Large Format Primer
Gearing Up And Getting To Work

The first time I visited Yosemite I brought my 4x5 view camera. This image might work with a smaller format, but I've made 30x40" prints of it, and you can clearly distinguish individual pine needles.
Photos © 2001, Joseph A. Dickerson, All Rights Reserved

Maybe you've considered large format. Perhaps you'd like to experience photography as Ansel Adams, Morley Baer, Edward Weston, and other pioneers did. It's a slower, more introspective kind of photography, but if you'd like to know more about it, or perhaps try it for yourself, read on. Initially the view camera and its paraphernalia may seem mysterious, but a large format system is less complicated than many 35mm cameras. Let's check out each component of a typical 4x5 camera kit and see what is really required to get up and running.

The Camera
The heart and soul of your outfit will be the camera itself. Here your horizon is virtually unlimited. You can pick up a Speed or Crown Graphic on the used market, often with a case and other accessories, very inexpensively. They lack many of the movements you'll find on a view camera, but they may well provide all you'll require. We'll discuss camera movements in some detail later in this article. At the other end of the spectrum you can pony up the price of a mid-range SUV for some of the more sophisticated studio cameras. If your budget is tight, used is a good way to go, although Calumet and Toyo, to name two, offer reasonably priced full-featured entry-level cameras.

You'll be confronted with two types of cameras, field and monorail, so you should understand a little about both. One feature of field cameras is that they fold up into a small package. This makes for easier transport, but often at the cost of reduced movements. A monorail camera has a front and a back, just like the field camera, but they are supported by a rail. This rail is usually round or square, and can be fixed length or extendible. The front and back of the camera move fore and aft on the monorail allowing the lens to focus and to facilitate the use of different focal length lenses.

The choice between a Graphic press camera (the name persists although the press hasn't used them in half a century), a field camera, or a monorail is governed by many things. The most important of these is your preferred subject matter. The photographer specializing in tabletop and product photography will opt for a monorail camera for its more extensive movements. However, monorail cameras tend to be heavy and those of us who backpack with large format generally shun them. There are exceptions. My Gowland has full movements and still weighs a mere 31/2 lbs. Field cameras are, for the most part, compromises, but many are full-featured and are just as functional in the studio as slogging along some backwoods trail. I've included a bibliography (see the sidebar) and you can find more information about camera designs, options, and operation in the books listed there.

With practice you'll be able to capture even fleeting subjects like this sunset during a clearing storm. But, you must work with your large format system until it is second nature. You also need to be consistent about packing your gear. Fumbling to find your light meter while a scene like this is going away can be really frustrating.

The Lens
Without a good lens you won't get good photographs; it's that simple. View camera lenses are virtually universal, so there are thousands of them available, many at bargain prices, that will work on your camera. The standard focal length for a 4x5 camera is around 150mm. This means if you like to shoot on 35mm film with a 50mm lens you get approximately the same angle of view with a 150mm on your 4x5 (see focal length sidebar for more comparisons). But, there is another thing to consider, covering power.

Covering power is a concept unique to large format as the lenses are often displaced from their normal position directly in front of the film. As we apply camera movements (don't despair, I promise we'll get to them) we move the lens. If its image circle is too small we see a darkening of the image referred to as cutoff or vignetting. Large format photography requires lenses with a circle of illumination that is at least equal to the diagonal dimension of the negative (162mm in the case of 4x5). This allows us to cover the negative but allows no margin for movements, so it is desirable for the circle of illumination to be greater than the minimum. Fortunately, manufacturers publish the circle of illumination with other lens specifications. I suggest starting with a focal length in the 150-210mm range, and working with it for a while. With a bit of experience your next lens purchase will be self-evident.

Film Options
Many popular films are available for large format. Most must be loaded as individual sheets into film holders, two sheets per holder. Obviously, this must be accomplished in total darkness. As an alternative, you can choose Kodak Readyload or Fuji Quickload films, which come in light-tight envelopes and do not need to be pre-loaded in a darkroom. Although more costly than standard films, they save bulk and weight, not to mention fun-filled evenings in camp with your head in the bottom of your sleeping bag while you clean and reload film holders.

Most view cameras will also accept roll film adapters allowing formats up to 6x12cm on 120 or 220 roll film. Not all cameras are compatible with all rollfilm backs, so check carefully before you buy.

There is a drawback to large format I haven't mentioned. I set my camera up at the rim of the Grand Canyon, about a half hour before sunset, ran to the van to get something and when I returned the camera was surrounded by tourists. I had clearly delineated the Kodak Photo Spot. I then had to shoot group shots with about 25 of their point-and-shoots before I could expose any of my film.

The Remaining Essentials
A solid tripod, handheld light meter, cable release, a magnifier for critical focusing, and a focusing or dark cloth round out your gear. Two of these merit special mention. Many photographers use a slide viewing loupe, but a magnifier designed specifically for view camera use is worth the extra money. Get a focusing cloth that is large enough and white on one side. With the reflective white side out you won't roast while romancing the image on a sunny day.

At Last, Camera Movements
Camera movements control the shape or perspective of the subject, maximize image sharpness, and allow slight adjustments to the composition. For most applications, the front of the camera will control focus and the back will control perspective.

Even the most basic camera has some front movements so we'll start there. If you rotate the lens around a horizontal axis (up and down) you have applied a front tilt. The same movement applied to the rear standard, or film plane, is a back or rear tilt. If you rotate the front or rear standard around a vertical axis (from side to side), the movement is called a swing. There are two other movements to remember. Sliding the front or back to the left or right without any rotation is a shift, while moving the front or back up and down without any rotation is rise or fall.

Rise, fall, and shifts are the easiest to understand, so let's get them out of the way first. All of these movements are used to move the subject around on the ground glass. This allows you to tweak your composition without moving the camera and tripod. Rise is especially important in architectural photography. By applying front rise rather than pointing the entire camera up you can include the top of a tall building. This allows the back of the camera to remain parallel to the subject and prevents its sides from converging.

As I said earlier, the back controls perspective but this too is relatively easy to understand. If the back of the camera is parallel to your subject, let's say a cereal box, the box will look rectilinear or square. But if you raise the camera and point it down to include the top of the box for dimension, the sides will converge since the top is now closer to the camera than the bottom. By using the rear tilt to bring the film plane back into alignment with the subject, the box will again appear rectilinear.

Depth Of Field Control
A common misconception is that lens movements are used to increase depth of field. As with any other camera, depth of field is controlled by the lens focal length, the subject-to-lens distance and the lens aperture or f/stop. But with view camera movements we can place the plane of sharp focus exactly where we want, allowing for universal sharpness.

This one is a little tricky, so stick with me. The plane of sharp focus with any camera is perpendicular to the lens axis. With most cameras the lens axis is fixed, but remember our front tilts? Let's say we're doing a shot of Yosemite's Half Dome with some poppies in the foreground. Well, no amount of stopping down will make the poppy at 3 ft and Half Dome at seven miles equally sharp. But, by tilting the lens I also tilt the plane of sharp focus and at some point I can get both Half Dome and the poppy to be bisected by this plane of sharp focus. I can then stop my lens down to sharpen things up a bit more, and apparently achieve infinite depth of field.

I know this all sounds like smoke and mirrors, but in reality you see everything happening on the ground glass so it only takes a little practice before it becomes second nature.

The only movement required for this Victorian Bed and Breakfast was front rise. But without that correction the building would have looked as though it were falling over backward.

Still My First Choice
Two of my favorite things in the whole world are bicycles and view cameras, and they are not all that dissimilar. Both use technology that was invented in the 19th century, both have simple mechanical operations right out in the open, and both are capable of giving a lifetime of felicity.

The computer-controlled cameras, autofocusing lenses, and incredibly sharp, fine-grained films of today are more than this photographer could have imagined in his wildest dreams back in his college years. But even with all of this fabulous technology available, I find that my view camera often is my first choice when a magnificent scene presents itself. Now if only I could carry it on my bike tours.

A Short Bibliography
An Ansel Adams Guide: Basic Techniques of Photography, Book 1; John P. Schaefer; Little Brown and Co., 1271 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10020; ISBN 0-8212-1882-4; soft cover (also available hard cover); 432 pages; $35.00.

Kodak Book of Large Format Photography; Roger Vail; Silver Pixel Press, 21 Jet View Dr., Rochester, NY 14624; ISBN 0-87985-771-4; soft cover; 112 pages; $19.95. Photographing the Landscape; Jim Fielder; Westcliffe Publishers, Inc., PO Box 1261, Englewood, CO 80150; ISBN 1-56579-150-9; hard cover; 191 pages; $50.00.

View Camera Technique, 7th Edition; Leslie Stroebel; Focal Press, 225 Wildwood Ave., Woburn, MA 01801; ISBN 0-240-80345-0; hard cover; 376 pages; $54.95.

Adorama Inc. (Tachihara cameras)
(212) 741-0052

Alpa Of Switzerland
+41 1 383 9222
fax: +41 1 382 0180

Calumet Photographic (Zone VI and Calumet Cadet view cameras)
(800) 453-2550

Cambridge Camera Exchange, Inc. (Exakta)
(212) 675-8600
fax: (212) 463-0093

Contax (Yashica)
(800) 526-0266
(732) 560-0060
fax: (732) 560-9221

Fuji Photo Film USA, Inc.
(914) 789-8100
fax: (914) 789-8295

Hasselblad U.S.A., Inc.
(973) 227-7320
fax: (973) 227-3249

Horseman USA
(631) 225-0725

HP Marketing Corp. (Linhof)
(973) 808-9010
fax: (973) 808-9004

Kiev USA/Lektra
(203) 531-0900
fax: (203) 531-6229

Mamiya America Corp.
(914) 347-3300
fax: (914) 347-3309

NPC Photo Division (Polaroid backs)
(617) 969-3487
fax: (617) 969-4523

(303) 799-8000
fax: (303) 790-1131

Polaroid Corp.
(781) 386-6175
fax: (781) 386-6243

Rollei Fototechnic
(888) 876-5534
fax: (201) 902-9342

Tamron Industries Inc.
(631) 694-8700
fax: (631) 694-1414

Wisner Classic Manufacturing Company (Wisner Cameras)
(800) 848-0448