It’s been an exciting, instant filled week. While I take a break from 35mm film, I made a foray back into large format with a Toyo Super Graphic that came bundled with three lenses and three film holders. As the title of the article suggests, no 4×5 sheet film was actually shot this week. That’s for another time. No, my return to the large format world began much differently this go around; you could say that I was instantly hooked again, pun obviously intended.
The Camera and Lenses
Alright gear heads, I hope you’re ready; there’s a bit to go through before we reach the central theme of this piece. I’ll start first with the camera.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “I don’t remember a Toyo Super Graphic, only the Graflex Super Graphic.” You wouldn’t be shamed by many people. Toyo purchased the manufacturing rights of the Super Graphic from Singer/Graflex in the early 1970s, with the earliest Toyo versions being produced in late 1973 and early ’74.
The camera body itself is just about the same as its older Graflex brother. They even share most of the same features; a revolving back, electronic shutter release for handheld use, rangefinders with interchangeable cams, and front standard swing. There is also what is called a flash computer, but from what I’ve been able to gather, it amounts to a calculator that resides at the top of the body to aid in flash metering.
Both the Graflex and the Toyo require an odd ball 22.5 volt battery for the electronic shutter release. I didn’t use it because I’m not enough of a mad man to use this camera handheld.
What lenses did I pair with this unstoppable force? I was extremely lucky to purchase this camera with three magnificent lenses, all three of which saw use over this last week.
First, the nifty fifty and the widest focal length of the three, a Nikkor-W 150mm f/5.6. For the uninitiated, calculating the 35mm equivalent of a 4×5 lens is quite easy, simply divide the focal length of the 4×5 lens by 3, and that is your 35mm focal length equivalent. This method is used to determine if you’re using a wider angle or more telephoto lens. Since the first lens in the trio is 150mm, divide that by three, and you get 50mm, which is arguably the most standard focal length in the 35mm format.
Next in the lineup is another Nikkor-W lens, the 210mm f/5.6. The optical formula of both of these large Nikkors is comprised of six elements in four groups. A simple, yet effective formula that we have seen in Nikon’s 35mm glass. Aperture diaphragms on both are comprised of seven blades. Both lenses stop all the way down to a minuscule f/64, a favorite of large format pioneers Ansel Adams and Group f/64.
The 150mm lens takes 52mm filters which is also the same size as my 35mm lens filters. This is an incredible upside since I won’t have to worry about investing in a set of filters for at least one of my 4×5 lenses.
Finally, to round out the lineup is a Fujinon T 300mm f/8. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find much information about this lens. The few various forums that I read that even make mention of this lens just write it off as decent. Which is kind of a shame because the portraits I made with this lens were incredibly sharp stopped down, soft at the edges wide open, and even made for a great lens for architecture and detail work. Once again, longer focal length lenses not getting the love and credit they deserve; where have I heard this before?
The next item on the list, what film did I use? Well, since pack film has rode off into the sunset, Polaroid is not doing Polaroid things (deciding instead to create Bluetooth speakers), and wet plate collodion is chemistry class with a camera, I used the next best thing we have available – a Lomo Graflok Instax Wide back and Fuji Instax Wide film.
This might be blasphemous to the die hard instant shooters, but Instax Wide on 4×5 is near pack film quality. Before I’m banished from all instant film circles, let me plead my case.
Instax Wide doesn’t usually come to mind when discussing the greatest of the instant films. You usually hear mentions of the various Fuji FP series. Polaroid made its name with SX70, 669, and the multitude of consumer film for which it was world famous. Not to mention, the large format peel apart, namely 4×5 and 8×10. Ansel Adams, as well as many professional photographers loved this instant tool as a means of checking lighting, composition, and a print as well as a negative to use as a reference or a print on its own. Instax Wide has the ability to take the place of those once beloved instant greats.
Lomography graced us large format nerds with the Lomo Graflok Instax Wide back to use on cameras with what’s called a “Graflok” back, otherwise known as a camera with a Graflex style film back. Since my new Toyo is a Japanese Graflex, this makes it perfect for this use.
My experience with Instax Wide on 4×5 has been nothing short of refreshing and humbling. It reminded me that large format is nothing to rush and that a simple mistake can cost an exposure. Since Instax is readily available and significantly cheaper than sheet film, I had no qualms with making a mistake on Instax. After all, it’s all apart of the process.
The quality of Instax Wide is wonderful. The color film brings vibrancy, pastel if over-exposed just a touch, and the process of watching the image slowly come to life makes even the most casual of instant film shooters smile ear to ear.
Instax Wide is very capable at 800 iso which means you can shoot in broad daylight at f/32 or in low light, so long as you meter for your highlights or shadows. Unfortunately, latitude is not this instant film’s middle name. You need to meter for shadows and let the highlights be eradicated or meter for the highlights and let the shadows fall into Mariana’s Trench. There’s hardly an in between. You can do what I did and play around with over or under exposing by a third or two since the apertures on large format lenses are de-clicked which allows for more precise control of exposure.
In case you were wondering about my metering process, I use a Pentax Spotmeter V. As simplistic as it may be, this meter does exactly what I need it to do and that’s about it. Most of these new meters are a bit too space age for my taste.
Finally, the main event. I acquired my new 4×5 at peculiar time; one week before Polacon 7. For the non-instant shooters, Polacon is an annual convention that takes place in Denton, TX. It’s everything you think it is – photographers who are passionate about the instant film process gather for photo walks, print sales and trades, talks, presentations, comparing notes, lamenting about instant film’s recent discontinuations, and of course, all of the instant photographs.
To prepare, I borrowed the Lomo Graflok back from a good photographer friend (thanks Jen!) and quickly learned my process for using such a method of shooting.
This year would be my first attending Polacon, so what better way to do it than by attending a morning photo walk on day two of the convention? I showed up with my Super Graphic on the tripod and was quickly met with smiles and greetings. Everyone was welcoming, enthusiastic, and ready to get the instant photos underway.
All instant film types were present, Polaroid 600, SX70, I-type, Polaroid Go, Duochrome, Fuji pack film, and even 8×10 Polaroids! It was truly a sight to behold. However, there were some bittersweet undertones the more I talked to various people. Perspectives ranged from all over as the people I talked to were from various states, Minnesota, California, Florida, other parts of Texas, and so on. That’s right, this instant film convention attracts people from far and wide. Which is a beautiful thing, but the more and more I talked to these various people from different walks of life, they all had the same concerns – how much longer is instant film going to be around? Kind of a buzz kill at a convention celebrating instant photographs, but a valid question nonetheless.
One simply can’t put into words the passion everyone had not just about instant film, but the raw process of photography it involves. Instant film isn’t the sharpest, the latitude is not great, and sometimes, it down right looks kind of terrible if the exposure just isn’t absolutely perfect. None of that matters here. This was an interesting perspective and a refreshing one to embrace since I always second, third, and fourth guess about my compositions and exposures, especially on large format.
At one point or another, we’ve all experienced snobbery to some degree at a photo walk or meet up; usually a Leica with a persona attached to it. Those Lenny Kravitz Editions are especially guilty. No such snobbery was present at Polacon. Cameras of all shapes, brands, and colors were snapping and clicking away. Images printing out left and right, portraits being taken every couple of minutes. Never have I experienced such a joyous gathering.
The Future of Instant Photography
You may think that since there is a growing convention here in Texas, that should bode well for the future of instant photography. Well, this is where things become a bit pessimistic. Let’s recap how we got here starting with the formation of The Impossible Project.
Impossible Project was formed by ten former employees of Polaroid in October of 2008 who were able to save the last Polaroid production plant in the Netherlands. The goal of this team was to reinvent materials for old Polaroid cameras. A task that was deemed “seemingly impossible” hence the name of the project.
It was announced in March of 2010 that Impossible was successful in recreating a monochromatic film for certain cameras, a success no one saw coming. Just one year before, in 2009, Fuji announced a discontinuation of FP100B, FP400B, and FP500B with shipments concluding in March of that year. In September of 2011, FP3000B45, the 4×5 version of its famous high speed black and white peel apart film was discontinued with all 4×5 instant pack film being discontinued by 2013. On February 29, 2016, an infamous day to instant film shooters, Fuji announced the discontinuation of FP100C, officially putting the nail in the coffin for the beloved pack film.
That was a condensed version of a long, painful timeline of events, but here we are in 2022. Instant film is still around, Fuji pack film sells for absurd amounts on the internet with expiration dates varying wildly, averaging $150 for a pack of 10 instant photos.
Polaroid markets itself as a lifestyle brand, most recently releasing Polaroid Music, a Bluetooth speaker for which no one was jonesing.
Impossible reached out to Fuji about purchasing one of the machines used to keep the fabled pack film afloat and Fuji essentially told them to kick rocks. Those machines have since been repurposed (more likely sold for scrap) to make cosmetics, which is the primary source of profit for Fuji outside of its digital cameras and Instax film. From what most people have heard whether it be word of mouth or internet conjecture, Fuji is only making pro grade and consumer 35mm and 120 film in the 21st century out of tradition for the absolute die hard photographers.
Just a couple months ago, I acquired a pack of FP100C and FP3000B and put them through my Mamiya RB67 equipped with the Polaroid back. It was a fun, rewarding experience and a way to loosen up and keep the photo-creating process intact without having to burn film that needs to be handled in absolute darkness when developing.
I gave most of my instant pack film prints away, which for some is heresy, but I did that because it excited onlookers to watch me peel apart these two thin pieces of paper and see a vibrant image come to life right before their very eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I get as excited as the next person about peel apart film, but it’s an experience that the uninitiated will remember for a long time. They don’t know the heartbreak of the discontinuation.
I implore anyone reading this who has an abundance of pack film stored away in their freezer to do one simple thing: load that film into your holder and shoot it. You are not doing that film any good by keeping it in your freezer or fridge. It’s already gone. I’ve made my peace by giving away most of my 100C and 3000B prints. The smiles on those strangers faces are worth more than what that instant film could have brought me personally.
I wasn’t around during pack film’s heyday, I was fumbling around with a Sony A6000 at that point. I understand that many people have made memories with pack film and want to extend the supply for that much longer. The more you attempt to extend the supply, the longer you keep it in that arctic dungeon, the less likely that film will look like what you remember. Life is already short, just shoot your pack film and cherish the memories you make while doing so. When it’s all said and done, not only will you have the memories, but you will also have some priceless photographs. Is that not why we love instant photography?
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Excellent article and nice to see photos of Denton, my old hometown.