Review of Monster Camera Workshop

By Dan Smith for the Large Format Page

The Waterford Institute and The Waterford School are located in Sandy, Utah. With head of the Photo Department, Tillman Crane(formerly of Maine Photographic Workshops) the school held a Ultra Large/Panoramic Camera Workshop. Tillman is an excellent one to put this on as he regularly shoots with a 12x20 inch view camera. The experience and familiarity showed throughout the workshop and helped all of us who attended.

Another help was the staff he assembled. All experienced and knowledgeable. All worked one on one with those who attended the workshop. They were all available and gave freely of both time and knowledge. This was one of two major reasons I would go to this workshop again. The other I will mention later.

The instructors

Steve Simmons, publisher of View Camera magazine and a commercial photographer familiar with LF photography. As an architectural photographer, his session with a group at the Utah State Capitol was time well spent. Questions were answered, photos were made and his perspective on using these extremely large cameras on location, under difficult lighting conditions, was a big help to those who took advantage of his knowledge. Steve is the author of Using the View Camera, published by Amphoto and teaches workshops in Large Format Photography across the United States.

Michael A. Smith, fine art photographer noted for his excellent images with the 8x20 and 18x22 inch view camera. With images in the permanent collections of over 100 museums across the world, nearly 200 exhibitions, years of experience in teaching and hosting workshops and a number of highly acclaimed photographic books to his credit, he was well qualified. He is a good teacher as well, with his finest moments being one on one or with small groups rather than in front of the group as a whole. It is a matter of being able to demonstrate on the camera, looking at the image on the ground glass-it limits you to smaller numbers. In the field with the smaller group and cameras from 4x10 to 12x20 in hand(or on tripod), Michael shined. Not telling one how to do things, but gentle suggestions and experienced guidance as we tried to handle unfamiliar gear, lenses and film. Michael's darkroom sessions were good demonstrations and he was available to answer questions and demonstrate technique. His work has a simplicity that matches the ultra large cameras. He develops film by inspection & makes contact prints using Amidol and Azo. Nothing hi-tech, but the images he produces and showed are stunning. He was excellent.

Paula Chamlee, Michael's wife & partner, shoots with 8x10 and 8x20 and has a clear, concise vision that shines with her flawless technique. Again, images in major collections, shows across the world and books fill out the resume. Impressive and inspiring both. Her darkroom demonstration on hand developing large format film by inspection had participants successfully processing film formats from 8x10 to 8x20 inches by inspection in a day. Her experience showed, side by side with us in the darkroom,as the large film was checked by green safelight for a few second in the middle of development and finessed to create good negatives where a straight time/temperature method would have come out much differently. In the field, Paula spent time with us individually, checking images and helping with exposure & vision. The emphasis was on the total image quality. Quiet suggestions, no "do this" and no directing. The time was spent on 'the whole image' on the ground glass, visualizing and setting up for perfect results. Often we would be working on an image & look up to see Paula and another photographer both under the darkcloth at the same time working together on the composition. Personal attention seems to be her style & it works well.

Tillman Crane put the workshop together. A lot of work. A good workshop. Tillman began his career as a photojournalist with The Daily Times in Maryville, Tennessee and later worked as a photographer for the State of Tennessee. He began teaching for the Maine Photographic Workshops in 1987 and worked on his MFA at the same time. In 1970 he completed the MFA at the University of Delaware and taught full time at Maine Photographic Workshops until the end of 1994. He is a contributing editor for View Camera Magazine, having written many article on the craft of B&W printing. He prints in silver and platinum/palladium and his finely crafted 12x20 prints are excellent. His instruction during the workshop was 'hands on'. Just getting the staff and manufacturers together was no easy feat, yet he got it done. His teaching style is laid back & relaxed which helps keep the anxiety level down when one is working with a mammoth camera(worth over $6000) and lenses that are unfamiliar.

Keith Canham, owner of KB Canham Cameras was good. He brought a number of his cameras and we all had a chance to use them. Keith is knowledgeable and easy to work with. Just as with the others, one on one with the cameras, both his and others, worked very well.

John Horowy, of Lotus View Cameras was also very good. He brought a number of Lotus cameras and, just as with the Canham's, we got a chance to use them. Again, one on one was the norm & it worked well.

Ron Wisner, of Wisner Classic Manufacturing Co, Inc., spent time with us also. Watching him take an hour and a half with one participant-patiently working out composition, bellows factors and exposure(using another makers camera) tells you a lot. He makes & sells cameras but photographs are the goal no matter the brand.

Keith Soderstrom provided Reis Tripods for the workshop. Nice stuff and a nice guy. His experience and input was welcome as there were a lot of nervous photographers putting 12-30 pound cameras on tripods.

Fred Newman of Darkroom Innovations, Inc.(the guys who make the BTZS tubes & a potload of other neat stuff) was entertaining and knowledgeable. His reliance on basic yet scientific testing-captured in his palm sized computer, was amazing. Tell him the film & basics & he came up with everything from exposure to development-hold the mayo! With his approach and reliance on the scientific tools we had a perfect counterpoint to Michael and his easy going methods. Watching Fred & Michael together was entertaining as both are opinionated, both get good results and both were informative tho taking very different approaches. The show was especially good for those looking for "the one true way".

Jeff Wheeler of Quality Camera, Atlanta, Georgia. A whiz in lens and camera information and one who sells this type of equipment. He was helpful with technical as well as shooting information. His knowledge of what was needed and how & where to find it was good and welcome. Most of us wouldn't know where to find gear such as this, especially since most camera shops don't even have 4x5 gear, much less larger formats.

Tracy Storer and the Calumet/Polaroid 20x24 camera...WOW. With no shooting fee other than the $45 per image it was a big hit. Big, heavy, impressive and a finished print in 60 seconds. Waiving the studio fees, which range from $250 to $1200 for the time, this camera was popular. Tracy gave a good slide show on the camera & its history & then was on hand to guide us in use of the mammoth camera. Some good images were made with it. If you have ever wanted to shoot this one, the price of the workshop & the deal on film cost makes it cheaper to take the workshop just to shoot it than going to NY or San Francisco to do so. Not a bad deal.

Those were the main players at the workshop and all gave personal help freely. Few group lectures and few big groups. Generally one on one to one to three in the field. A good way to work.

What happened

The first day was spent with the 8x10 camera, very large format for most. A few had never shot a 4x5 and most nothing larger than 5x7. A short field trip up Little Cottonwood Canyon to use the 8x10's gave instant experience, more than can be done by reading. With instructors present, basic setup and use was covered and film exposed. Reading hand held meters & development considerations at the time of shooting were covered. Hands on was the order of the day. Tillman said next year there will be more 8x10's available which will make it even better. Back at the school, unloading film holders and re-loading was covered by doing it, not talking about it. This quickly expanded to loading formats up to 20x24. With these big cameras this can be an event. Most photographers I know have never even had a photo printed that large, much less loaded and shot with film of that size. The day ended with a barbecue at the school, green grass & a hot July day melding into a quiet evening with participants getting aquainted. Friendly & enjoyable & the food was good.

The next morning we started with introductions and got busy. Film, metering and format considerations were covered, with the emphasis on results rather than the ritual. The idea was to create photographs and help the participants to do so. Michael and Paula each took an 8x10 and split the group and spent time on camera basics, setup, handling and vision. It was time well spent. After lunch(all good food & plenty of it) we went to a local park of about 30 acres and started to photograph. There I am under the darkcloth of an 8x20 inch camera as storm clouds roll in & the rain starts. Thunder & lightening & people running for cover and the vans while trying to keep big, big cameras dry. Ever try to run while balancing an 8x20 camera, darkcloth bigger than Rhode Island and a big Reis Tripod on your shoulder while your assistant has his arms loaded with film holders, meter and accessories? Quite a sight. The rain stopped & the lightening passed & we came out to shoot some more. All in all, a good intro to big-big cameras, big glass & big problems for anyone crazy enough to get caught in the rain a long way from the vehicle or shelter with these things. Amazingly enough, the makers didn't seem too worried. The wooden cameras didn't get harmed, the holders did fine and the results later in the darkroom showed good results.

Evenings were spent in darkroom demos, processing film, printing and some lectures. Paula and Michael showed a number of original prints-excellent work. Have you ever seen originals of 8x20 or 18x22 inch prints on Azo(developed in amidol) which has a greater tonal range than prints on platinum? Razor sharp with depth and emotion. Very impressive.

A trip to Abravanel Hall(home of the Utah Symphony) or Big Cottonwood Canyon made up a big part of the next day. Choose one or the other & both groups got good work. Different challenges, different lighting & different experiences-all good. Great architectural views at the Symphony site with the 20x24 camera was impressive. Small details shot with 12x20 and 4x10 posed different problems. Ever try a horizontal 8x20 inch camera turned on its side to shoot a vertical? Almost gave one camera maker a heart attack-"We have a vertical camera if you would like to use it..." was his comment as he turned pale at the sight. Then, back for darkroom work & demonstrations, finally ending around 10pm. A long day but a fun one.

Friday we all went to the Historic Baron Woolen Mill in Brigham City, about an hour and a half North of the campus in Sandy, Utah. A full day trip. All cameras except the Polaroid 20x24. Lighting challenges and reciprocity problems. Dark, oily machinery and soft North light coming through banks of windows. There should be an image or two from this day in an upcoming issue of View Camera magazine. As Tillman said, "You are being hit with all the difficulties possible today. Big cameras you are unfamiliar with. Exposures that can range to over an hour. Close focus. Lighting extremes. This place has it all." Some good images came out of it and a number of participants will be making contact with me to come back and shoot it privately. It was a good day and most couldn't wait to drive back & process the film.

Saturday was an architectural photo trip with Steve Simmons at the Utah State Capitol. Being familiar with it I opted for the Canham 4x10 with 90mm Schneider XL-an extreme wide angle combination. I did get a few decent images with it also. But I spent time watching Steve Simmons work with people. He's a good teacher. Ron Wisner spent a lot of time with one participant on one image-personal attention that helped the image to be successful. Personal attention with the camera he had made. Paula Chamlee did the same with others.


Everyone who wanted or needed help had an experienced expert at hand.

Workshop participants ranged from experienced shooters to some who had never mounted a 4x5 on a tripod. It was a good introduction from the ground up, with our making images with the cameras, interspersed with classroom and darkroom time provided information and practical application quickly.

Questions were asked and answered. Experienced users and teachers helped a lot here. There was no lack of knowledge. One of the best aspects for me and many others was in seeing the same results coming from different viewpoints and different working styles. One instructor relies on testing & computer analysis while another calls upon 30+ years of experience and field use. Ask a question on a lens and get everything from pricing, availability and practical use to a dissertation on coating methods if you wanted it.

As to cameras...

All I can say is if you have ever wanted hands on, real world experience, side by side with the expensive gear most of us can only dream about-This is THE workshop.

From comparing three to five manufacturers cameras side by side to actually shooting with these in the field, one quickly learns that brochures and statistics aren't sufficient. Shooting the same film format in a Wisner, then a Canham and then a Lotus is enlightening, especially when you go from these to a Toyo or something else. What sounds great on paper translates to difficult to work with knobs in my fingers to the same camera being just right for the next user. All were beautiful. All were well made and the three brands all had the makers/distributors-actual camera users-there to help. All without sales spiels. They let their cameras do the talking for them.

As a result of this hands on approach, I know which 5x7 and(If I ever do go larger) bigger one I will buy if and when the time comes. I will also know who I am talking to when I call to order one or have questions. I will know from experience I couldn't get at a trade show. I have actually used them as has everyone in the workshop. I and the others know, from hands on use, how they handle and how BIG they really are. This helps a lot in considering what we may want to try/buy in the future. A 16x20 sounds great, but reality is that it is a lot like trying to drive a Peterbilt truck in a residential neighborhood. A lot of things to consider other than just a big negative. But if I do go that big, or even larger, I have some experience on which to base my choice.

Film holders are another big consideration that we worked with. Wood or plastic or a combination? Light leaks? How solid are they? How heavy? How easy to load or unload? How to carry them?

We got practical answers by using them. Loading & unloading. Shlepping them around in bright sunlight and the dusty areas of a dry desert streambed. Trying to run for cover holding them while at the same time balancing 25 pounds of camera and tripod on the shoulders as lighting and rain hurried us along. And yes, the instructors were as wet as we were.

All film holders are not created equal and when one pays around $400 for one of them, knowing which feels best to you and works in your style of shooting can help a lot. Some cameras require specific holders made just for them. Other holders of the same size are usable with most cameras of that size. Some felt very smooth and had the rich feel of hand finished wood while others(fully functionable and usable) had the modern plastics without the romantic attachment to history seemingly built into the wooden holders. It comes down to personal choice, or what the manufacturer makes to fit, but at lease we learned on both.

Film was another consideration. You don't go to Ritz camera or Wal-Mart to get 8x20 sheets of film. You don't pick up a box of Velvia in 20x24. You are limited. This is where talking to the suppliers helped. Lotus Cameras are beautiful, but no more so than the Bergger films and paper they import into the USA. Nice film and really gorgeous paper. My first intro to the paper was in 20x24 sheets I cut up for 8x20 contact printing and it is nice stuff. The Ilford HP5+ looks great, as does the Ilford paper we used. Ever wanted to try a camera with film supplied, paper supplied and darkroom space-complete with leading experts at your elbow-supplied? This was it. From technical analysis with a densitometer to 30 years experience condensed into a concise lesson by Michael A. Smith on how to read a negative, we got it.

Tailoring negatives to contact printing is a bit different from enlarging and this was covered well. Jobo will probably be selling a few more units due to our experience at this workshop and a few will be processing by inspection as a result. A nice intro to good results with both working methods.

Lenses are a subject of mystery when one works with these cameras and we had some of the latest designs as well as older ones to work with. Few camera dealers will stock these. Knowing the person you will be talking to when contemplating a purchase will be a help if we decide to move up. Jeff Wheeler of Quality Camera gave us help from the dealers perspective, Ron Wisner on quality & historic lenses and other from years of use. All good, solid information that will come in handy if I am ever crazy enough to buy a camera almost too big to use. But, who knows, maybe I will try it. Now that I have actually used some of them and have results to show for it, a lot of the fear factor is gone.

All the camera makers and all the staff were accessible and helpful. The Waterford School put on a good program, all the brainchild of a late night idea by Tillman Crane. He couldn't sleep one night, had the idea and sent off some e-mails to a few people and a new workshop was born. It went well and we all learned something worthwhile. Ideas that will carry on with our shooting from 35mm to as large a film size we want to try.

I went out this morning(5 days later) shooting on a documentary project on "The Fruit Way" in our community and as I composed an image on the ground glass I could almost hear Michael & Paula under the darkcloth as I paid even more attention to placement of water reflections in the corner of the scene. Closer checking of every element. A bit more thought in the process leading to the finished print. And, I was sure glad my Linhof didn't weigh 40 pounds.(but I sure wouldn't mind one of those beautiful Reis tripods)

The workshop was six days of photographing and learning that was worth more than the cost. This kind of knowledge will save each of us a few thousand dollars whether we buy a Mammoth camera or not. It will help every time we set up an image. I am not an expert now with a huge camera, but I do feel a lot more comfortable with the idea if I ever decide to move up to the monster formats. Nothing looks quite like a contact print. One made from huge negatives has its own life and just might be worth the effort.

Just like swimming, all the theory in the world can't take the place of getting in the water. This workshop was a first swim with lifeguards aplenty. It is an experience I would be glad to repeat.

My conclusion

If you have ever wondered about these super large cameras, this workshop will answer your questions as well as give you a chance to photograph with them. Even if you go to a well stocked pro-supplier, you won't be shooting with such a variety of cameras. If you could find one, the film cost alone would run around $500, not to mention processing and the time it would take to do so. You couldn't take a 20x24 off the premises either.

The workshop was fun. Nice staff and good people to photograph with. Facilities that are clean and open. It was a good experience and well worth the time and effort.


The Waterford Institute/Waterford School

1590 East 9400 South
Sandy, Utah 84093

(801) 576-4900

Contact Tillman Crane, head of the Photo Dept, for more information. He is
already planning next years workshop. Times, dates and cost will be out

View or add comments