Large format diaries #19
Large format Workshop in Glencoe
I’m recently returned from a great few days in Scotland in the company of Richard Childs, Tim Parkin, and some other like-minded large-format folk. Though I’ve never been on a dedicated photography workshop before, I think one can safely judge the quality of the experience by the quality of the images that were enabled during the time. I’m delighted to say that a few of the images I created are some of my favourites ever: in particular the following two.
My principal aim from the workshop was to gain more experience and to compare notes with Richard, Tim, and the others, to improve not simply the final images, but –especially important with large format – the workflow that gets you there. I’d never before actually seen anyone else using a large format camera in the field.
Here are some further thoughts/notes to self about things I learned during.
Perhaps most important of all: knowing your gear, and how it works. Arranging your gear in such a way that you can make it work for you most effectively.
Here I have positive notes and also things to improve. In terms of note-taking, my tapes system was acknowledged to be great. It’s easy to use, and doesn’t necessitate the use of a larger notebook every time you take a shot, so long as you remember to carry a pen in your pocket.
Carrying gear: still a work in progress for me. I took everything including the kitchen sink along with me, in my new backpack, which ended up being pretty much twice the size of everyone else’s (perhaps predictably, there were a lot of f-stop bags on show), and this not simply because the TK is a pretty large camera for a 5×4, at least set against the cameras that others had (Chamonix, Ebony – wow, really beautiful cameras!, Deardorff, Horseman). The backpack is a good purchase, since it is a way of ensuring I have all my equipment and lenses with me should I need them, but it’s not that great if I have a shot, or, at least, angle of view for a shot, in mind, and need only to carry a couple of lenses with the camera along with maybe a couple of film-holders, light meter, and darkcloth. Richard has a cheap bag insert from Amazon big enough to carry his Chamonix, a couple of lenses and a meter; having had a quick look, something abouto the size of the Tenba Tools BYOB 13 may well suit my Linhof. I’ll still need an extra pouch or wrap for my Arca head, which is really great but still rather heavy. But doable for backpacking if I carry fewer lenses and maybe only 4 sheets of film max for a solid walking trip.
Gear: useability, practice
I think I was one of the most experienced of the participants in working with the camera and shooting colour slide film, having made a conscious effort over the last 18 months or so to expose quite a bit of Velvia and to try to use the Linhof as my main camera. I’m also pleased with my decision to start my large-format life with the Technikardan – it’s heavier and bigger than wooden 5×4 field cameras, but is more user friendly in the sense that it has measurements and well-engineered controls for movements so that you can tell at a glance what movements you’ve got dialled in and make notes for future reference – good for troubleshooting. Things I learned included a number of important things as follows:
I need to become more confident at spot-metering a colour value to base my exposure around for exposing Velvia – not just choosing a dark point, or a highlight, but other colours when extreme highlights or dark tones are not present in the scene. I have a little note card with some values on it, and need to grow confident at it with more practice.
I am also trying to wean myself off using my mobile phone apps for help with exposure times and so forth, since there will always be a time when I forget it or the battery dies, and in any case I want to be as non-electronic about at least the making of photographs as I can be. Figuring exposures out, with filter factors and bellows extensions, and reciprocity failure, shouldn’t really be too bad with a couple of little tables, either in a notebook or even taped to the side of the rear standard of the camera: with bellows extension fine, so long as keep my tape measure wrapped around my dark slides so I don’t forget to check for extra time before making an exposure. Even filter factors (for colour correction filters or polarizers) can be forgotten about somewhat if I do the sensible thing and meter through the filters (I think!) rather than using the app for the exposure correction.
Tim also showed me that using a viewing/composition card is much more convenient, and useful, than using the viewfinder phone app, at least for identifying and getting a feel for a scene (it is useful, though, for recording a scene for future reference: but perhaps something to do after making an exposure rather than before, or on occasions when I don’t get the camera out or have it with me). A viewing card also works for closeups, which the viewfinder app really can’t work with – its focal length estimations really aren’t too accurate anyway for anything closer than infinity focus grander vistas. I now understand that a small 6×7 film size hole in a piece of card (or, in my mock-up version, a wasted piece of 5×4 film) works well for estimating lens choice and for visualizing a composition: holding the viewer at your nose is super wide; holding it at arm’s length is telephoto – 400mm and beyond; in between are more normal angles of view.
- When out and about, it is good practice to keep the light meter most easily accessible, ideally in coat pocket. You can meter a scene to test the water, as it were. With Velvia I now have a pretty good idea of how a scene will work or not, and try to make notes of this. My Paramo coat can swallow vast amounts of gear anyway (e.g. loupe, meter, phone, darkcloth, a few darkslides, cleaning cloths, lens hood/filter holders).
- Use spikes on the tripod! I’ve not been in the habit of using them up until now, but realise that they’re very important for anything but the firmest ground with large format – unless you are at the seaside on rocky shorelines or on sand, there are not actually that many places in the uk for landscape photography where spikes aren’t useful. The success of my 400mm shots on this trip is likely to be due in very great part to the fact that I started using my tripod spikes to minimize vibrations.
- Selecting appropriate apertures: previously I’ve tended to select my aperture by guesswork (!) or exposure time, figuring that f/22 and beyond is fine (using f/32 on occasion if I feel I need more depth). This hasn’t really caught me out very much, but can be a pain when it does. So: trust the ground glass! For the majority of my f/5.6 lenses, f/22 2/3 seems to be the aperture limit before more serious diffraction kicks in. With my Nikkor-M f/9 lens, this isn’t really an issue beyond f/64(!). Here’s the thing: with some practice, you can stop down the aperture of the lens while checking the ground glass with the loupe under the dark cloth. I had always assumed that doing this was pretty pointless because you wouldn’t be able to see anything, but what I’ve now come to understand is that you can see enough to register depth of field throughout the scene. If you do it this way, you can also get set up for grads at the shooting aperture as well. On the subject of grads, 3 stops of grad is usually too much for large format. It’s good practice, in any case, to use grads in combination, to “feather in” as necessary (e.g. using two 0.3 hard grads or one 0.3 hard and one 0.3 soft, with the soft inserted perhaps a centimeter lower) to make the transitions subtle.
- Too much tilt? There’ve been numerous occasions where I’ve messed about in the field because of a lack of confidence about how much (or rather, how little) tilt is applied to a scene for depth of field, especially on my wide-angle lenses. I now understand more about the hinge line of the focal plane, and, in particular, how the height of the camera above your chosen plane of focus will substantially affect how much tilt to apply. Visualizing things side-on can be very useful. (This also applies with swing). I’ve often been using too much front fall and tilt with wide-angles, when just lowering the tripod would have been a much better option, reducing vignetting and problems with distortion at the edges of the image circle. If in doubt, no more than about 2º of tilt is often required, unless there’s something unusual about the composition or camera position. Using a viewing card may actually help with setups for wide angles too.
- Mistakes. These will happen, and we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when things don’t go to plan. I’ve had over 70% success with my exposures on large format so far, and even better this year (even if I didn’t end up liking a composition, the exposures were successful and technically correct), but it’s amusing to share stories about failures and missed shots. My own personal nadir is using grads in woodland… What was I thinking??
All in all, great fun, and I learned a lot. Even if in future the quality of my photographs doesn’t change that much, I’m confident that the process of making them will be smoother and less frustrating.