Large format…what it is, why to use it, and how much it can cost

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 except where stated



About filmcamera999

ME & MY PASSION! ok, you probably looked at the length of this "about me" page and thought, god, what's wrong with this guy!....does he have to start telling us his life story or something!!? well, youve come here now anyways, so why not hear what im like as a person, eh? ive been using film cameras for well over 30 first one being the family yashicamat twin lens! over the years, ive both bought sold and collected film cameras...too many to tell the truth! in fact, ive been buying and selling cameras well before the internet came on the scene, so anything you purchase from me is backed by my self-styled moneyback promise.....if you dont like what youve bought, send it back within 14 days and you get all your money arguments!! WHERE I STAND ON THE DIGITAL REVOLUTION! yes, i do use digital as well, but only as a ready-reckoner...i try and take most shots with my simple 2megapixel digicam....if the shot looks good, i pull out my film camera and shoot! i most defintely do not believe in digital manipulation of photographs....that in my eyes is not photography...its cheating! WHERE I USED TO LIVE, WHERE I AM NOW & WHAT I WOULD LIKE TO DO! i used to live in Ontario, Canada, but moved back to the UK a little while ago (its a long story..!)...but now i'm living in the one place i always wanted to be...Vancouver, BC..the next best thing to paradise on earth! as i work as a freelance writer as well as other things, i often find hat my work takes me to europe for short spells, so i get to travel a lot...not a blessing, as i just hate long flights! im a qualified Quality Assurance guy (you know...ISO 9000, auditing, documentation etc) ....99% of my skill-set is transferable so i can handle any admin or documentation-related roles....see you in BC! otherwise, i specialise in ISO 9000 auditing and documentation. my dream? to have my own thriving camera shop in Vancouver BC, whilst living in the mountains somewhere.....the best of both worlds!
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4 Responses to Large format…what it is, why to use it, and how much it can cost

  1. I once spent a few days with a photographer who only used LF. An interesting and educating experience… He thought nothing of walking up a hill, carrying his 100lb pack, getting there and taking just the single frame – or perhaps nothing at all and then walking all the way down the hill again – only to be captivated by a gently flowing stream and spending a couple of hours trying to find just the right spot to take his image.
    As with all film based, tripod reliant photography the number one advantage it gives you is the forced requirement to slow down.
    Many of the photographers who I admire (still) use LF cameras – somewhat larger than the conventional 4x5s.
    I’ve used a graflex a few time, don’t own a LF but when my budget recovers somewhat AND I have space for a permanent darkroom, I may very well get myself a wista(?) or something similar .

    • hi steve and thanks for dropping in!
      yep…i see youve experienced an LF user first hand!
      as i mentioned, it does take a special kind of character to get involved with this stuff…and again as you say quite rightly, the slowing down process is the most useful thing using an LF will give you.
      as rgds setting up a darkroom, i think i covered that in a previous article somehwere here…it shows how you can build one even in a closet…if i find the link, i’ll send it to you…but youre a hardened user and probably know what youre doing anyways!

      • know what I’m doing!?!
        I’ve done all the mind work behind creating my darkroom space – I just need the space I have in mind to be released – which is dependent on at least one child leaving home – possibly within months……

      • well..good luck with it, i say!
        over the years, ive built darkrooms in all sorts if places…in the attic, under the stairs, in one of my garden sheds, in a made to measure cupboard-cum-darkroom…one time, i even had a darkroom in my VW van…!

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