Large format cameras are very simple yet very powerful imaging devices. If you are organised and methodical, they are straightforward to use, and have many very useful controls that don’t exist on other cameras. Many photographers find the idea of using a large format camera frightening because we are all so used to the automation in modern DSLRs. 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. Film held at one end and a lens at the other. There is no metering and nothing is battery powered. The shutter is clockwork and focusing and aperture are set by hand. 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 virtually consigned to history 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 becoming 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. With care you can put together all the equipment you need for a relatively modest initial outlay. Many of the things you need can be bought second hand and sold for the same money you paid for them later on if you need to upgrade.
Large Format Camera
To get started you should pick a 4×5 camera. Other sizes of camera like 5×7 and 10×8 are available, but they are 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. Portability, light weight and stability are the things that tend to cost money. 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 there is plenty of information online).
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 each lens needs a lens board to mount the lens on the camera. These lens boards are 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. Various makes and brands adopted them as their standard, so they are the easiest to find. 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 to suit your needs, or the design of the board is simple enough that you can make your own.
Generally speaking, almost all relatively modern lenses are excellent. As your first lens, I would recommend going for something in a modern Copal or Compur shutter from one of the main manufacturers. They are Schneider, Rodenstock, Fuji and Nikon. Your first priority should be putting together a reliable system, so that initial mistakes are easier to diagnose. A poor 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.
Virtually all large format cameras need 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 you can buy them 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!
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 your large format camera. Alternatively, get a light meter app on your smartphone. A DSLR is probably the best method when you are starting out. 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. Again I will assume you have some passing familiarity with shooting with film, so I’m sure you have your own preference.
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 tight and in good condition, or risk fogged or scratched film. Damaged film 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 plastic and are pretty bullet proof. Some older holders (50 years+) are made of wood and can warp with age, so be careful of this.
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. Colour is £60 for 10 sheets. To start off with, I would recommend Kodak or Ilford 400iso black and white film. Ideally one you are already familiar with. 400 speed film gives you a bit more flexibility with shutter speeds and f-stops. This makes it easier to 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 will produce images that only a medium format digital back can get close to. A system like that will set you back five figures.
A Changing bag or Darkroom
Film is loaded into the holders in complete darkness. The easiest way to do this if you don’t have 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.
A cable that attaches to the shutter mechanism so you can trip the shutter without moving the camera. These are relatively cheap to buy. The main thing to watch for is to make sure the release is long enough. It helps avoid shake if 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 Kaiser slide loupes. They cost about £12 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. Then use the neck of the shirt to fit around the focusing screen.
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. If you have a light leak or other problem 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. Buy carefully and you can re-sell it for what you paid for it. It can also produce images with a unique look that you can’t replicate with a digital system. On top of that, it will teach you skills that improve your work with any other camera.
My Adventure with Large Format Photography
I have been shooting with my large format camera for about 4 years. A monorail kit in a vintage camera shop caught my eye and I just fancied giving it a go. On the whole I shoot portraits, but I do shoot architecture and landscapes as well . Follow the link to see examples of my large format portraits. 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 experience the pleasure and satisfaction learning and using the skills it 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 thousands 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.
Some more links for large format photography