Large Format Photography

Adventures in Large Format Photography

I have mentioned large format photography a few times in past posts and how, despite the general faff it took to get one exposure, it was a lot of fun and more importantly taught me to slow everything down and make the taking of the picture more considered and thought out.

Of course at uni we had large format cameras to borrow and shoot with any time we wanted, as well as having to use one for a particular still-life module. In the real world they are large, heavy, cumbersome, and require some specific knowledge. That’s before you’ve bought a box of film (which isn’t cheap), so all the more reason to get things right. Despite this I have always been drawn to large format. I can’t really explain why. I think it’s my romantic views of photography, but the process and feel of using a large format camera is second to none. It’s photography stripped right back to the fundamentals, even more so than using a 35mm film camera.

With the yearning for a large format camera since uni getting a little stronger, (I have to admit countered with the feeling of what would I realistically do with it) I set about building myself one about four years ago. Unlike most cameras, which you can’t really knock up in an afternoon, the world of film opens up a few construction opportunities for the DIY’er in all of us. My first foray into this area was the construction of a pinhole camera setup to shoot medium format film. This was a simple affair; two boxes, one with a hole in, and a holder made of Lego to hold the roll of film in place and wind it on in the other. Surprisingly this worked ok and I produced a few images with it.

Building a camera for large format photography in a way is even simpler as the film is a single sheet that is placed in it’s own dedicated holder to keep it light-tight. Add in a lens at the front and something light-tight to join them that can allow them to move independently to focus (ie bellows). Of course the reality is a little more complicated if you want to add in movements (to correct for perspective) but still nothing to hard. With my construction I did get most of the way, but hit a stumbling block on the bellows and how to hold the ground glass in place while still allowing the film holder to slide in behind it, so the project was put on the back burner.

5x4 Large Format Photography - Mike Osborne photography
Yes, a bit of a cliche, but here it is, the back of the Bulldog 5×4

Fast forward a few years and I found myself again looking up large format cameras. I had considered buying one used – the plus’s are they are pretty simple and (often) made of wood that if broken they can be fixed easily and they are fairly cheap; £200-400 for a half decent 5×4 camera from about 80/90 years ago (back when things were built to last). I was looking for a 5×4 field camera – one that folds up to make itself a little more compact rather than a monorail camera that is more suited to the studio. Other options are 5×7 although the film is harder to get, and 10×8 which is huge and the film much more expensive (plus I was also figuring out a way to develop the film myself too).

In my research before I started building my own camera I had heard of kits that you constructed to “build your own” 5×4 camera, and of course being a DIYer at hart this appealed to me. Unfortunately back in 2011-ish there were no kits available as the company had disappeared, but a new company surfaced in it’s placed offering kits for sale and earlier this year I bought one. Initially more as an experiment to see what it was like, as once you’ve built one camera, the second should be a lot easier. I was also thinking of poaching the custom parts from the kit to build my own camera which I would still like to do.

The kit I bought was a Bulldog 5×4. Constructing it could (and probably will) be another post all on it’s own. I have to say this generally went together pretty easily and I had it all together after a couple of days (after all the glue had dried). There were a few things that I wasn’t overly happy about during construction, but that’s for another post. The end result was a camera that I had built myself and after purchasing a nice 150mm Schneider lens and building a lens-board I was eager to try it out.

As with lots of things I do, trying them out reveals the flaws and errors that inevitably mean that project gets shelved or binned. As I had spent a lot of time and money on this I was hoping it would all work.  This wasn’t just the camera I was testing, but also hoping that what I learnt at uni came back to me: Remembering all the steps to using the camera and that I could still load 5×4 film in the dark. Not to mention then develop the film (also in the dark with tray developing – while I’ve developed a lot of film, I’d never done tray developing).

I was very glad one morning I photographed my first two 5×4 frames of HP4 of a few horses on the farm and after developing them, stepped out from the cupboard under the stairs to see a perfect image on the film. Checking under my reversed 50mm lens ‘loupe’ I could see that the negatives were properly sharp too. The one critical measurement that I was a little hesitant about (the relation of the ground glass screen to the film plane) was spot on and it worked as it should.

Freshwater Bay 5X4 - Mike Osborne Photogrpahy
Not bad for the third ever frame. (Ignoring the scratches :-p)

So I now have a working 5×4 camera that produces sharp images, where to go from here? Well, I have yet to work out a cost-effective way of getting the images onto a computer. Scanning is the obvious choice, but to make full-use of the quality of 5×4 they really need to be drum-scanned. The next-best thing is to get a flatbed scanner that will scan 5×4 – also expensive. What I’ve done for now is to bodge up a box with a plate of glass on the top and a light source behind, photographing the negative and then bring it into Photoshop to turn into a positive – as seen above. This kind of works and with a bit more development could be a good compromise, although would still lack the quality over the other two methods.

One aspect/method of large format photography that I am interested in – and that is making a bit of a comeback – is wet-plate photography. This somewhat appeals to me and the end product – while technically still a negative – appears like a positive image, so could be scanned/copied to digitise the image. The downside is the very short window of preparing, taking and developing the plate, but I’m always up for a challenge!

Will large format photography become a fixture of my photographic life? Probably not, although I do really enjoy shooting with it, I just need to overcome some of the shortcomings. I’m happy to have it as more of a hobby and it allows me to experiment with different ideas, and of course appeals to my sense of DIY. There is something quite relaxing about having to choose what to photograph, then waiting to develop the film to see if it’s worked. I may even save up for some positive film and see what I can produce…