Beginning the Large Format Journey

I just wanted to post a few large format images here on my journal. These are early attempts using my 4×5 camera, a Tachihara field camera. Like anything new, the process of setting up and taking photographs with this camera can seem rather clumsy and intimidating.

I had the same feelings when I started developing my own film a few years ago. Everything had to be carefully planned, thought through and executed and there were always doubts that it would even work out in the end. My film developing has had varying degrees of success reflected by the quality of the negatives. As time has gone on, the scratches, spots and streaks have become fewer and fewer. My negatives are much improved from the early days.

It feels the same with large format. I’ve made some mistakes along the way, like not closing the lens before removing the dark slide, exposing the film for minutes at a time. Or having difficulty with focus, not understanding the movements of the camera or not taking my time to check all areas of the frame.

These recent images reflect a relatively low level of proficiency, but as in film developing, I know I can do better. I’m not so worried about the overall composition right now as I am about the technical success of the images. While the subject matter is important to me, getting to know the camera, lenses and film characteristics is a key part of personal progress.

In a nutshell, here’s my process:

1. Find an interesting composition or subject
2. Set up the tripod and deploy the camera. I use an Arca Swiss quick release on a Gitzo tripod
3. Level the camera and zero out the front and rear standards
4. Choose a lens (I have a 90mm, 180mm and 300mm) for the scene and attach to the camera
5. Attach the shutter remote cable
6. Set the lens to the widest open aperture
7. Under a darkcloth, do a quick focus through the ground glass and check the composition and lens coverage
8. Introduce any camera movements to adjust the composition and focus the scene.
9. Check focus with a loupe including all four corners of the frame
10. Meter the scene for exposure. I use a Pentax spotmeter and use Ansel’s zone system to place my dark areas in the right zone. I also check the brightest area of the scene to make sure the film can handle the dynamic range and to check on the average exposure of the scene to make sure I won’t under or overexpose.
11. Set aperture and shutter time on the lens.
13. Load a film holder, check again that the lens is closed, cock the shutter (tip from Craig Pindell: “One step you might add, that has saved me often, is to fire the shutter once then recock before pulling the dark slide. Won’t fire w/open”) and remove the film holder dark slide.
14. Take the shot.
15. Reinsert the dark slide turning the slide to the black side indicating the sheet has been exposed.
16. Remove the film holder and repeat as necessary

As this routine becomes more normalized, I think the angst will largely go away and I’ll be much more relaxed when using the camera. Right now, it’s all too big a deal for me but when you really stop and think about it, there’s nothing to it once a process is imprinted in your brain. That’s when the fear and anxiety goes away. Processing film now is a lot more enjoyable when I don’t sweat the details. I think the same will become true with my large format camera. The excitement of seeing a successful result will never go away and that’s what keeps me moving forward.

As alway, thanks for reading and leave any comments or questions if you have any thoughts on large format film photography.


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