Why I Shoot Large Format

Hello!  Welcome to my corner of the Internet.  I thought I would begin my blog by recapping what led me to become a large format photographer...since it's not everyday you see someone lugging around an old-school wooden camera. 

Behind the scenes at Archangel Falls.  (Photo credit:  Tommy Botello.)

Behind the scenes at Archangel Falls.  (Photo credit:  Tommy Botello.)

Large format is bulky.  I shoot a 4x5 camera, the smallest of the large format cameras, and with all my gear (film holders, tripod, lenses, etc.) my pack still tips the scale at just under 45 pounds.  Obviously, the weight goes up significantly as you move up in formats.  I once held an 8x10 camera that the owner described as "not that heavy."  Yeah, right...the camera alone seemed to weigh almost as much as my entire setup.  Note to self, do not trust Ben Horne when he says something is not heavy.

How I train to go on long hikes with lots of gear.

How I train to go on long hikes with lots of gear.

Large format is slow and time consuming.  Although I have never timed it, I would estimate that it takes me about 15 minutes to arrive at a location, unpack, set up, compose, focus, and meter.  Truthfully, even 15 minutes would make me feel extremely rushed, and feeling rushed is something I absolutely detest when I'm shooting.  More time is always better, which means it is often impossible to spontaneously shoot a scene without being familiar with it.  An area, and more importantly the lighting in that area, must be scouted ahead of time, and this means more time in the field.

Large format is limiting.  My favorite film, Fuji Velvia 50, has about five stops of dynamic range...and even this might be a bit generous.  By comparison, the new Nikon D810 (a VERY impressive camera by the way) has about 12-13 stops at its lowest ISO.  Shooting a bright sunrise and trying to retain details in the foreground with Velvia 50?  Don't even think about trying it without the help of graduated neutral density filters, and in that case, I hope you have an even horizon.  Of course, other films have more range, but this comes at a sacrifice of the brilliant colors of Velvia.

I haven't even mentioned things like loading film, messing up (which I still do with alarming frequency),  and cost. (Velvia 50 is about $8 per shutter click; I don't even want to calculate what it is for you 8x10 guys!)  So, why go through the trouble you may ask.  My journey into large format began a little over 2 years ago.  I was reading a Popular Photography article on Rodney Lough Jr., and in the article was his image called "Vortex."  There was just something about it, even in magazine print, that set it apart.  I knew I could never recreate this with my digital camera.  I would later learn that what I was seeing was tonality; more on that in a bit.

I did a little investigation and found out that Rodney used something called a large format camera.  At the time, I knew there was a such thing as medium format and that it was obscenely expensive.  And now you're telling me there is something bigger?!  The camera backs must cost half a million!  Another Google search showed me what LF actually was, and this piqued my curiosity.  I was surprised that these cameras were even still in existence, and further surprised that they weren't all that expensive.  A little convincing of my wife Jennifer was in order as she was (rightly) convinced that we didn't need another camera.  However, with Christmas coming up, I convinced her it would make a great gift, and on Christmas morning I became the proud owner of a second-hand Shen Hao 4x5 camera.

For the first year I owned the camera, I was basically figuring out how to use it.  I find it somewhat ironic that the simplest of cameras (it's just a box that holds a lens and film with no buttons) are the hardest to figure out sometimes.  I shot a mix of digital and film as I simply did not trust myself yet with the large format camera.  This made for a ridiculous pack, and I often found myself neglecting the film camera for the convenience of digital.

However, about 9 months ago I decided to get serious about large format.  I purchased Ansel Adams' books The Camera and The Negative and taught myself how to shoot and develop black and white film.  I also started taking short day trips in the Smokies with only the film gear; after all, you can only shoot what you have with you.  I haven't used a digital camera to take a landscape image in over a year now, and I can honestly say I'll never go back.  So, here is why I shoot large format.

Image Quality and Tonality

Image clarity immediately jumps out at you when you're shooting large format.  The detail that a 4x5 inch sheet of film can capture is truly astounding.  The above image, Heaven's View, was taken from the top of Angel's Landing.  It was taken with my wide angle lens.  The Temple of Sinawava in the distance (inside the box) is 1.1 miles away (thanks Google Earth).  There are 3 cars and 2 shuttle buses parked there...and a bus on the way.  Also, there are 13 people standing in the Scout's Lookout area.  At 100% magnification, it looks like one of those people is bent over tying their shoes; I was unable to make out the brand...:)  And this is all from "just" a flatbed scanner.  Truly remarkable detail and image quality.

Clarity and detail are nice, but alone they will not make an image.  After all, Ansel Adams himself said, "There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept."  Bring in large format tonality.  Tonality is difficult to explain, but you'll know it when you see it.  There's just something about the colors and the way light areas transition to dark that gives a large format image a certain look.  It again relates to the real estate that the image is recorded on.  With such a large sheet of film, colors and tones more naturally transition.  I wish I could explain it better, but it is a difficult concept to describe.  And while it looks good on the Internet and even better in Photoshop, it is truly magical when seen it in a large print.  And viewing it on a light table through a loupe?  An absolute religious experience!  You are transported into the scene in an almost 3-dimensional way; it feels as if you are really there.  No digital camera or any amount of processing can recreate this.

Black and White

In addition to going strictly large format this year, I also decided to develop my own black and white film.  It's really not that hard or expensive, and there is something special about seeing an image on the film and knowing that you were responsible for creating it every step of the way.  It's the complete opposite of a digital camera where the image is a more theoretical sequence of 1's and 0's (to be fair, it's often a very beautiful sequence of 1's and 0's, but still...)  When I'm finished developing, I can literally hold an image in my hand that I made.  There's something very powerful about that.  Also, I mentioned that Velvia is a very "narrow" film.  This is absolutely not true with black and white film.  Notice in the above image you can see details both in the darkest shadows and the brightest clouds.  Its dynamic range rivals that of today's top end cameras...so it's got that going for it.

There is also extreme freedom when shooting black and white film.  For one, it opens up opportunities to shoot in the afternoons, something often not possible or desirable with color film or digital.  The harsh shadows we try so hard to avoid with color provide much needed contrast and interest in monochrome images.  Second, there is much more latitude to express creativity in black and white.  Whether using filters pre image or dodging and burning following development, there is much more leeway for "editing" while still creating a pleasing image.  This is directly related to the fact that black and white is not recreating something that is actually there.  It's a monochrome image of a color subject so our brains already accept that some form of image manipulation has taken place.  Therefore, when viewing black and white we can accept further departures from reality than we do when viewing a color image.

The Process

Of the reasons that I have mentioned, "the process" is by far what I love most about large format.  By "process", I am referring to everything that goes into making a successful large format image from start to finish.  I began this post with all the difficulties that large format presents.  And while it can be frustrating at times, it makes a good image that much sweeter in the end.  No pain, no gain.  With every single image I take, there is the struggle just to get the gear there.  Once I've arrived at the scene, there are the problem solving aspects of 'seeing' the final image, composing that vision both upside down and backward, choosing the correct film for the job, and then calculating exposure.  Once I've taken the shot, there is always the anxiety of wondering if I messed up somewhere along the way.  To me, these difficulties make a successful image exponentially more gratifying than any other format.  Instead of bemoaning the fact that I sometimes have to spend hours at a location to wait for the right moment, I use that time to really soak in everything I can about a place...the sights, sounds, even smells.  This allows for a MUCH more immersive wilderness experience.  And while science has proven that time actually moves slower when you are waiting for film to return from the lab, opening your developed film is like getting a gift at Christmas.  The time spent waiting allows memories of the images to fade a bit, so when you open them it's like you're seeing something for the first time.  At this point, shooting anything else would just feel hollow to me.  I am a large format landscape photographer, and I always will be.