I use a 35mm Canon AE-1 and I love it to death. In fact, I've used most of the new Canon, Nikon, and Pentax film stuff, and I can't stand any of it. It's just ignorance, I suppose. Anyway, point being: I'm going to end up doing promotional shooting for a band. The pictures I take are going to be put on CD covers, and possibly 3 foot by 2 foot posters. I've never used large format before, and don't really want to have to learn it, as I'm sure there is a learning curve to it, and I probably won't get the best results right away (or soon enough for the shoot). My question is: What is the largest I can blow up a 35mm picture without getting a horrible image. I know of some darkrooms here that will do any size I can dream, but what's going to be the limit of quality here?
Well, you're right about the large format learning curve. I've been shooting LF off and on for over a year and I'm still very much on the curve. If you really have to go up in negative size, medium format would probably be a better choice.
That said, I don't think you need to do that. Your AE-1 should do a fine job, especially on the album covers. On the posters, talk to your lab about your requirements and see if they can meet them. I know you can get good, sharp prints up to about 16X20 from a 35mm negative. I've never done a poster shoot, so maybe somebody else here can be a little more helpful about that. But, definitely, talk to the lab!
My question is: What is the largest I can blow up a 35mm picture without getting a horrible image. I know of some darkrooms here that will do any size I can dream, but what's going to be the limit of quality here?
There is no limit to size. For decades, Kodak had an 18 x 60 foot series of murals on display at Grand Central Station in NYC, many from 35mm. Record companies have used my 35mm shots on 4'x 4' posters in record stores all over the world. See:
Performers & Models
What is required is a sharp image with perfect exposure.
For shooting live in concert or at clubs, as much as I love large format, it would be my last choice. There is no way to get the sort of shutter speeds required to catch decisive moments with critical sharpness. Shooting under stage lights, you will need tungsten film, and I know of none faster than ISO64. Expect to get exposures requiring shutter speeds not in fractions of seconds, but multiple seconds - terminal blur when anyone moves. Realize also with a view-camera, once the film is in the camera, there is no view through it. All shots are off tripod. There are ancient large-format press cameras that were hand-held, but they would be only a marginal improvement.
If you are shooting in studio or bright daylight, yes, large format would be splendid. If you can get private access to the venue, it would be possible to haul in a load of studio strobes and simulate stage lighting for arranged "live" shots. Very labour intensive, rent-intensive and shooting on expensive film with expensive processing.
I might add that using a large format camera is anything but intuitive, and is highly labour intensive. Do a LOT of practice shooting before the time, so you have the routine down, otherwise you will be constantly fumbling. Forget to close the shutter after focusing, and you have blown away a couple of bucks worth of film. You need to be fluent enough with the equipment, that you can concentrate on the content. With large-format, that takes a bunch of practice.
Medium format again would not be my choice in clubs or concerts, but at least you can get film up to ISO800 if you can shoot negatives. Chromes would likely be a problem - I am not aware of any fast tungsten medium format film being available any more - a glance at three of the top camera stores' sites showed none. With fast film and an appropriate camera, if you are really good, medium-format could be viable for performance photography, but highly challenging. Again, no problem in studio or daylight.
Bottom line for concert or clubs - first choice would be high-quality digital, shot RAW. This would be ideal.
Second choice would be 35mm with custom printing from negatives by an expert printer, or doing it yourself in your own colour-lab.
Thanks everyone! I used my AE-1, and the lab showed me a sample 2 x 3 they made, and they look acceptionally good.
You're not restricted to ISO 64 film that's tungsten balanced. Kodak makes tungsten balanced film in both 160 (EPT)and 320 (EPJ) ISO.
Your other option might be to use a faster film (e.g., 1600) and Kodak makes EPH to fill that hole (it's actually an 800 ISO film made for push processing) and a tungsten balancing filter. The trade-off is grain but you may have to push the slower film anyway in which case you'd have enhanced grain as well. If you can find some (eBay would be the only place) you could also try to get your hands on some Fuji MS 100/1000. It's a nominal 100 ISO film that can be pushed to 1000 and still produces excellent results. If you shot it at 1000 with a filter you'd lose 2 stops and your working EI would be about 250. I love this film. It has terrific colour reproduction and mid-level contrast.
As you've seen, a large blow up of 35mm film is possible. The other thing to keep in mind is that the larger the blow up the longer the viewing distance. The longer the viewing distance, the less absolute sharpness and the more grain you can get away with because they won't be able to be noticed from the greater distance.
Those images Kodak used to show at Grand Central were really nice --- when seen from the floor below. When I worked in NYC in the late 1960s I got to visit them up close (walking right in front of the huge mural)and the grain then was the size of a golf ball. This is not saying the 35mm slide or neg used to make the image was grainy, but that's what the image looked like up close because it was enlarged so much.