Category Archives: Hints and Tips

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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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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10 Tips to help your Group Wedding Photos Run Smoothly

Group Wedding Photo

Group wedding photos are one of the potential logistical pitfalls at a wedding. They normally take place between the ceremony and the wedding breakfast, and  involve a lot of different shots compressed into a relatively short time frame. If things don’t run smoothly, guests get bored, caterers start to get anxious, and it can kill the atmosphere of the wedding.

Ideally, all your group shots should be agreed with your photographer at your wedding planning meeting. I usually advise my clients to set aside about 45 minutes for group photographs. Most wedding schedules allow between one and two hours between the ceremony and the wedding breakfast, around an hour and a half would be the average. So if you allow 20 mins after the wedding for everyone to have a drink and congratulate the newlyweds, 5 or 10 minutes or so to corral everyone for a confetti shot you generally have a total of one hour to fit photos into. I don’t like to schedule all of this time as it is important to have a bit of leeway in case people disappear or are just difficult to round up.  I prefer to work pretty quickly and keep things moving. Your guests’ enthusiasm can start to wane as you approach the hour mark. Luckily there are plenty of things you can do to make sure this part of the wedding runs smoothly, and is enjoyable for you and your guests. These are my top ten tips to ensure group photos don’t become a chore that frustrates you and bores your guests.

1.Make Sure You Have a List.

The first step into making sure your group photos run smoothly is to agree a list of photos with your wedding photographer beforehand. Your photographer can guide you as to how long he thinks it will take and advise you if you have missed anything. If you are pressed for time in your wedding schedule the best way to make sure you run to time is to not have too many small variations in your list, or combine related shots into one larger group. For example, shoot bridesmaids and ushers as one group instead of photographing them separately. I always bring two or three hard copies if the list to each wedding. One for me and another for whoever is helping me round people up.

2. Start with large groups and gradually send people away.

It’s usually best to start off with the largest groups as people are easier to round up just after the ceremony, and less likely to have wandered off. Also guests tend to be smartest early on in the wedding, and loosen ties and take off jackets as the day goes on. Things like that can be hard to spot in a group of 120 people! Whittle the groups down so that immediate family and closest friends are last, as they are usually the most invested in having photos taken with you.

wedding photography in west sussex

3. Ushers and Bridesmaids are Best for Rounding People Up.

I like to have someone to round up the the next group of guest while I am concentrating on the current shot. This should be someone who knows who most of the guests are. So if I say I need Auntie Mavis for the next photo, someone who knows what she looks like can go and fetch her. That’s why it is best to get an usher or bridesmaid to be the shot wrangler, it makes things a lot quicker.

 4. Can People get Refreshments while they are Waiting?

Whenever possible it is better to shoot groups at the wedding reception where guests can get refreshments while waiting to be photographed. If I shoot group photos at the church I tend to work to a fairly short list and then complete them at the reception venue, especially in the height of the summer when people can be waiting around in the hot sun without access to water. This is especially true if you have older guests or small children in the wedding party.

wedding photographer in west sussex

5. Prioritise Older Guests.

If you have elderly family members at your wedding make sure they are photographed quickly and are not left standing around for obvious reasons. If you can make sure there is a place to sit nearby, so much the better.

6. Keep your Shooting Location close to the Wedding Guests.

This can be a real time saver. If the groups are shot even two minutes from where everyone is gathering it will take a minimum of four minutes to find that missing person or go and get a missing bouquet. This time can really add up if you are shooting 20 groups. Always make sure that your shooting location makes logistical sense as well as being nice to look at.

sussex wedding photographer

7. Make allowances for complicated family situations.

It is sometimes the case that a bride or grooms parents might be divorced or remarried. Often both birth and step parents are attending the wedding. In situations like this make sure your photographer knows exactly who is who so he or she doesn’t inadvertently cause offense or embarrassment. Sometimes this means shooting extra groups so that everyone feels valued and included, other times it just means carefully arranging individuals so no one feels uncomfortable.

 

8. If your list is too long – split it up.

There is nothing that says you have to shoot all of your group photos in one long session. You can just as easily break the list down and shoot groups at different times during the day. Groom and Bridal parties before the ceremony, family after the ceremony, and friends after the meal can work well. Breaking group sessions down into 10 minute chunks can make the a lot more manageable.

9. Make sure you have a plan for bad weather.

If you are unlucky and it rains on your wedding day, having a contingency plan will worth its weight in gold. You might be able to use an indoor space or have a decent supply of umbrellas, but having a plan will put your mind at ease. Nothing guarantees that it won’t rain on your wedding day like buying half a dozen white umbrellas!

10. Enjoy Yourself

I often tell my clients it’s my job to worry and your job to enjoy yourself. Do all your planning beforehand and then let the professionals at your wedding look after you, that’s what we’re all here for. From my point of view the happier the wedding party is, the easier it is to take great photos of them. Keeping you happy makes my job much easier!

 

Tobias Key is a wedding photographer in Chichester, West Sussex. My dedicated wedding photography website is wedding.tobiaskey.com

 

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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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My Favourite Photography Books No.3 Greg Heisler-50 Portraits

Greg Heisler: 50 Portraits

Gregory Heisler has been a top portrait photographer for 25 years, and has had his work published in such eminent publications as Time, Life Esquire and GQ. He boast over 70 Time covers. This book is a collection 50 of his best portraits,  but it’s not really a photographer’s monograph. It’s part storytelling, part technical manual with a little bit of philosophising on photographic portraiture in general. What makes this a great book is not so much Heisler’s gifts with a camera as his gifts as writer. Each chapter comes alive with his anecdotes about how he managed to get the shot. The fears and frustrations of being a professional photographer also come across, and he describes the struggles to get the picture vividly and without any sense of ego. Heisler’s writing has an infectious charm and a disarming humility.  The are lots of technical notes to, but it is not a dry collection of lighting diagrams, it is more accurately a recount of why he did what he did rather than how. This means that the notes aren’t necessarily for the novice, you’d have to know the basics of lighting to find them useful, but they are very helpful in describing the thought processes and the effort needed to produce work at the highest level. The technical notes are more of a jumping off point, a way of improving your own work rather that producing rote copies of different set ups.

Gregory Heisler’s work is notable in that his style is quite malleable, there is no signature Heisler ‘look’ . This makes for a interesting book because the set ups are always changing and the look of the photos is always changing. There are many photographers who have a look that they repeat consistently, but here the cameras and lighting changes to suit the subject or the mood to be conveyed, which gives the book a much broader scope. Heisler also comes across as quite a modest man and conveys the frustration and disappointments that anyone who tries to make good photographs feels, that barely repressed panic as you can’t get the shot you want and the recovery as you find something else that works and get the shot. That in lots of ways is the abiding experience of photography, trying to get control is a very elusive process, and sometimes the best and most meticulously laid out plans just don’t work. Heisler seems to have a an inexhaustible supply of plan B’s and a willingness to plug away until he gets things right. That is probably as good a definition of a top professional photographer as any.

 

 

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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 advice for new photographers, beach, Brighon portrait photographer, Chichester photographer, child portrait