Go Big or Go Home…

Some thoughts on the Large Format Experience.

“You’re not buying one of those old Victorian cameras are you?” my wife said when I told her I was going to buy a Large Format field camera. “Where you put the rug over your head??”. “Yes darling.” She made me feel a tad idiotic (a regular occurrence I must add).

GAS (Gear Acquisition Syndrome)* is something I have tried to avoid by shooting film. I like my camera to have that forever feel about it. However saying that I do find myself with Leica, Nikon and Contax camera systems. Price-wise, you can buy cheaper film cameras compared with digital - so this means I have quite a lot of choice. Although I still felt like something was missing… *(Must… try… harder…)

After shooting 35mm for a number of years I was always fascinated by the higher resolution, richer images produced by medium format cameras. But after seeing Joel Meyerowitz’ book Between the Dog and Wolf (which I will hopefully write my thoughts on here in the not too distant future) and Alec Soth’s 8x10 work, my intrigue in larger formats began to build. Why go medium when you can go big I thought? So I took the plunge, started researching eBay and the Large Format Photography forum (a great resource) and managed to find a kit for sale. I bought a Nagaoka Seisakusho Ultralight 4x5 camera, Schneider 150mm lens, film holders and a dark cloth - result! Even with a relatively cheap camera find on eBay, the amount of accessories you need does add up quite quickly. For example the going price of film holders are about £15 each (and you need to be careful, I have bought holders that leak light, so are useless). A film holder stores 2 sheets of film, so you can imagine you need a few in your kit bag. You need a stable tripod. The purists will suggest something in the £200-300 range but I have an old Giottos that I got a few years ago for about 100 quid (I think), it does the job fine. To shoot properly you need a decent light meter and you need a focus finder. So it does add up (but the inherent geek in you will love that kind of thing surely?).

The Nagaoka Seisakusho Ultralight 4x5 in all it’s 1970’s glory.

Technique wise, LF is very different. You need to slow down - find the shot you want and visualise it, before you take the camera out of the bag and set it all up (which can take some time btw - especially if you’re rushing to make use of fading autumnal light). I have shot with a manual 35mm for years now and all my cameras have in-built meters. I meter for the detail I want in the shadow, check the reading in the camera and shoot - I have got to the stage now where I can pretty much guess the exposure I need based on the conditions. However with LF there are other factors you need to take into consideration - bellows compensation for example. Closer focusing on longer lenses requires the photographer to rack out the camera - the lens is further from the film, hence you need to add more exposure compensation. Shooting wide angle, the lens is very close to the film plane, so you need to compensate by lowering exposure values. However, although this sounds complicated, shooting with my trusty Ilford Hp5 I have not experienced any issues (the film is so flexible and it can handle many mistakes!). Development wise, the process is exactly the same as 35mm, however the sheet film needs to be treated with a little more care (finger prints can damage the film emulsion). I chose to use the Mod54 system, which fits into the Patterson tanks I already have - but sheets can be developed individually in trays if needs be.

That said, shooting LF is a joy. The contemplative, deliberate and slow nature of the medium is really appealing. The detail in the negative is incredible. The ability to move the film and focusing planes in order to achieve different effects adds additional creative elements than shutter speed / aperture and something I have only really started to explore. So far I have only scanned negatives using my Epson V700 but you can see a difference: The detail, grain, texture and feel are completely different in my opinion to 35mm. I am looking forward to contact printing these negatives and eventually finding a 4x5 enlarger to see what I can get print-wise. Moving forward I want to continue exploring the Glens and North Coast of Antrim for landscapes but I think where the system will really come into it’s own is for portraits. The ability to slow down, connect with the subject and direct them face to face (not having to look through a viewfinder for example), I believe lends itself to positive results. This is a subject area I really want to shoot more of - if anyone would like to be a willing subject then let me know…

If you want technical details I would suggest grabbing a copy of ’Using the View Camera’ by Steve Simmons  - apparently it is out of print so copies are limited.

Some examples of my first 4x5 shots. All photographed using Ilford Hp5 and developed in Ilford DD-X using a Mod54 and Patterson tank system.

Using Format