Learning how to use a large format camera can seem a bit daunting if you are accustomed to using a modern digital camera. There is no automation to help you, and the layout and variety of controls is very different from what most photographers are familiar with. 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 in the ergonomics and speed of operation, the principles of photography stay the same, whatever the camera.
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 you share some of that equipment with other set ups. It’s easy to forget something like your loupe or dust 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
- Lenses as Required
- Light Meter
- Magnifying Loupe
- Cable Release
- Film Holders
- Dark Cloth
- Blower brush 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 handheld meter.
Money Saving Tips
Professional darkcloths can be quite expensive, so a way to make one cheaply is to take a black T shirt and attach it to the camera with the neck hole.
If you don’t have a loupe a pair of strong supermarket reading glasses can work well and are surprisingly good quality
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
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. Make sure that you have a stable tripod to shoot with. Nothing is more frustrating than sharpness-robbing vibration ruining your shots.
Step 2. Level your Camera
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. Many cameras will have detents on the main camera controls so the zeroed settings will just gently click into place. If the camera doesn’t have detents on some controls, there are usually little arrows to line up instead. 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.
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 rise, fall or shifts to refine your composition. You don’t have to move the tripod unless you need to change your point of view drastically.
Step 4: Fine Focus and Check Depth of Field
Once you have set up your camera either focus on your subject, or if you are photographing a landscape a good starting point is to focus about one third of the way into the scene. Now is the time to stop down the lens. The normal working apertures on 4×5″ are between f16 and f32. This may seem small compared to full frame but diffraction in 4×5 isn’t really noticeable until f64.
It is at this point you would use tilts and swings to maximise depth of field if stopping down by itself isn’t enough. Tilts and swings are not that difficult, but would take up too much space to deal with them here. Follow this link if you want to know more about camera movements. 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
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 practice, you may find yourself adjusting a couple of things at once, like tilt and focus. In that case, lock both down together once you have finished.
Step 6. Final Meter Reading. Set Aperture and Shutter. Close Lens.
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 shutter so the camera is light tight and ready to receive a film holder. It is a good habit to test fire the shutter a few times at this point, just to warm up the mechanism and check everything is working.
7. Insert Film Holder. Remove Dark Slide. Trip the Shutter.
Take out you film holder and remove any surface dust with your blower. You can also tap the bottom of your 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 while keeping your thumb on the back of the spring back so you don’t open it inadvertently. 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!
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