A Beginner’s Guide to Large Format Film Camera Photography
Large format cameras are often considered difficult to use, but there is nothing impossible to use. If you are organized and methodical, they are simple if not quite easy to use. For many photographers, the idea of using a large format camera is discouraging because we are all so accustomed to having so much automation in our cameras. Compare a large-format camera to a 35mm “handheld” movie camera, and you’ll soon see that there’s a whole new level to manual when you move on to the largest formats.
Most large format cameras are literally no more than an adjustable, sealed box with foil at one end and lens at the other. There are no measurements, nothing is battery-powered. The only thing that powers the camera is a clockwise shutter. Nevertheless, working with these great old beasts is probably one of the most rewarding experiences a photographer can have. When I use my camera, I feel a real connection to the history of photography, and I am proud to be able to create amazing images without the help of automation. It’s “pure” photography.
If you’ve ever thought about using a large format camera, or just bought a camera and haven’t used it yet, then this guide is for you.
What is Large Format?
A large format is usually considered, to begin with, a 4×5 inch sheet film. As the name suggests, the film is delivered as a single sheet, which must be loaded into the holders. A process that would have been known to photographers 100 years ago. The large-format film has two main advantages: the quality is unparalleled, with images approaching or exceeding the equivalent of 100mp, and since single sheets are photographed, each sheet can be designed differently to suit the lighting situation in which you are in.
There are many sizes of film sheets, some historical, such as whole, half and quarter, others still available today, such as 4×5, 5×7 and 10×8. Of these 4×5 is by far the most widespread and has the most options in terms of film type. Colour negatives, color slides, and black and white foil are available, although the choice of color is slightly thin.
Unlike smaller formats, there is quite a lot of equipment you need outside of your camera and movie to successfully take a large-format photo. The good news is that most experienced photographers already own many of them, and things like dark clothes can be improvised from things around the house. You can carefully collect all the equipment you need for a relatively modest initial expense, and many of the things you need can buy second hand and sell for the same money you paid for them.
To start, select a 4×5 camera. The other two popular sizes are 5×7 and 10×8, but it is more expensive, the equipment may be much more difficult to find, and the delivery of foil may also be a problem. There are many different choices, from expensive, beautifully made field cameras to old studio queues, which can be picked up for several hundred pounds. Lightweight is a thing that tends to cost money, and traditional wooden off-road cameras go for more than monorails.
Monorails are often better and more versatile cameras, it is simply that you can give yourself a hernia with a floating one in the desert. They are also not as nice as field cameras and I’m sure it has an impact! I’m primarily a portrait photographer, so I use monorails, mainly because they focus closer (i.e. they have longer bellows) and are easier to use when setting up. Make sure that the camera has latched properly downwards and the bellows are bright and tight (it is easy to check if the flashlight is lit inside the dark room). Also check as well as the camera has enough movements to adapt to what you’ll be using it for (it’s a complicated subject, but there’s a lot of information online).
One of the biggest advantages of the large format is that the lenses are practically interchangeable between any camera, provided that the bellows focus them. To mount a lens, however, you need a lens plate. A lens plate is simply a flat piece of wood or metal with a hole drilled in it for mounting the lens. They are usually brand-specific and come in three main sizes: Common types are Linhof for off-road cameras and Sinar for monorail queues, which are copied by different brands and brands, although Toyo boards are quite easy to find. Some cheaper cameras.