Often times, and especially when my head is hidden underneath the black cloth of my wooden camera, lots of people gather round and start asking awkward questions….questions like “Is that a camera you’re using?”, or “why do you use that…a digital is much better, quicker and easier to carry around”?
Well, to be honest, some of those points are quite valid. It needs a hard-headed person indeed to get involved in a technology that is more than a 100 years old.
Granted, the films we use now are of course very much better than those when photography was at it’s birth, but aside of that, nothing much has changed with large format cameras.
In fact, and you can try this yourself if you think I’m making it up….if you could get your hands on an antique 100 year old large format camera, and there some still around, load it up with modern film and lens, then take a few shots, I guarantee the results you will get are the same results you would get if you loaded the same film and lens onto a modern large format camera…nothing has changed.
So why use something that has no modern facilities with it, like automatic metering, automatic exposure, spot meters, image stabilisation and a host of other technological miracles?
One can only say what one experiences oneself, so for me, one of the main advantages of using a large format camera, is that it is a subtle form of relaxation, meditation even. In fact, you could compare it to the art of painting…both require similar amounts of engagement. The camera forces the user to engage fully with it, right from using the black cloth in order to see the image clearly on the screen, to trying to understand the composition, focussing etc.
Call it a form of isolation form the bustling world. Once isolated, you are alone with the image, with nothing else to distract your senses, which automatically enables one to concentrate fully on obtaining as satisfactory an image as possible.
Another possible answer to the questions people ask could be that the subjects you tend to photograph with a large format camera (LFC), are not normally going to suddenly move anywhere. In other words, you don’t use a large format camera to capture moving objects, or street photography (not normally anyway, but in a few cases, LFCs have been used to document street scenes), so you can afford to spend as much time as you like trying to create your shot.
Also, sometimes when you are shooting a landscape shot, or maybe some buildings etc, you need to be able to look at any part of the image in isolation, to make sure that it is correct, in focus or has the correct angles and so on. With a 35mm camera, that is virtually impossible due to the small size of the viewable screen; even with a medium format camera you’d be hard-pushed to get in really close to all the corners of the screen. But on an LFC, armed with just a small magnifying loupe, you can check whatever you like at any part of the ground glass screen.
But it is very definitely true, that having made the choice of using it, you have taken on a lot of problems, problems which are not going to go away, such as the weight of the thing (for any reasonable shoot, I have to carry pre-loaded film, plus around 25 lb of other gear, to complete my task. Quick in-out thing this is not!
Coupled with that, you have to be able to contend with other problems out of your control, such as wind, rain etc, especially because some of your shots will demand shutter speeds of at least a few seconds, and any movement in the shot will come out as blurring and ruin your photo.
Then there is the cost. Running an LFC is not cheap. You have to buy the camera itself, a solid tripod, possibly the black cloth, lens, cable release, loupe, maybe a set of different lenses and so on. If you’re going to be processing your own prints, then the whole picture changes…think about setting up a permanent darkroom, the chemicals and the complete shebang!
If you can put up with all the above, one final answer will nail it for you, as it did for me, and that is, using an LFC slows you right down…in fact, at first, you will most likely tend to get put off with the whole rigmarole of it…the slowness of everything thing you do…setting it up, focussing it, exposing it, and then packing it all up again and lugging it back home. Fortunately, as time passes, you get used to it, and the most redeeming feature is when you look at the results….breathtaking!
all photos flickr.com except where stated