Large format is an incredibly rewarding system to work with, it is a process that is unlike any other that I have come across within the realm of photography. Other formats have place in my kit, but large format is king for image quality, functionality and reward.
It was around 2013 that I first encountered the idea of shooting large format, I was getting some black & white 35mm film developed at my local lab and the photographer there put the idea in my head. I told him that I was interested in shooting landscapes, predominantly digital and he said I should investigate 4×5. He used to shoot his own landscape work with a Toyo 45A and said that it is ‘where I will end up’. I went off to investigate 4×5 cameras as I was completely ignorant of the cameras, lenses and process. Long story short is that I found a used Toyo 45AII on eBay with three lenses and a stack of film holders for reasonable price. I hit the buy it now button and never looked back. So once the camera arrived, what began was a lengthy process of reading and playing with the view camera to understand how the whole process worked. I went back to my lab with the Toyo and my photographer friend gave me a very brief rundown on the operation of the Toyo. It seemed relatively accessible and reasonable to me to think that I might be able to get some good results with the camera. That was a bit short sighted of me though, what happened was a lengthy process of learning how the camera movements work in relation to what I needed to shoot. There were also many steps needed outside of merely tripping the shutter to achieve a decent exposure. I am not talking about basics like shutter speed, aperture and exposure as I had a reasonable grasp on that. It was more from an organisational standpoint now that I think back to when I started. Having a process that I could systematically follow when I was going to make an image proved to be the foundation needed to get the image.
Experience has taught me to organise my kit, to reduce it to a point where the weight is acceptable and the whole system is functional in the field. Another goal is reducing the steps needed down to a series of steps that are repeatable and form good habits. The last thing one wants is to be looking for critical items and fumbling when the light is just right and it’s time to make an image. I visualise an image and I find where I want my tripod to sit, I also generally have a pretty good idea of what the focal length I am going to use is. Each lens is in a different coloured Ruggard wrap, the 90mm is yellow, 135mm is red and the 210mm is blue. I then pull out the camera kit in its lightweight bag and sit it nearby. The camera body comes out next and then the lens is attached, once that is secure and the camera is set up in the zeroed position, I attach the shutter release. Then I put my loupe around my neck, turn the light meter on and pull out my raincoat. The raincoat is my dark cloth in the field, which works relatively well. I recently bought a newer light weight raincoat though and it is not so light proof unfortunately, so I might have to use my jacket from now on. I have my dark cloth in place, I remove the lens cap and open the shutter. I focus on infinity and start to compose the image on the ground glass.
Once my image is composed, I lock off all movements and get my film holder out of the bag, checking which film stock I want to use. I use Fuji Provia in two Grafmatic backs which gives me 12x exposures. This step is critical for me, as it stops me from accidently exposing the sheet by not closing the shutter. I start at the front of the camera every time when I am about to make an exposure, I close the shutter first and foremost! Then I take my light meter reading and set my exposure. There is one more step I make at the front of the camera before putting the dark slide on the camera which is to cock the shutter mechanism and test fire the lens. The lenses will not trip if the shutter is open, so by test firing before removing the dark slide every time, I have formed a simple habit that saves me from ruining a sheet of film. Ruined sheets from the beginning of my foray into large format taught me that I needed to have some sort of process that was repeatable. Working quickly or in a dynamic environment can lead to mistakes, by following this simple step I have avoided making that bitterly disappointing mistake again. Once the image is made, I ensure that I return the dark slide into position with the black side facing out, which tells me that the sheet is exposed.
Pack down is methodical, and I make sure that everything goes back in the bag as it came out, so that I know exactly where everything is every time. I have formed a good process that works for me, and I recommend you find a process that works for you. The important thing is to have some sort of a method so that the potential pitfalls of large format photography don’t catch you out. The mistakes are hard learnt, but they are also an important part of the process. I have double exposed sheets, dropped sheets in the darkroom and been unable to find them on the floor which ruined images. I have not loaded film properly and had it jam and kink in the dark slides. The sheets have become damp in the film changing bag when it was too hot, which in turn ruined the sheets. Double exposures have occurred when I haven’t turned the dark slide around after making an exposure. These are some of the examples I recall and there have probably been more, there have been plenty of instances of messing up exposure (especially bellows compensation in the early days which I was oblivious too). Missed shots due to the light changing before I was happy with my composition and more.
One might ask, and I have asked myself why bother with large format photography at all? For me I have always thought that if I am going to go to the effort of making an image, especially by hiking into the wilderness then I might as well achieve the best technical image quality possible whilst I do it. 4×5 is the best I can get as I am not too keen on lugging an 8×10 camera on long hikes. Digital has its place, but another ace up the sleeve for 4×5 for me which no one else really mentions is the aspect ratio of the frame. I find the aspect ratio of 4×5 to be very pleasing to my eye and elegant to look at when all elements come together properly. Most of my images are composed in the portrait aspect and I find the elongated look of the 3:2 aspect ratio to be a visually cramped for what I like to do. Each to their own though, it is not to say there is anything wrong with any other system. Whatever works for the individual.
Large format is immensely rewarding, the whole process is great from start to finish and I highly recommend giving it a go if you are at all interested. There is much to learn and that journey is part of the charm, it is a great pastime and pursuit which is deeply rewarding when you capture the images that you want to create. The tactile feel of working with a view camera is something, which modern digital cameras can not compete with. Digital systems can get you closer, such as using tilt-shift lenses/adapters or view cameras like the Cambo Actus (more on that here) but the view camera has a charm that is unrivalled in my humble opinion. From looking at that image on the ground glass, to the satisfying whirr and click of the shutter, and then the anticipation of the latent image coming to life out of the developing tank.