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Large format photography. How I got started, and how you can too.

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I wish that I could say that my adventure in large format photography was some kind of masterplan. Large format was something I had always been interested in since I saw a Richard Avedon exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in about 1995. This was pretty much pre-internet so the only opportunity to see a photographer’ work was either by buying a book or visiting a gallery. I had a copy of In the American West but nothing prepared me for what I saw at that exhibition. The prints were from 8×10 negatives and they were huge. Group portraits printed so big the were using 4.5 foot rolls of printing paper matted together. Each portrait was life size, and even in black and white it felt that they could jump off of the wall and come to life.

I was instantly inspired to buy a large format camera, but chickened out of going to large format and stopped at 120. I bought a Pentax 6×7 that could best be described as ‘well used’. Large format seemed daunting, especially the need to load film in a darkroom or changing bag. My own experience of loading 35mm and 120 onto reels made me worry that I would wreck the film. I had long since either taken film to the lab or used a hire darkroom when it came to developing and printing. The standard Paterson changing bag was too small and the pop up type were exorbitantly expensive at the time.  I felt that large format was only really viable if you had a dark room or a least a room you could reliably black out.

What got me Started in Large Format Photography

Fast forward to about 2010 and I was mostly shooting digitally but still used my 120 cameras occasionally. I didn’t shoot 35mm film anymore, but I had always been a 120 guy anyway. These were the dark days of film photography when cameras were at rock bottom prices. It seemed really possible that film would die all together, but it was also the birth of a new wave of film photographers, who approached the medium with a new enthusiasm that would ultimately breathe the life back into it. 

So what made me get into large format photography? Well wish I could say it was part of a carefully planned artistic endeavour, but it wasn’t. I walked into my local used camera shop and there was a 4×5 sitting behind the counter. It was complete with lens, dark cloth and a couple of holders. It all seemed to work and the price was right so I just bought it on impulse. A ten year journey started on a whim.

How to get Started

The most important thing with large format photography is to not be intimidated and dive in. Just get yourself a basic kit and start shooting. There will be mistakes along the way, but if you are a reasonably competent photographer it is isn’t that difficult at all. If I was getting started now I would still recommend you look for a bundle of camera, lens and accessories. It always seems to work out cheaper than buying everything separately. But if you know roughly what you want to use the camera for and the lens or lenses you need then it is perfectly fine to buy everything individually.

What do you need?

This is what I would recommend to get started.

  • A 4×5 camera. Spend as much or as little as you want. Monorails are very cheap used but difficult to carry around, field cameras are generally more expensive but do hold their value if you want to sell them later. The new budget field cameras offer great prices but are more cheaply made.
  • Standard Lens. There are many different flavours of standard lens with focal lengths from 135mm to 180mm covering the 35mm to 60mm range in full frame terms. Any clean lens from the 50’s onwards with a working shutter will do the job, just pick a lens that best fits your budget and ambitions.
  • Film Holders. Plastic is better than wood, try and get the newest you can. To begin with 3-5 holders will be enough for most people.
  • Tripod. Hopefully you already have a decent tripod, if not you need one that will reach eye level without extending the centre column. If you buy a monorail you will need quite a hefty tripod to support it.
  • Darkcloth. You can buy a purpose made one or if you are on a budget use a black T shirt. Just stretch the neck hole around the ground glass.
  • Loupe. A cheap one is fine to get started. A good budget alternative is a pair of strong reading glasses (+3) from your local pharmacy or supermarket.
  • Lightmeter. A spot meter is ideal but a mobile phone app or a digital camera will do just as well
  • Spirit level. some camera come with spirit levels installed. If not, a hot shoe spirit level or short builder’s level is just as good.
  • Changing bag. If you don’t have access to a darkroom, a changing bag can be used to load your film. It is also handy if you travel and need to reload film holders in a hotel room or camper van.

What are the benefits of Large Format Photography?

The biggest benefit to me is that I enjoy working this way and I enjoy the results I get. If you are pursing this on a purely personal level that should be the only thing that matters. But beyond that these are the main advantages of shooting large format film.

You can shoot and develop one sheet at a time.

This is a gamechanger. It actually makes large format photography very cost efficient, because you never have to finish a roll just to develop some shots you are excited to see. It also means that you can match your development to each sheet and the conditions it was shot under. If you have a scene that is tricky to meter you can shoot two sheets, develop one and then change the development if need be for the second. It also makes it a trivial matter to switch from colour to black and white or slow to fast film.

Camera movements.

Camera movements are almost a lost art in the mainstream of digital photography, but once you understand them, you’ll wonder how you ever did without them. Everyone knows about shift and how it prevents converging verticals in architectural photography. What people don’t know is how useful they are in make fine adjustments to composition in both macro and general photography. Tilt is incredibly useful for maximising depth of field without having to stop down too far. But almost nobody uses it in landscape photography where slow shutter speeds and diffraction are constant issues for digital photographers. A large format camera provides all the movements you need in every lens you own, at an affordable price.

Works without batteries.

I am not a photographer who gets all sniffy about battery dependent cameras. However, if you are the type of photographer who does multi day treks or works in extreme temperatures then good old dependable clockwork can be a godsend. 

High Resolution at a comparatively low cost.

A 4×5 camera should be able to easily generate images in the 80-100 megapixel range and capable of better than that with the best lenses and finest grained films. Digital kits that produce the same resolution could well cost you high four figures, while a carefully put together large format kit could be had for under a thousand if you can get away with one lens. Yes, film is an additional cost, but it is spread out over a long time frame whereas with a digital kit you have to find a lot of money up front.

More Large Format Articles

A Beginner’s Guide to the Large Format Film Camera

How to load a large format film holder

How to use a large format camera

A Beginner’s Guide to Shooting Portraits on 4×5 film

Shooting Large Format Portraits on Location

How I got the Shot – Portrait of Mell

Choosing Film for your Large Format Camera

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