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Camera Types for Large Format Photography

The Basics of the View Camera

Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

Amateur Photographer who plays with big cameras and film when in between digital photographs.

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Richard Childs

Richard Childs

Richard trained as an Orchestral Percussionist in the 1980's but his true love has always been the outdoors and particularly mountain environments. Throwing in his drumsticks to become a full-time photographer in 2004 he continues to work with a large format camera alongside digital equipment and exhibits his work in solo and group exhibitions as well as at his own gallery in the Ironbridge Gorge. Links to Website and Facebook



For the uninitiated, the different types of large format cameras available can be daunting. Between rail camera, folders, non-folders, clamshells, sliding boxes and the different movements, front or rear standard; base, axis or asymmetric tilts, etc. can all seem a bit like gobbledegook. The first thing that I should state to reassure people is that the quality of every large format camera is not dictated by the camera itself. I know this is weird, but you should think about the camera features primarily as relating to rigidity and flexibility of camera movements and ease of use. This is why it is possible to make top quality images with a cheap or handmade camera.

So this instalment of our Introduction to Large Format series discusses all the variations and features that a large format camera can have and what they mean to the end user.

What does the Large Format camera do?

The basic function of the large format camera is to stop the light going where it’s not supposed to and to position the lens and film in relation to each other to get the correct focus and ‘camera movements’.

In reality, you could connect a lens to one end of a black bag and a dark slide to the other and then hold the lens in one hand and the dark slide in the other and this would achieve the very minimum definite of ‘camera’ according to the above. As long as you could hold them still enough (and you have an extra three hands, one to fire the shutter, one to stop the ‘bag’ getting in the way of the light and one to pull the darkslide) you would get a perfect image - as good as any expensive Ebony or Linhof camera. This isn’t particularly useful but it does show that you don’t need an expensive camera to produce the standard of image quality that large format is renowned for.

What the camera tries to achieve beyond being an expensive black bin liner is to provide a rigid framework with the appropriate gears, levers and clamps to allow you to focus, by changing the distance between lens and film, make the desired tilts and shifts and finally to attach a lens and film holder.

If you don’t want tilts or shifts then the minimum functional camera could be a plain wooden box with a lens at one end, a film holder at the other and a way of changing the distance between the two - which could be two boxes sliding inside each other (know as a sliding box camera) or a ‘helical’ attached to the lens (like the expensive Linhof version - http://linhof.com/en/o-platte-einstellschnecke/ or a cheaper Fotoman one).

However, most cameras come with the ability to at least tilt the lens and/or film and also to shift the lens or film to correct perspective and a geared rack for focusing. Let’s take a look at how some of these features are implemented and what it means in use.

Focussing

The focus of a simple lens camera is dictated by the distance from the lens to the film plane. In large format cameras, instead of turning a focusing sleeve/helical, you simply move the whole lens closer or further away from the film either by hand or more usually with some form of geared rack or screw. On some cameras, the gearing is used for the finer focusing and the front standard is placed roughly by sliding it backwards and forwards or by locking it into one of a range of fixed positions (i.e. the Philips design Chamonix large format cameras). If you want to use longer lenses, the distance from the film plane to the lens gets larger*. In order to avoid very large cameras, there are sometimes multiple collapsing rails inside one another. This is known as either a ‘double extension’ or a ‘triple extensions’ camera. The double just refers to the front standard and rear standard moving separately and the triple adds an extra slide on the front standard to get a bit of extra extension.

* For infinity the distance is the same as the focal length and for ‘closer’ distance it can get range from 1.5 to 2x the focal length - or you have to use telephoto lenses, that’s for another instalment though.

Front Standard

Front Axis Tilt (the usual)

The most common way of changing the tilt on the front standard is called “centre tilt” or “axis tilt”. This just means that the axis on which the front standard tilts is along the centre of the lens (or close to it). Here’s a diagram showing the front standard tilting.

Front Rise and Fall

The front standard also typically allows rise and fall just by sliding the front standard up and down. Some cameras have separate locks on the front standard so you can keep rise and fall locked whilst tilting (or vice versa) however many cameras just have a tension control for both movements which typically allows you enough tension to keep the rise and fall position whilst allowing you to tilt.

Front Base Tilt (the work of the devil)

However, some cameras have the axis of tilt at the bottom of the front standard. This has the disadvantage that putting tilt on also changes the focus (because the whole lens gets closer or further away from the film) forcing you to refocus every time you make a change. The only way to efficiently work with front base tilt is to have one hand on the focus and one hand on the tilt at the same time - not a technique for beginners!

Front Swing

The front standard also typically allows you to apply swing as shown in the following diagram showing a top down view.



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