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An Introduction to Large Format Photography

The Advantages and Disadvantages

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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

Tim Parkin

Tim Parkin

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

Flickr, Facebook, Twitter

Many photographers would be forgiven for thinking that large format cameras are a throwback of a bygone time of stove pipe hats, frock coats and handlebar moustaches and that they have no place in a modern photographers toolbox.

However, a look at some of the most prominent photographers in the world reveals a significant minority still use film and many of those also prefer to capture their compositions using said unwieldy contraptions.

This series of articles, by myself and Richard Childs, take a look at why these cameras still attract an interest despite the many hurdles they place in front of the photographer and how you might learn to get involved in this very rewarding method of capturing images yourself.

Easdale Sunset, 2007 - Tim Parkin

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Large Format Photography

So, let’s start with a list of problems associated with large format photography before we get on to what real advantages they provide.

Unwieldy, Slow and Heavy

There is no arguing that fighting with an upside down image attached to a device made up of gears, clamps and bellows is not something that promotes a speedy and efficient image capturing experience and many an opportunity can be lost because of this. On top of this, most 5x4 cameras start at around 3kg and 10x8 cameras 5kg plus which really means tripod use only and they can be a pain to carry around.

Composing via a Dim and Upside Down Image

With no mirror to turn the image the right way around, most large format cameras necessitate composing on an often dim ground glass with an inverted representation of the outside world whilst working under a dark cloth in order to see properly.

Expensive Film and Developing

Unlike the ‘free’ photographs you take with your digital camera, each colour image captured with a large format camera can cost approximately £10 for 5x4 and £25 for 10x8. Black and white is cheaper and you can develop your own to bring the price down to a few pounds but this still acts as a major barrier to image capture.

So what are the big advantages to large format that compensate for these quite significant disadvantages? Well, there is the image quality, which we’ll come back to in a moment, but here are our positives.

  • Slow and heavy
  • Composing upside down under a dark cloth
  • High cost per photograph

Yes, that’s right. The negatives are actually part of the positives. How can this be and am I just making excuses for large format?

Foinaven from Balnakeil, February 2017 - Richard Childs

Slow and Heavy

The cameras are slow and heavy and hence they provide a disincentive to getting the camera out. What this means is that you are forced to find your images without a camera and you will spend substantially more time looking for images (instead of trying to capture photographs that aren’t quite working). I know when I am out with a digital camera, I often end up working on compositions that I know won’t make the grade and I would be better off spending time looking for better possibilities elsewhere. Even though I know this, I find it very hard to change my behaviour. Using a large format camera forces you to work like this and it may not produce a lot of images but it does promote making decisions whether photographs will work in the field, rather than at home in front of your computer. It also forces you to predict opportunities rather than react to them and to spend more time honing each photograph before pressing the shutter. This might not work for everyone but all of the large format photographers I have spoken to (and most still use digital cameras as well) agree that this is a major part of the allure of large format.

Clachaig Gully, Glencoe, 2007 - Tim Parkin

Composing Upside Down under a Dark Cloth

The advantages of composing upside down have been talked about many times, Joe Cornish is a particular proponent of using this method to assess the balance of your pictures whilst post processing. For people new to large format this may present a real hurdle but our brains do adapt and most people I have spoken to suggest that it took them one or two months before it became almost natural to compose this way. Composing upside down removes a lot of our instinctive reactions to an image and makes us see it as a set of shapes and edges, thereby helping us make the image balance, look for flow around the image and to assess ‘dead’ areas.

Working under a dark cloth also becomes an advantage, albeit not as obvious, as it forcibly separates you from the environment and asks you to assess the image as if it were a print hanging on a wall. I have often found myself almost in a state of meditation when I am fine tuning an image on a dark cloth and it is a bit of a shock when I come back out from underneath.

Both this and the previous advantages combine into making sure you spend more time assessing the image, giving you a chance to live with it for a while before committing to the composition.

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  • Great article guys, describes the whole reason I started shooting 5×4 so much better than I could put into words, especially about the cons actually being the pros, already looking forward to a follow up piece…………..

    • timparkin

      Thanks Matt!

  • Ian

    You perfectly state why I enjoy large format: the slow and thoughtful pace of working; the process that is entirely my own work and not reliant on clever software engineers; the commitment to individual and specific compositions.

    The only thing I’d add for lenses is the use of relatively long lenses at relatively short distances, which gives a distinctive look to photographs made with large format cameras – especially 10×8 and above.

    I’m not much of a landscapist, but these are all relevant to other genres too.

  • Joe Rainbow

    Nice article and I am sorely tempted to come along!

    • timparkin

      We’d love to see you on the course, only three places left and a couple of people thinking about it

  • Hi Tim & Richard,

    A good article on the strengths of LF and nice to see some of my alumni still practising the art!


    • timparkin

      Thanks David – for changing my life for the better in oh so many ways.

      • Ed Hannam

        — and so say all of us

  • David Cary

    When I look at a picture I am asking myself where is the photographer, what assumptions are being made, what point of view am I taking by looking at this picture? There are Richard Prince people who select and comment but are not direct participants in the landscape, but it is very rare to find a photographer who is fully participating with her/his spatial awareness. LF is so beautiful when the photographer has developed skill because it locates you. For a picture to happen it must first be felt in a way that is more primitive than language. You slow down and the place seeps in to your bones and darkslide of your soul. LF is a practice.

    • timparkin

      Completely agree – the format ‘herds’ you in a good direction

  • Ian Moore

    Hi Tim – I noticed your reference to the Big Camera Comparison in the article…..given the advances in sensor technology (now 100MP) since the article in 2011, have you updated your findings since then?…also the use of the (costly!) Hassy HTS1.5 and newer 35mm t/s lenses have made any significant impact? Thks, Ian

    • I would suggest that 100mp is so close to 80mp that the difference is quite small (10% resolution difference). It probably means that 5×4 and 100mp are pretty close now and for most folk 100mp will be producing results that would look sharper at large print sizes. 10×8 is still the big boy though ;-) (The Hasselblad tilt shift should help – you need movements to make the most of the resolution of these cameras I think)

      • Ian Moore

        Thanks Tim – not being a LF practitioner I was interested to read that the 10×8 lenses (even older ones) outperform the latest digital lenses, given the amount they now invest in lens development in 35mm and especially MF (Hassy & Phase One)??….or is it the fact that the image circle is still much bigger than the film, so only the sharpest centre portion is in use?…but does that still hold true when t/s uses the outer reaches of the LF lenses?
        Same question regarding dynamic range?
        Thks, Ian

        • The 10×8 lenses don’t outperform modern lenses, in fact they’re considerably worse and diffraction plays a big part. However there performance is more than enough to deliver onto a 10×8 surface area that can record 700mp equivalent of data. As for the corners, yes part of the success is that the lenses are designed to only use the central area. Once you get the edges of the lenses they start degrading just like any lens.

          The limiting factor isn’t lenses, it’s still the resolution of the sensor for MF and DSLRs

          The Dynamic range of colour negative film is still a lot bigger than even the best Sony sensors, however the Sony sensors deliver very clean, noise free results in the range they can manage.

          • Ian Moore

            Thanks Tim – now much clearer. Will have to try the workshop if it doesn’t clash with domestic commitments! Rgds, Ian

            • We’d love to see you on it Ian – we’ve got a lot to offer I think…

  • Chirag Pradhan

    Hello Tim and Richard,
    Thanks for a great article ! Lots of information and sublime imagery.
    For someone like me who has never done LF photography, would you recommend starting out with a 4×5 first or is starting with 8×10 possible? I have recently backed the 8×10 camera project by the Intrepid Camera however I am not sure whether it would be wise or not?

    • timparkin

      5×4 definitely – 10×8 is a big difference. Cameras are less flexible, costs are much more, weight significant, etc. You can learn a lot quicker with 5×4 and then if you wish to play with 10×8 you’ll be a lot fitter to make decisions..

      • Chirag Pradhan

        Great ! Thanks. I like how you corrected 5×4 and 10×8 ?.

        • timparkin

          just for you!

          • Chirag Pradhan

            Any recommendations for a 5×4 camera?

            • timparkin

              Yeah – I would suggest a Chamonix is a good first camera if the price is OK. If you want cheaper then you have to hunt around a bit but you could pick up a an MPP maybe?

              • John Barham

                Tim, would you recommend the Intrepid 5×4 for LF beginners?

                Thanks to you and Richard for a great article. Definitely piqued my curiosity about LF photography and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series!

                • If you can’t afford a different camera then the Intrepid would be fine to get going. You’ll probably be able to sell without losing too much if you upgrade later too.

                  • John Barham

                    Good to know. Much appreciated!

  • Stuart Low

    Guys – you can save a lot more than 30% if developing your own. Typically you can save 50-60% on colour slide/neg. E.g. a box of Velvia 100 5×4 approx £78 which is roughly £4 a sheet. A 2.5L E6 kit (£42) will easily do 180 sheets in a Jobo.. That works out at around £4.25 per sheet. Developing your own B&W 5×4 costs around £1.40 a sheet – e.g. Ilford Fp4 25 box at £37. That might be more appealing to anyone thinking of getting into LF. :)

    • The 30% mentioned is the combined cost of the film and developing. And I was using the Tetenal recommended volumes which works out at about 30p a sheet. You’ve still got the film price though. so 5.50 per sheet plus 3.20 developing. You can do the developing for .30p based on Tetenal. Hence 33% saving. (p.s. Where do you get your new Velvia 100 from for £78?)

      I do mention “If you really want cheap, you can get black and white film from a manufacturer like Foma and then develop yourself and you end up with about £1-2 a sheet.”

      Personally I bought really cheap film when it was outdated for 50p a sheet so I’m paying 80p a sheet in total for colour and for cheap import black and white about 50p.

      I’ll tweak the text to make it clearer

      • Stuart Low

        Various places but 7 day shop have it in stock as I type. £78 for 20. Works out at £4.20 a sheet dev’d in Tetenal.

        • Ooh – well if you like Velvia 100 that’s a deal.. if you like Velvia 100.. 4000 sheets of Velvia 50 and 1500 of other stuff at the moment (plus about 1000 sheets of 10×8 various) I need to use it though!

  • Great article Richard & Tim. Interestingly there are a lot of parallels with my move from digital to medium format, but on a bigger scale. Perhaps one day that will be my end game.

  • BruceMHerman

    I used a 4×5 for 25 years before switching to 35mm digital. I simply couldn’t take the camera to places that I could take the 35mm kit (I’m 66). There are two other significant positives that I noticed when making making the switch. First, and most important, I could “play” more. There were times with the 4×5 that I walked away from a composition that later wished I had tried. The failures with 35 mm can be instructive, as long as you may sure that you first get the one you really want. The second positive is apparent when the light is changing quickly. I could work quite quickly, but I still missed compositions.

    I have not finished scanning my library of images using my Eversmart Supreme. So I’m still looking at my previous work. I love looking at the film on the light table. I also see a huge difference between images I’ve made with my Nikon D800E and those from 2540 dpi scans of my film.

    The 35 mm is clearly a compromise, but it was dictated by my back and hips. I think that it’s important to remember that the camera is just a tool. One’s vision is what counts the most. I’ve been just as blown away by images made with an iPhone as I have been with my own LF work.

    • I know what you mean Bruce – I like to be able to use digital and film together as they are real complements to each other (but a bit of a load on my back!). If you ever want rid of that supreme and you’re in the UK, let me know ;-)

  • Ed Hannam

    An excellent series in the making Tim and Richard. Lets hope that manufactures and suppliers take note and realise that analogue photography is still alive and kicking.

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