Photographer and specialist camera maker, Rayment Kirby looks at why you should consider buying a large format camera.
Words by Rayment Kirby
In the early part of the last century, when photography started to become popular, the enlarger was a rarity and almost everyone, amateur or professional, used contact printing as the only way of presenting their work. Large format cameras are basically those whose negatives are large enough to make a decent contact print - one that is large enough to see clearly. Bigger prints usually meant bigger cameras and this is one of the key factors why this ancestor of the modern camera ever existed. Nowadays with film being used and everything becoming miniaturised or computerised, why on earth do these prehistoric devises still exist? The answer is that they still have much to offer enthusiasts.
A trip into large format work can be particularly rewarding for anyone who craves a more hands-on approach to their photography. As you stare at, say, a 5x4in ground glass screen on the back of a large camera, it's almost impossible to adopt a haphazard approach to your picture taking. You will be amazed at the total control you now have over the image. The movements on the camera allow precise control of the focus, the perspective, how you handle distortion and you will be aware of exactly the amount of the subject that you are getting in your finished picture.
It does not end there. Each exposure you make is on a separate piece of film. This means that it can be processed individually to give precisely the kind of negative you may require in terms of density or contrast. It is all about total control.
What about the final result? Why should a large negative or transparency be better than one taken on a smaller camera? There are two answers to this. Firstly you will find that the way the tones of the image are reproduced are definitely superior on the larger format. There is a subtlety about them that can clearly be seen when compared with the same shot taken on a smaller camera. The second advantage is that if you want to sell your work for reproduction, the impact of a large transparency is inescapable. Given like for like, in terms of subject matter, the larger version will out sell its smaller brother every time.
A further huge advantage in using large format cameras is that your basic camera and one lens becomes a very versatile unit. You can do close up photography without having to buy any costly attachments or supplementary lenses - the built-in bellows extension takes care of all that you can handle. You can master architecture without needing special shift lenses, using the built-in rising front to deal with such situations. Then the size of the negative is big enough for you to crop your picture quite considerably without loosing quality. This sometimes removes the necessity of requiring a long lens for recording distant views. If your chosen subject has objects at different distances from the camera that you want sharp, camera movements can bring then all into focus, often without the need to reduce the lens aperture.
Each sheet of film is held in a darkslide, or cut film holder. These usually hold two sheets back to back, but there are alternatives. If you intend travelling light, there are backs that use film packs that work in the same way as Polaroid materials used in the large formats. In 5x4in there is the Fuji Quick Load system - an adapter that slots into the camera and accepts a range of different film types. These are available in twenty sheet packs. A system like this is much easier and lighter to carry than a stack of darkslides.
Although large format cameras are large, if the camera is wooden it won't weight much and can be quite a good proposition if your photography involves working outdoors in the sort of places that can only be reached on foot. The lenses used by large format cameras are quite light even though they have built-in shutters.
Choose your system well and a camera, lens, a few darkslides or a lightweight adapter system will fit easily into a small backpack. Apart from a few filters, the only other accessories you need to carry for a day's shooting are a black focusing cloth, a hand-held exposure meter and a tripod. Weight for weight this sort of large format outfit would compare quite favourably with, say, a medium-format SLR outfit with winder along with several lenses and film backs. It might even be an improvement.
You have to remember that photographic equipment is very much a matter of personal taste and for some people one type of gear works better than another. There has never been such a thing as the universal camera, whatever the manufacturers would like us to think! Also some sorts of subject matter are more easily photographed using a particular type of equipment. Similarly a large format field camera is not going to be ideal in every situation and its main downside is the way it operates. Action picture taking is mostly out of the question. It's definitely a picture taking system for those whose approach to their photography is more thoughtful and deliberate. These cameras need a very 'hands on' approach. As everything is under your control it's up to you to get it right. Also they are not the thing to use if you wish, or need, to take dozens of shots of the same subject. The cost of film is too high.
If you're sick of a world dominated by automation and micro chips. You want to rediscover a type of photography that you have to do yourself every inch of the way. Then the answer that you are looking for may well be to use a large format camera.
Visit Rayment Kirby's web site.