Tips on Large Format Photography – What They Don’t Tell You!

June 29, 2008 at 4:18 pm

Introduction, Theory, Gear, Options, Conclusion

Sinar p2 5x4
© Ben Anderson


Recently a friend of mine looking to take up large format photography asked my advice on what they should do, I wrote a lengthy e-mail to him which distilled all the knowledge I’d accumulated. Much of this knowledge was either very hard to find or required speaking directly to those in the know, so it may be useful for others…

A Little Theory

Before we can begin to describe what equipment you’ll need it’s probably a good idea to delve into a little theory and background, I hope this doesn’t put you to sleep.

The three most amenable formats are 5×4, 5×7, & 10×8 – for some curious reason the Americans describe the two outer formats with the figures reversed, so 4×5 & 8×10.

5×4 has a focal length equivalence roughly 3x that of 35mm (full frame) cameras, so a 90mm lens on a 5×4 camera has a field of view roughly equivalent to 30mm on a 35mm camera – although 5×4′s aspect ratio is different to that of 35mm so the resultant image is taller. 5×7 is approximately 4.5 times that of 35mm, and 10×8 is around 6 times that of 35mm.

Those are the 3 ‘standard’ formats, I say standard because people do shoot larger and also cut down versions of these for speciality photography, for example 20*24 Ultra Large Format, or 4*10 panoramic. Of the three, 5×4 is BY FAR the most readily available in terms of film and equipment, it is also the easiest to shoot due to its smaller size.

Just about any large format lens can be used on any large format camera, the important thing to remember is that not every lens will be suitable for the format you are shooting. This is typically because the lens only produces an image circle large enough to cover a particular format – the bigger the image circle the more expensive the lens tends to be. The wider that a lens is, the smaller its image circle usually is.

Another benefit of large format photography which relies on the size of the image circle is the ability to employ movements. Of which there are, Rise/Fall, Shift, Tilt, & Swing:

  • Rise and Fall are literally moving the front standard (lens board/plane) or rear standard (film/focus plane) up or down in relation to one another/the zero détente on the camera – this approximates tilting the camera up or down at an angle, but unlike a rigid camera the film and lens plane stay vertical so parallel lines of vertical objects do not converge – very useful for architectural shooting.
  • Shift is similar to rise and fall but is in the horizontal plane, so you would move the front or rear standard left or right, this is useful for ‘looking around’ objects but maintaining straight horizontals – particularly useful in confined space or when something obstructs a view, also used commonly when shooting a subject in a mirror but not wanting to include the camera/photographer in the scene.
  • Tilt is used to change where the plane of focus lies in relation to the film plane, this is most often used where not enough critical sharpness can be obtained from the very near to the very far — instead of stopping down excessively as would be required in a rigid body camera (and perhaps introducing softening due to diffraction), the focal plane can be placed in an optimal position to ensure sharpness, for example it can be tilted to be in line with the surface of the sea, or a field, in this manner the depth of field is infinite along the plane, but limited by aperture perpendicular to it.
  • Swing is similar to Tilt but in the vertical plane, it can be used to ensure the face of a building is in focus if shooting it from an angle other than face on.

    Tilts & swings both utilise what is known as the the Scheimpflug principal, see wikipedia for further reading

  • Of course this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what the movements can be used to achieve but it does give us some ideas. Naturally, the movements can all be used at the same time to achieve complex results.

    What You’ll Need

    Lenses, Shutters, Lens Boards, Focusing Cloth, Film Holders, Film, Changing Bag, Tripod, Bags, Light Meter

  • Lenses: This is pretty obvious to most, but some people assume all cameras have a built in lens. Not so, and if that statement was a eureka moment for you then it’s probably not a good idea to be considering large format photography. You are going to need some glass.

    Schneider Super Angulon
    © Ben Anderson

    5×4 film requires a lens with a minimum image circle of 153.7mm

    5×7 film needs lenses with a minimum image circle of 208.7mm

    10×8 film dictates that lenses require a minimum image circle of 312.5mm

    I have a Schneider 90/5.6 Super Angulon MC (235mm image circle), a Schneider 150/5.6 APO Symmar (220mm image circle), and a Schneider 300/5.6 Symmar S MC (411mm image circle).

    Both the 90 & 150 are usable on both 5×4 & 5×7, both have ample coverage for 5×4, both will struggle with movements on 5×7 but the 90mm surprisingly has more room to manoeuvre. The 300 will work fine on all three with ample room for movements. The 90 is wide on 5×4, super wide on 5×7, and unusable due to vignette on 10×8. The 150 is normal on 5×4, wide on 5×7, and again unusable on 10×8. The 300 is short to medium tele on 5×4, short tele on 5×7, and normal on 10×8. Image circles are typically measured with the lens stopped down to f/22, so if the circle produced by a lens is close to what is required you may well see vignetting at larger apertures.

    Useful list of 5×4 lens coverage
    Useful list of 5×7 lens coverage
    Useful list of 10×8 lens coverage
    Master list of lens specifications

  • Shutters: Lenses normally come mounted around a shutter, mine are all mounted on Prontor Pro shutters. Prontor shutters allow the lens to be very easily stopped down and previewed without moving from the rear of the camera before shooting – this is achieved by means of two cable releases (or the expensive Prontor remote control). Copal is perhaps the most common modern shutter and is equally as good quality as the Prontor – Copal shutters are typically lighter than Prontor so often favoured by field photographers. Some lenses come with no shutter, these are referred to as barrel lenses and either require an external shutter (as is the case with Sinar DBM lenses) or can be shot simply be removing the lens cap (or photographers hat!) and counting.

    Prontor Pro 01S Shutter
    © Ben Anderson

  • Lens Boards: Almost All large format cameras employ lens boards, these typically come in 3 sizes, copal 0, 1, or 3 (there’s no 2) – these match the diameters required by the most common shutter sizes. You will normally require a board for each lens, but you can reduce your carrying weight by either carrying a lens wrench (needed to mount the lens and shutter assembly to a board), or by using reducing boards.

    Sinar/Horseman Copal 0 lens board
    © Ben Anderson

    Using lens boards you can rapidly switch between lenses to suit the subject at hand. You can also use your lenses on different brand cameras, many utilise the same board types, for example Sinar, Horseman, and Chamonix all utilise the Sinar boards that my lenses are mounted in. The advantage of this is that my Sinar camera is not particularly portable whereas a Chamonix field camera is. Naturally this advantage is lost where completely different board types are used by your equipment, but again a lens wrench or reducing boards can be used to overcome this.

  • Focusing Cloth: Large Format lenses are typically quite slow, with a maximum aperture of f/5.6 or smaller. The image produced by these lenses is then further reduced in intensity when it hits the ground glass (GG) of the camera. In order to easily view the GG you will need a focusing cloth, this can be as simple as a black sheet or t-shirt that you drape over the back of the camera, or a custom made item such as the BlackJacket (I own a 8×10 Blackjacket Hybrid). You will certainly need a focusing cloth for checking critical focus and depth of field whilst stopped down. You may also want a loupe.

    BlackJacket 10x8 hybrid focusing cloth
    © Ben Anderson

  • Film Holders: By far the most common types of film holder are those made by Fidelity, these are double sided and hold 2 sheets of film. The holders have a reversible dark slide for each sheet, the darkslides have a handle which is black one side or white/silver on the other, most people use black to indicate exposed film and silver/white to indicate unexposed — so you ensure silver is out when you load, and reverse the slide as you expose.

    Toyo 5x4 Holder & Film
    © Ben Anderson

    It’s a good idea to have enough holders to contain the number of sheets you’ll want to shoot, this will avoid you having to unload/load film ‘in the field’, obviously this will not be a problem in ‘the studio’. Naturally more holders mean more weight, see here for alternative options. Please note that in the image above the film is not correctly loaded, the notches should be at the bottom right!

  • Film: It goes without saying that you’ll need some form of light sensitive device to actually capture your images, for the purposes of this article I’m going to discount all but commonly available sheet film ie. no digital, or alternate processes.

    Professional 5x4 film
    © Ben Anderson

    Essentially you can shoot pretty much the same types of film as are available in roll film formats, but with limitations. Typically only the slower film speeds are available, and usually only the professional emulsion types. Fuji Pro 160S, Fuji Velvia, Kodak Portra 160 & 400, Ilford HP5+ amongst others are readily available, but don’t expect to see Superia 1600 or any other niche films appearing in sheet form any time soon.

  • Changing bag/tent/darkroom: Unless you are shooting packfilm, you will have to physically load and/or unload your sheet film into holders. Since film is sensitive to light you’re going to have to load the film in a totally dark environment. This can be achieved in a number of ways:

    Changing Bag
    © Ben Anderson

    • Dark bag: Is essentially two light tight bags within each other, there are 2 arm holes, and each of the bags has a large zipper to allow you to insert items. In practicality you can load up to 5×4 sheet film size within a dark bag, but the bag tends to become sweaty quickly and the film can start to stick in the holders so it’s best to load in small batches.
    • Dark tent: Is pretty similar to a dark bag but it has a frame of some sorts to keep the tent at maximum volume, they also tend to be larger than a dark bag. You can get these to accomodate film all the way up to Ultra Large Format sizes.
    • Dark room: exactly what it sounds like, a room that is dark — but beware, even the slightest illumination can fog film, so it’s best to tape all windows/door frames against stray light. Given the cost of large sheet film sizes, It’s also a good idea to tell people not to enter the room whilst you are working!
  • Tripod: A sturdy tripod is a must for large format work, for field work you’ll want some carbon fibre legs to minimise weight — Gitzo make a plethora of good legs, be sure to check the max weight for each model to ensure you’re camera/lens/back/holder/cloth total weight will be adequately supported. There are manufacturers that specialise in legs for large format cameras, but expect to pay a hefty premium for their products.

    Manfrotto 055XPRO & 410 geared head
    © Ben Anderson

    A strong head is also a must if you need any kind of quick adjustment. You could attach a camera body directly to the legs for maximum stability, but adjusting the camera levels will be nigh on impossible in most cases. I have a Manfrotto 410 geared head which I picked up for my medium format gear, it just about works with my P2 & 5×4 back, there’s some pendulum motion which soon dies down, but I don’t fancy my chances if the wind picks up. Because of this I’m planning on obtaining the formidable Sinar Pan/Tilt head, you really couldn’t hope for a more stable base for a heavy camera.

    Many people swear by the large ballheads that are available, be very careful to ensure you get something sturdy if you go down this route, some form of variable tension control is essential if you don’t want your gear to nose dive!

  • Bags/Storage: Large format cameras and all the associated paraphernalia take up quite a bit of room so you’ll need a formidable bag to carry it all in, I bought a Peli 1650 rolling case for my P2 because I don’t ever envisage taking it far from my car – I also need to keep out a very determined 2 year old! Many people use the larger offerings from Lowepro, or even simply hiking backpacks. Those with more financial sense than I simply improvise and use items such as drinks coolers and even pizza bags, the key point is to find something which fits your requirements.

    Peli 1650
    © Ben Anderson

  • Light Meter: Unless you are able to judge exposures in your head (you’d be surprised how many are able to do this, it’s pretty easy using Sunny 16), you’ll probably want a light meter in order to get your exposures correct. I have a simple Sekonic L308S which I use as an incident meter, those who are a little more exacting will probably want a meter that can take multiple spot readings in order to use the zone system. Read more here.

    Sekonic L308S light meter
    © Ben Anderson

  • Optional extras

    Loupe, Pack Film, Convertibles, Developing Tank, A Lab

  • Loupe: A loupe is an optical device used to magnify objects, although you may not require one to accurately focus an image on your ground glass, you will instantly see how useful one is when you try it. I have an 8x glass one made in Japan (Kenro I think), and critical focus is much much easier with it (especially on 5×4). Many people favour loupes which have a long shaft or squared off corners, these features allow them to be used with collapsible focus hoods and into the corners of the ground glass respectively.

    Kenro 8x loupe
    © Ben Anderson

  • Pack Film: There are a number of pack film systems available for large format shooters, Fuji Quickload, Kodak Readyload, Fuji Instant, and Polaroid.

    Quickload and Readyload, are simply a single sheet of film in a light tight envelope. The pack is inserted into a holder, clamped into place, and the envelope is partially removed to enable the film to be exposed. Original Readyload packs had 2 sheets of film back to back but were prone to problems. Concensus dictates that it is best to use the vendor specific holder for each type of pack film, but the films can be used in each of the vendors offerings, albeit with different levels of success reported. Quickload & Readyload are approximately twice as expensive as normal sheet film, but they offer the advantage of being loaded in a sterile environment so are not easily contaminated by dust like normal holders. film packs are also significantly lighter than multiple loaded film holders so this type of film is often favoured by the back packer. Kodak recently (as of June 2008) announced the discontinuance of Readyload.

    Polaroid 545i holder
    © Ben Anderson

    Fuji Instant and Polaroid are essentially the same things, a sheet of film in a packet combined with a chemical pouch to allow instant processing. Polaroid have many more product offerings than Fuji. The film is extracted from the holder between two engaged rollers which distribute the chemicals evenly across the film. Polaroid have recently announced their discontinuance of instant film products, but it is likely that stocks of their products may remain available for some time (be aware that their shelf life is not great!).

  • Convertibles: Many older lenses are double or even triple convertible, this means that by either removing or rearranging certain elements the lens will have a different focal length. The appeal of this can be instantly recognised, less equipment to buy, and perhaps most importantly, less weight and bulk to carry around.

    There are some drawbacks however, many of the lenses do not perform optimally when in their converted states. The shutter and aperture blades may be exposed to the elements in the converted state. Older lenses may not be multicoated so may be more prone to flare (although many would argue the benefits of single versus multicoated elements). Another issue is simply obtaining the lenses, and even identifying them (hopefully someone can help out here!).

  • Developing Tank: With a suitable developing tank you can process your own B&W film at home just as you would for 135 or 120 roll film. There are square box tanks which use hangers to immerse your film in a bath of chemicals, these require the same large volume of chemicals no matter how many sheets you process so are best used for processing large batches of film.

    People also use print developing tanks (such as JOBO tanks) for developing large format sheet film, but be aware that you will need some method of ensuring the anti halation layer of the film gets correctly processed, you need some method to ensure the usable film surface is not in contact with the interior of the tank in order for the chemicals to process the layer.

    Processing becomes commensurately more difficult the larger the sheet size gets and commonly a tray based developing process is used – this of course requires a darkroom and working in the dark!

  • A Lab: The alternative to developing your own film is to pay someone else to do it. Those who shoot colour print or slide film tend to favour using a lab since the process is a little more sensitive to temperature and the chemicals more expensive than for B&W.

    Be careful to look carefully at what each lab offers, some will process E6 sheet film only, others will process both but offer bulk discounts on E6, yet others will only process 5×4, so in short you need to carefully weigh up the options. Don’t forget to account for VAT/Sales Tax, most labs gear their services toward professionals.

    Some labs in the UK:

    Leach Colour – E6 to 10×8, no C41, bulk prices, speed changes extra.
    CC Imaging – E6 to 5×4, no C41, bulk prices, speed changes inclusive.
    Peak Imaging – E6 to 10×8, C41 to 10×8, bulk prices, speed changes extra.

  • Conclusion

    Shooting large format equipment is costly, time consuming, space wasting, and challenging, but in my opinion the benefits in terms of depth of field and movements far outweigh all of these negatives. Hopefully this less than comprehensive introduction may have helped to clarify some of the more mystical aspects of the pursuit for you.

    My thanks go out to the Large Format Photography Forum which has been an invaluable resource

    • king

      Great site!
      Thanks for your helpful information.

    • Andy

      Man thanks so much for this, looked for ages to find the lens lists that you wrote. So so so so so helpful, thank you so much!

    • Lasse Jansson

      Great site, but there is a mistake on the picture that shows how to put the sheet into the filmholder.
      The “snatches” should be held by the right thumb and indexfinger and the filmsheet slided into the holder. To slide in the film the way it shows on your picture will put the lightsensitive emulsion “face down”.

    • Bayani Arit

      Very helpful review site. One of the better sites I have read. Concise and straight to the point. Just missing out on the LF digital side.

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    • http://n/a Toby

      This is a really useful resource! I’ve just returned to large format after 25 years or so of 35mm and medium format and your information is very helpful at jogging my memory!

      Many thanks

    • vicky

      thanks for this ben, i just found it while googling quickloads.
      i’m about to try my speed graphic for the first time and it’s more than a little daunting.

    • David

      I think you might have the film the wrong way up in the picture of how it fits into the holder. Otherwise excellent. Certainly very much better than most accounts I have read. Carbon fibre tripods can cost more than the camera but I expect you know that.


    • Roger

      I think I probably will, I’m considering an old TLR. I’ve also got my hands on an old Olympus om10 with manual apadapter and although I’ve yet to finish the first film I’m definitely more considered about my shots.

    • BennehBoy

      Do it, you’ll notice your shooting gets much more considered (than digital shooting if you do so).

      Good luck!

    • Roger

      Great article Ben, very well written. Unfortunately you’ve now got me dangerously keen on medium format, might have to go down the cheap and cheerful route and get an old vintage camera.

    • Greg Roberts

      A nice overview. A quick tip for people trying to save money: Instead of purchasing a light meter, if you already own an SLR use that as your meter. I find when I am out I have the SLR along anyway, so I use it for metering.

    • LucisPictor

      Ben, this is excellent work! Very useful (and the site looks really good!).

    • http://none Malcolm McKinnon

      Good article. Thanks

    • stpiduko

      Ctrl + P, Tube Journey Home


    • BennehBoy

      It was you that inspired it Bob ;)

    • BobC

      For someone who’s about to enter the world of large format that’s great info! Nice one.