Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Introduction to Large Format Cameras

Continuing on in our film series, we have an introduction to Large Format cameras...


There is multiple sizes and types of camera systems within the large format world. Sizes start at 2x3, and go up from there. Common sizes are 4x5, 5x7, and 8x10, but specialty sizes do exist, such as 8x20

A monorail type view camera is the most versatile, and nearly all are modular, permitting the addition of larger or smaller backs, different bellows, extension of the rail, and other attachments.

Field cameras are designed to be portable, compact, and light weight with only small compromises of adjustments.

The press type camera differs from most view cameras in that it is primarily intended for hand-held use. It is similar to a flat-bed field camera in it's box construction, but includes a viewfinder and a rangefinder. A similar design, often called a technical camera (like Linhof Technika), extends the adjustment capability of the press camera.
2x3 Century Graphic, folding camera

Beyond sizes and types, large format cameras also differ in both finish and bellow types. You have options of metal frames or wood frames. Large format cameras are some of the only camera formats to commonly come in different wood types and finishes. This aspect can make some of the large format cameras the most beautiful and unique looking from other formats such as medium, 35mm, and digital. 

Bellows come in either the standard accordion type, or in a bag bellows option. With either one, it's essential that the bellows don't have any rips, tears, or even tiny pinholes in them, as these will cause light leaks.

8x10 Tachihara wood (cherry) field, folding camera
 
Taking price and ease of use into consideration, a Graphic Press 4x5 camera, such as a Crown Graphic with a 127,135, or 150 lens, would make a good starter camera. It's inexpensive and easy to use, with a built-in rangefinder to make focusing easier. The camera also folds up to a small box for portability, like a field camera. The one compromise to these is that they have limited movements or adjustments.

For something a little more heavy duty or for studio use, a monorail camera is your best choice. Although more cumbersome, these types of cameras feature more movements or adjustments. A basic 4x5 Calumet, Cambo, Toyo, or Horseman camera are good choices. More expensive view cameras have more precise gear driven movements, and are generally part of a system of accessories.

4x5 Cambo Wide

If you're wondering why someone would want to shoot large format, the larger negative makes a world of difference. The large negative or transparency has a much higher resolution and will produce a very large and sharp print (4x5 is 16 times larger than 35mm -24x36). You can also make a contact print for artistic or alternative processes, which is still large enough to view without enlarging or magnifying. Perspective control is also one of the neatest things a view camera has the ability to do. You can increase or decrease the depth of field with the swings and tilts (the Scheimpflug principle), or correct convergence with the front and rear standard.

4x5 Horseman, monorail type

4x5 Toyo View

Large format film comes in individual sheets, whether you're shooting negative, positive, or instant peel-apart film. You can purchase these films from professional photo suppliers and labs, as well as having them process the film for you. Or, for black and white film, you might want to try processing it yourself. Tray processing is easy, but so is scratching the film, and you are also standing in the dark for the whole process. Tank processing is good, but uses lots of chemistry. Rotary drum processing works very well and uses a small amount of chemistry. Read more about where to buy and develop film here.
5x7 Linhoff Tech, folding camera

Although large format can have some amazing and beautifully detailed results, there are a few things to keep in mind before making the jump. Aside from being fairly heavy, cumbersome, and slower to work with, large format is very expensive to shoot, around $5.00 a shot for 4x5 (film and processing)... Which brings us to pre-visualization, or being able to anticipate a finished image before making the exposure. With a smaller camera, we can see the subject through the viewfinder and release the shutter at the desired moment of exposure. A view camera favors a more contemplative approach and each shot must be carefully composed and exposed. The process needs practice and patience, and is not the system for on-the-go, or in-the-moment photography. 

I suggest buying old film to practice loading the film holders in the dark. Be sure to mark or number the film holders to keep track of each shot and take good notes (exposure, any filters used, amount of lens tilt, etc). Practice looking at the ground glass when using the movements... everything is upside down on the ground glass and may take some getting used to.

a large format lens and shutter

In addition to the camera body and lens, you will also need a few accessories to shoot with. Film holders, a cable release, dark cloth, changing bag, focusing loupe, light meter, and definitely a good, heavy tripod are all must haves.
a lens board to attach lens to camera body
4x5 film holders

* To find large format cameras and accessories, visit KEH.com

Related articles:
* Tilt-shift options
* 4x5 Leonardo Pinhole Camera
* Repurposing- LF film holder to photo frame

-SS