Shooting LF is not difficult, from MF to LF

By J.W.F. Kaptein Jr. © 2015 for

With analog camera and lens prices down to levels no one could have dreamt of as little as twenty years ago, the introduction of digital cameras has opened the door to all kinds of exotic equipment for those who choose to shoot film. However, there seems to be a significant barrier to entry. It does not seem to dissuade easily people from getting into 35mm, but certainly holds them back when they consider buying into MF equipment. From there, even very seasoned photographers seem to view LF as a nigh impossible step. Are the barriers really that high and is the difference that large?

The choice to work with film

Regardless of the size you choose to work with, there is a very conscious choice involved in shooting film. Quite to the contrary of the general availability and affordability of great photographic equipment, film, places that process it or stock chemicals to do it at home have become scarcer and more expensive.

Many photographers these days have very possibly never even owned or photographed with any analog camera, let alone system. With photographing, I mean consciously taking a picture, carefully evaluating variables such as film type and speed, lighting, aperture and shutter settings, etc. As such, this is not counting the classic 35mm point and shoot cameras offering only full auto mode. To them, LF may not be the way to go.

For those who grew up with film or who shot it for artistic purposes, digital has often been a blessing or a necessary evil. Even though my first camera was a Pentax Spotmatic, followed by various Nikon 35mm film cameras, I too, at some stage abandoned film. As a wildlife photographer, the flexibility, cheap high volume workflow, and the possibility to share pretty much as soon as I shot, meant that digital was great, and film was as good as dead. Or so I thought.

As time passed and I, like many of you, kept upgrading to newer generations of digital cameras, I sometime glanced at analog gear. Remembering the luscious, saturated Velvia colors projected on the wall, I started buying and shooting analog again. First in 35mm (Nikon F6, Contax G2 kits, Leica M6), but soon I was shooting all sorts of MF equipment too (Mamiya 7 and 645 Pro TL, Hasselblad 501C, Fuji GW690II, GW690III, GA645Zi, Bronica ETRSi, GS-1, Pentax 645N and others). MF rapidly overtook 35mm for me as the creative and print possibilities it offers are much greater.

Over the years, I increasingly started to shoot black and white film in addition to Velvia. The satisfaction of projecting the large slides on the wall or watching them on a light table is so hard to describe. Then at some stage, you take identical or similar shots with your digital camera and on Velvia. Once processed and on the screen, there is a difference between night and day. What more reason do you need to shoot film? Motivations and purposes will differ, but we all have our reason to shoot film and I strongly feel film has a solid place in today's world of photography.

Medium format or large format

The basic assumption for the purpose of this article is that your photography lends itself to both formats and that you currently probably shoot MF in addition to another system. Whether it is landscape, fashion, portrait or other, medium and large format have many specializations in which both could work.

In a nutshell, medium format gear is often comparatively portable. Add to this that quite a few cameras can be shot hand-held that eliminates the need for a tripod and offers flexibility. This makes for quite a compelling proposition. However, large format offers the big advantage of the larger negative or slide and in many cases the movements of the camera that open a whole new world of creative possibilities.

For those of us who are willing or routinely carry a tripod and a heavy pack of gear, large format seems to be a great choice. Still, many people do not take the leap. The hurdle appears to be high, which is a shame.

The large format hurdle

So your work could potentially benefit from the creative freedom of a large format system, or you are addicted to the big negatives and slides like many of us. You look at classifieds and eBay listings and see the greatest of gear, but just can not make up your mind to buy into it. My question is, why not? Assuming you have shot film before and are familiar with camera basics, the hurdle is much lower than you think. In random order:

Large format is expensive. If you have read until here, you have probably also looked at classifieds. If you have, you will have noticed that a great LF set-up costs less than an enthusiast level digital camera (monorail cameras including a simple lens, a few film holders and some bits and bobs sell for as little as 300 euros on Ebay and locally! A full wooden LF field kit can be had for 750 euros if you are patient). The difference is that the LF equipment is not a direct write-off, but should sell for similar money in the future if looked after carefully.

Where to start? There is so much gear on sale that finding a first camera can be confusing. This is true to an extend, however, if you carefully think about what you want to shoot and where, life becomes a lot simpler. If you want to shoot in a studio and want maximum movement, monorails are great and sell for ridiculously little money (cameras without accessories from anywhere as low as 200 euros). If you want portability, any of the wooden field cameras will be great (I just saw an "as new" Shen Hao field for 500 euros). And if you insist on hand held shooting, old press cameras are an option (anywhere from 150 euros and up depending on their condition), as are several modern developments. From there you can always migrate to bigger or better. Chances are that if you stick to the same format, all lenses (and probably lens boards too) and film holders will be directly compatible. Your light meter, focusing loupe, dark cloth and so on will also continue to serve you well.

Large format is heavy. While not lightweight, an LF system can very much be as heavy or light as you want. This depends on size, types and numbers of lenses and holders, tripod, etc. I have never accurately weighed my travel kit (wooden field camera, three lenses, 10 holders, boxes of sheet film, changing tent, light meter, focusing loupe, etc), but it comes in at around twenty five pounds, including the thinktank bag it all fits into.My full Hasselblad MF kit including three lenses, several backs, two bodies and accessories weighs about the same. In contrast, my digital wildlife kit is significantly heavier, at around thirty-five pounds (although I can shave a few pounds off by leaving the super tele at home). My "ultralight" LF kit consists of a wista field, 6 film holders, three lenses (75mm, 150mm, 210mm), a loupe, light meter and some bits and bobs. It fits in a think tank sling back and comes in between ten and twelve pounds! Granted, thereÕs a tripod that is carried separately, but there are plenty of lightweight alternatives with simple ballheads or level heads available.

Large format is too complicated. Technical cameras, unlike the technical aspects of a space shuttle, are not very complicated at all. Yes, they do require some time and effort to learn, but there are always people there to help, like on this forum. In addition, there are great books such as "Using the view camera" that provide excellent information on how to use your camera and its movements.

Film and supplies are hard to come by. It is true that it is unlikely that your local photo shop stock sheet film and other supplies. However, there are many great sources online where you can order sheet film in many formats as well as pretty much anything else you could need or want.

No access to a darkroom. While needed for printing your photos, you do not need one to load and develop sheet film. Most of the people here probably do not have access to a full dark room. Instead, they work with changing tents or bags and daylight developing tanks. There work great and are widely available. Harrison tents are nice and pack very compact, but I have found loading my expert drums easier in a Calumet pop-up tent that sells for around 90 euros.

Developing film is prohibitively expensive or unavailable in my area. This is the case for many photographers. There are probably professional laboratories in your country of residence that will receive and return film by mail for processing. This, however, can indeed be expensive (I am not sure about other countries, but the cheapest I have found in the Netherlands is 4.5 euros ex-vat and shipping for a 4x5 sheet). However, developing your own film is quite easy. Particularly if you choose to shoot black and white (My total costs for a drum with 6 sheets of B&W films is around 1,25 euros and includes developer, stop batch, fixer and a few drops of photo flow). Color (slide) film is somewhat more complicated but do-able. If developing seems too daunting, why not take a darkroom course. You will learn how to do it and have the confidence to experiment at home. And if you ask nicely, you may very well meet someone who is willing to show you how itÕs done for free.

In conclusion

Large format has much to offer and provides great creative possibilities when compared to small and medium format alternatives.

If your photography lends itself to working with large format film, or if you desire to print large, there is little reason not to try.

There is no mystique to LF and hurdles to a switch to LF are much lower in real life than they may seem when reading about them.

Basic photographic principles apply, just like they do for any other format. If you are familiar with them, you will feel comfortable with an LF camera.

There is no such thing as mutual exclusivity. I for one continue to shoot digital, MF and LF. Each of the systems has its merits. View them as complementary, rather than incompatible.

And finally, yes, people will look at you when you shoot a LF camera. Most people will just look surprised, however, if you get any, reactions are almost always positive.