How to Get Started in Large Format Film Camera Landscape Photography
There are few things that stir as much curiosity from passersby as a large format film camera unfolded and set up, complemented with a cameraperson slouching underneath a dark cloth.
Few remember the times when cameras used to look like this, and most wouldn’t guess that large format photography is not just an obsolete antique, but an important and growing field of contemporary photography.
This article will take you through all the basic aspects of large format photography and serve as both a guide and an inspiration to get started.
What is large format photography
In film photography, we have several formats or film sizes to work with. The most well-known is the classical 35mm wide film, which most associate with film photography.
With large format film, we step up the size considerably starting at 4×5 inches, with 5×7 and 8×10 being other popular formats. The larger the film size, the higher the resolution of the image and the richer the detail and tonal range.
A large format camera in its core design consists of a front standard with a lens and a rear standard with a ground glass connected by foldable bellows, making the construction very flexible and versatile.
Large format photography requires specialist equipment, and to get started, here are my top recommendations.
Large format camera
When choosing a large format camera, the first decision is always the format. Most who start with large format photography prefer 4×5 as it is more accessible and affordable. It gives all the benefits of large format photography but is still a relatively small and lightweight camera.
Large format cameras come in several different designs, and all work in a similar way; however, some are more suitable for outdoor photography.
A foldable field camera is specifically designed to be transported and easily set up in the field. One can either invest in a brand-new camera or find a used or vintage one.
Among the new cameras, Intrepid cameras stand out for their affordable lightweight design, giving you a great beginner-friendly camera with excellent controls.
I am using Chamonix, a beautiful, sturdy, and lightweight camera with a lot of controls for movements, and Toyo for its technical precision. New cameras are available through their respective online stores, and used cameras can be found on eBay or in vintage camera stores.
Large format camera lens
Large format lenses have a different construction from conventional lenses, consisting of detachable front and rear elements sitting in an external leaf shutter that controls aperture, shutter speed, and shutter release.
The lens is then mounted on a lens board, which holds it secured to the front standard of the camera.
The focal lengths of large format lenses do not correspond to the focal lengths of smaller formats. A 150 mm lens on a 4×5 format approximately corresponds to a 50 mm lens on a 35 mm camera, and a 150 mm lens on 8×10 corresponds to 24 mm.
For the 4×5 camera and landscape photography, I am using three lenses: a wide-angle 90 mm, a medium-wide 137 mm, and a closer 210 mm. For the 8×10 camera, my wide-angle lens is 150 mm, medium-wide 210 mm, and a closer 300 mm.
I have purchased all my lenses used through eBay and vintage camera stores.
One important characteristic of large format lenses that most never have to think about with smaller formats is the image circle. With a fixed camera body, the lens’ image projection must just cover the film or the sensor plane.
Large format view cameras are not fixed and allow the photographer to utilize a wide variety of movements, which means that there must be an ample margin for the image circle to be moved around the projection plane.
For 4×5 cameras, the minimum image circle to just cover the film size is 165 mm, and for 8×10, it is 330 mm. To take advantage of any camera movements, one would have to look for an image circle above those values.
Large format film
Large format film comes in sheets in light-proof boxes, and one works with them in total darkness. The film is loaded manually sheet by sheet into a film holder, and each film holder holds two sheets of film at a time.
Just like with other film formats, one can choose between black and white, color negative, and color positive film.
I am working with black and white film for my large format photography, and my favorite stocks are Ilford Photo Delta100, FP4+, and Ortho. Delta100 is a medium-speed ISO 100 film that offers exceptional sharpness, detail, and contrast.
Ortho+ ISO 80 is an orthochromatic emulsion, which means that it is not sensitive to red light, and it produces very sharp negatives with beautiful tones.
Both Ilford and other popular film stocks such as Kodak, Fuji, and Fomapan can be found online and in physical photography stores that have a wider range of film products.
In its essence, a view camera is a simple non-electronic construction, but it needs a few supporting pieces of equipment to make photography with it smooth or even possible.
A dark cloth is used for blocking out light to see your composition and focus on the ground glass. A good dark cloth should be light-tight and lightweight and be large enough to sufficiently cover your format. I am using dark cloths from Fred Newman and Wanderer Photogear.
Much like zooming in on the composition in a digital camera, a loupe helps to determine focus in the scene. The level of magnification one uses is mostly a personal preference, and I find that x4 magnification suits me best.
You’ll need a shutter release cord for your lenses, and I always bring a spare one, as they can break when you are out in the field.
A light meter is an important piece of the only electronics that you’ll need. I have successfully used several light meter apps on my phone, and it is a budget solution; however, a professional light meter is invaluable for getting your exposure right every time. My light meter is from Sekonic.
If you want to bring an extra dimension into your black-and-white photography, filters are a great artistic tool to create contrast and tone separation. I use color, gradient, and stopper filters from Lee Filters.
On a day out photographing, it is also good to pack rain protection, a small tarp to put your backpack and equipment on, and a notepad or a field book, where you’ll write down your exposure settings for each shot.
If you’ll be out for several days, bringing with you a small film-changing tent is a good idea. And finally, a good backpack to house your camera, lenses, film holders, and all the supporting equipment.
Research and planning
Location research and photo planning are essential parts of my workflow as a large format photographer.
A fully packed 8×10 backpack may weigh around 30 kg, and the better I know where I am going and what I want to photograph, the more time and energy I save on actual photography.
Using Google Maps and location photos gives a good understanding of how the location looks and what to focus on.
I keep an updated list of interesting locations and often use my phone to take previews of photos that I want to take with a large format camera.
A 4×5 camera is a much more portable option; however, it also benefits from good planning and location research as you’ll have only a few shots to take in a day.
Working with a large format camera
The best part about the large format camera is the number of creative choices you can bring into your photography. It is a marvellous technical tool that gives you unparalleled control over focus, depth of field, and perspective.
Camera movements of both the front and rear standards allow you to, for example, photograph trees without vertical perspective distortion, focus equally sharply on the foreground and background, make mountains in the background appear larger, or focus diagonally following the line of a fence.
With a large format camera, you’ve got tilt, shift, rise, fall, and swing, while some cameras allow asymmetrical movements as well. Learning and utilizing various camera movements is one of the most exciting experiences with a large format camera.
After unfolding your camera on a tripod and choosing the lens, you’ll work under the dark cloth looking for your composition with the aid of a loupe, and the camera movements will establish the plane of focus for the scene.
When you are happy with the composition and the focus, you’ll meter the light and set up the aperture, the speed, and cock the leaf shutter.
The film holder goes into a slot behind the ground glass, and you’ll remove the dark slide that protects the film before pressing the shutter release to take your photo. The dark slide goes back into the film holder to protect the now-exposed film.
The exposed negatives can be processed in several different ways.
It is very satisfying to develop your own negatives at home, for which you’ll need a darkroom space and some equipment. Some places have community darkrooms or rental darkrooms, and it is a great alternative if one wants to develop their own film and be a part of a community.
Sending your film to a lab to be developed by skilled technicians is a convenient option, and you will usually have it back within days.
When your negatives have been developed, you have a few choices to make with how to proceed with them – either a fully analogue or digital hybrid process.
For the fully analog process, you’ll need an enlarger capable of taking large format negatives to be able to make darkroom silver gelatine prints. Large format enlargers are difficult to come by these days, and one would need to keep an eye open for used equipment.
Intrepid offers a way of converting your 4×5 camera into an enlarger, and it is a great option for trying out darkroom printing at home. An alternative is to scan your negatives to a computer and print them on an inkjet printer.
Some people prefer a fully analogue process, which comes with pride in craftsmanship and satisfaction in hand-making prints. For other people, digitally scanning their negatives is a more practical option.
Most photo labs offer scanning of negatives, or one can do the scanning at home with a flatbed scanner like Epson.
Large format photography offers photographers several unique benefits and experiences.
Varied camera movements allow one to exercise a great control over focus and the depth of field, making it both a precise and a creative tool.
The beautiful film aesthetics bring timelessness into your work while making it also uniquely different in the modern world of photography.
And finally, there is perhaps no other type of photography that gives such an immersive experience. You look at the scene through a ground glass and it fills your entire field of view showing you not only what your final image is going to look like, but also what it is going to feel like.
The most celebrated landscape photographer Ansel Adams once said: “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” With large format, where so much is up to your craftsmanship and creativity, you are indeed very hands-on with bringing your unique vision to life.