Category Archives: Film Photography

Olympus XA – Stealthiest Ever Film Camera?

Olympus XA

The Olympus XA with a roll of film to show scale. I triumph of camera design, it is hard to imagine how you could make a 35mm camera smaller than this one.

The Olympus XA is compact rangefinder camera with a built-in 35mm f2.8 lens. It is probably the smallest rangefinder camera ever made and a masterpiece of camera design. Launched in 1979, it was designed by   Yoshihisa Maitani, the genius behind all of the Olympus’s great cameras, the Pen F, the OM1 and the XA itself.

The philosophy was simple. The Olympus XA was designed as a camera you could always have with you. It is small, about the same size as a pack of cigarettes, yet has a bright prime lens, a rangefinder and full control over the aperture. Instead of a lens cap it introduced the clamshell design. Slide open the clamshell cover and the camera is powered on and ready for action.

I came across the Olympus XA in a secondhand camera shop quite by chance. I was looking for a cheap compact camera for my daughter’s French trip and came across this camera among the more ubiquitous fully automated zoom compacts that seem to be in every charity shop and car boot sale. I am very instinctive when it comes to cameras. My first test is pick a camera up and hold it to my eye. Before everything else I think a camera should feel good in the hand. The XA is small but handles well, it feels solid and the controls come easily to hand.

Olympus XA

I took my Olympus XA to wedding I shot in the summer to test it out. Just kept it in my suit pocket and brought out when I saw something that might make a good black and white photo. Most of the time I never even knew it was there.

The Olympus XA has lots of  great advantages for street photography.

  • You can access the aperture controls and the focussing tab while the camera is off, and it is easy to set them without looking at them. This means you can set the camera before you bring it to you eye, a big plus if you want to work fast and be extra stealthy. Being manual focus you can also zone focus the camera for optimum speed
  • The camera is  extremely quiet, helped by the fact that it isn’t full of whirring electric motors that most later compact cameras have. ISO is set manually, so pushing or pulling your film is straightforward, and there is a +1.5 backlight compensation and self timer lever in the base.
  • Best of all this camera is so small and light you can put it in your coat pocket and forget it is there until you need it. It is as close as you can get to smartphone convenience in a film camera.

    I've tried shooting the Olympus XA in low light to see how easy it was to hand hold at slower shutter speeds. It is also supremely quite unimposing which makes it great for candid work.

    I’ve tried shooting the Olympus XA in low light to see how easy it was to hand hold at slower shutter speeds. It is also supremely unimposing which makes it great for candid work.

 

Often overlooked by more brand conscious photographers, the Olympus XA is still relatively cheap. You can pick one up for £50-£70 on Ebay, whereas many other premium compacts attract much higher prices in the used market. This is especially true of the Contax T series and the Ricoh GR’s. Both these models can go for over £200, sometimes nearer £300. Problem is these cameras are often not repairable now if they go wrong so buying one is always a risk. Price of compacts often has more to do with how fashionable or collectible the camera is rather than how capable, particularly in the case of some favoured lomography cameras, and compacts used by famous (or infamous) photographers. Olympus XA’s are cheap enough that it won’t be quite so painful if the camera breaks down, and common enough that it is relatively easy to find another.

Of course it doesn’t matter if a camera is cheap if the photos it produces are sub par. Luckily the optics in the XA are very good, and certainly capable of excellent results. The combination of features is excellent. There are no gimmicks, just things real photographers will find really useful. Best of all this is one of the few cameras that will genuinely fit into a coat or trouser pocket, and looks so unimposing no-one will give you a second glance.  More often than not people have thought I was using a disposable camera because of the film advance wheel. The best camouflage for a photographer is not to be taken seriously and the XA’s size leads most people to dismiss it. Those of us who have been lucky enough to use one and see the results know better.

 

 

 

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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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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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