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.
Large Format Camera
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! https://filmcamerastore.co.uk/ 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). Buy used film cameras
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.
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.
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!
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.