Large Format is not for pussies


Ever wonder what goes into making a large format photograph? No? You’re a pussy. Read on.

The camera itself is pretty simple: two vertical boards, called standards, on a horizontal pole or bed, one with film, one with a lens connected by bellows. You slide them along to focus and move them in relation to each other to correct for naturally occurring convergence and other lens-distortion and perspective-generated evils. The product is a large piece of film with your image on it, the grand size of which becomes easier to appreciate as you grow older and your vision declines, and when I say your, I mean mine.

Simple, right? WRONG.

A typical session might be something like this: I see an intriguing tree, leaning just off vertical, next to a crumbling shack. Yummy textures. Interesting light. I set up the tripod and put the camera on it (10 minutes). I select a lens and mount it. (3 minutes). Attach the dark cloth to the camera and poke my head inside, focus by twiddling some knobs, rotate the camera for composition. (5 minutes). I change my mind about the lens, change it out, go back under the cloth, re-focus, re-compose (3 minutes). Move the tripod for better composition, back under the cloth, re-focus, re-compose (7 minutes). Change my mind about the lens now that the tripod is in a different place. Re-mount, under the cloth to re-focus, re-compose (3 minutes). Try to decide if there is anything truly vertical in the shot to line up on. (2 minutes). Mess with the front and rear standards, notice that if I shoot straight-on the crooked tree looks unnatural and the building contrived. (5 minutes). Try to make the building look better and now tree looks uninteresting. (4 minutes). Refuse to change lenses though it might be a better idea. Compromise on relationship between tree and building–the background is the part that looks natural now. (2 minutes). Fine tune the focus. Massage twinges in back, try to arrest leg trembling, get stung by maverick wasp. Out of the cloth I move bellows out of the way where they cover part of the film plane, back inside I correct for the vignetting at the corners because I should have used another lens, curse several times. (6 minutes) Bust out light meter and decide on exposure. (4 minutes) Wipe sweat from eyes, cloud moves over the sun, scene is now completely dull. Inspect the sky, calculate wind direction, decide it’s worth waiting for the sun. Remove dark cloth, insert film holder and wait. (8.2 minutes). Set up lens, cock shutter, test. Check the sky. Remove dark slide, poise finger on shutter release. Wait, wait, wait, yes, yes, got it. I hope. Replace dark slide. Total time: 44.2 minutes. Collapse on ground, hope lightning strikes me.

Repeat until I run out of film, inspiration, energy, will to live.

Go home, wait a few days, mix up some chemicals, develop the film. Out of 5 sheets, 4 are, well, sheet. The 4 bad ones can have lots of problems; select 2 of the following: bumped the camera; dark corners; misread the light; scratched the film; can’t tell why I took the shot; uneven development; light leaks; didn’t pay proper attention to dark slide and double expose the film; expose an empty holder; include finger, cable release or bug on lens; used color film instead of b&w. See? Simple and joyful, every damn minute.

Isn’t this inspiring? No? You’re a pussy.

23 thoughts on “Large Format is not for pussies

  1. This is kind of a stupid article. No one cares about what it takes to get the picture. It’s the end result that matters. Is your ego properly inflated now as you’ve demonstrated how much better you are than medium format, or God forbid, 35mm shooters?

  2. I loved it because that’s probably how I would have done. Being an amateur I found the humor in it.
    Some people would complain even if they were being hung with a brand new rope…

  3. No it is funny those that dont think so a pussies because they would have just taken the shot and moved on

  4. I saw the above a humor.
    I shoot with large format and have standardized on a little dance behind the camera when taking photographs that ends up in an error free exposure process. I find that since sheet film can capture so many steps in the grey scale that variances in exposure or artifacts on the film that would render an image on a smaller format unusable don’t really apply when shooting 8×10″ or 11×14″ film.
    I tend to take only one exposure of a scene unless the subject is a person and they seemed to have moved during image making. I generally shoot in three or four hour stints and come back with two to four negatives. If you love art as a process, you will love large format. If you are only looking for an end state and find process boring or frustrating it may not be for you.

  5. Thank you Amanda for validating what my own experience has been shooting large format. Your forgot to mention the joy in shooting with cameras that are over 100 years old with all the warpage and light leaks that I’ve blamed on old film holders. I thought I was the only one out there who couldn’t get decent images out of the old beast. If I get 4 good sheets out of 10 it’s a good day. If I’m a shitty photographer, at least I’m in good company.

  6. What kind? It is a joke that you can’t understand without knowing the foundations of your craft; a joke you won’t get if you use zoom lenses on a digital camera, enlarge to 24×30, and think it’s “good enough”; a joke you won’t appreciate if you walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon, snap a shot, and call it “Done!”; a joke you will never, ever, grasp until you’ve spent an hour contemplating the techniques you’ll use to make the best image possible, by your own reckoning, before pressing the shutter.

    It’s not about the size of the film, or whether the photographers that use the sizes are better or worse than each other. It’s about learning, knowledge, skill, and contemplation. A digital shooter can know when photography was invented; a 35mm photographer can spend a day making an image, a medium-format photographer can put a digital back on their camera, and a large format photographer can make images that are total crap.

    But still, this means a lot of large format photographers get the joke–and a lot of douchebags running around with the the latest Aston Kutcher camera will only be confused by it.

    (Guess where I think you fall in that spectrum?)

  7. Roger Canfield, at least you sign your name to your insults, but that’s all the credit I’m giving you. I believe you are a dick with no sense of humor and no appreciation for the joy and frustrations of large format photography. You are the kind of ass that just has to make negative comments for the sake of, oh, I don’t know, showing what a perfect ass you are? This goes for the rest of you that have nothing to contribute except your negative attitude and ignorance.

    For the record, I shoot 8×10, 4×5, 120 and digital. There is room for everyone in the world of photography – except for the ass*****.

    Very funny Amanda! The only thing I would add is the frustration when you go through all that you described for set up, look through the ground glass and realize that the image will never translate no matter what you do, and you have to tear the whole thing down & move on. Hey, at $5.00 a sheet, you have to know when to just move on.

  8. Amanda, thank you for your article: I laughed so loud reading it and I saw myself through all you described,
    I love your sense of humor, I hope you haven’t been touched by such rude comments I have read above. Tori is right, some people are just dicks, their life must be totally dull, to feel pushed to say such things.
    Keep going on, Amanda!

  9. Well – I was entertained and can relate … somewhat – my ratios are a little better – I would say 4 out of 6 would be ok and yet some of those might not be up to snuff. But I think you make an almost representative account of setting up and shooting large format. I hope all your shoots are not so challenging but some of them always are I guess. Thanks for putting into words the real difference between what a photographic artist does and what a cellphone snapper does. – It really is art.

  10. “out of 5 sheets, 4 are well sheet” classic. an artist is his/her worst critic anyway. i haven’t shot lf yet but im going to get there. 8 frames on my fuji gw690ii is more than enough. shooting 4-5 frames a day on lf would be great. there is nothing like the look of large format. good article.

  11. I’ve had the pleasure of shooting with Amanda during LF adventures in California, and New Mexico. She is one of the brightest, energetic, dedicated large format photographers that I know. She is down-to-earth, honest, and witty.

    Someone at Flickr sure likes her sheet – they’ve selected over a dozen of her photographs for inclusion on Explore. Her large format color work is brilliant, as are her lovely B/W portraits, and nightscapes.

    Amanda’s a published author too, having written twice for View Camera magazine (with a third article on the way), as well as for other publications. She is an active member of the Bay Area Large Format Group, and is CFO (an unpaid volunteer) for the Eastern Sierra Center for Photography (ESC4P), a charitable organization dedicated to Large Format Photography.

    Before ya throw insults at someone (this is directed at the negative commenters above) ya might want to think about who you’re throwing your insults at. And know that when you do that, her friends will defend her in a New York minute.

    Laura Campbell

  12. Well, I learned on small format (35 mm), shot MF as a hobby, and LF in college, made the digital jump for 10 years with increasing frustration, until I came back to LF. People who have seen me shooting with a wooden camera on a wooden tripod often ask to see what I just shot, and when I show them a real time view, upside down, under a dark cloth, they look at me like I am crazy! I think they expected to see an instant digital image!

    I enjoyed your article. Those of us (emulsion capturing users) know of the trials and tribulations associated with capturing the right image at the right time on a sheet or roll of film, but for those individuals that can only be trolls, art is not always about shooting 100 digital images with the hope of one or two keepers, and then tweaking it in a computer.

    Most folks that shoot film, know how to compose and edit in the camera, before clicking the shutter. It is a humbling experience to limit yourself to the best you can be. Try that with digital.

  13. Thanks everyone for your support. I welcome the negative as well because everyone is entitled to express their opinion. The down side for me is to try to come up with another column that doesn’t disappoint.

  14. I’m sure you will, Amanda. Been following forums both on large format and apug and it seems that there are always those who feel the need to spout off with some air of superiority over just about any topic. We refer to them here in the south as “photowankers”. Would rather be a photopussie than a photowanker any day. Keep up the good work and don’t forget to have fun, as I’m sure you do.

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