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An Introduction to Large Format Photography

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A large format camera looks like something your great-grandfather may have used. There are two panels, one at the back and the other at the front, connected by lightproof bellows. The panels are attached to rails and the photographer typically composes the image on a ground glass screen at the back of the camera under a dark cloth. In today's tutorial, you'll get a complete primer to large format photography.

A Reisekamera 18x24cm view camera (photo by Jan von Erpecom). This model was in use around 100 years ago – but the basic design of large format cameras has changed little since.

There are several features that differentiate large format cameras from 35mm, medium format and digital cameras:

1. The front and back panels (called 'standards') move independently of each other in a series of movements called rise, fall, shift, tilt and swing. This gives the photographer control over converging verticals, the plane of focus and depth of field within the image. Lensbaby products and expensive tilt-shift SLR lenses are attempting to imitate this functionality.

This diagram shows the different parts of a large format camera (illustration by Chris Heald).

2. Large format cameras use sheet-film – single pieces of film (not rolls) that come supplied in sizes of 5x4 inches or above. The film is loaded into a sheet film holder in a darkroom or changing bag. You can also buy polaroid backs – commonly used to check the lighting and composition before committing the image to film.


3. Most large format cameras can only be used mounted on a tripod. There is no viewfinder – you look at the image on a ground glass screen under a dark cloth and use a loupe to magnify the image to check for sharp focus. This made the process slow, and too some a bit tedious. The trade-off is the huge negative and complete control.

4. Large format cameras are completely manual. There is no autofocus or auto exposure.


Why photographers use large format cameras

The design of a modern day large format camera differs little from those made 100+ years ago. They are slow and cumbersome to use, and offer none of the flexibility and convenience of digital cameras or 35mm camera systems. But photographers still use them. Why is this?

The biggest advantage of large format cameras is image quality. If you want to make a large print then ultimately you'll get a better quality image from a 5x4 inch negative than you will from the smaller negatives of medium format and 35mm cameras. You're not likely to notice the difference with a 10x8 inch print, but you will if you're making large prints to sell as fine art in a high-end gallery. >Large format cameras are also used in advertising when the final image is going to be displayed at a large size.

However, the latest high resolution digital cameras are challenging this, producing image quality that some photographers claim matches that obtained by 5x4 inch large format cameras. If your goal is to create large images, and you have a large budget, it is also worth looking at a high resolution digital camera system as a potential solution.

The other large reason for using large format cameras is to take advantage of the camera movements. For example, on a 35mm or medium format camera the plane of focus is parallel to the camera back. With a large format camera, thanks to the bellows, you can tilt the lens downwards, while keeping the back of the camera upright. This tilts the plane of focus downwards. Landscape photographers use this technique to obtain landscape images with front to back sharpness without having to stop all the way down to the narrowest aperture settings.

The principle that governs this is called the Scheimpflug principle (or Scheimpflug effect), and it's something you'll need to know about if you intend to use large format cameras. There's a simple explanation of the Scheimpflug effect half-way down the page here and a more complex one here.

Architectural photographers use other camera movements to take photos avoiding converging verticals lines, and product or advertising photographers also use them to control the plane of focus and perspective of product photos.

Some of this advantage has disappeared with the emergence of tilt-shift and perspective-control lenses mentioned early for SLR cameras. But even the best tilt-shift lenses can't match the freedom of movement of a large format camera.

These diagrams show the range of camera movements possible with most large format cameras (illustrations by Chris Heald).

Unlike 35mm or rollfilm, each negative (or slide) is developed individually. Black and white photographers get the most benefit from this as they can take into account the contrast range of the subject and control development to achieve the best negative for making prints from. This technique is the basis of Ansel Adam's zone system.

Large format camera systems and older lenses can be relatively cheap to buy second-hand. This means that the required equipment isn't necessarily expensive to buy (although new, modern lenses and cameras can be quite pricey). Unlike digital cameras, you won't feel the need to upgrade your camera body every few years.

The aspect ratio of 5x4 inch is more suitable to landscape photography, especially in the portrait format, than the longer rectangle of the 35mm format. I explored aspect ratios in more detail in The Art of Using Aspect Ratios in Digital Photography.

Other reasons for using large format cameras are more personal. Some people simply like using them. The process of composition, focusing, adjusting camera movements and calculating exposure is a slow, contemplative one that suits the way some photographers work.

It's probably clear by now that large format photography suits certain types of subject – such as fine art, landscapes, product photos and architecture. It isn't suitable for subjects that require fast reactions from the photographer, such as sports, action or photojournalism. Having said that, photojournalists have used large format cameras in the past, mainly because there wasn't a viable alternative at the time.


The nature of large format photography

There are some issues associated with using large format cameras that need consideration before you buy one. Large format users probably see most of these as benefits rather than problems.

1. A large format camera (including tripod, lenses and other equipment) is heavy. This is a factor if you need to walk a long distance carrying the equipment.

2. Sheet film is difficult and slow to load. It's also relatively expensive to buy and process.

3. The completely manual operation means you need an external light meter to measure light levels.

4. Longer focal length lenses are required. You need a 75mm lens on a 5x4 inch camera to get the same field of view as a 24mm lens on a full-frame SLR camera. The longer focal lengths mean that you need to stop down a lot further to get the same depth field. This often requires using slow shutter speeds, something that is impractical in windy conditions or if you want to freeze movement.

5. Most large format lenses have a maximum aperture of around f8. They transmit less light than digital SLR lenses, making focusing on the ground glass screen a challenge, especially in low light.


Large format camera types

The wide range of large format camera models is confusing for newcomers to this type of photography. Prices vary greatly, from relatively cheap models costing a few hundred dollars (usually manufactured in Asia) to hand-crafted objects of extreme beauty that costs thousands. This article gives a good overview of the options available, plus the peripheral equipment required.


View cameras

The most commonly used type of large format camera today is the view camera. There are several types:


Field cameras

Field (or flatbed) cameras fold up into a box, protecting the bellows and camera unit and making it relatively easy to transport. They can be made out of wood, metal or carbon fibre. The most common negative size is 5x4 inches. Larger 10x8 inch view cameras were more popular in the past. Field cameras are popular with landscape photographers because of their relative portability.


Monorail cameras

Monorail cameras are designed for studio use and are not as portable. The front and rear standards are mounted on a single rail, hence the name. Monorail cameras have a greater range of rise, fall, shift, tilt and swing movements than field cameras.

A Sinar F large format 4x5 inch camera equipped with a Schneider Tele-Arton f:5.5 240mm lens and mounted on a Linhof Technika plate (photo by Guillaume Piolle). The front and back panels are joined by a bellows and move along a single rail.


Press cameras

Press (or technical) cameras were used by press photographers before 35mm cameras like Leica rangefinders became standard. They fold down for portability and may have rangefinders or viewfinders to help with composition. These are not in common use today.

A Graflex Crown Graphic press camera and Weston Master II exposure meter (photo by Alex Carapezza).


Polaroid 20x24 inch camera

Polaroid 20x24 inch cameras are worth a special mention. These enormous large format cameras (there's a photo here) are made of wood and weigh over 200 kilograms. They use polaroid sheet film and produce instant images measuring 20x27.5 inches. The first was built in 1977 and there are currently only seven in existence. If you're in New York or San Francisco you can hire one for the day – at a price – from the 20x24 Studio.


Alternative processes

Another advantage of large format photography is that you can take a 5x4 (or 10x8) inch black and white negative and make a contact print from it. A contact print is one made with the negative in direct contact with the paper the print is being made on. The result is a print the same size as the negative it was produced from. A skillful printer can obtain incredible quality from a contact print because the negative isn't being been enlarged (a 35mm negative, by contrast, has to be enlarged by a factor of 30 to make a 10x8 inch print).

There are several alternative photographic processes that use contact printing. They can be quite complex and you need to mix your own chemicals and develop the prints yourself. These techniques take time to master, and represent a return to the craft of photography.

Note that you don't have to have a large format camera to experiment with these alternatives. Another option is to print a negative with an inkjet print onto clear acetate and use that to make the contact print. There is more information on this, in relation to platinum printing, here.

These are the most popular alternative printing processes used by large format photographers today:


Cyanotypes

Cyanotypes are created by coating paper or with a hand-made chemical mixture that is sensitive to ultraviolet light and making a contact print. The result is a blue and white monochrome image.

This is what a cyanotype looks like (note that this example was created digitally, not by using the original cyanotype printing process).


Albumen

Albumen printing dates from 1850 and involves coating the paper with a mixture of egg white (which contains albumen) and salt, then dipping it in silver nitrate to sensitize it to ultraviolet light. Albumen prints have a cream or sepia tone and are extremely high quality and long lasting.


Platinum

Platinum printing is a complex process to master, but the result is an archival black and white print of incredible depth and beauty that can't be imitated with an inkjet print.


Digital large format photography

There are digital camera backs available for large format cameras. This doesn't mean that the back has a 5x4 inch sensor – such a sensor would be prohibitively expensive to manufacture even if the technical problems associated with creating such a large sensor could be overcome.

Instead large format camera backs work by scanning the image. The sensor in the back moves across the image projected by the camera lens, effectively building up an image in a similar way to a flatbed scanner. The scanning process is a long one and the resulting files are enormous, so digital camera backs are only practical in a studio to photograph a static subject. However, the best digital backs produce superb quality digital images with wide dynamic range and there is no anti-aliasing filter to soften the image.

The Sinar eVolution 75 digital camera back (photo by Rama).


Photographers that use large format

Here are some links to the websites of some modern photographers that use large format cameras for at least some of their work. It's difficult to appreciate the quality that is obtainable from large format cameras from photos displayed on a website, but it gives you an idea of the medium's potential.

  • Joe Cornish - An English landscape photographer who uses the large format for much of his work.
  • Joel Meyerowitz - A New York based photographer who has produced many excellent series of photos with large format cameras.
  • Amano Takashi- A Japanese landscape photographer.
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto
  • Timothy Greenfield-Sanders - An American portrait photographer known for his large format photos of world leaders and cultural icons.
  • Hiroshi Sugimoto - Another Japanese photographer known for his long exposure work with large format cameras.

Resources

You can find out more about large format photography at these websites:

Viewcamera.com. Bi-monthly publication, View Camera is aimed at large format photographers. Their Getting Started in Large Format Photography is a must read article for anyone considering buying a large format camera.

This Photo.net page also has lots of information about large format camera systems.

Largeformatphotography.info has an extensive collection of articles about all aspects of large format photography.

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