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An Introduction to Large Format Photography

The Advantages and Disadvantages

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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