The crisp autumn air carries on a gentle breeze that brings the temperature down to what Texans call perfect. Birds sing a tune that seems to signal settling down before winter creeps into the south. The Paluxy River cascades with a steady rhythm and effortlessly glides over the rocks and echoes through the valley; millions of years before this moment, dinosaurs called this valley home. The scene at the state park known as Dinosaur Valley provides a peace that is enhanced by that which I’m using to photograph it.
The title says it all; I have decided to commit to shooting large format for one full year. My decision was made for many reasons, not least of which is a desire to challenge my photography skills, and my philosophy on the medium.
How Did I Make This Decision?
In my Nikon F article, where I wrote about returning to basics, I left one ominous question at the very end that seemed to only serve a purpose as a joke/homage to tv shows from the 1950s that would end on a cliffhanger. “Will James let us exclusively review large format gear?” Tune in next… article.
That joke question began a train of thought. Shortly after that article was released, I descended upon Polacon 2022 in Denton, TX to meet with instant photography experts and try my hand at using the Lomo Graflok with Instax wide on my Toyo Super Graphic. The process, even though it was all instant film based, created a stirring within me; a feeling of excitement mingled with discomfort, a desire to see my photography skills advance beyond any previous expectations.
After the instant film festivities had settled, I decided to buy the first boxes of sheet film that I’d bought in over a year. The film in question – a box of Kodak Plus-X that expired in 1983. This box was purchased from a local seller who’d kept the long-beloved film in the freezer since purchase. The excitement continued to build.
Since black & white is my primary choice, I quickly loaded four sheets of Plus-X into two holders, one sheet for each side of each holder. I packed my Toyo Super Graphic and lenses for a morning hike at Fort Worth Nature Preserve with my colleague Jason King. While at the nature preserve, my excited discomfort returned. Only this time, it was more concentrated and purposeful. I still did not know how to interpret it, all I knew is that I only had four exposures and that I needed to use them carefully.
After hiking and driving around for about three hours, I exposed three of my four sheets; that’s one exposure every hour. I was completely satisfied with this outcome and was overall feeling pretty confident in my ability. However, those of us who shoot film are no stranger to being humbled, especially those of us who shoot large format. Only one of the exposures I made that day was decent ; the other two were cases of what I call, “it looked pretty good on the ground glass.” I soon realized that my groove was something that I desperately needed to get back. Sadly, I was not able to contact Stella for advice.
Reuniting With Gear
For the journey of 365 days of sheet film, I knew I needed a more flexible camera. While my Toyo Super Graphic is a finely made piece of equipment, it possesses more bulk and less movement than some 4×5 bodies, and I knew that I would want more of the latter trait and less of the former. That is why I chose to reunite with a Tachihara field camera.
My very first large format system was a Tachihara and I absolutely loved everything about its movements, build quality, and overall looks; it was a natural choice for me, lighter on the weight, and more abundant in movements. I also cannot overstate just how much I admire the craftsmanship of a Tachihara. For those unfamiliar, Tachihara made all of their field cameras by hand from 400 year old cherry which was aged for a minimum of four years. This is what Tachihara put in their manuals with new cameras; their pride in craftsmanship and quality is greatly appreciated to this very day.
Next, I sold my 300mm f/8 Fujinon lens that I briefly mentioned in my Toyo Super Graphic piece, and purchased a Schneider 120mm f/8, a lens that was originally made to cover 5×7. The major benefit of this wider angle lens on 4×5 is the allowance of certain movements without suffering from vignetting like some other wide angle lenses.
With my kit rounded out, I also purchased a new f.64 backpack made for the large format photographer in mind, complete with two separate pouches strapped to the side that are able to carry five holders each.
The Philosophy of Large Photography
That was a lot of gear-talk. Why is the gear important? Different tools for different jobs. For example, point-and-shoot users want to keep up with the moment and enjoy the convenience of photographing with a compact piece of equipment. SLR users prefer to see what the lens is truly seeing as well as real-time depth of field before the exposure is made. TLR/waist level users want to be discreet and immerse themselves in the three dimensional world of their smaller ground glass. Leica users want the best in build, the unobtrusiveness, and simplicity of a quality rangefinder; which is why they undoubtedly turn to the Lenny Kravitz edition. (Just kidding Leica owners, someone needs to make the friendly ribbing around here.)
With all of these options in gear. there has to be some sort of method to the madness. If you’re like me, and truly desire to explore and grow and change in your photography, then sometimes madness seems to be the only method that makes sense.
From a purely practical standpoint, large format photography is madness. Composing an image can be a minutes-long process, as well as focusing, and if you’re waiting for the light to reach a certain angle, color, or for a scene to be void of any people, then you could possibly be waiting for hours and run the risk of not even making an exposure at all. Why would I or anyone bother with a method this slow?
I like to compare photography with drawing; both require countless hours of practice, both require the decision of color or black and white, both can be done with many media, and both require skills of composition as well as execution of the final image. In short, I equate large format photography to a painter bringing a large canvas to life with oil paints.
First Exposures with the Tachihara
Reuniting with the Tachihara field camera was like reuniting with an old friend. Everything was where it should be; the locks were in the right place, I could adjust the front standard movements while concealed by the dark cloth with minimal fumbling (still getting my groove back). That’s why I decided the best place to test a field camera was where I was for the intro of this article – Dinosaur Valley State Park in Glen Rose, TX.
With Plus-X loaded into some holders and a vision somewhat planned in mind, I soon found myself in the Paluxy River bed composing my first sheet. The 90mm f/5.6 used to expose this sheet was on loan from a large-format colleague. This exposure, in hindsight, is mediocre at best. Although, it is a little more acceptable than the exposure of the tree, which I will include with this article, which features a sizable lens flare that I failed to notice while composing.
Finally, my favorite exposure of the day – the statue of Rex, one of the park’s signature dinosaur sculptures. Fifteen minutes would pass before I clicked the shutter on this exposure due to third and fourth guessing composition. I was quite satisfied with this shot, considering that I setup for compositions at least five to six times that day, but decided to break down the camera and move on when I couldn’t fully commit to exposing a sheet.
Finally, my desire to improve my composing eyes, patience and overall a deeper sense of purpose. Last year, I was in a cycle of making photographs for other people and not myself. I’m positive quite a few of us have experienced this not just in photography but any field where your input is needed in order to create a vision. The last six months have been liberating. Relearning large format has made me relearn why I was fascinated with photography almost a decade ago – tell a story, send an important message or document life all without saying anything.
The biggest takeaway I have after six months seems to be kind of a rhetorical one; have patience and trust the process. This may confuse some and maybe even outright perplex others. However, what it really means is, trust your process. The only one who knows what they want from the exposure is the one operating the camera.
Ansel Adams referred to this as “the mind’s eye.” The key is to apply this Adams’ photographic philosophy to your own photography in order to create a process that only you understand and one that will ultimately help you create your vision and do so in a way where it eventually becomes second nature. I highly encourage everyone who has not exposed a sheet on large format yet to do so. Find a friend with a system that you can borrow, or rent one to test drive before buying.
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