Large Format Diaries



The first in a new series of blogs about my experiences as a newbie to 4×5 (or rather 5×4,“five-four”, as it’s known in the UK).


So. I now have the Linhof (aka “Biphonium”, as it has been dubbed by my six-year-old son, who is most amused by the musical-instrument feel of the strange new camera), and three lenses, and associated other paraphernalia needed for some (hopefully) successful shooting.


I also have film. I picked up 2 boxes of Ektar (2x 10 sheets) and a box of Delta 100 (25 sheets) in London last week, and this week also a box of Provia 100F. In addition, I ordered 2 boxes of Velvia 50 in 5×4 from Japan, and this will hopefully arrive tomorrow now that the Customs charges have been paid.


That’s worth a side note: so, as you will be presumably aware (if you are reading this), Velvia 50 is now unavailable in large format sizes except in Japan, so you either have to visit Japan or buy some mail order and pay more for the privilege. While next summer a trip to Tokyo beckons, en route to New Zealand to visit my brother, this time around I did a trial-run order of 2x 20-sheet boxes from Japan Exposures. While the store has been exemplary, I’m a little less impressed with ParcelForce. In addition to the VAT, they charged a flat rate of £13.50 just to process the import, and send a letter out to me re. the payment, before final delivery can take place. This seems a) steep and b) unnecessarily antediluvian (though who am I to judge, with my potentially reactionary Luddite attitude to film photography!): isn’t there a better way to have the delivery charges paid for and the item delivered straightaway?  For reference, the final customs charge was just over £50 on top of the cost of the two boxes of film. On current exchange rates, the film cost about £88 per box from Japan, plus the £25 extra each. This is clearly very expensive, but I’m not going to tell you that 5×4 film in the UK is cheap (cheapest equivalent Fuji Provia here is still £72) so, as Ben Horne put it, this is the price of admission.  Black and White is cheaper, but still expensive.


Now to the interesting bit, the experience.


I have now shot 10 sheets of film (4x Delta 100, 4x Ektar 100, 2x Provia 100). What was it like, and how did I think I fared? (NB processing will take place next week, so I haven’t seen any results yet.)


First – loading film. Very daunting, ultimately tedious, and rather sweaty(!)


So, three different film stocks, 6 film holders, 1 Harrison Pup changing tent.


Hopefully I did this bit right, but again, who knows…

The frustrating bit is the different ways in which the (3) film companies present their films inside the boxes – obviously you have to go on feel, since you can’t look at it in the tent. My favourite was the Delta: Ilford have a wrap-around cardboard backing piece that envelops the film. You just flip this up and pick a sheet. Fuji had two bags of 10 sheets, so you tear one pack open and there the film is, loose in a torn bag – a bit haphazard. Ektar has the cardboard, but it’s two sheets, one front and one back, not helpfully joined together like Ilford’s.


You then load the sheet in, hopefully in the right orientation. The film notches are indispensible here. The experience is still disorienting, and your arms risk getting a bit sweaty inside the tent (which has double constrictions on your arms to prevent light leaks). A necessary evil – while, once again, Ben Horne conditioned me well to know what to expect here, it really isn’t much fun. It also does take a long time – I think it took me an hour to load the 12 sheets; it would have been quicker if I’d had to load all the same film stock.


What next: how to label the holders. Well, I numbered each side with a Sharpie from 1 to 12. What I did next – following a useful old tip from online (see – was to label each side of each holder with a piece of artist’s paper tape, in an appropriate colour for the film inside (while in London I picked up a few rolls from Cass Art in Islington): I currently have grey for Delta 100 (= B&W); Orange-yellow for Ektar (=Kodak); Green for Velvia (= Fuji); Purple for Provia (a reminder of its colour rendition); and Blue (for Fuji Pro 160NS in case I buy any).


The tape is nice – but leaves a little more residue than I was expecting. What I don’t recommend is that you tape down the darkslide itself, but tape over the top as in the second image on the flickr link (I bought new Toyo film holders, but they’re similar to the ?Fidelity ones in the pics).


When out shooting, what you then do is peel off the tape, stick it to the side of the camera (in my case, the rhs of the rear standard), and, when you’ve finished the shot, reapply the tape to the holder and annotate it with all the shooting data. This has the double advantage of both providig all the detail about what the film-holder contains, plus some extra security against the darkslide slipping.


Here’s an example from mine: ‘Rowsley chestnut tree (+ GPS coordinates); Delta 100 75mm, ¼” f/32, 32mm FR (= front rise), 5º BT (= back tilt) N+1, 11:15am 17/2/16 [=date], (9) [= film-holder number]’

This tells me everything I need to know about the shot, which will help me eliminate any errors in future: i.e. basic EXIF info for a non-digital age(!).

When I unload the film I’ll keep the pieces of tape and transfer to a storage box for the negatives when they return from the lab.


How did the shooting go?? I’m in Derbyshire for the week with my son in tow, so a nice chance to visit some good locations.


First outing:

A revisit of shot I took on digital a while back – the beautiful Sweet Chestnut tree near Peak Tor in Rowsley (see here). The digital shot was taken with the Zeiss 21mm, but with some focus stacking, which has had the unfortunate consequence of causing blending difficulties in the tips of the leaves at the edges of the tree (don’t look too closely!). A single-shot solution will hopefully resolve this.


First boob! Misread light meter, shot first sheet at 11 seconds (misread ¼” for 4”, then added time for reciprocity!) – definitely a fried sheet. Once I realised my error (what was I thinking???) I shot a second sheet at ¼”. Not a particularly outlandish first shot, and, given that there were no leaves on the tree, and no snow on the ground, or mist/low cloud, the shot isn’t likely to be very atmospheric. But, since it was taken with a lot of front rise, and a bit of rear tilt, it will be interesting to see how the wide-angle shot worked out, especially with the lack of a centre-filter on this lens to prevent darkening in the corners. I could have shot the tree at a more ‘normal’ angle of view, but wanted to try out the 75SW Nikkor.


Second outing:

I scouted a shot for an oak tree in Chatsworth park, and then made my way to Padley for a trip down the gorge and up into Bolehill Quarry – again, to revisit one or two previous digital shots and try out some of the new film also.


As I made it up the path from the gorge past the signpost and up the hill towards Bolehill Quarry, the sun begin to peep over the hill on the far side of the gorge, bathing the tops of the trees ahead of me in beautiful golden light, at about 8:20am. Here I shot two sheets of Ektar with the Nikkor W210. Hopefully OK?!


Then into the quarry itself, I made one exposure of a scene I previously, again, shot on digital (here); this time, again with Ektar, but with the Schneider 150.


One thing I’m noting is that I feel much happier about changing lenses in the field with LF over digital: I’m forever paranoid with the D800E about getting stuff on the sensor, especially since I would have to get it cleaned professionally (I don’t trust myself), requiring another trip to London for that. So far – unless dust becomes a big deal with my sheets of film – I see no reason not to be relatively blazé about changing lenses.


Then up out of the lower quarry area, and into the birches on top. Here I stopped to take one shot on Ektar at 150mm; I was also carrying the D800E with me (in a thinktank pouch attached to the side of the new backpack) so after the 5×4 shot I took a few more on digital, which, it appears, have worked rather better in B&W rather than colour. See: here.


Third outing:

A mid-afternoon return visit to Chatsworth for the oak tree I scouted out earlier. This time I took the shots at 210mm (again on Delta 100), with no movements and the camera angled upwards. It will be interesting to compare any differences with the chestnut tree shot at 75mm. Quite an easy shot to set up, just waiting for some nice afternoon light to hit the branches – and the sheep to move out of the way…

After this, I took a couple more shots, this time with the Provia. I found some large decaying oak trunks, with great fine details in them, and tried out a shot with bellows-extension for a close shot. Here the versatility of large format is striking – also why I like the 85PC-E so much on the D800E – I didn’t have to change lenses, this time, to get a close shot after shooting the tree; one lens can do both landscape and macro.   Only thing to remember is that it’s handy to have a tape measure to measure the bellows extension, and to have your smartphone to hand to use the Reciprocity Timer app to factor in the extra time for bellows.


While none of these shots may be particularly great composition-wise, I will be delighted if I have managed to take some that are exposed and focused correctly, or at least in the right ballpark, on the first outing.


Fingers crossed…







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