Large Format primer: basics
By Q.-Tuan Luong for
the Large Format Page
This article explains what large format photography is about, and
weights the advantages and disadvantages of using a large format camera.
It also provides references for further information.
What is a Large format camera ?
That's grand-dad's bellows box-like camera,
where you had to disappear under a dark cloth. The principle remains
the same, however nowadays they have evolved into precise and
With a few notable exceptions, these cameras share the following
By contrast, Medium format cameras use roll-film which is 6cm wide so
that the format available on those cameras are (all in cm) 4.5x6, 6x6,
6x7,6x9,6x12,6x17. Therefore they produce image whose size is less
than that produced by large format cameras (hence the name).
The vast majority of medium format cameras operate a bit like 35mm
cameras ("small format") and in particular don't have features 2,3,4.
However, a few medium format cameras share these features, and are also
considered on this web site, since they actually operate like large
format cameras. On the other hand, with almost all the large format
cameras it is possible to use roll-film holders of various sizes and
to therefore produce medium-format images.
- Large image size: 4x5 inches (10x12cm), the most popular
format by far, up to 20x24 inches (the Polaroid camera, which can be rented
on-site for a reasonable fee). The film comes in separate sheets
rather than rolls, but see below.
- Flexible bellows connecting the front and back: they allow
the use of a range of focal lengths (with different lenses. there are
no zooms in such formats) and
focussing distances, as well as providing for lateral adjustments and
angular adjustments between film plane and lens plane.
- Ground glass viewing: makes it possible to assess the
image with great accuracy once you get used to the dimness and inversion.
- Interchangeable lenses: you are not limited to a
What are the main benefits of the large format camera ?
- Larger image size. Results are sharper, have a better tonality, and
are grain-free. A 4x5 has 13 times the area of a 35mm frame. A 5x7 has
25 times that area.
Contact printing gives an image whose delicacy cannot be
matched by any enlargment, and allow a number of "alternative" processes.
- Camera movements. You have more control on the final geometry
of the photographed objects and of the perspective as well as on the areas
- Individual sheets of film. You can use as many types of
film as you like easily,
easily, including Polaroid, and process each sheet of film individually for
optimum results. The latter point makes it possible to use Ansel
Adams Zone System for black and white film.
- Contemplative approach. You take your time for each image
This is the flip-side of the drawbacks: you spend so much time on a single
exposure, and invest so much effort in it that you're compelled to think it
through carefully and do it right.
What are the main drawbacks of the large format camera ?
Besides, you'll discover by yourself many quirks of
Large format photography, like the fact that the dark cloth sometimes
tend to fly.
- Everything is manual.
Most other cameras do some things automatically for us that we
take for granted -- like preventing fogged film, double-exposures,
non-exposures and so on. You need to remember to do things that were
never an issue even with the most manual 35mm camera. As a result,
there are more ways to make mistakes than you could ever imagine.
- Equipment and film: the equipment is bulky, heavy (a good
tripod is necessary) and
relatively expensive. The cost per photograph is considerably higher
than the same image in smaller format. Think of it as being
proportional to the film area.
- Larger magnification: longer focals are needed for the same
angle of view:
The equivalent of a 24mm in 35mm is a 75/90 lens in 4x5, a 120mm lens
in 5x7. Depth of field is a serious problem.
The cameras movements become *necessary* to put
everything in focus, and even though some subjects cannot be focussed
entirely. Start thinking f32 where you thought f5.6 !
As a result you often get very long exposures, so
wind shake (esp. with vegetation) and reciprocity failure begin to take their toll.
Work which requires naturally a high degree of magnification, ie macro
and tele-photo, is particularly impractical, the former because of the
depth of field limitations, the second because lenses would have to be
- Everything takes a long time:
It is impractical to photograph quick action or candids, and even in
landscape you'll end up missing optimal conditions. Your productivity
in terms of number of images (but not necessarily in terms of number
of great images) will be very reduced. Think a dozen shots or less when you
thought a few rolls. Even though your friends/spouse will complain
about the waiting.
- loading/unloading your holders at home
- moving around your heavy backpack or case and tripod
- setting your camera
- composing, esp. in low light with slow / wide-angle lenses (f8 max aperture is common)
- focussing: tricks are necessary to overcome the depth of field problem
- exposing: long exposures are quite common.
This is a photograph of my friend Charles attempting to use a darkcloth
for focus and composition on a 8x10 . 40 mph winds were just a little to
strong for the darkcloth. He ended up using the viewfinder and foot scale
with this 300 mm setup. Mark Cieslikowski
A vivid account by Michael Pollack
The consensus seems to be that as far as enlargements are concerned,
the difference between 4x5 and 35mm is huge, but that the
between 4x5 and 6x7 will show up only in big enlargements, 16x20 or
larger. At 16x20 modern LF lenses have a slight edge due to reduced
granularity and high contrast, above that, modern 4x5 wins due to
granularity. However, you will see a bigger difference with format for
B&W prints than with color prints.
On the other hand, a contact print
has a special quality that some feel cannot be obtained by an enlargement.
Contact printing is also the only way to work with some alternative
process such as paladium/platinium, carbon, etc...
Will I have to sell the house ?
Large format photography is actually not that expensive, especially
compared to medium format photography (the prices for the 35mm market
are influenced by the fact that it is quite consumer-oriented), and a
good large format system can be built for no more than a good modern
medium format system. There is also possibility to do large format on
a budget. A fairly good 4x5 can be bought used for less than $500, and
if you are willing to accept some limitations, you can get something
which works for a couple hundred of dollars. The latest lenses are
indeed very expensive, on the other hand there are a number of older
lenses which are really inexpensive, a couple of hundred dollars or less.
Most of the lenses will be totally appropriate for B&W work. They don't
have to be as sharp as lenses for smaller formats.
Modern lenses, which will produce results virtually indistinguishable
from the the latest designs, can be bought used for a rather
reasonnable price. Since LF systems are usually not submitted to an heavy
use like smaller formats, gear which is decades old will usually work
fine. A great news is that as you have built a good set
of lenses, when you upgrade to a better camera, you just keep them,
and maybe change the lensboards. At one point I was hesitating between
the Pentax 67 (one of the cheapest MF systems) and 4x5. One of the
reasons which got me decided for the 4x5 was that the price of the 4x5
system was a little lower.
Film looks expensive too, but you won't shoot as
many images as you used to. If you do color, you'll probably have to have
your film processed by a lab. The total cost of a 4x5 Velvia (film+processing)
is less than $4, the cost of a 5x7 less than $8. On the other hand, B&W film
home processed is quite cheap.
How to find more information ?
Recommended books: for instruction as well as inspiration.
There is only one journal devoted exclusively to large format:
View Camera TM, published by Steve Simmons (Largformat@aol.com).
The quality has been overall high compared to the
Over the past few years,
the magazine has concentrated on interviews and portfolios,
in which the emphasis is on vision and photographs, rather than
technique. Earlier in its history, the journal had more technical
articles, but because it tries
not to rehash topics which had been already published,
the information really useful for LF beginners is limited in current issues.
You could order back issues, but if you're after technical basic
material, you'd certainly be better served by
Although not exclusively devoted to LF,
Photo Techniques (USA)
regulary runs more detailed reviews of LF equipment
written by actual users, as well as excellent
how-to articles on LF techniques.
Web Discussion forums:
LF Q&A forum associated on this site has proven to be
the best place on the internet for discussion of LF related
issues. It is very focussed, yet has the most active participation of
any LF bulletin boards on the web.
Other LF discussion forums on the web include:
rec.photo.equipment.large-format dedicated exclusively to LF
photography is one of the best places on the internet to discuss.
This newsgroup is one of the most civil on Usenet, but still, it is unmoderated,
so flame wars occur from time to time.
There used to be a mailing list, the "Large Format Digest",
discontinued since the creation of the previously mentioned newsgroup.
Besides reading it from the web, you can subscribe to the LF Q&A forum to read it by email.
I started large format photography in 1993. There
were a lot of things which were mysterious back then. After shooting
thousands sheets of film, some
of them are still mysterious, but I have beneficiated from advice of
really knowlegeable persons on the net.
I wrote this series in order
to try and give back by answering the questions that I was myself
asking a couple of years ago. It is written with location and field
photography in mind. I have only very little knowledge about studio