras. As opposed to monorail cameras, which are typically relegated to studio work, field cameras are meant for field photography. They fold up into neat packages for easy transport in, for instance, a backpack. With a monorail camera, the standards are placed together on a single rail, which facilitates extensive movements but also makes the camera unwieldy and heavy. A field camera is more portable at the cost of usually fewer movements, but typically still offers a fair degree of front-standard movements.
The predominant Linhof line of field cameras are called Technikas — a portmanteau of the German technische kamera. They began with the Technika in 1936 and worked up to the Master Technika in 1972, with models II through V in between, and with some reissues afterward. Super Technika models (from the Technika III onward) incorporate a rangefinder. To make matters more confusing, the Technika III had five versions. In each case, Linhof emphasized their “Linhof Principle: Precision and Ruggedness.” Speaking of their commitment to the Principle, Linhof say in their 70th anniversary catalog: “The factory’s own tools-design and tools-production department guarantees, through the high precision of their products, utmost exactness in camera production with tolerances of less than 1/100 mm. Many of the necessary gauges, jigs, tools and measuring instruments are made in the work’s own toolmaker shop. They are thoroughly tested before they are used. The temperatures in the workshops of the plant have to be kept on a steady level in order to keep the measuring instruments in proper gauge. The measuring instruments in use are constantly checked as to their exactness.“
Linhof’s commitment to their craft is both endearing and inspiring. Many Linhof workers lived in residential communities on the Linhof campus, apprentices trained for 3 1/2 years (though with twice-a-year camping trip allowances — I’m not joking), and employees were all served by a professional kitchen daily. One thing is certain: the Linhof of the mid-century West Germany was a lifestyle.
However, this article is neither intended to be a reproduction of the Linhof annals, nor a replete digest of large format cameras. This article is about why I wanted one, what happened when I got one, and why I no longer have one.
As I mentioned, to me large format photography represented a logical step forward. My resolution for Casual Photophile’s 2020 New Year’s Resolution piece was to “stop, think, plan.” I told myself (and you all) in that resolution that my 4×5 camera would make me think more seriously about the shots I take because of how contemplative the format was compared to 135 or 120.
Now, seven months into 2020 (albeit a long seven months) the Linhof is out of my life and I’m not sure when, if ever, large format will return.
After getting the Linhof, I still needed several more pieces of gear to get shooting. The outfit I bought included the camera, a Super Technika III v. 5, and a standard 150mm lens, the Schneider Kreuznach Xenar which offers a field of view around what a 45mm lens does on 35mm film. What I was missing was film, film holders, something to use as a dark cloth, a loupe for focusing precisely, a long shutter release cable, and a sturdy enough tripod for a heavy camera with slow speeds. Luckily I already owned a dark bag for changing film, so I had that going for me.
It took me months to acquire the rest of what I felt I needed to comfortably use the camera. I ended up being gifted a beautiful dark cloth made by Wanderer Photo Gear. I found some light tight film holders made by Riteway. I purchased a Soligor spot meter to help ensure that my exposures were spot on. Since then, the meter’s helped me become more adept at guessing EVs correctly.
The camera itself was intoxicating. Not quite mint (or “minty,” as everyone seems to say now), but almost there. Clean black leatherette panels separated by sharp silver lines. The bellows and ground glass hood were impeccable, which is more of an exception than the rule with these old cameras. In looking at the camera, you can tell that Linhof had a sort of pride about the look of their cameras beyond just their function. This is most clear to me in the Art Deco lines that run down either pillar of the front standard.
I would open the camera and play around with it countless times before I ever shot with it. The learning curve of LF is not remarkably steep, but you can feel it. On top of trying to figure out the exact combination of pushing this button in while holding this lever down to engage a particular movement, the camera mechanics are not as fluid as a new Toyo or Chamonix. The mechanics are willing but the lubrication is weak, or however that saying goes.
Linhof uses a characteristic red paint to fill in any engravings like the name on the lens and the lightning-arrow on the back that indicates how the back is locked in or released. Then, of course, there’s the somehow over-the-top but also perfect Linhof crest affixed to the lens board. The crest is essentially a reworked version of Bavaria’s coat of arms with “Linhof” in script at the top.
But beyond the camera’s aesthetic beauty, it also packs a functional punch. The front standard has a respectable host of movements including rise/fall, shift, swing, and back tilt (though no front tilt). Unlike other field cameras, the Super Technika III v. 5 also has the capacity for rear movements by using struts on the back to facilitate off-axis swing and tilt. The camera definitely possesses the traits that many would argue make large format unique and viable.
The lens, a modest one in the Linhof 4×5 lineup, was immaculately clean with spot-on shutter times. Focus was buttery smooth. Altogether, the thing was perfect.
So I would take it out, admire it, and then put it on the shelf. This went on for months while I gathered what else I needed and also dealt with the stress of jumping off the film-format deep end. I agonized over how to proceed. For one, I only lucked into the camera and hadn’t really anticipated getting one when I did. But for some reason, once I had it, it took me ages to even get film holders. I could chock this up to being busy finishing my master’s and then experiencing the changes brought on by the pandemic, but I think it was mostly due to my own trepidation.
I wondered what I would shoot or what I should shoot. If I had my druthers, I would shoot landscapes, but that meant scouting a location and preparing for an outdoor shoot. This led to dismay at the fact that I felt wholly uninspired by the drab New England March, a time and place in which all is grey and brown. I questioned the sturdiness of the very flimsy tripod I used only on occasion with a mirrorless camera. And I stressed about how I would load and unload film without developing the film myself.
The last point was the driving force behind my and LF’s breakup. I know how to develop my own film and have the equipment to do it, but I had moved on from it because my place was super small and my Epson flatbed produced truly awful scans. The lab I use in Maine is phenomenal and offers amazing scans, but each sheet of 4×5 film costs $10 to develop and scan. This is a more than fair price, but $10 for a single image hurts me more than $10 for 16 6×4.5 images or 36 35mm images. I toyed with the idea of just biting the bullet and going back to developing black and white myself, but the idea didn’t excite me. On top of this (and this is going to seem stupid) I didn’t have a good way to send out just a few sheets of film at a time. I had a single box full of film and no empty box to move exposed film to for mailing to the lab. I checked eBay for some empty boxes but that itself turned up empty.
These may sound like excuses. People in my position manage to shoot LF. I accept that, but my difficulty overcoming these hurdles only speaks to my underlying lack of commitment. However, all was not lost as I began to explore alternative ways to use my camera.
Come April, I had finally assembled a good gear lineup with an old Gitzo tripod being the final piece of the puzzle. Feeling buying boxes of 4×5 sheets would be a poor investment, I investigated what other options I had. I settled on two less than ideal setups but ones that might allow me to have my cake and eat it too (or at least some of it).
The first compromise was shooting 120 film with the Linhof. There were a handful of roll film backs made for 4×5 cameras. Some, like the Super Rollex made by Linhof, require the photographer to remove the normal back (with the ground glass) and install the roll film back entirely. This essentially forces the photographer to focus using the rangefinder, unless the photographer wants to install and uninstall the ground glass with each shot. Some other adapters, however, function as inserts, very similar to the way a 4×5 sheet film holder does. For these adapters, the photographer simply slides the adapter in between the glass and camera (as the film holder would), removes the dark slide, and shoots. This way the photographer can focus using the ground glass, quickly insert the adapter to capture a frame, and then get back to focusing and composing using the glass.
The version I purchased was called the Calumet C2. The C2 was designed for 220 film, but functions just fine with 120 film and only requires the photographer to roll past the “frames” missing from a 120 film roll. The best part is that the C2 produces 6×7 (in cm) frames. Though still approximately 25% of the size of a 4×5 sheet, I had no other camera that could produce that size (though, obviously, 6×6 is almost the same). Moreover, the ratios of a 6×7 frame and a 4×5 frame are extremely similar given the actual dimensions.
So this was my first solution: shoot 120 film with my large format camera. Clearly counterintuitive, but it jumped many of the hurdles. For one, it was much cheaper. I could produce ten 6×7 frames for roughly the cost of one 4×5 frame. Second, it also solved my storage issue by allowing me to shoot a whole roll and then mailing it out as I would any other roll of 120. But most importantly, it allowed me to shoot with slightly less anxiety over the cost of each photo I was taking. It overcame these hurdles while preserving many of the upsides associated with LF, such as slower photography and unique camera movements.
The other compromise I discovered shouldn’t really be thought of as a compromise. To make shooting LF faster and allow photographers to carry more film with them, Fujifilm introduced a technology called QuickLoad. The system is ingenious, but has sadly been discontinued. Essentially, rather than 10 or 20 sheets of film being loaded together in a classic, three part, light tight box, QuickLoad sheets came each packaged in their own light tight envelope. When ready to shoot, the envelope gets inserted into a proprietary QuickLoad holder at which point the film sheet is left to be exposed while the envelope hangs out outside the holder. After shooting, the envelope gets put back into the holder and is resealed with a crimped metal clamp. The advantages are that loading can be done in daylight and that a photographer needs only to carry a single holder and as many envelopes as they like, rather than multiple 4×5 holders loaded with film.
I thought that the QuickLoad system would be a fair compromise in allowing me to shoot 4×5 sheets but also ensure that I could mail out a sheet or two at a time for processing. It turned out exactly as I had hoped and I was only disappointed by the fact that Fuji discontinued QuickLoad back in 2009, and that the state of the aftermarket stock was dire. Moreover, as it turned out, the film I had was poorly stored and so the colors were all sorts of shifty.
Even so, with the advent of these more financially and logistically accessible methods, I finally felt ready to take the camera out — six months after buying it.
I’m torn here in thinking about how to describe my own experience shooting with the camera. One instinct is to describe the experience romantically. To explain how ushering yourself under the dark cloth is like an escape from your environs to see them from some critical, artistic distance. To tell you about the magic of composing an image upside-down and mirrored on your ground glass and how using the loupe to focus on a tiny zone of your image is somehow transporting. To say that the process of opening your lens, composing, focusing, closing your lens, setting your aperture, and finally tripping the shutter is meditative in the best ways. To verify that yes, front-standard rise helped reproduce the image I’d had in my mind’s eye, an image that I could never create without those movements.
My other instinct is to embarrassingly say that I just felt frustrated by those very things that make up the routine of shooting a technical view camera. Rather than being tinged with pixie dust, as maybe I had hoped, the routine was nothing more than rigmarole that stood in the way between me and making a photograph. I know that some of these feelings arose from my newness to the format and my relative lack of inspiration.
Maybe a few months from that point and several outings with the Linhof later, and maybe me standing on some inspiring precipice or vista overlooking the landscape I imagined capturing with this thing, I’d be happier. I can’t know for sure. But I can say that nothing felt magic for me like the other times I’ve stumbled my way onto a new outcrop, like the first time I ever shot with a film camera or my first time shooting with a TLR.
I sold the Linhof to a young photographer who in a few weeks has already produced better images with it than I ever did during my six months with the Linhof. I used the money to purchase my first Hasselblad, a 501c. Since then, I’ve finished multiple rolls with the Hasselblad and turned out some of my favorite images, including portraits of my best friend on his wedding day.
The truth is that while I felt that taking photography seriously meant shooting large format, it didn’t mean that. Taking photography seriously, for me, means producing photographs with a camera that gets out of the way. For me, these cameras are 35mm and modern 120 machines, often ones with an accurate internal light meter and AEL.
Various writers have written a few articles on this site about the idea that not everyone needs a Leica, and that we don’t need a giant collection of gear to be happy, and generally about GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome), but my conflict with large format was not exactly a conflict of wanting new gear or feeling that a certain name-brand would validate me. It was, instead, the erroneous belief that the next step in my life as a photographer was a step into a new, more “professional” format. It’s almost a truism among photographers that the format or the gear doesn’t need to stand in the way of a great photograph. Richard Misrach shot the cover of the 18th issue of Musée Magazine with an iPhone. And many of Joel Meyerowitz’s most celebrated photographs were shot with a 35mm camera on the streets of New York City.
Even writing this, there’s a part of me that’s bracing for backlash. For the comments that will urge me to give LF another a try, or the ones that will claim my not being enamored of LF are due to some inevitable failure of my own. I know it’s not exactly commonplace to talk negatively about medium or large format and it’s potentially even more damning to reveal my disposition toward at-home developing.
At the end of the day though, what I want to do is feel like the camera is an extension of my own eyes. When I’m shooting with my Konica Hexar RF or my Pentax 645N, I feel like I’m gliding over water. With the Hasselblad, I’m swimming. But the Linhof felt like treading water and getting tired real fast. That’s not the feeling I want when I’m photographing.
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