I’ll admit that the title for this entry is a little “click-baity”.
The lessons in Large Format are actually lessons I’ve learned, not lessons I can give, sorry 🙂
One of the things you’ll come to know from reading this site is that I’m equal parts Cynical, Comedic, Serious & Stupid.
I’ll bag myself out on a regular basis and have no problem with not being the worlds best photographer. The comments on cameras here are just my thoughts and not a ‘review’ as such, don’t get bent out of shape if something doesn’t jive with your way of thinking (yes, I just said jive.)
Now on with the…. review…..
A while back I bought a Mamiya RZ67 Pro ii with Film Back & a 110mm & 180mm lenses. I shot a few different things, some landscapes, a couple of headshots, but for the most part it sat in the cupboard. For some reason and I’ll blame Ben Horne & Sandy Phimester (whose amazing work has inspired me to no end) for starting me on the large format path. I decided that a 4×5 camera sitting in the cupboard was better than a RZ67 sitting in the cupboard. Most likely because I could use the excuse “Oh it’s too hard to set it up” rather than “I can’t be bothered”.
So I packed up the RZ and went to The Camera Exchange here in Melbourne and got a deal trading the RZ for a Cambo SC with a couple of lenses and a stack of film holders.
Then after I got the camera home, I suddenly, for the first time in ages felt like I knew nothing about cameras or photography.
The Cambo SC is a Monorail camera with a 4×5 inch ground glass back which can be moved from Vertical to Horizontal for shooting.
The Film holders are double dark slide backs which hold 2 sheets of film at a time. One on either side of the film back.
Shutter speed and Aperture are both set on the lens and the shutter itself is fired via cable release attached to the lens itself.
The shutter is actually mounted in between the front and rear elements of the lens and it it possible to buy lenses without shutters, so be careful if you’re looking for bargains online.
The Front and Rear Standards, the bit with the lens and the bit with the ground glass, can move independently of each other. This is because the image projected from the lens is actually bigger than 4×5 inches which means you can move the front standard up, down, side-side and not lose part of the image. The rear standard also has these movements. On top of that there is also front & rear Tilt & Swing. The first series of movements affect the composition and the last two affect focus. That’s about as plainly as I can explain it and a few minutes messing around will give you the basic gist of it. But I’m not doing any of that just yet.
The whole approach to using the 4×5 was alien to me. I knew what to do but the problem was what to shoot?
The usual approach of invite a mate over to shoot something on film, or go for a walk down the street and snap off a few candid shots was out the window for me.
So I had to take a new approach.
I’m only shooting Ilford FP4 & HP5 to start with as I know from shooting it in Medium Format that it can handle some pretty wild exposure screw ups.
But what was I going to shoot?
I know, landscapes, easy…..
My first little foray into shooting the 4×5 went pretty well but not well enough to document or make any great claims so we’re going to skip to my second time out with the camera.
This is where the lessons really start kicking in.
My whole photographic career up to this point has been shooting people with the occasional basic landscape.
People are pretty easy, especially when they’re pretty people.
You get your exposure right and lock focus and the rest handles itself to a large extent. You work through a variety of poses, switching up verticals and horizontals and you get the model comfortable and you make great pictures.
(Okay I’m over simplifying and mostly kidding here 😉 )
But now I’m out in the Aussie bush getting bitten by bull ants on a crazy hot day, and the thing that is hardest of all; COMPOSITION!
Yeah, who would have thought that composition was going to be the most demanding thing about shooting a large format camera?
Well every landscape shooter ever, I guess.
So, I’ve got 2 sheets of FP4 loaded up and the idea of not having the perfect shot is driving me mad.
But I’ve got to bite the bullet some time. So I found a composition I was happy with, even though I ended up jammed on top of a small bush.
btw if you ever want to see how patient your partner is, ask them to come on a large format photo expedition into the bush.
This is the view through the ground glass looking at my subject. The upside down and back to front was something I knew to expect, but knowing it didn’t make it any easier to compose an image.
Now that I had my composition, I metered the scene with my spot meter and made 2 exposures.
And that was it. It took a couple of seconds to shoot, reload, shoot and it was all over.
It really wasn’t that scary, but here come more lessons….
I made 2 exposures, one with the lens wide open at f5.6 so depth of field in this photo is going to be thin and the other at f11 so a little more will be in focus.
The f11 shot I developed myself in New55 R3 Monobath, it’s a capable developer but in this case the negative wasn’t as clean as I wanted.
Which left the f5.6 shot. This one I took to CPL Digital who, despite the name, have an excellent darkroom set up where they processed the negative.
Thankfully everything was cool and I got a great useable negative from my first real attempt at shooting the 4×5 camera!
The entire process was something that if you’re used to shooting 35mm is going to seem like a nightmare. Especially if you have a monorail camera and not a folding one.
You can easily ignore all the movements that cameras offer too and just shoot it like a big camera. Mastering what the different movements of the Front & Rear Standards is something I am yet to do. But I’ve heard this can take years so I’m in no rush.
Film for these cameras is expensive, $33USD for 25 sheets of Ilford HP5 if bought from B&H, the same film purchased in Australia is around $69AUD
That doesn’t include processing, scanning or printing.
But when you do get a print made…
It is totally awesome!
I know that getting prints from any camera makes the pictures about 10 times cooler but getting this 12″ x 15″ enlargement back from CPL just blew my mind.
Seeing a crappy iPhone photo of the print really doesn’t do it justice.
All I can say is that no 35mm Digital camera can give you the look of a Large Format Negative enlarged in the Darkroom on Ilford photo paper.
It just looks amazing, and it’s only a couple of native grass tress, big deal.
So what else did I learn from shooting the Cambo?
Well I finally figured out what sort of photographer I really want to be.
For years I’ve been working, shooting digital to get paid and supplementing that with other work.
Now it’s not really about the pay, of course I’ll keep shooting digital for work.
But shooting for myself has now changed.
Now I’m heading down the road of fine art photography, this is the first contact sheet of a collaboration with a local model, Camila.
Shot on the large format camera, darkroom processed and darkroom printed.
So the larger format taught me something that I never expected to learn. It had nothing to do with shooting and everything to do with photography.
It’s an exciting and awesome new part of my photographic process and probably isn’t for everyone but that’s cool it doesn’t have to be.
I’ve still got 35mm & Medium Format cameras too and I think they’re unreal, but for me the love affair with Large Format has only just begun.