Going 5×4?

So, one of the things on my horizon for next year (after I’ve bought a new car!!) is a new camera. I’m increasingly looking for high-detail images that print well sizes up to A2, would really like to explore movements more than currently I can with one Nikon tilt-shift lens, and experience the delights of colour film, especially Velvia (if I can get any!).

I’m currently quite heavily invested in Nikon gear, but who knows what Nikon will come up with next other than the D5 for the Olympics. I’ve also been doing lots of background reading both online and offline about large format film photography, and this option is very tempting for me: as Ming Thein just commented to me, this would represent a serious personal statement and investment, but I’ve been self-consciously trying to explore the kinds of shot that would work very well on large format anyway, and since I shoot solo, in between my busy work schedule, often on solo trips or holidays, this would not represent very much of a sacrifice in terms of shooting possibilities, and may, once I’ve absorbed the technical challenges, open up rather than shut down creativity.

I would certainly plan to keep my D800E for now, especially for the more dedicated close macro work at 1:1 on 35mm. But for the close scenic shots, I think large format would be a wonderful adventure. Macros are possible on 4×5, but require extra bellows extension and thus longer exposure times.  And of course 1:1 on 4×5 is 4x5inches, not 35mm!

There are obviously some risks involved here, especially with the availability of colour film – which is getting very expensive in the UK (Kodak Ektar 100) or would have to be imported from Japan (Fuji Velvia 50), but I think that for a few years, if not longer into the future, this would be very fun.

What about the costs involved, compared with getting a new top-end Nikon high-resolution DSLR body?

Well, a new D800E replacement would cost, say £2500-£3000 (or rather more if it came in the form of a pro body: currently the D4s is about £4400 here).  What would I need for 4×5 and what have I already got?

Well, my lovely wife bought me a Sekonic L758D light meter for my birthday, which I’ve already been using with my D800E as an external spot meter. This is interesting since it allows me to use the Nikon viewfinder solely for checking focussing accuracy: this is more difficult than it sounds, even with liveview, with manual focus lenses such as my 85PC-E: using the light meter means you slow down, compartmentalize the process, and get things right.

I also picked up a Paramo darkcloth, which I will continue to use with the Nikon anyway in bright light (in the lake district in August I had to use a raincoat over my head to be able to see the screen properly).

What else would I need, and how much would it cost?

So: cameras first.

If you want a brand-new absolutely top-end field camera for use with a wide range of lenses, then this will cost you. A shortlist of cameras here for 4×5 might include the following three:

Folding wood field camera:

1)

Ebony SV45U2: bellows range from 85-510mm, so suitable for lenses in the range of about 70mm to about 400mm, about the biggest you’d want to go with 4×5 I reckon: compared with 35mm, this would equate to about 23mm–135mm

These weigh about 3kg without lenses, cost about £5000, and have to be specially ordered from Japan. But the quality is amazing: made from ebony wood with titanium hardware. Also has asymmetric tilts, so makes focusing easy.

All-metal monorail cameras for field use:

2)

Linhof Technikardan 45S: bellows range from 48-504mm: see above. Also need an extra set of bellows for wide-angle shots. I love that the German for wide-angle is Weitwinkel!

These cost about £4000, and weigh about 3.5kg. Less tactile than the Ebony, but with seemingly a greater range of control through the control knobs. Appears not to have the asymmetric tilts. Famously used in the UK by David Ward.

3)

Arca-Swiss F-field compact with orbix: weirdly (but not so weirdly if you know anything about Arca) not available in UK, but can occasionally be purchased second-hand from the US. Lighter weight than the Linhof, but with nodal tilts for ease of focusing. Second hand might cost about £3-4000? Well known as a camera used in the US by Jack Dykinga.

Much cheaper options are, of course, possible, such as from makers like Chamonix, and second-hand cameras are often easily available – though I’m yet to see many top-end Ebony or Linhof field cameras for sale second-hand: an indication of how well cherished they are by owners, it seems. Those top-end options are very tempting, especially given that one of the draws of shooting large-format in the first place is the engrossing nature of the tactile qualities of the gear and the emotional contact with the environment. The more expensive options have more features, including the full range of tilts and shifts on the rear as well as front standards, but also tend to be heavier. Heavier seems paradoxically to be good in the world of large format, since it makes cameras more stable when extended, and makes them less prone to vibration in wind – so long as you don’t mind hulking the gear about.  But then, I did once own a Nikon 600VR lens, which weighed 5kg by itself…

What else after a camera? (in addition to the light meter and darkcloth)

I already have a solid Gitzo tripod (best investment I made in photography to date, a 3540LS bought in 2007 and still going strong) and an acceptable head (either Manfrotto 410 or Induro BHL3), so I’m covered here.

Lenses: perhaps a total of four, but these don’t have to be all purchased at once.

For instance: focal lenses of about 70mm, 150mm, 210mm, and 400mm, by the likes of Schneider, Rodenstock, Nikon and Fuji, with possibilities of adding a dedicated macro (e.g 120 or 180mm) if I feel I’d like one later. Lenses can all be bought second-hand in good condition, and might cost about £300-£500 or so each.

Double dark slides: perhaps 6: a job-lot in good second-hand condition might cost about £100?

Filters: so far I’ve managed to get away without using grads, but with 4×5 landscape work, these will be needed, especailly with Velvia and its challenging exposure window.  A set of Lee hard resin grads will cost about £200 new.

Loupe: bought new, about £80 for x4 magnification

Film:

No doubt this will keep increasing in price, but currently the situation is roughly as follows in the UK:

Kodak Ektar 100 (colour negative): about £5 per sheet

Fuji Velvia 50 (colour slide): about £4? per sheet imported

Ilford Delta 100 (B&W): about £1.60 per sheet

Processing:

Possible to do this yourself (but you’ll probably need a processor – perhaps £300 second hand – as well as the chemicals: perhaps £150 per year); alternatively, about £3 per sheet if you outsource processing.  I’ll also need a changing bag for loading the film in holders: maybe about £50-£100.

Scanning:

Doing this at home will require something like an Epson V850, which are currently about £650. For making large prints, a drum-scan may be required, which start at about £15 each if you send them off to get done here.

Light box:

For viewing the negs/transparencies: £50-£100 new depending on size.

Other extras:

Storage cases/bags for film holders; lens wraps/pouches for lenses  Prob. won’t need a new bag.

So: the costs mount up, certainly, but for an immersive process with a relatively small number of shots a year (fewer than 100 sheets, perhaps), digital won’t really compare for the experience, and the output has a quality all of its own.  And I can probably sell a lens or two from my Nikon line-up to partly fund this change.

Processing 100 sheets (which seems quite a lot!) might cost a maximum amount of about £500 for film and say £400 processing per year.

So: initial outlay on equipment

anywhere from about £1500-£5000 for a camera and lens or lenses

£200+ for extras

£650 for scanner

and under £1000 per year for film and processing.

Given that a large format camera will never require updating unless you really want to, this matches quite well what will be required if you continue to follow the upgrade route for DSLRs, also remembering that higher resolution bodies may well require higher resolution (and very expensive) new lenses (think Zeiss and top-end Nikon primes at over £1000 each). Even if you upgraded a high-end DSLR only every four years, you might still have to spend about an extra 50% of this cost during the period updating the lenses for best quality. Modern (i.e. made in the last 20 years or so) large format lenses are generally all excellent, with updates to designs making for improved ease-of-use/lack of vignetting etc. rather than overall image-quality. Notwithstanding the issues of film availability, now seems a good time to invest in large format gear. Digital 35mm appears to be approaching a brick wall/cross-roads (delete as appropriate, given the impact of Sony on Canon and Nikon), so it isn’t even as if trying to stay near the cutting edge in 35mm might offer any more security than heading into large format film. At least, it seems like it might be a great experience! Let’s see what the next 12-18months bring.  Keeping a toe in both waters will also be interesting, I reckon!

I’m not entirely new to film shooting, though I haven’t done it for 20 years!  I’m going to do some practice at 35mm later this year with my father’s Canon A1.

See the following links for further inspiration:

http://www.annaphotobooth.com

http://www.into-the-light.com

http://www.ebonycamera.com

http://linhof.com/technikardan-4×5/?lang=en

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