Large Format Diaries
Further thoughts on 5×4 after a couple of months
How am I getting on with large format now? I’m really enjoying myself. There’s plenty of inspiration out there on places like flickr, and you can also really engross yourself in photographic history in the knowledge that your tools are essentially the same as those that have been used over the last century and more. The camera puts the focus on you, your technique, and vision, immediately getting you away from being het-up about such things as megapixels, noise, lens performance, and all those other relatively tedious gear-headed things that digital forums and magazines seem to talk about to the detriment of the actual image-making. I’m still getting used to composing on the ground glass – sometimes I still have difficulty seeing the big picture rather than focusing on the precise details with the lupe. But I’m beginning to have the confidence to leave the Nikon at home when I have a specific shot in mind.
Another unexpected consequence is that my attitude to shooting locations has changed a little. Now that I see that when my 5×4 shots really work, they have the power to totally transform a scene which I might have overlooked on digital, or at least wasn’t quite so obvious or resonant. I’m keen to explore the UK a lot more than I thought I would (and this isn’t simply because travelling by plane with a 5×4 will probably be a bit of an issue).
I think the groundwork I put in in the last year or so before making the jump has been time well spent. I think a few things came together for me here. The 5×4 crop on my D800E changed quite a bit about my way of composing; the combination of following Ben Horne’s work, reading OnLandscape magazine, and buying my 85PC-E tilt-shift lens got me more and more into a large-format mentality before even getting there.
While I’m definitely still learning – I haven’t even completely emptied any of my 6 boxes of film – I can’t overemphasize the amount of time and research that could be put in to understanding the experience and processes before you begin. The resources page on the large format forum is totally indispensible – especially for its discussion of lenses, focal lengths, and coverage issues, but for cameras you have to do a bit more legwork by yourself. This is a bit daunting – I bought my Linhof second-hand over the web without even having touched a large-format camera before I got it out of the box – but on the plus side, the cameras aren’t too expensive when you consider the potential quality of the output, and I don’t think you can go wrong with major brands like Linhof, Arca, or Ebony. The advantages of the Linhof which drew me to it were the range of usable focal lengths, and the full range of movements with measurements on the controls. The decision I had to make was between the Linhof and something like an Arca-Swiss F-metric compact or an Ebony SV45U2, but the latter 2 are much more difficult to find second-hand and tend to be much more expensive (certainly in the case of the Ebony). Anyway, my Linhof is great. It also has a certain rugged charm with its tank-like metal and its green and red controls.
It should also be said, though, that going unorthodox with 5×4 film doesn’t entirely take you away from an obsession with equipment! Things I’m considering for later on include whether to add another lens (my current longest is my Nikkor W210 which isn’t quite as long as my 85PC-E on digital), so perhaps some kind of Fujinon 300mm. The other slight disappointment is that I haven’t made much of the 35mm or 120 film I bought. The zoom lenses I have for the Canon A-1 really aren’t that great, and I can’t feel that using 120 film on a 5×4 camera has much point. I’m wondering whether a panoramic film camera of some kind would be a nice complement to 5×4, giving me another very different shooting composing option. The only issue here is that cameras like the Hasselblad X-Pan or Fuji GX617 are either expensive, or big, or both. Who knows what will happen in the months ahead though!
To end, here’s a mildly re-edited version of my first ever 5×4 exposure, on Delta 100. The original exposure was totally wrong since I misread the meter, but I managed to bring everything back under control in photoshop, and now I’ve got the tonality and contrast pretty much how I want it.