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The art of using a large format camera

A large format camera is quite a different beast from the cameras that most people are used to. Throughout my blog I’ve made references that are unfamiliar to many as they relate to using this type of camera. So, for those that might wish to know more, in a short series of posts I’m going to describe in more detail the steps I go through from setting up the camera for shooting right through to the final printed photograph.

So, Part 1 – taking the shot with a large format camera.

Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation

Susan Sontag

To begin, a definition: large format film camera is a camera that is capable of shooting 4×5 negatives – that is they are sized 4 inches by 5 inches – or larger. Typically the film comes as separate individual sheets and not on a roll although for specialised requirements a large spool of film was necessary – eg aerial photography.

The size of film that I am shooting is 8×10 – 8 inches along one side and 10 inches along the other. This film is therefore 4 times the size of 4×5. Larger film sizes are possible and certainly available from companies such as Ilford by special order.

A little bit of history

One of the reasons for such large cameras goes right back to the early days of photography. Prior to the availability of electric light enlargers, prints were made using a process known as contact printing ie the print paper was directly in contact with the negative (usually glass plate negative) and exposed to direct sunlight.

There was no ‘enlargement’ and the image was the same size as the negative. If you wanted a small print you used a small negative and if you wanted a large print you used a large negative – many of these cameras could shoot plates up to 24, or even 36 inches, along one side for very large prints. It was not unusual for landscape photographers to use several cameras to shoot the same scene at the same time – they could then produce several versions of the same image at different sizes and sell the prints at different prices.

Once the industry moved on from glass plate to flexible film, the sizes stayed the same, presumably to continue using the existing cameras which could be modified to accept the new medium.

Camera design and features

Large format cameras come in many forms, each designed for the photographic task at hand. Many early portrait cameras were simple affairs – a box within a box connected with a piece of black fabric to keep the interior light-tight. To focus these cameras the inner box would slide backwards and forwards and be locked into place. For the purposes of portraits this was sufficient.

For more demanding needs, more complex cameras were developed ultimately resulting in the view camera. The more capable view cameras are two rigid “standards” mounted onto a rigid bed. The front standard holds the lens and the rear standard holds the ground glass, which is used for focussing, and into which the film holder will slide. Both standards are connected with a light tight bellows.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/View_camera#/media/File:View_camera_2.svg

The standards are mounted to the bed so that they can be ratcheted back and forth for focussing. Additionally they can be mounted with an array of hinges and pivots so that each can be moved and positioned independently. In this way, the 2 standards can each have 4 degrees of freedom:

  • Vertical Tilt – Each standard can be tilted, back and forth, either at the base of the standard or at it’s midpoint.
  • Horizontal Swing – as above but the standard can be rotated left or right.
  • Horizontal Shift – The standard can be moved left or right
  • Vertical Rise and Fall – Each standard can be moved up or down.

Each of these are called movements and the simple aim is to control the position of the film and lens relative to the subject. This configuration gives the photographer an incredible amount of control over focus and how the image will look.

Here’s a video that’s worth watching if you’d like to know more:

With a complex scene, the adjustments can help to ensure that everything in the image is in sharp focus. Alternatively the movements can allow the photographer to throw different parts of the scene out of focus to great visual effect.

The downside is that it can be very easy to get lost and confused in all the movements and adjustments resulting in potentially major headaches. Because of this, as some of the ‘sitters’ in this project will be well aware, setting up a large format camera can be an involved affair and take some time to get right.

Using the Deardorff V8

As shooting with a large format camera is a more involved affair it can take quite some time to actually get ready to shoot the portrait. As part of this project we’ve found it necessary to arrive around 30 mins before the allotted appointment slot with the sitter which allows me to go through the key steps before I’m ready to actually shoot. These are: Composition, Focus, Exposure setting.

Composition

We start by finding the right angle on the house – this means setting up and viewing the scene through the ground glass. Depending on the house and direction of the sun this can then mean placing the tripod and camera, reviewing the scene and potentially moving everything again and again until the scene looks right. If we’ve set up in the road then it can also mean moving if the occasional car needs to pass.

To consult the rules of composition before making a picture is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk.

Edward Weston

Once the overall scene looks right, and checked that vertical and horizontal lines are exactly as they should be, then we need to place the subject(s). As everything in the image is to be in focus then it is important that the sitters can be positioned so that nothing in the background protrudes from various body parts – especially the head. For houses with lots of windows and white window frames and beading, or plants and trellis, this can be quite a challenge.

In each case Joann will act as a stand-in and move around the scene until we are both happy with her placement. This is an exercise of my spatial awareness – everything I see in the ground glass is upside-down and back-to-front – so Jo has to interpret every direction I give as it’s invariably in the wrong direction.

Of course as part of this, it is important that Joann never stands within 2m of the camera to ensure social distancing requirements of the current lockdown.

Focussing

Once the camera is in the right place and pointing in the right direction it’s then time to focus the camera. Joann will stand in the chosen spot and I focus on her first – I ask her to show me her teeth as I find it much easier to focus on them. Once the focus on her is correct then I can review the rest of the image on the ground glass and, if necessary, start to make adjustments with the camera movements to make as much as possible sharp before changing the lens aperture and the depth of field to bring the rest of the mage in focus.

Sharpness is a bourgeois concept

Henri Cartier-Bresson

Focussing can be a very theoretically rigorous affair and there is a great deal of optical science around it; so if you’d like to know more check out this article on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scheimpflug_principle

Exposure

Once the focus is right, it’s time to turn to exposure – this is a much simpler affair. I use a Pentax Digital Spotmeter and this allows me to check small areas of the scene to understand how bright or dark they are and thus the range of brightness. I can then choose an appropriate lens aperture and shutter-speed driven on one hand by the depth of field I need and not exceeding a 1 second exposure time.

Pentax Digital Spotmeter

Most black and white photographers use the zone system which was created by the rather talented Ansel Adams. This system governs the approach to exposure, development and printing to obtain a good print on a certain grade of printing paper. It is possible to follow the system slavishly but I tend to follow the guidelines more loosely and it certainly helps me obtain an acceptable exposure unless I make schoolboy errors – it happens!

The Shoot!

With composition, focus and exposure sorted it’s now time for the sitters to take their places on the spot that Jo has already determined. Now we go through the same quick check for composition and focus. Hopefully the light hasn’t changed in the meantime and the exposure remains the same.

You don’t take a photograph, you make it.

Ansel Adams

In preparation for the actual taking of the shot we talk through the exposure time and the need to stay perfectly still whilst the shutter is open. Before each exposure we have a practice without a film holder in place – this allows the sitter to hear the shutter and be comfortable with the exposure time. It also allows me to check and double check the aperture and shutter speed and also check that the lens shutter is closed (I need it open to see the image on the ground glass but it needs to be closed before I load the holder).

Once the practice is done, I load the film holder into the camera, pull the dark slide, check everybody is ready, countdown and…shoot.

We repeat this once more and then we are done. Everybody can relax and now I explain that I might well have messed up and may need to return for another shoot.

In practice, the whole process can take up to one hour from start to finish

One reply on “The art of using a large format camera”

[…] A large format camera is quite a different beast from the cameras that most people are used to. Throughout my blog I’ve made references that are unfamiliar to many as they relate to using this type of camera. So, for those that might wish to know more, in a short series of posts I’m going to describe in more detail the steps I go through from setting up the camera for shooting right through to the final printed photograph. You can find Part 1 – the art of using a large format camera here: https://together-in-isolation.net/2020/05/18/the-art-of-using-a-large-format-camera/ […]

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