Category Archives: advice for new photographers

A Step by Step Guide to Using your Large Format Camera for the First Time.

Large Format Camera

It might look archaic, but a large format camera can produce fantastic images with the equivalent of over 100 mp.

 

Learning how to use a large format camera can seem a bit daunting if you are used to using a DSLR. There is no automation, and the camera is literally little more than a light tight box. In reality, there is nothing inherently difficult about making a photograph with a large format camera. You just have to be a bit more patient and a bit more methodical. The main differences are ergonomics and speed of operation, the principles of photography stay the same. Large format photography is much slower than digital photography, or even film photography with roll film or 35mm cameras. Some would argue that it is almost a different art form, because of the way it forces you to work.

Before you Start

Large format requires quite a lot of equipment in addition to the camera, so it’s a good idea to have a checklist of all things you need, especially if like me, you share some of that equipment with other set ups. It’s easy to forget something like your loupe or rocket blower, and it’s a real pain if you do.

I have also written a guide to loading large format film holders

My Basic Large Format Checklist

  • Camera
  • Lenses as Required
  • Tripod
  • Light Meter
  • Magnifying Loupe
  • Cable Release
  • Film Holders
  • Dark Cloth
  • Blower and Lens Cloth
  • Notepad and Pen
  • Multi Tool (for loose screws or allen keys)

You can keep your list in your camera bag so you can get into the habit of checking everything before you go. I keep mine on my smartphone, along with an app for depth of field calculation, and one that works as a light meter. A handy back up in case I forget my incident meter.

Camera Controls

 

Large Format Lens

A Copal Shutter with a 210mm lens fitted. Nothing here is very complicated. There are no fancy modes, just a clockwork shutter and a fully manual aperture.

 Your main camera controls are all on the shutter that the lens is fitted to. This is a modern Copal No.1 shutter, but most shutters made over the last 50+ years have a similar layout. Never adjust the shutter speed after cocking the shutter!!

Your only two exposure controls are shutter speed and aperture, ISO is governed by your film choice, and set on your light meter. Your film holders should be labelled by film type and speed for reference.

Making your First Large Format Photograph – Step by Step.

Step 1. Setting up your tripod

Manfrotto Tripod

Before Setting up your camera, make sure that your tripod legs are properly locked. Large Format cameras are heavy and well made, but very likely to break if they are dropped! Periodically check that any nuts and bolts on your tripod clamps haven’t come loose.

Set up your tripod, making sure all the legs are locked in place. Fix your camera to the tripod, and attach a lens. Fully open up the aperture on the lens. Screw in your cable release to the shutter.

Large format photography is all about detail and resolution so make sure that you have a stable tripod to shoot with. Nothing is more frustrating than having sharpness-robbing vibration ruin your shots.

 

Step 2. Level your Camera

large format camera spirit levels

When you first set up your camera, use the spirit levels to make sure it is straight and level. This makes it much easier to adjust things later.

 Using the spirit levels on the camera to make sure it is perfectly level – vertically and horizontally.

It’s best to start off with a straight and level camera, making sure that all tilts, swings and shifts are also zeroed. Most cameras will have detents on the main camera controls so the zeroed settings will just gently click into place. 4×5 has very shallow depth of field, so an inadvertently tilted or swung standard, or a camera that is not level can give you strange focus issues. It’s much easier to start with everything parallel and perpendicular. Also make sure that once you’ve zeroed the camera you lock off all the controls. That way you won’t get tilts or swings moving while you focus or vice-versa.

Step 3. Initial Focus and Composition.

Large Format Camera Focusing

These controls are not the same for all cameras. Field cameras in particular may not have both front and rear focus controls.

Use your dark cloth and focus the camera by eye. You don’t have to use a magnifier until later. Then begin to compose the picture using the ground glass. Remember you can use shifts to recompose the picture, you don’t have to move the tripod unless you need to change your point of view drastically. Once you have done this, try to work out what aperture you think you will need. Take a light meter reading to see how much light you have to play with, and try to figure out how much depth of field you think you need. There are smart phone apps that will help you with this, and make the process much easier. Generally, large format photographers shoot at around F11- F32. It’s not a rule, but most lenses are optimised for F22. The widest apertures are mainly there for ease of focusing.  Try and use either F16 or F22 when you are starting off, it will be more forgiving of a beginner’s focusing technique. You can always experiment with shallow depth of field later.

Step 4: Refine Focus and Composition

Using a Focusing Loupe

Press you loupe against the ground glass to focus. Remember depth of field is thin so check everywhere you think you need to. Don’t assume that things you THINK are on the same focusing plane are actually in focus.

Use your loupe to check that the image on the ground glass is sharp in all the places you want it to be. It is usually best to focus wide open then stop down to your working aperture to check you have enough depth of field. It is as this point you would use tilts and swings to maximise depth of field. Tilts and swings are not that difficult, but would take up too much space to deal with them here. So for now let’s assume you don’t have to use them. Once you are happy with focus check the corners of your image to make sure there is nothing creeping into the edge of frame. One of the beauties of a large format camera is you can compose your images very precisely, so make sure you take advantage of it.

Step 5. Lock Down the Camera

Shift Tilt Camera controls

These controls are typical of the type you get on monorails.

 

Once you are happy with your focus and composition, lock down all the controls on your camera. Ideally, you should lock each control after you have finished adjusting it. That way you don’t inadvertently move any controls while adjusting something else. In reality, you may find yourself adjusting a couple of things at once, like tilt and focus, and will lock both down together once you have finished.

Step 6. Final Meter Reading. Set Aperture and Shutter. Close Lens.

Incident Light Meter

A light meter is the easiest way to calculate exposure. A DSLR is also good but is another heavy thing to carry.

Take a meter reading and make your final shutter speed and aperture selection. I tend to do this quite late on because I live in the UK and the light can vary quite a lot with shifting cloud cover. Remember you can damage the shutter if you change the shutter speed when it is wound on, so always check before selecting your shutter speed. Once you have done this close the lens so the camera is light tight and ready to receive a film holder.

7. Insert Film Holder. Remove Dark Slide. Trip the Shutter.

Large Format camera with Film Loaded.

The camera with film loaded ready to shoot. It is good practice to leave your dark cloth over your bellows in case of pinholes. Remember to periodically check your bellows for faults, especially before important shoots.

 

Take out you film holder and remove any surface dust with your blower. You can also tap the holder onto the palm of your hand to dislodge any dust on the film. It should fall to the bottom of the holder. Insert your film holder gently. Your camera should be locked down but it’s best to err on the side of caution in case something moves. Double check that the lens is closed and the camera is light tight. Remove the dark slide. You are now ready to expose the film. Use the cable release to trip the shutter in one smooth stroke. As an extra precaution some photographers stand slightly away from the camera to avoid causing any vibrations. If you are a portrait photographer sometimes standing behind the camera can help you judge the correct moment of exposure. Once you have tripped the shutter carefully reinsert the dark slide with the black (exposed) tab facing out. Put the holder somewhere safe and then check the ground glass to see that focus hasn’t shifted. At this point many photographers make another duplicate exposure for safety. That of course is up to you.

Congratulations, you have just made your first large format photograph!

If you have found this tutorial useful please share it and help keep film alive.

Look at of my large format photography

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Also posted in Analogue Photography, Brighon portrait photographer, Film Photography, Hints and Tips, Large Format Photography

Aperture Priority – The Best Shooting Mode for Wedding Photography

Aperture Priority Example

Control of Aperture is essential for making an image like this successful

“Real Professionals Shoot Manual”

If I had a penny for every time I had heard this in a photography forum, I could have given up wedding photography years ago and bought my own island. The sad fact is that photography forums are not really a great place to learn about photography. More often than not one or two ‘strong characters’ will voice an opinion and then their acolytes will repeat it until all opposition is crushed. Forums are more about clashes of egos than real photography advice, with one or two notable exceptions.  Often the best real world choice is worked out by photographers in the field, not armchair enthusiasts with an axe to grind. I have shot in manual mode only for prolonged stretches and I do still use it if that is the best option, but for wedding photography or anything where things can unfold quickly, I find aperture priority the best choice.

My Journey away from Manual Mode.

Like most young photographers who started shooting film, I was taught to shoot in manual mode and a separate light meter. I used black and white film and slide film. Slide film has a very low tolerance for exposure error so measuring light with an incident meter was a must. If you don’t know, an incident light meter measures the light falling on a subject and disregards its tone, so the reading is always accurate. In an ideal world this is the best choice, trouble is, this isn’t an ideal world!

I have always loved street photography, and it is something I have done for pleasure for many years, but more often than not the lighting conditions are not ideal. In many ways this was my training for becoming a wedding photographer. For years I shot in manual, mainly because I used a rangefinder (A Voightlander Bessa R) and it only had a manual mode. This was fine when the light was consistent but a total pain if it wasn’t. I would meter and set my camera up for sunlight only to miss shots in the shade or vice versa. On days with broken sunshine the light would be a constant frustration and I would have to constantly refer back to my meter. In the end I spent more time checking my light meter than I did shooting pictures and I knew something had to change.

When I switched to digital for my 35mm work I started to play around with my technique to suit the new equipment I was using. I found that the in camera metering was good enough. Most of the time, I could let it do its own thing and the exposures would dead on. I had enough experience to know when they wouldn’t be, and in those situations I would override the camera. I found that using aperture priority mode meant I spent more time looking for pictures and less time worrying about camera settings.

Aperture Priority

Aperture Priority (or Av Mode) – The Speed Of Auto, The control of Manual.

When I started shooting weddings, I found that my aperture setting was one of the main weapons in helping me turn the chaos of a wedding into beautiful images. Aperture choice is one of the main determining factors towards the look of a photograph, and use it to blur out the busy backgrounds that can ruin wedding shots. Weddings move fast, too fast for for fiddling around with your camera if the light changes, so a degree of automation is a real necessity. Here are the reasons why I prefer Aperture Priority over Manual in a wedding environment.

Most of the time it’s just not possible to use a separate meter.

If you a positioned at the back of the church during the ceremony and the light changes, you can hardly walk up the aisle, take a quick incident reading off the bride’s face and retire back to your station. If you are using the camera’s built in meter there is very little point in setting the camera manually when the camera would set itself to the same way automatically. If I feel that the camera has got it wrong I use exposure compensation. That way if the light levels drop the exposure will still be correct.

Aperture Priority gives me my main control over the look of an image.

Depth of field can have a decisive effect on the look of an image. F2.8 will look very different to F11. Once the shutter is fast enough to freeze motion you can’t tell the difference between 1/500th and 1/2000th so Shutter Priority mode does not offer the same aesthetic control especially as your aperture will change in variable light and change the look of the images.

Modern Camera Meters Are Good Enough (Most of the Time).

Modern camera meters will get exposure right 95% of the time, so not using it can almost feel like an affectation. Weddings are hard work and it makes sense to let technology help you where appropriate.

I Can Concentrate on Image Making not Technicalities.

The less I have to worry about technical concerns, the more I concentrate on creativity. Ultimately creativity is what people are hiring me for, so I make sure I’m not getting to bogged down in the technical side of things. I’ve some up with a simple way of working that I can rely on and I stick to that.

Events move Quickly, and I Need to Capture them.

I’m not a fan of making the bride and groom repeat anything. I think you can tell when something is fake so I treat every event at a wedding as a one shot deal. That means I have to think fast, be flexible and react to things as they happen. I don’t have time to keep fiddling with my camera, so aperture priority gives me the perfect balance of control and automation.

It’s better in low light.

I can often find myself at the ragged edge of low light capability at weddings. If things are getting tricky, I use aperture priority to decide what needs to be in focus in the frame and then adjust ISO to get a usable shutter speed. This way I’m always at the best ISO I can get away with.

 

In Conclusion (and some Caveats)

I have stopped using manual mode for fast paced situations, but one of the reasons I can use aperture priority successfully is I have enough experience to know when the camera is likely to be caught out. If you are a beginner or intermediate who wants to take his or her photography more seriously, I still recommend a prolonged length of time learning to use manual mode on your camera. Too often today, workshops and online tutorials try to persuade you that photography is easy and you don’t have to know the technical stuff. Well unfortunately there is no such thing as a free lunch, and understanding photography at its most basic is still a necessary grounding in the craft of image making. Aperture priority is a great tool but it is not a replacement for a good photographic brain. The real skill in photography is learning what to do in a myriad of circumstances, and choosing the best compromise to suit the situation.

 

Happy Shooting!

Toby

I work throughout Sussex as a Wedding Photographer and Portrait Photographer.

I try to update my blog every week with useful advice for photographers and clients. If you would like to be kept up to date, like my Facebook Page.

 

 

 

 

 

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Also posted in Chichester photographer, Hints and Tips

How to Load a Large Format Film Holder.

The need to load film in complete darkness is something that puts many photographers off large format photography. But it doesn’t have to be difficult or daunting and you don’t need a darkroom. Like most things photography related, being methodical and having a well practiced routine will make sure that before long, loading film holders is second nature.

Toyo Film Holder

Get to know your film holder

Like most things in large format photography, a film holder is not complicated, and the basic design is well over 100 years old. It consists of a flat, light tight box with two dark slides, covering compartments for two sheets of film. The top of the dark slide is colour coded so you can tell whether the film inside is exposed or unexposed. Most people use the white or silver side to indicate the film is unexposed and the black side to indicate exposed film.

_MG_8006

Pull back the dark slide and look inside and you will see two slots running the length of the holder. The lower one holds the film in place, the top one is for the dark slide.

Next become familiar with a sheet of film. Unfortunately the easiest way to do this is to sacrifice a sheet from your first box, if you are lucky you might have a friend can lend you a wasted sheet, but you might find a local large format photographer a bit hard to come by! Take your film box into your changing bag or darkroom, and take out one sheet in complete darkness. Close the box and then open your bag up and take a look at a sheet of film. You will notice that the film is notched at one corner, when the film is held with long side pointing vertically, the emulsion will be facing up when the notches are in the top right hand corner. The photo below shows a sheet of film going into the holder the right way.

_MG_7969

First practice loading your sheet in daylight, making sure the film goes under the film guides. Some photographers load with the dark slide completely removed, but I prefer having the slide pulled halfway out. Try things different ways to see what you are comfortable with. Notice as well that the white side of the dark slide is usually textured at the top so you can tell which way it is facing in the dark. Once you have gone through the process of loading the film in daylight, try repeating the process with your eyes closed. Try to get used to the feel of a sheet of film going in correctly and where the top edge of the film should be in the holder. Most holders have little dips and other reference points to help the process of doing this by touch.

Once you feel relatively confident loading your practice sheet by touch you are ready to load a film holder for real. But before you begin there are a few things you need to do.

Clean Hands.

It is very important to make sure that you don’t transfer grease from your hands onto your sheets of film or film holders. Dust sticks to the grease and it makes it harder to blow the dust free. Some photographers use thin rubber gloves but I prefer to make sure I thoroughly wash and dry my hands before handling films, and I have never had any trouble with grease from my finger tips.

Get Rid of Dust

The odd spot of dust is almost unavoidable in large format photography, but you can do your best to minimise its effects. If you have a changing bag make sure you vacuum it out before every loading session. Also make sure you remove dust from all your dark slides. You can use a combination of a rocket blower and a clean brush on most holders If they are particularly dusty I use lens cleaning fluid and a lens cloth and allow them to dry thoroughly.

A note on Changing Bags

A pop-up film changing tent.

A pop-up film changing tent.

 

The are two types of changing bags. The normal ones are just a zip up bag with two armholes, but the best pop-up like small tents do. I have used both types and I’ve found that small non pop-up bags are too small and have a tendency to make your hands sweat. Sweat from your hands can get on the film emulsion, making the film sticky and difficult to load. If you fail to load the film the first time your hands get sweatier still, your film gets yet more sticky, and the trickier and trickier the film gets to load . This can be a real vicious cycle in hot weather, and film can seem impossible to load if you don’t get it right in the first couple of attempts.

Loading Film For Real.

Set up you changing bag on a table or other flat surface. Make sure you can sit comfortably to load the bag.

Put in your film, film holders and if you want to, a blower brush and a pair of scissors. Try to always put them in the same places so that you aren’t fumbling around for them when the bag is closed. You’ll be amazed how easy it is to lose a blower brush in a one metre square changing bag! If your film box is new, cut the seals on the box in daylight before placing it in the bag.

Close up your changing bag, remembering there are usually two zips to fasten. and insert your hands. Open up your film box and locate the film. If it is sealed use the scissors to open the bag, taking great care not to cut the film. Once the film is out, feel for any cardboard protection sheets and remove them from the pile. Now orient the film so that the notches are in the top right hand corner as above. You now have a pile of film with emulsion facing up. Now load the film into the holders as you practiced, giving each sheet a blast with the blower once loaded to ensure no dust is on it before you close the slide.

Once all your film is loaded close your film box and check by touch that all the dark slides are properly closed. Remove your hands and open the bag. In daylight make sure all the catches on the film holders are holding the dark slides in place, and then load the holders into zip-lock or plastic bags to keep the dust off them until it is time to shoot.

The Wrap Up.

If you follow these steps you should find it relatively easy to load sheet film. The trickiest thing is probably the fear of getting it wrong. Film holders are easier to load than a plastic developing reel, and requires less space to do it without hiccup.

Happy Shooting!

Toby

I have been making large format film photographs for about four years. You can see some examples of my personal work here:

http://portrait.tobiaskey.com/film-photography/

 

 

 

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A Beginner’s Guide to the Large Format Film Camera.

_MG_7978Part One: Getting Started

Large format cameras are often thought of as difficult to operate, but there is nothing impossible about using them. If you are organised and methodical they are straightforward, if not exactly simple to use. Many photographers find the idea of using a large format camera daunting because we are all so used to having so much automation in our cameras. Compare a large format camera to a ‘manual’ 35mm film camera and you will soon see that there is a whole new level to manual when you move up to the largest formats. Most large format cameras are literally no more that an adjustable light tight box with film at one end and a lens at the other. There is no metering, nothing is battery powered. The only thing powering the camera is the clockwork shutter.  Despite this, working with these big old beasts is perhaps one of the most satisfying experiences a photographer can have. When I use my camera I feel a real connection to the history of photography and take great pride in being able to produce amazing images without any help from automation. This is ‘pure’ photography.

If you have ever toyed with idea of using a large format camera, or have just bought a camera and haven’t used it yet then this guide is for you.

What is Large Format?

Large format is generally considered to start at 4×5 inch sheet film. as the name suggests film comes as individual sheets that have to be loaded into holders. A process that would be be familiar to photographers 100 years ago. Large format film gives you two main advantages: The quality is unsurpassed, with images approaching or surpassing the equivalent of 100mp, and because you shoot single sheets, each sheet can be developed differently to suit the lighting situation you find yourself in. There are lots of sizes of sheet film some historical, like whole, half and quarter plate, others still available today like 4×5, 5×7 and 10×8. Of these 4×5 is by far the most widely available, and has the most options in terms of film type. Colour negative, colour slide and black and white film are all available, although the choices in colour are a little thin.

Taking your first Photograph

Unlike smaller formats there is quite a lot of equipment you need beyond a camera and some film to successfully make a large format photograph. The good news is that most experienced photographers will already own a lot of it, and things like dark cloths can be improvised from things around the house. With care you can put together all the equipment you need for a relatively modest initial outlay, and many of the things you need can be bought second hand and sold for the same money you paid for them.

Equipment Needed

Large Format Camera

Toyo Large Format Camera

This is a monorail. Cheap ,versatile and solid but heavy. A good choice for portraits and the studio.

To get started you should pick a 4×5 camera. The other two common sizes are 5×7 and 10×8 but it is more expensive, the equipment can be much more difficult to find, and film supply can also be an issue. There are lots of different choices from expensive, beautifully crafted field cameras to old studio monorails you can pick up for a couple of hundred pounds. Light weight is the thing that tends to cost money, and traditional wooden field cameras go for more than monorails. Monorails are often the better and more versatile cameras, it is just that you might give yourself a hernia lugging one into the wilderness. They are also not as pretty as field cameras and I’m sure that has an impact! I am primarily a portrait photographer so I use a monorail, mainly because they focus more closely (i.e. have longer bellows) and are easier to use once set up. Make sure the camera locks down properly and the bellows are light tight (shining a torch inside the bellows in a dark room is an easy way to check). Check as well the camera has enough movements to suit what you will be use it for (this is a complicated subject but their is plenty of information online).

Lens boards

One of the great advantages of large format is that lenses are pretty much interchangeable between any camera as long as your bellows will focus them. However a lens board is needed to mount the lens. These lens boards are simply a flat piece of wood or metal with a hole drilled in them to mount the lens. They tend to be specific to the brand of camera, and come in three main sizes Copal 0, Copal 1 and Copal 3. The common types are Linhof for field cameras and Sinar for monorails which are both copied across various makes and brands, although Toyo boards are pretty easy to find too. Some cheaper second hand cameras use difficult to find lens boards (hence why they are cheap). If you are looking to buy one of these make sure it comes with the lens boards you need to suit your needs, or the design of the board is simple enough that you can make your own.

Lenses

Generally almost all relatively modern lenses are good. As your first lens, I would recommend going for something in a modern Copal shutter from one of the main manufacturers – Schneider, Rodenstock, Fuji or Nikon. Your first priority should be putting together a reliable system, so that initial mistakes are easier to diagnose. Something like a lens with an unreliable shutter will cause you endless grief if you are not already confident in your skills as a large format photographer.  Standard Lenses are around the 150mm mark, but if you are getting into large format I will assume you are experienced enough to know which type of lens you want. Just multiply the focal length of your 35mm lens by three to get its large format equivalent.

Tripod

Virtually all large format cameras need to be placed on a tripod to be useable. This is not an area to scrimp on, as a wobbly tripod will cause you endless frustration with blurry shots. As potential resolution goes up, the more meticulous you have to be. Make sure the tripod you choose is strong enough and tall enough for the camera you choose. One good thing is no one wants humungous heavy tripods anymore, so they can be found second hand quite cheaply. Carbon Fibre is the Rolls-Royce option and very light and stiff, but there have been reports of these tripods blowing over in windy conditions when they have a field camera on them with the bellows extended. The bellows act like a sail turning your expensive wooden camera into firewood!

Light Meter

This light meter works as both a spotmeter and incident meter.

This light meter works as both a spotmeter and incident meter.

Most experienced large format photographers will use a hand held meter for establishing exposure, either a spot meter or incident meter depending on what they like to shoot. However you can just as easily use a DSLR and transfer the reading to you large format camera or get a light meter app on your smartphone. A DSLR is probably the best method when you are starting out as it allows you to ‘polaroid’ your large format exposure before you expose a sheet of precious film. You will probably find it better to overexpose the film slightly compared to the DSLR reading, but again I will assume you have some passing familiarity with shooting with film, so I’m sure you have your own preference.

Film Holders

Large Format Film holder

Check film holders have good seals and the dark slide is not cracked.

 

Essentially a light tight box that carries two sheets of film. You can usually pick these up second hand for about £10-20 each, make sure they are light and in good condition, otherwise you get fogged film, which is expensive and frustrating at this level of photography. If you are starting out you will find that 5-10 holders is enough. Modern holders are made of plastic and are pretty bullet proof, some older holders (40 years+) are made of wood and can warp with age, so be careful of this.

Film

There is still a decent choice of film available, the only downside is colour is significantly more expensive than black and white. In the UK black and white film is about £35-£40 for 25 sheets of black and white or £50 for 10 sheets of colour film. To start off with I would recommend Kodak or Ilford 400iso black and white film, as it gives you a bit more flexibility with shutter speeds and f-stops which will help you get sharp pictures when you start. Film and developing is the most expensive part of the process, but remember if you get everything right you can produce images that could only otherwise be achieved with a medium format digital back. A system like that will set you back five figures.

A Changing bag or Darkroom

Film needs to be loaded into the holders in complete darkness. The easiest way to do this if you don’t have access to a darkroom is to purchase a pop-up dark tent, they are about 3ft cubed which is enough space to load film relatively easily on a table in daylight.

Cable Release

Large Format Cable Release

The cable release attaches to the shutter to ensure you don’t vibrate the camera during exposure

 

A cable that attaches to the shutter mechanism so you can trip the shutter without moving the camera. These are relatively cheap to buy, that main thing to watch for is to make sure the release is long enough so you can stand away from the camera. You can also use your body as a shield to shelter the camera in windy conditions.

A Loupe or Magnifier

This is something you can spend anything between £5 and £200 on! Most popular when starting off are the 8x Agfa or Kaiser slide loupes that can be bought cheaply and will do the job.

A Dark Cloth

Without a dark cloth it is nearly impossible to see the focusing screen in bright conditions. If you don’t want to go to the expense you can use the double T-shirt method. Just put a black T-shirt inside a lighter colour one and use the neck of the shirt to fit around the focusing screen.

A Notebook

It is important to take notes when shooting with a large format camera. You don’t have metadata with every exposure, and it is a lot easier to make mistakes. Make sure you write down your exposure, film type and speed rating, and number your dark slides so that if you have a light leak you know where it came from!

The Wrap Up

Large format cameras probably offer the most bang per buck than any camera system. With a bit of ingenuity, you can put together a 100mp+ camera system for well under £1000, and be able to re-sell it for what you paid for it. It can also produce images that have a unique look that you can’t replicate with digital, and teach you skills that can be applied to produce excellent results in any other camera system.

My Adventure with Large Format Photography

I have been shooting with my large format camera for about 4 years. I saw a camera in a vintage camera shop and just fancied giving it a go. I mainly shoot portraits. Follow the link to see examples of my vintage girls portrait project . There is something inspiring in using methods that Victorian photographers would be pretty familiar with. In the age of digital photography I don’t think we care enough about the long history of film photography or the pleasure and satisfaction learning and using those skills gives us. I like to do my little bit to keep these skills alive. My main work in photography is as a wedding photographer and I can shoot 000’s of images in a day, so large format photography is a great way for me to separate the photos I take for my career and those I shoot for fun.

Toby

Tobias Key Photography

 

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Also posted in Analogue Photography, Brighton photographer, Brighton portrait photographer, Film Photography, Hints and Tips, Large Format Photography Tagged , , |

Stop Taking Selfies

What is a camera?

A camera is a window to the world.

An excuse to look at things more closely

To meet people you would never have met.

To go places you would never have gone.

A ticket to adventure.

A reason to get up before the sunrise or linger while the sun sets.

A tool to appreciate the world and all its beauty.

To find beauty in the youngest and the oldest face.

No matter the colour or creed.

A way to experience life in all its diversity.

So when you use your camera, use it to look out not to look in.

Stop taking selfies.

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Why Prime Lenses Help You Take Better Photos.

photography by Tobias Key

Havana, Cuba. Shot in the mid 90’s with Fuji Provia 100 film.

In the 70’s and 80’s if you bought an SLR camera chances are it would come with a 50mm prime lens mounted on it. When you buy a camera these days, chances are it will come with a zoom lens. Zooms offer the convenience of  having the equivalent of a bagful of prime lenses in one optic. So why then would anyone shoot with a prime lens? Let me tell you a short tale of an adventure I had in my early days with a camera.

A rather long time ago when I had just left college for the second time, I had the opportunity to spend a month in Cuba with my then girlfriend (now wife) who had been sent to work out there. Being young and easily swayed by the lure of the latest gadget I swapped my trusty Canon T90 for a bright and shiny Canon Eos 5. (The Eos 5 being a film camera not to be confused with the much later 5d). I also got rid of my collection of a about 4 prime lenses and replaced them with a standard zoom, and just a 50mm. Now as all you camera geeks know,  nothing beats that first rush of enthusiasm you get when you stroll out into the world with a new camera in your hand. I strode into Havana with my shiny new camera and a plentiful supply of  bulk rolled Provia 100 slide film ready to capture the the magic of this famous city.

I shot happily for a few days until the unthinkable happened. My zoom lens broke. Now of all the countries to suffer a  lens failure, Cuba is probably up there with the worst because of the American trade embargo. There were no modern cameras in the shops, just the odd Russian Zenit or Fed. So resigning myself to the fact that nothing could be done, I strode, slightly crest fallen, with just my lowly 50mm lens, back out on to the streets. Then a strange thing happened. My pictures got better.

I found that instead of limiting me, having only one prime was a liberating experience. In a few days I had developed a sense of knowing what the camera would frame before I moved it to my eye, I moved around more searching for shots instead of wondering whether I should swap lenses or zoom in or out. Because I had fewer choices I made more deliberate pictures and had a much better idea of what I was looking for. I shot smarter, more deliberate photographs. I would shoot for about 6 hours a day, walking everywhere shooting about a roll of film a day. 36 exposures a day seemed a lot then, but seems an almost laughably small number now when compared to what most people shoot digitally!

The trip was something of an epiphany for me. Instead of always wondering what an image would look like with a different lens on the camera, I was forced to really understand one focal length inside and out. That is the strength of the prime lens.

Selecting a focal length should be an aesthetic choice based on how you want to represent what’s in the frame in terms of spatial relationships and depth of field. In short, pick a focal length, pick an aperture and stand in the right place! Zoom lenses encourage you to be too static, to zoom in and out when you should be walking forwards and backwards. I carry zoom lenses with me on shoots, but usually only use them in situations where I can’t move around as I wish. Church ceremonies where I have to stand at the back of the congregation being an obvious example. I shoot with primes most of the time, picking the focal length that will give me the look I want and shooting at apertures that are beyond even the fastest zoom.

The Main Advantages of Prime Lenses

Wedding Photography in Bosham

Shot on a 50mm 1.4 in very low light. If I had used a zoom I would have had to use flash, which would have totally changed the lighting, or not got the shot. The wide aperture lets me separate the couple from the background, so it seems they are oblivious of what’s going on around them. The choice of lens goes a long way to making the shot

1. They let in more light.

Zooms might be flexible, but most consumer zooms go no wider f3.5 and are often stop at f5.6 at the long end. Very expensive professional zooms are usually f2.8. There are affordable prime lenses that go to f1.8 or even f1.4. In laymen’s terms that means that a prime lens could let in 16x more light than a consumer zoom at the long end.  That’s the difference between shooting at 400 iso and 6400 iso! If you like to shoot in low light, buying at least one prime lens is essential.

2.  Better quality.

A subject that many would debate nowadays, but not in terms of cost. A £200-£400 prime lens will certainly equal, if not better a £1500 pro zoom in terms of sharpness. It really is no contest when it comes to distortion, most zooms will have at least some distortion at the far ends of their range, as they have to compromise optical quality to get a few mm extra zoom range. Prime lenses don’t have to make any such compromises. A prime lens is like a shark, it can only do one thing but it can do it very well.

3. More Aesthetic Options.

If you like shallow focus and  great bokeh a prime is certainly the way to go. Most zooms stop at f2.8 –  things don’t really get interesting until f2! Once you have composed the image, the look of your photos is controlled by 3 main things. Aperture selection, focus point and  lens choice. Using primes gives you more apertures to choose from and makes lens choice more deliberate, you don’t zoom between a 24, 35 or a 50, you tend to make a conscious choice and stick to it. You’ll settle more firmly on certain focal lengths and know them inside out. You’ll be able to see a 24mm or 50mm picture before you’ve even put the camera to your eye.

4.Lighter Weight

Professional zooms are heavy. Much heavier than two equivalent prime lenses. If you are like me and can spend 8-9 hours shooting a job that weight can add up. Fatigue has an impact on creativity, and if you are doing something like weddings how long you can stay shooting without taking a break, and how tired you get has an impact on how successful your shots will be.  Reportage photography is to a certain extent a numbers game. You have to be able to work hard for long periods and be there when something amazing happens. Saving weight helps reduce fatigue and helps you work for longer and with more enthusiasm, it can also spare you from back and shoulder pain or even chronic problems brought on by carrying heavy equipment around the neck or shoulders for extended periods of time.

5. Mobility

Photographers who either use primes or cut their teeth on primes tend to move around more. You pick the lens you want to use (effectively deciding the look of a shot) and then move around to compose the image. Even with a zoom the process should be the same, select the focal length on the zoom ring then compose the shot by moving.  Except for most photographers it doesn’t happen like that. If I watch inexperienced photographers shoot, more often than not the zoom does the work that the legs should be doing, the classic example at weddings would be shooting a group of friends on the widest setting of a zoom. The people on the edge of the frame won’t thank you when they see their picture!  An important part of photography is developing and maintaining habitual skills. Primes help beginners learn the importance of being mobile, of not making the mistake of composing by zooming when you don’t have to, and by repetition ingraining that skill.

Of course there are some people that will say that you can do most of the above with a good zoom.

They will say the problem is personal discipline rather than equipment choice, and to an extent I agree with them. One thing I always try to avoid is solving technique or visualisation problems by spending money on something new. But to the same extent, the equipment we buy and how we use it will lead us down certain paths and ingrains habits that are hard to get rid of later on. Learning to be a photographer out in the field is about making good technique second nature so you do not make mistakes when the photograph of a lifetime presents itself. It’s like learning a musical instrument, the camera must be used almost without thinking and much of what you do must become instinct, a mode of expression rather than a machine to operate. My primary reason for recommending primes is they help beginners develop certain habits that will benefit them later on, so that if they choose to use zooms a the progress they are more likely to use them correctly. I also feel that technology and the focus on it can muddy the waters, people take photos not cameras, and simple no nonsense equipment will help anyone realise that they and not their camera are the prime mover in the creative process.

So grab a prime lens, get out there and make some fantastic work!

I’d love to know what lenses you love to use – so let me know in the comments section below.

 

 

 

 

 

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Also posted in Sussex wedding photographer, Uncategorized

Personal Project – Large Format Portrait Photography

Portrait Photography by Tobias Key

Simone, photographed in Brighton

 I have been working on a personal portrait  project for the past six months, shooting people in the vintage scene. I find the vintage scene intriguing, it reminds me of the rock-a-billy revival of the eighties and I don’t think it’s coincidental that retro trends tend to emerge from recessions. When times are tough I think nostalgia for simpler and more optimistic times increases, and the explosion of vintage fashion and events recently mirrors this.

I decided to work in a way I hadn’t before, partly for fun and partly to see if I could master the techniques that may soon be consigned to history.  I’d bought a large format camera on a whim about a year ago, and I’d always admired the work of the greats such as Avedon, Karsh, and Newman, as well as more recent fine art practitioners such as Alec Soth. I wanted an insight in to this most enduring of photographic methods.

I’ll be posting more images soon 🙂

 

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Also posted in Brighon portrait photographer, brighton, Brighton photographer, Chichester photographer, Chichester portrait photographer, commercial photography, Editorial Photography Tagged , , , , |

Top tips for shooting on the Beach

10 Top Tips for Shooting on a Sandy Beach

 

I always love shooting at the beach, I think it brings out a bit of summer holiday spirit in everyone.  West Wittering near Chichester where I live, is probably the best beach within easy reach of London, being golden sand instead of the more usual pebbles on the south coast. It also has good toilet facilities and and a cafe, important if you want to keep young (or indeed older) children happy.  These are my top tips for shooting on West Wittering or indeed any other sandy beach.

1. Safety.

Safety should always be your number one priority.  Always make sure you are aware of any potential dangers before you start shooting. If you are anything like me, once you start shooting you’ll be concentrating on the next shot and not the environment around you. For example, the beach at West Wittering has a safe bathing area marked by flags and patrolled by life guards, further down towards East Head there are strong currents and bathing is not recommended. Whichever beach you are at make sure you are aware of any potential hazards associated with it.

2. Take care of your camera equipment.

Obvious really but it’s important to do all you can to keep sand out of your camera.  Normally I set up my camera before I get on the the beach, so I don’t have to change lenses or memory cards in a sandy environment.  The areas that are worst for drifting sand are above the high water mark, where the wind will tend to blow sand everywhere, if you have to change lenses either go down onto the wet sand  or return to your car . If you want to shoot in dry sand East Head at the far end of the beach is better as  it’s much more sheltered.

Another top tip is to bag up your more expensive equipment with sealable food bags that you can get from the supermarket.  That way if you take your bag onto the beach you have a second line of defence – Sand WILL get into your camera bag.

3. Keep an eye on the weather.

I find the easiest weather for shooting on the beach is bright but overcast weather, it’s flattering, you can shoot in any direction without your subject squinting and the beach will be less busy. Sunny days are also great but it’s important you pick either early in the morning or late afternoon to get the best light.   Also it’s important to to make sure your subject isn’t looking into the sun and squinting, and that there isn’t any harsh shadows falling across their face.

One thing to remember is to not just look at the cloud conditions but also make note of the wind speed.  I lived only a mile or two from the beach and it’s amazing how much stronger the wind is on the beach compare to even a little way inland.  As a rule of thumb an indicated wind speed of 20 mph. will seem very strong in a beach setting and will severely impede you.  If it is very windy you can get some respite sheltering in the dunes, but you may want to admit defeat and visit another day.

Another tip is top keep an eye on the cloud formations to the west of you (or wherever the prevailing wind is where you live) .  If rain is coming this is where it will come from, and on the coast you can see it coming 10-20 minutes before it arrives.  I’ve done many a shoot where I’ve able to shoot between rain showers in this way.

4. Think wide – think details

Beaches are a great place for environmental portraits. Use a moderate wide angle to really pull in the surroundings around your subject.  Alternatively little ones love picking up shells and stones focussing in close to their hands give another great picture option.

5. Don’t forget the Sunblock

If you’re busy shooting you won’t feel the sun until it’s too late. Be warned

6. Time of Day

You can shoot successfully on the beach at anytime of day if you are careful, but the light is definitely best early in the morning or in the evening.  It is also quieter then which is an added advantage.

7. Tides

On beaches like the Witterings there is a big difference between high and low tide,  bear that in mind when you plan a shoot and plan accordingly.  There’s no point turning up to shoot on the sand flats when the sea is lapping around the top of the beach, if you wanted to shoot waves or surfers they are only around at the high tide.  The sea also comes in fast, often moving 10 or 20 yards up the beach before you’ve realised, there’s not much danger of getting cut off on this particular beach, but you could easily ruin anything you left on the sand while you were working. Make sure you know whether tide is moving in or out.

8. Light Modifiers

Reflectors are useful but vulnerable to the wind so you’d need an assistant rather than relying on a stand. Off camera flash in an umbrella would also be asking for trouble on a breezy day unless the stand was held down by a sandbag  or willing helper.  Remember some light modifiers are less likely to blow over than others and small flash units are easier to weigh down. Speedlights  offer less power than a studio light and battery pack but are more weather sealed.

9. Filters

I know filters are one of those issues that split photographers. Some insist on having one permanently on very lens they own whilst others fret that a filter would rob their lens of precious sharpness. On the beach you have the delightful combination of damp salty air and abrasive blowing sand to contend with. Sand in particular is hazardous not so much when it lands on a lens but when you try to get it off. Never try to clean the lens at the beach with anything other than a rocket air blower  unless you are certain it is totally sure it is sand free.  Personally I think a filter is the best compromise, especially if you are using expensive lenses. A simple UV filter is the best insurance against damaging a lens.  If you do scratch a lens don’t despair, small scatches do almost nothing to affect optical quality, but they do have an impact on the resale value.

10. Home Again

I have a set routine that I follow when returning from a day’s shooting at the beach.  The first thing I do is remove everything from the camera bag and then hoover the bag out. There is always a good teaspoon of sand hiding in the bottom of it, no matter how careful I think I’ve been.  Second I do a visual check for sand on my lenses and cameras, using a rocket air blower to remove any that I find, remembering to check the back of lens caps – the spring catches are a good trap for sand. Next I try the focusing rings for any sand in them, I’ve found that if you can’t blow the sand out, a piece of photocopy paper can remove sand from any joints, I don’t know if this is the best solution but it is surely better than leaving sand to wear away at mechanical components.

 

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Also posted in beach, Brighon portrait photographer, Chichester photographer, child portrait, Hints and Tips