Category Archives: Brighton photographer

Shooting Large Format Portraits On Location – A Hands-On Guide.

 

Large Format Portrait

I have been shooting large format portraits in my personal work for the last five years.

This is partly for aesthetic reasons, and partly to give myself a break from digital photography when I am shooting for fun. That is not to say that I apprieciate what digital can offer. I do, but using a view camera is very different. It gives me a new challenge, and a new perspective in how to approach the portrait.

Many photographers are intimidated by the idea of shooting film and the thought of using such a large and archaic camera. In reality, a view camera is a very simple device. There is genuinely nothing complicated about it, it is just a very well made box!

Each step in setting up the camera is simple. But there are quite a few steps and forgetting one usually wastes a sheet of film.

If you know your basics, and understand the camera’s strengths and limitations, large format photography straightforward, if not simple. Like any camera, there are only three essential controls, aperture, shutter speed and focus. For portraits, the only movements you really need are front rise and fall, and these are only to help composition. I shoot with a monorail camera and tripod weighing close to 6kg, and it is just not practical to compose using the tripod head. It is much easier to set the tripod straight and level and use camera movements to fine tune your composition.

What catches the novice out is not the difficulty of any particular step. Each step is easy. It is missing any of these simple steps out that often leads to a wasted sheet of film.

Large Format Portraits

Walking around a 40 acre site like the Weald and Downland Museum with a large format camera takes a certain degree of planning.

It was July when I got a press pass to shoot at The Weald and Downland Museum’s Living History Festival . I regularly shoot commercial photography for the museum, so I already had a good relationship with them. It also meant I knew where everything was and how to get there without having to wander around too aimlessly. One of the first questions you ask yourself when shooting large format is “How am I going to get all my heavy camera gear to where it needs to be to take pictures? Preferably without hurting my back or having a heart attack”. 

Getting from place to place

Working in a large open air museum is a challenge. The buildings are spread out over a 40 acre site, and most of it is hilly. Thousands of people go there at the weekend so you can find yourself parked a good few minutes walk from the museum proper. It is not so straightforward to nip back for a lens or extra film holders. 

Commercial Photographer SussexSet up and Gear

I prefer to set up my camera up from the boot of my car, attach it to a tripod and walk around with it like that. I pad one shoulder with my dark cloth so the tripod doesn’t dig in to my skin. Then I  hang my camera bag on the other shoulder. A back pack would probably distribute the weight better, but I do need easy access to my holders. My camera is a Toyo-View 45C monorail. It is more portable than a lot of rail cameras, but not exactly a featherweight. A field camera would be a lot lighter, but most lack the bellows extension I need for shooting close with my longer lenses. A monorail is also nicer to shoot with once it is set up. Mine has geared movements, and is very stable and precise.

I decided to stick with one lens, my Schneider 210mm APO Symmar. Not only is it my most used lens, it is also a spectacular performer in all condtions. I can honestly say I didn’t realise how good lenses could be until I got this one.

One of the essential skills of large format photography is knowing what to leave out of the accessories bag. I decided to stick with one lens, a loupe, and a light meter so that I could pack in as many film holders as I could.

I packed 15 holders in my bag, enough for 30 shots. The plan was to take two pictures of every subject I chose. Normally, I work in a way that I direct people until I think I have the shot I want, and expose one sheet of film. I then shoot another sheet which is usually a close duplicate of the first shot. When it comes to processing I split the two sheets into different batches for development. That way if there is some problem with exposure or a user error in the development process, I know that I have a back up of the image. Of course this does mean you have to label all your holders and keep notes. However, it does cut down the risk of disaster.

Approaching strangers to take their picture is something that a lot of photographers dread.

The great thing about using a large format camera is that it is a good conversation piece. People often seek me out to talk about the camera. If I ask to take someone’s photo, they are usually happy to pose for me.

After a hard day shooting,  it was interesting to meet another photographer at the end of the day and compare notes. He was telling me how hard it was for him to get people to pose for him, and how disinterested they were with the process, he was using a Nikon DSLR and profoto flash.

I had totally the opposite experience, the re-enactors were very interested in the camera and the whole process. They wanted to know how it all worked and the fact the method was so close to how a Victorian might have taken their picture had huge appeal. I had as many subjects as I could handle. After photographing each person I exchanged details, and made sure everyone got a photo in the next couple of weeks. I think this is a really important thing to do and helps keep people open to other photographers taking their picture.

Routine is everything when shooting large format portraits.

It is important to make the portrait making process as easy as possible for your sitter. I prepared by setting up my camera as much as could beforehand. So I set my exposure and zeroed the camera’s tilts and shifts. I also made sure that the camera focussed to about 10ft.  Even mostly set up, the camera is still slow to shoot, so a mastery of small talk is often a necessity.

Once I have everything set up, I get my subject to pose by standing next to them and getting them to mirror what I do. I then go back to the camera and I get my subject to look at the camera instead of me -you can’t look through a view camera once the film is inserted and people will instinctively look at me rather than the lens. I have found you have to be quite vocal when shooting portrits this way. You can’t shoot a lot of shots hoping that some magic will happen. You have to make the magic, then take the shot. Suprisingly, now that I am used to it, I prefer not looking through a camera when I am taking someone’s picture. It is easier to look directly at someone and really increases your connection with them. Different methods yield different results, and that’s exciting.

I would recommend large format photography to anyone. I have learned so much shooting this way and much of it is applicable to other formats. Changing your camera can often change your photographs, and there is no bigger change than a view camera.

Toby

I am a professional photographer based in Chichester, West Sussex, England.

See more of my Commercial Photography 

 

 

 

Also posted in Analogue Photography, Chichester photographer, Chichester portrait photographer, Editorial Photography, Film Photography, Hints and Tips Tagged , , , , , , |

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

 

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

Portrait in the Sussex Downs

Portrait Chichester

I was asked by a new magazine to supply this image for an article they were doing on country fashion. It is a photo I made a while back for a local fashion designer, but after negotiating a fee and digging the image out from one of my many archived hard drives I set about giving it a fresh bit of retouching and sent it off to the magazine. Which then promptly told me they weren’t going to launch after all…

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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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The Caseys’ Wedding – Brighton Bandstand and Fabrica

Brighton Bandstand Wedding

 

Sean and Amy got married at Brighton Bandstand which is a great summer venue for weddings. I got there in plenty of time, I have a morbid fear of the traffic and parking in Brighton and can’t really feel confident about being at a weddding on time unless my car is safely parked up with plenty of time to spare.  They had a beautiful late summers day for their ceremony. The wedding ceremony was performed by the registrars from Brighton town hall, and were up to their usual high standards they were friendly and  relaxed and really made the day feel special. Sean and Amy wanted quite informal photographs at the ceremony along with the normal family groups and with a bit of judicious photoshopping I was able to create a bit of clear beach for photo if the two of them in front of Brighton’s iconic but decaying West Pier.

Brighton Wedding

Fabrica Wedding

After group shots were finished the wedding party moved on to the reception at Fabrica Art Gallery where I set up a photo-booth for the wedding guests to pose with some wild and wacky props. I split my time between the booth and taking candid portraits of the guests as well as the speeches, details of the cake and the general decor, so needless to say I was kept very busy. I was very pleased by the images and enjoyed setting up and shooting the photo booth. It is not something I normally do at a wedding but it’s nice to shake things up once in a while.

It always great to shoot Wedding Photography in Brighton. The town has it’s own unique atmosphere, and is very different from anywhere else on the south coast. This is something that I think spills over into events there, it almost feels that I am at a destination wedding even though it is one hour from my house.

Toby

I am a full time Wedding Photographer in Brighton and West Sussex. You can see more of my work on my Portfolio Page and prices in my Wedding Packages and Investment section.

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