Large Format Photography primer: equipment

by Q.-Tuan Luong for the Large Format Page

This article discusses what you need to start large format photography:

For an example of kit, see inside my camera bag.

The camera

Think first about your intended application. 35mm cameras are universal, MF cameras and LF cameras are really more specialized. What kind of work are you going to do, and in which conditions ?

Which format to use ?

What features to look for in a camera ?

Here are a few things to consider. There are more discussions about the various trade-offs (wood vs metal, monorail vs flatbed, etc...) elsewhere on the LF page. Remember that YOU have to find out what your priorities are first, and that not every camera, no matter how highly praised, is for everyone.

Which is best, wood, or metal ?

The main advantage of wood (besides being cheaper to work) is that it is lighter. A consequence is that for the same weight you can make a bigger camera, which in turn will provide you more movements and more extension. A typical example are the Wisner and Canhams which are quite bulky (for 4x5 cameras) but offer more movements and bellows than any other field cameras. A metal camera using the same design would weight more than 11 lbs. Wood is also much better at dampening high-frequency vibration than any metal or metal alloy.

Metal has technically many advantages. It is more rigid, which result in less flexing and low frequency vibrations. This is good for long extensions. It is more solid, resulting in a more durable camera. If your tripod is knocked over by the wind, a metal camera is quite likely to remain functional with a few scratches, whereas a wooden camera could be totally destroyed. My reversible wooden back broke at the edge, which would have been unlikely to happy with metal. The stability with respect to environmental conditions like humidity and temperature is also better (one day my Canham would focus quite smoothly, one day it would be quite sticky). Last, it is easier to implement small features on metal. Therefore metal cameras tend generally to be more compact, and to offer greater accessory systems like reflex hoods, etc...

Which cameras to consider to get started on a budget?

It is best to buy used equipment. Shutterbug (dealers advertisements, classified, swap announces) and the net are good sources. Some recommended used stores with knowledgeable and honest people are Midwest Photo Exchange and Lens and Repro. There is not much which can go wrong on a large format camera which has not been seriously abused, since there are no delicate small high precision parts or electronics. Older cameras are well usable, but usually lack the convenience of more modern designs. Some of them are so beat-up that they lost their original rigidity. Another thing to watch for is pinholes in the bellows. A new bellows can always be installed, but the price might be a significant fraction of that of the cheaper cameras. Here are some suggestions (refer to the reviews for more details):

The lenses

What to look for in a lens ?

For a list of recommendations and tests, see

Film and holders

Conventional vs preloaded film (Quickload, Readyload, Polaroid)

You can either use film that you load yourself in cut-film holders or preloaded film.

In the first case, you need a dark and relatively clean place to load your film holders (might be a problem when travelling), and to unload them. Dust might be a problem, you have to clean your holders carefully. You cannot have too many holders. With a large number of holders, not only you'll be sure not to run out of film ready to shoot, but you'll have to reload less often, and you can keep exposed film in holders, which makes tracking easier.

Readyloads are from Kodak, Quickloads from Fuji. The readyloads from Kodak hold two sheets of film, the Quickloads hold one. The film is in a paper packet that you put in a special holder (they are made by Kodak, Fuji, Polaroid). Polaroid film can be processed instantly or latter, inside the holder. The other films are processed normally in the lab. Here are the advantages of preloaded film:

The main disadvantages are The best results for the preloaded films seems to be obtained using the dedicated holder (Fuji and Kodak), although the Fuji Quickload work OK with the Polaroid holder. The new 545i holder is significantly lighter than the old 545 which was all metal.

Conventional cut-film holders

If you decide not to use the preloaded systems but instead buy your film in sheets and load it, you have the choice between regular film holders which hold one sheet on each side, and Grafmatics. Generally speaking, if you buy used holders, check them carefully for dust and light leaks problems.

Wooden holders tend to slide better in wooden cameras, and are slightly lighter than plastic holders, but they cannot be found new. As far as new holders are concerned, most people use Fidelity or Lisco holders, which are the cheapest. Some brands make more expensive holders, but nobody has been able to prove that they yield sharper pictures in usual working conditions. The extremity of the dark slide is marked with two colors (black and white) and raised dots so that you can remember whether they contain blank film or exposed film. In addition, there is a tab which is supposed to keep the dark slide locked and prevent you from removing it accidentally, as well as help you identified loaded vs empty holders, but I have found that it tends to be quite unreliable. Riteway makes a holder with a button instead of the tab, which is an improvement, but it is not compatible with some cameras.

Grafmatics are more light and compact, and allow you to shoot in a sequence, but the loading is more difficult, esp. if you want to unload after using a holder only partially. They can be bought only used.

Roll-film backs

Roll film backs are available for all roll-film sizes to 6x12 the most common being 6x7 and 6x9. There are two types of roll-film holders. Personnally I prefer the second type, because I find them faster to use and it is said that the film flatness is better.

Polaroid film

Polaroid film is a great learning tool because you get instant feedback. Some people recommend that when you start 4x5 you expose Polaroids to begin. Another special application is proofing, to check composition, exposure (esp. with flash), and focus (by luping the negative). But Polaroid material has its own photographic merits, and can yield beautiful prints and negatives. It has been used as a medium by some masters.

To use Polaroid film, all you need is a 4x5 camera, and a Polaroid holder. The sheet film holders are model 545 (older, metal construction) or 545i (current, plastic construction, lighter). They are reasonnably sized so they can also be used with Quickload (and maybe Readyloads, although the failure rate is catastrophic). There are two other Polaroid holders, for pack film, the 550 which accepts 4x5" pack film and the 405 which uses 3 1/4x 4 1/4" pack film. Packs film are cheaper, but the film area is smaller than 4x5, so that makes them useful mostly for checking exposure. Personally I would just go for the 4x5 image given by the 545 (which is already a bit smaller than 4x5)

Polaroid also makes material for 8x10 cameras, but it is quite pricey and you also need a special processor, unlike in 4x5 where the holder serves as the processor.

For more information, call Polaroid to get a free guide to their film. I have personally found type 52 (gives a beautiful print), type 54 (gives a print not as beautiful, but which does not require coating), and type 55 (gives a print AND a negative), and type 56 (gives a beautiful sepia print) useful. Unfortunately with type 55, the negative is about 1.5 stops slower than the print, so you cannot get both well-exposed. The negative needs also a good cleaning to remain usable. More details on 55. All these materials are B&W. I don't have too much experience with the color materials, but I heard they are quite sensitive to heat.

The tripod

What to look for in a tripod ?

The first and second points are contradicting, and therefore you have to compromise. A reasonnable choice would be something like a Gitzo series 300 or equivalent. A Gitzo series 400 would hold any view camera. A series 200 would be considered by many to be marginal, but I find it quite usable (see below). Quite a few people use wooden tripods. While it is said that they damp vibrations better than metal tripod, I find that their only real advantage is ruggedness (due actually to a simpler construction, rather than material), and warmer feel. On the other hand, with respect to the four previous points, for a given weight, the metal tripod is always better.

Do I have to get a monster tripod for this large format camera ?

You don't necessarily need a tripod bigger than the one you use for your small camera. I used to have a very heavy tripod (Zone VI, 16 lbs, ouch !) that i used next to the car, and a Gitzo 226 for hiking and traveling. Since then, i have sold my Zone VI, and use exclusively the Gitzo 1228 with a Linhof Profi II ball head. The combination weights 4lbs, and is quite usable.

The reasons why I think that a light tripod such that the 1228 is plenty adequate for my LF use are the following:

- The real issue is the rigidity of the legs, NOT the weight of the tripod. With this respect, the Gitzos are pretty good. For the weight, I carry plenty enough. I have put a ring at the bottom of the center column, and attach by camera bag to it. The combo has a heavy weight that cannot be beat !

- Some medium format or even 35mm settups are in fact heavier than my LF, but I see NO reason why a heavier camera would require a heavier tripod (as long as it does not collapse, of course). Since regardless of the format, blur due to camera shake is mostly a function of focal length, I would tend to say that very stable tripods are needed mostly for very long lenses. Thus if the 1228 is sufficient to hold a 300mm lens for a 35mm camera (and it is), then it is also sufficient to hold a 300m for a 4x5 in still conditions. Most of my LF photography is done with 120 and 210 mm lenses.

Tripod head with QR system

A pan-tilt head is more convenient, because it is more easy to level the camera, and you can tilt the camera front to back without unwanted sideway tilt. If your camera does not have levels, it would be useful to have them on your head. A quick release system is very nice to have. Unfortunately the smallest PT head made by Manfrotto which meets all these requirements is the 3047, and although it is nice to use, it weights almost as much as my Gitzo 1228. I also have a smaller PT head, the 3029, but it does not have a built-in QR system, and i find it becomes quite bulky if I attach one.

Mostly because of the weight and bulk savings, many photographers use ball heads. An other benefit is that they work better for 35mm and MF if you use a second format. The Linhof Profi II is good enough for most lightweight LF cameras, however, the heavier and more expensive Arca-Swiss B1 is more rigid, smoother, and has an elliptic ball to prevent flip-over.

A Quick Release (QR) system is not absolutely necessary, but very nice to have, especially if you switch between different formats. You can buy a Manfrotto/Bogen adaptator to use the Bogen hex plates with several ball heads by replacing the stock platform. The spring-loaded Bogen QR system is inexpensive, quick and easy to operate, lock positively and well thanks to the hexagonal shape. If tightened enough, the plates won't slip. However, if you are using at the same time smaller cameras, you might prefer the Arca Swiss system, where you slip the camera plate into a dovetail. With that system, camera plates can be custom made for each camera, which ensures a better fit, while the Bogen plates tend to stick out from small camera bodies. Don't get the generic plates from Arca-Swiss. That would negate most of the advantages of the system ! Really Right Stuff is generally thought to make better fitting plates than Kirk Enterprises.



You can use a jacket, but a dark cloth is preferable and does not cost much anyway compared to the price of the rest of the equipment. A cloth with a white exterior is nice on hot days or if photographing on a busy site. Personnally I don't like those which have weight (ie Zone VI) because if it gets really windy they can fly around and break the ground glass, plus they tend to add weight. A Velcro on the side which is used arround the camera is nice to maintain it in place. For good viewing of the image with slow lenses, I have found that a second velcro is called. One part of the velcro is on the left side of the cloth, the other one on the right side, so that you can close totally the cloth (light coming from under the cloth is otherwise quite distracting). Darkroom Innovations have taken this idea seriously and makes a darkcloth with an elasticized collar that fits around the camera and a velcro-closed slit that you can close totally for excellent darkness. The choice of material makes it light and windproof. It's better than any other darkcloth that I have seen.

Focussing aid

Except maybe in 8x10, don't trust the naked eye to focus critically. A lupe with a medium magnification, not too big, not too expensive, is the best here. This eliminates the lupes which are usually used for viewing slides on light tables. Unlike in that situation, to focus the view camera you don't need a high quality lupe. On the other hand, there are a few practical requirements: its skirt does not prevent from viewing the corners, it is focussable so that you can make sure it is focussed on the ground glass, and it has attachement for a string so that you can dangle it around your neck. I like the Calumet lupe (7x) for its small size and good magnification. It works well with my very fine-grained Boss Screen but when I had the coarser Canham stock screen, I found it easier to focus with the Toyo (4x). Some people like cheap +4 dioptre glasses. Ron Wisner uses (and sells) a linen tester (an inexpensive folding magnifier that you put in your pocket, and which can be angled for good corner viewing). "Hastings Triplets" used by geologists are similar, but more powerful.

Cable release

In order to avoid loosing them or spending time to screw/unscrew them, I have a cable release permanently attached to each of my lenses.


The Pentax digital spot meter seems to be popular with large format photographers. It is relatively small and light, reliable, and has easy controls and viewfinder readings. Recently the multi-purpose Sekonic Zoom-master has been succesfull, because it combines incident and flash with spot. However it is more complex and does not have viewfinder displays.

Personnally I use my 35mm camera. I like to have the small camera to be able to shoot quickly should something change suddently and produce many images for stock. I also use it as a viewfinder so I don't have to move the tripod around. When I am in a hurry, I use the matrix metering, otherwise I use the a built-in spot meter with the 1/3 stop analog scale in the viewfinder. I just set the same shutter speed and f-stop I intend to use on the LF camera, and then see where different part of the scene fall. Cameras with such a scale include the Nikon N8008s, F4, F5, F100 (N90 has only a f1 stop scale), and most canons, including the Rebel 2000 and the EOS 3. If I use the polarizer on the LF camera, I just put a polariser on my 35mm lens. The 24-120 or 24-85 lenses matches all the 4 focals that I commonly use on the LF camera.

Better focussing screen

You can replace the focussing screen which comes with your camera, or supplement it with a fresnel lens to obtain a brighter and/or sharper image. After several screens, I have found the Boss screen to be by far the best.

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