4x5 Large Format · Film photography · Photography

Starting with large format

I’ve been thinking about potentially having a go at large format photography for a while now, probably for a couple of years, although more seriously in the last twelve months. Having seen imaged made with large format cameras, I was attracted to the look that they could convey as a result of the large negative sizes and, importantly, the camera movements available and envisioned the pictures I could make.

However, moving to large format would require some investment. Firstly, the format isn’t really interchangeable with 135 of medium format photography and I would have to buy most of what I would need from scratch. A camera. A lens. Film backs. Film. A loupe. And, while I already develop black and white photographs at home, even here I would need new equipment to allow me to process such large negatives.

And then there’s the issue of getting the images from the negatives to some final output. In my case, given I don’t make wet prints, this would require a scanner capable of handling 4×5 film, something my Epson V550 flatbed can’t handle. I did have a few attempts at scanning a large format negative that someone gave to me using the V550 to scan it in two halves and then stitch them together in Photoshop, but the results were unsatisfactory.

So, before I could start with large format, I needed to get some money together in order to purchase the equipment I would need to get started. For a long time I was in the position where I could afford either the camera and associated gear OR a large-format capable scanner, but not both, so it looked like it might take a while before I could really begin. But then a very kind person came to my aid, offering me a used Epson V700 flatbed scanner for the cost of shipping and a donation to a charity. I accepted this with graet grattitude and at long last was in the position to purchase a camera.

I’d largely got my mind set on an Intrepid 4×5. They are affordable and available and would meet my needs perfectly. But then I received some more good fortune. I came upon someone selling a used Chroma 4×5 camera along with lens, film holders, film, darkcloth and even a backpack for it all to fit inside for a very good price. It even came with several boxes of film – some unopened. So I jumped at the chance.

The Chroma is a modern 4×5 technical camera manufactured from acrylic. It was available in a wide range of colours when launched and the one I bought is in a fetching forest green shade.

I bought the camera at the start of December and it was posted to me promptly. And then it became stuck in the UK postal system which was suffering heavy backlogs due to industrial action. In the end my next-working-day parcel took three weeks to arrive, being delivered just two days before Christmas. As Christmas was then upon us, I didn’t have time to do more than peek inside the package until a few days later.

The first time I unpacked the camera it was purely to start understanding how it worked. Wile a large format camera is in many ways a very simple device – literally some bellows in a frame to a large extent – the process of unfolding it and understanding what the multiple screws and knobs do was a little overwhelming at first. I had some instructions though and was able to get everything in its right place, fit the lens, and peer through the ground glass. It’s probably because I was indoors on a very dull and dark December day, but it was quite difficult to see much on the focus screen. Pointing it out the window let me see more, but anything inside was very hard to make out, even when cloaked beneath the large darkcloth.

The next day I decided I was going to attempt to take a photograph. I wanted to do this in the house purely for the reason that travelling further afield to use an unfamiliar camera and process seemed like a fools errand and likely to end in disappointment. So I set up a simple shot of an advent calendar stood on the kitchen table. At this stage I didn’t have a loupe so was making do with a 50mm lends from a Pentax 35mm SLR as a standi-in magnifyer. This worked, but was awkward as I couldn’t press it against the ground glass easily and the focus kept wobbling in and out as a result. Still, after some faffing around I got things how I wanted them and took the picture you can see below.

Although Santa’s face is pretty sharp, it looks like I hadn’t locked the camera uprights in the vertical properly and so a bit of tilt had taken place. If you look closely, you can see that focus drops off through Santa’s body before snapping back in on the patterned tablecloth in front of him. I might have avoided this had I stopped down the lens from it’s widest f/5.6 aperture, but deliberately left it so to maximise my shutter speed. However, despite this mistake, I’m still quite happy with it as the result of my first ever large format photograph. It was only ever intended as a test, rather than a piece of fine art, so the result is good.

Advent calendar
Chroma 4×5
Fujinon NW 135mm f/5.6
f/5.6 | 0.2 secs
Fomapan 100
Fomadon R09 1+50 9 mins @ 20°

A couple of days later I received a 4x loupe in the post which I had ordered online. Setting the camera up again showed that the loupe was a great aid in correct focusing and, because it was in contact with the ground glass, also allowed me to more easily see parts of the image. I also found that using a black t-shirt instead of the included darkcloth was more effective, blocking out more straylight and making the focusing screen appear brighter.

I decided to take a second photograph, this time of some small bottles of wine I received for Christmas.

While only my second shot, I was somewhat more ambitious with this one. Firstly, because the bottles of wine were quite close to the camera I needed to extend the bellows further to achieve focus and this meant I needed to account for the bellows-extension-factor which reduces the ammount of light falling on the film. I have an app on my phone to help with this and was able to determine that, after measuring the bellows with a tape, that I needed to add around a stop of extra exposure. Also, because of the composition, I decided to use a little front tilt to get the whole of the front wine bottle in sharp focus. Amazingly, I managed to make a pretty good job of this!

While, again, it’s not going to win any prizes for composition, this shot came out better than I could have hoped and I’m really pleased with the result.

Wine miniatures
Chroma 4×5
Fujinon NW 135mm f/5.6
f/9 | 1 secs
Fomapan 100
Fomadon R09 1+50 9 mins @ 20°

The whole experience of developing the film was completely new too and required further research and parctice to figure out how to remove the film from the holders and get it into the developing tank (I’ve borrowed a Stearman Press tank for now) all in the confines of my changing bag. Thankfully, this all went really smoothly and I couldn’t be happier with the final developed negatives. The Epson V700 did a vey good job with the scans too – both scanned at 2400dpi. The full size scans can be seen on Flickr if you click through the images.

I’ve got one more photo currently exposed, but will wait until I use the other sheet in the film holder before I develop it. This shot (and hopefully the next) was made outdoors, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it turns out.

Yashicamat 124G.8 & Ilford HP5+ . Ilfotec DD-X 1+4 9mins @ 20°

Taken during December 2022.


9 thoughts on “Starting with large format

  1. That’s very cool. I thought about doing that too, the Intrepid is a fetching temptress… but all the additional stuff going into it keeps me grounded to 35 or 120 for now. I look forward to seeing what you get with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Matt.

      Yeah, I know what you mean. You look at the price of an Intrepid and think, “Hey, that’s really affordable!”. But then you think about all the other stuff and it suddenly mounts up. It’s the main reason it’s taken me a couple of years oth thinking about it before it came to fruition – and even then due to some good fortune on good deals.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. An encouraging post! I have a baby Speed Graphic in reasonable condition – it takes 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 cut film, which is a little harder to come buy, and I would need to get new ground glass and some film holders – all available on ebay. Maybe this is the year!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Steve.

      While my experience so far is that large format is a lot more involved and complicated than other formats, I’ve definitely got the urge to get out and shoot more sheets as soon as I can. Only the weather and having to go to work is stopping me!

      Liked by 1 person

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