Large Format Diaries

#12.  Mixing large format and digital.

Some recent experiences shooting large format alongside DSLR have firmed up my impression that this is more difficult than it might at first seem.  One might presume, given that large format is a very different working experience than the convenience and speed of working with digital, that shooting the same scene on both systems side by side wouldn’t cause too many problems.   However, some recent shots, taken on both digital and on large format, have had problems because of the lack of concentration or rather confusion in the thinking required for good practice in either.  Either something goes awry with the large format shot, or with the digital.  Here are my thoughts – others’ experiences may of course differ – but this is intended as an aide memoire to myself and a guide to others.

The natural desire when people start out with film is to shoot digital alongside it, and this is obviously the best of both worlds.  However, things can get messed up because the clarity of thought can get disturbed by overlaps with very different working systems.

I’ll explain with two subjects, illustrated, both from my recent trip to the Isle of Bute, Scotland.

The first: a pair of shots both of which I’m pretty happy about, though I think both could be improved (not that I’ll get the chance for another 12 months at least!).  The first is taken on D800E with 24PC-E; the second on 5×4 Velvia 50 with a 90mm lens, a similar angle of view as the 24mm on full-frame DSLR.


Arran View with Loch na Leighe

Arran View with Loch na Leighe

These were made after an hour-long slog uphill through bracken, as can be seen in the shots.  The vantage point, sought out using Google Earth well in advance, ended up being pretty exposed and windy – the large format shot isn’t quite as sharp as it might be.  In the conditions, and limited time available, I shot the digital shot first, fearing that the large format shot wasn’t going to work – lack of faith!!  I chose the 3-stop soft grad to darken the sky without compromising the uneven horizon line of my chosen composition too much.  This has come out pretty well, with everything nicely sharp, though it may be that even 3 stops of grad wasn’t quite enough to control the changing mood of the sky with sunset out to the right hand side.  Having taken these shots, I then decided that I would shoot on large-format after all – I hadn’t carried the gear all this way for nothing! – and set up the scene as fast as I could before the light departed.  In my haste, I simply swapped over the grad holder with the 0.9 soft grad still in and set it up correctly on the 90mm.  In retrospect this was the mistake – I should have concentrated harder on metering the scene correctly to balance the sky against the much darker foreground, within the tolerances of Velvia.  I reckon that the large format shot is therefore at least a full stop under-gradded, and I should probably have used the hard version anyway (the edges of soft grads basically disappear completely when viewed on large format).  The vast difference between the D800 and Velvia in handling dynamic range is the issue here.  If I’d only taken the large format camera with me, there’s a good chance that the gradding would have been better, notwithstanding any other screw-ups that I could have made!  As a result the large format sheet had some work done to it in photoshop to rescue the highlights a little.  This also confirms my suspicion that I may have to invest in a few more hard grads to complete my set for shooting large format (I don’t currently have any in half-stops: I think I should get at least a 0.45 hard to use in combination with others to better balance a scene).

The second: a DSLR shot of an abandoned cottage, and a Velvia 50 5×4 shot of a detail from it.


Here, I had again used both DSLR and the Linhof to take similar images, this time with 70-200mm on the D800 and Nikkor-M 300mm on the Linhof.  The detail shots of the window came out fine on film, but I entirely forgot to focus the lens properly using digital, so those images for the window aren’t sufficiently sharp.  Again, distraction the likely cause here.  For the wider view of the cottage, for some reason the large format shots (one on Velvia and one on Provia) are both overexposed by an estimated one stop, so the whites are blown.  The digital version came out fine.  While this is likely to be a user error metering the scene on large format, the decision to shoot digital side-by-side may also have contributed by not allowing enough time to concentrate on shooting film.  As I look back over my successful large format shots over the last year and a half, the best work was taken when I had confidence enough to work entirely with film.  So a lesson for me going forward is to by all means shoot the same scene with two entirely different systems, but to do so separately.  It also has the benefit of not having to haul an extra bag up and down a large hill in the dark…!

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