"What's That?" 10 Things Every Large Format Photographer Should Know....

"What's that?"

It's the question I get every time I pull out my large format film cameras in public. The cameras are like nude exhibitionists in the world of cell phone cameras - their presence is awkward and uncomfortable.

Equally uncomfortable is the relative lack of information about shooting large format film cameras. Outside of a few forums and selected websites, there is very little about their use, or tips for new large format photographers. So today I'm embarking on a quest to share ten tips - things I wish I knew when I started large format photography several years ago.

  1. You do not need a camera with every movement known to mankind. 
    I screwed this one up. I started with a Zone VI camera, which is a great machine, but it has too many movements, many of which are really only useful to architectural photographers. As a landscape photographer, I really only needed two or three movements, which is one of the major reasons I 'downgraded' with my second large format camera to a Ebony RSW45 camera. That camera only has focus, front rise, and front tilt, but that's really all I need. Fewer movements = less to screw around with, less weight, and easier to learn.
  2. You really do need a good light meter. Preferably a spot meter. Oh, and you should know how to work the thing too.
    I purchased a nice light meter when I started large format photography, but I was a bit overwhelmed with its functions, so I cheated for several months by metering with my Nikon D800. With a good meter (and the knowledge on how to use it) you really can fine tune the images and unlock some of the creative potential of things like the Zone System. Understand the relationship between your light meter, neutral / middle grey, and Zone V. If that knowledge isn't second nature to you, then read up until you fully comprehend it. You'll be a better photographer for it!
  3. You'll probably become obsessed, and will eventually "need" to buy more film cameras.
    I started backward with large format, then moved to smaller formats. Large format and the big negatives are addicting. It's photographers crack. Be prepared to lust for more - your venture into large format may be the undoing of your bank account!
  4. There is a right and a wrong way to setup, focus, and use the movements on the camera. 
    How do you setup, frame, focus, and compose your image? There is a correct way to do it. The simple version: determine your shot and compose it mentally before you start. It's a pain to move the camera and tripod around once it's setup, so it's better to have the image in mind first, then place the camera. Setup the tripod and place the camera on top. Open the lens (without film in the back) wide and give a rough focus. Then use the movements to fine tune the composition. Re-focus for final image. Meter and set the lens aperture. Insert the film slide, make an exposure, and remove. 
  5. The best place to practice shooting large format is at home.
    You can read endless babble about how to use the large format camera online, but the best place to learn is through use. You don't have a fancy home studio? Get a nice piece of fabric or canvas, put it in front of a window with some nice natural light, and put a flower or other object on it. Make an exposure. I have learned far more from a methodical and painstaking image creating process at home than I ever learned in the field. A $5 investment to buy some flowers to photograph will pay dividends for your learning.
  6. You should at least understand the concepts of the Zone System, even if you don't use it.
    For a long time, I misunderstood the Zone System as a way of just metering light without a light meter. And I had a light meter, so I didn't need the Zone System? The Zone System was invented by Ansel Adams as a way of controlling the exposures he got. Do you want that foreground to be a rich dark grey? Did you want that flower to be soft and light? You need to understand the concepts of the Zone System in order to know how to do that, because your light meter is lying to you!
  7. Take detailed notes while you are learning - that will become your 'metadata'.
    It was a 40 second exposure? Right? Maybe? As much as you think you can memorize the shutter and aperture combinations until you develop the film and review it, you're wrong. Large format photography isn't fast, so take the extra 20 seconds to jot down a few notes about the image so you can review them afterward and critique what went well, and what needs improvement.
  8. It's easy (and cheap) to develop your own film. It's hard (and expensive) to find someone to develop it for you.
    I started large format film development in Washington, DC. It's a small city, very few people have heard of it. Obama lives there. Yet there is only one place in all of DC that will develop 4x5 film - and its like $6 a sheet. I was super nervous to develop my own black and white film, but can proudly say I have never screwed up a roll in development. So read some information about developing at home, buy some chemicals, and give it a whirl. You'll save time, and (more importantly) have even more creative control over the final image results.
  9. You want a copy of that negative digitally to share with friends? Plan to spend some bucks on a scanner and software.
    Oh yeah, you don't have a darkroom to enlarge your negative? Scanners for 4x5 film aren't cheap, and while you can pay companies to do it for you, that's not cheap either. I invested about $600 in a scanner that could accept large format negatives, and it really isn't close to top-of-the line. Negatives are only so much fun if you can't appreciate them in all their glory!
  10. You should carry 10,000 business cards whenever you have that camera out, because people will want to see the images.
    See the start of this post. Everyone in public will be intrigued by your camera, and there is no better time to promote your website and photography than when you have a crowd of onlookers. Hand out cards, sell prints, and be happy!

What tips would you have for a new large format photographer? Leave 'em in the comments!

Quick Shot: The Nothing Camera

Have you ever taken a picture with a camera that doesn't have a lens, shutter button, or any buttons? Have you ever taken a picture by sticking film in a wooden box and hoping to get lucky? 

I can now answer yes to those questions. I can now say I have made a photograph with a nothing camera.

The nothing camera is often called a 'pinhole camera' because that best describe the lens, or lack thereof. The nothing camera is so simple and basic that the operating instructions are summed up with 'pray'. The nothing camera has no ISO, zoom, focus, or megapixels. You don't know what the camera may or may not be seeing. You guess the exposure. And if you guess right, you'll be rewarded with one of the most unique looking images.

I encourage you to click this image and view it full screen. Marvel at how not sharp it is. Marvel at how imperfect it is. Marvel at that vignetting. Take it all in folks, because it came from a wooden box. For all the time I spend obsessing over sharpness and lens distortion with my expensive Leica lenses, it's refreshing to shoot with a wooden box - a camera that couldn't be further from the technical perfection of all my other photographic machines. 

I'll be talking more about the nothing camera and my experience using it in an upcoming post, but today I am starting by sharing an image from the nothing camera. This is a place called Durdle Door along England's Jurassic Coast - it's a popular photography spot. Of course, most photographers there are carrying a little bit more than a wooden box with a piece of film in it......

8 Tulips & The Importance of Playing

If you are a photographer, or even someone who fancies the occasional creative expression, then you know the challenge associated with the lack of creative juices. Authors call it "writers block," but all creative people are subject to this period when they can't seem to generate some new work. Which is why I advocate playing!

Every so often, I go to the Cambridge market and select some flowers for sale from one of the merchants. I often pick Tulips - they are cheap and do lots of interesting things as they open. I'll bring those flowers home and then take some different photographs of the flowers, playing with different things to get the creative juices flowing. There is rarely a goal - just to play.

This weekend I got dozen tulips and decided to play with the macro setup on the Hasselblad 503CX. I loaded up a roll of black and white film and shot 12 images of tulips in various poses. After developing and scanning, I saved 8; a few of my experiments didn't work so well! But I played around with the camera and lighting, I played with exposures, I played with focus, and I played with contrast. And the result is that I got 8 fun photographs. 

If you stumble into a "writers block" - or even if you just want to prevent it through pre-emptive therapy, then I recommend taking the camera out to play. No goals, no expectations, see what comes across the lens. You might end up with 8 fun tulip photographs!

Side Note:

Curious about the fancy setup I used to get these photographs? I caution you..... it's not fancy. The canvas background you see behind the flowers is actually the back of a pillow case. It's laying on the floor in front of a big glass door and the lighting is all natural sunlight. The camera is mounted on a tripod and triggered manually. No flashes. No wiz bang light setup. Sunshine + pillow case + film. Playing, remember?

Quick Shot: Where Film & Digital Meet

Every so often I get this crazy whim to try something really bizarre.... this weekend it was to merge some film and digital exposures together....

The first image ("Queen") was taken with my Hasselblad using Fujifilm Cameras medium format film as the background. The overlay is a chalk painting from Trafalgar Square that I photographed using my Leica Camera SL and f/0.95 Noctilux. The second image ("London Southbank") uses the same cameras, but the film was a double exposure, making the resulting image a triple exposure photograph.

Of course there is no reasonable way to merge the film and digital images "in camera" - so I developed them all and merged them using Adobe Photoshop. The result is a little crazy and a little fun!

Which do you like better?

The Queen

London Southbank

Quick Shot: I Know This Scene?

Every time I develop a roll of film, I rediscover my love of film. If I had taken this photograph with a digital camera, I probably would have deleted the photo. But with film, there is so much contrast. Such strong blacks. The long shadows catch my eyes. I'm lost..... my eyes can't decide what is happening, but I know this scene. It's familiar, but different. I KNOW this scene?

This is the heart of street photography. This is me capturing an ordinary moment and making it different..... putting a spin on commonality and challenging what you think makes for a great photograph. It's not straight. It's not colorful. It breaks EVERY rule of photography, but I love it.

Shot on the Leica M7 + 50mm Summilux with Adox Silvermax film.

Quick Shot: Lost in Paris

"Lost in Paris" - this was an interesting double exposure on film. I was trying to merge some of the architecture and landmarks of Paris into a single image and was hoping to do so without any people in it. I stood ready to fire the shutter on one of the images for several minutes in the rain, but people kept walking into the frame. So I waited. Eventually, a little girl walked into the scene and leaned up along the glass of the Lourve pyramids. I fired instantly.... the girl was exactly the subject I needed!

The resulting photograph is perfect - here's all this Paris architecture, with a little girl looking lost in it all.

Quick Shot: Pyramids

The glass pyramids outside the Lourve in Paris are considered highly photogenic..... although virtually everyone I saw was taking a selfie that involved them pretending to pinch the pyramid, hold it on their palm, or touch the tip of it with their index finger. You could conduct an interesting study on the people who all pose for virtually the same picture.......

Anyway, I wasn't interested in the selfies - I had some film that was itching for exposure! So here are two negatives of the Lourve pyramids that I made on Ilford Delta 100 film using my Hasselblad 503CX. 

Quick Shot: Locks of Love

I have been busy traveling and collecting frequent flyer miles, but that doesn't mean I have neglected my photography! Quite the contrary! I have been editing hundreds of images and developing almost ten rolls of film from recent jaunts through Denver, Atlanta, London and Paris. 

I have to give credit to my friend for this image - we were in Paris and he suggested a photograph of this couple I hadn't seen cuddling in the corner. I had just taken an image of the forever locks on the fence nearby, so decided to make it a double exposure before advancing the roll. Kudos to him for finding the couple, because I LOVE the resulting image.

Shot with Hasselblad 503CX on Ilford Delta 100 Pro film.

Quick Shot: Two Eyes

The London Eye is quickly becoming a popular site for tourists who wish to have a tremendous view of the London skyline. The ferris wheel has little glass bubbles that rotate with the wheel over the span of 30 minutes. To get this double exposure showing an eye within an eye, I centered the wheel in the center of my focus screen, then took a few steps back and shot again. This image was created on my Hasselblad 503CX using Ilford Delta film.

Quick Shot: Big Ben(s)

As I often do, I shared these photos with some family and friends before sharing them online. When I sent these to my dad, he replied with the following question, which I thought was worthy of sharing and answering online:

"Why waste all that film when you could use photoshop to more accurately and directly control the images?"

Well (dad) and everyone else - it's not about the most effective way to create an image.... it's about art, creativity, and fun! If I sat down at my computer with a blank Photoshop document, I would never have dreamed up the images I created. And assuming I had thought up these photographs, I would have spent hours manipulating and playing with them to be 'perfect' rather than accepting the creative randomness that I experienced.

I really didn't put much pre-visualization into these double exposures - which is unlike most of my photography. Normally I have clearly planned my perfect image in my head before I arrive on site or take the photograph. Although film photography means I don't know the results of my shoot until after I've developed the film, I still try to pre-plan photographs. The exception came with these double exposures.

I knew the general themes I wanted, but much of the final composition was to be decided in person. It was only when I was looking at Big Ben that I decided to try and compose upside down. It was only after I took that shot that I thought "I bet it would look interesting sideways." Being creative and artistic means that sometimes you operate without a plan and try something crazy. It means that sometimes you try something you couldn't do in Photoshop!

Shot with the Hasselblad 503CX on Ilford Delta 100 film.

Is it Film or Digital?

One of the most iconic places to photograph in Wales is the Llanddwyn Island lighthouse - and it's not a surprise as to why! I photographed this lighthouse with my digital Leica M-240P and my analog (film) Hasselblad camera using both black and white and color film. In other words, I have at least three versions of the lighthouse from the same vantage point. 

So my challenge to you is - which of these photographs was taken with a digital camera and which was taken on film? Leave a comment and let me know - and let me know which is your favorite version. Variations is composition are because I hand held and didn't use a tripod - they have nothing to do with the camera used. And I used several types of film..... so there could be tricks ;-)

Part II: Medium Format Cameras (Rollei v Hasselblad)

Part I: The Joy of Medium Format Film

So you are interested in medium format film photography. There are a litany of follow-on questions including: where do I get film, how do I develop film, and what kind of camera do I use?

There's a bit of good and bad news when it comes to medium format film cameras: there are not a lot of choices. And while there were more choices back in the 1970s, there are only a handful of cameras and brands that have survived the test of time well enough to seriously be considered for a photographer today.

There are two general categories for most of the medium format film cameras - Rollei style or Hasselblad style. Camera makers like Bronica, Mamiya and Yeshica are similar in design to the Rolleiflex and Hasselblad counterparts and the difference is largely related to price.

Since Rolleiflex and Hasselblad are both kings of their respective categories, and they are the cameras I own, I will use them to compare and contrast medium format cameras and you are welcome to extrapolate for another brand as appropriate. 

Let's take a look at each camera individually before comparing them side-by-side.


There are several models of the Rolleiflex - they were built for several decades- but the general design of a Rolleiflex (or Rollei for short) is straightforward. It is a twin lens camera - the top lens is used for focusing and composition while the bottom lens has a shutter in it that actually takes the photograph. The benefit of this design is that you are focusing through a bright lens and that can make using the camera in sunlight easier. The Rollei is completely manual; no batteries or circuits. Every time you fire the shutter, you rotate a side crank that advances the film and rechecks the shutter simultaneously.

There are several designs used in Rollei cameras to set the aperture and shutter. One version (seen on the model T) has a plastic ribbon that moves shutter speeds and apertures simultaneous; adjusting just one requires pulling out on a metal tab. Other Rollei cameras use a set of spinning wheels on either side of the lenses to adjust the settings. Some Rollei cameras also include a solenoid meter gauge, but at this age, they are hardly reliable. 

Rolleiflex are fairly compact and much of that is because the lens is fixed - you cannot swap to a different focal length. There are two common focal lengths offered in a Rollei that convert roughly to a 50mm equivalent on 35mm film (remember that a 80mm lens on medium format = 50mm on 35mm film). There are also a selection of different apertures available (ranging from f2.8 to f3.5, or a difference of a half stop). Finally, there are different types of lenses offered for Rolleiflex cameras. Each of these differences has an incredible affect on the pricing; a beginner looking to start can save considerable money by getting a Rollei with a "less desirable" lens or aperture. I've had both sides of the spectrum and think they are both great cameras.

Focusing a Rollei is done by flipping up the top hood and looking down through the top of the camera. The image that is seen is reversed and this causes some initial confusion as panning the camera right moves the image to the left and vice versa. But with practice, you'll get used to a reversed image. From there, you rotate a big knob on the side to move the entire face of the Rollei forward or back, bringing the image into focus.  


Almost everyone has heard of (or at least seen) a Hasselblad in their lifetime. Why? Because it's the camera taken by the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Of course their version was modified to accommodate their gloves and space stuff, but that camera is remarkably similar to the ones produced through the 1990s. When looking at a Hasselblad for medium format film photography, most people are looking at something coming from the era of 1950-1990, starting with the model 500CM.

There are lots of online resources for learning about all the differences between Hasselblad models (and this isn't one of them), so we'll just look at the big picture. Hasselblad cameras are designed to be tough, to withstand work and use by a professional, and to be very modular. Virtually everything is modular, which is one of the best parts of the system.

Unlike the Rolleiflex, this is a single lens camera, so the photograph is composed and shot via the single lens on the front. As a result of this design, the camera has a mirror that flips out of the way of the image, much like modern dSLR cameras do. To protect the film from accidental exposure to light, there are two shutters-one in the lens and another in the back of the camera (although its the timed lens shutter that captures the image, the back shutter is controlled by pressing and holding the shutter). Lenses are interchangeable and you can opt for a wide angle 50mm for one shot and then a 150mm portrait lens for the next. 

The modular system of a Hasselblad also means that you can change film mid roll. That's right folks, you can switch between black and white and color film mid roll and not have to 'sacrifice' exposures. This was one of the most important features for me - I often want to switch between film types between shots - be it for color or a different ISO speed, etc. You can also use the removable film back to create multiple exposures easily.

If that wasn't enough modular-ness, you can also switch out viewfinders, prisms, grips, electric winders, etc. The list of Hasselblad modular components is nearly endless! 

With a 80mm lens (50mm equivalent on 35mm film), the Hasselblad is only a little bigger than the Rolleiflex, although it is certainly heavier, which is the result of the sturdy construction. Like the Rolleiflex, it is a completely manual camera (later versions used batteries to control metal shutters or for the electronic winder) and focusing is again achieved by looking down on the viewfinder from the top. Settings like aperture and shutter speed are set on the lens itself, removing any controls beside shutter from the body of the camera. Film advance and shutter cocking are done simultaneously from a knob / twist arm on the side of the body.

In my experience, a Rollei is a little more forgiving for a beginner than the Hasselblad, but that's not to say the Hasselblad is a hard camera to use. For instance - Rollei is more "point and shoot" while the Hasselblad requires you to remember to remove the dark slide, make sure you load correctly (its more involved than the Rollei), etc. I would strongly suggest a buyer of either camera visit YouTube for a variety of video tutorials on both types of cameras. Film's too good to be wasted learning (and I've wasted my share......)!


Rollei Pros

  • Small size
  • Less expensive
  • Easy to use
  • Great image quality
  • Quiet shutter
  • Easy to hand hold down to 1/30 and 1/15th second

Rollei Cons

  • No interchangeable lenses
  • No removable film back - can't change film mid-roll
  • Used cameras can have mold, fungus, etc as problems
  • Not very modular. Accessories are limited to filters and a terrible Rolleikin (35mm film adaptor that doesn't work well)

Hasselblad Pros

  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Carl Zeiss optics (considered the best medium format lenses)
  • Modular film backs allow for hot swap of film mid-roll
  • Possible to buy newer cameras from the 1990s
  • Solid construction and design

Hasselblad Cons

  • Bigger and heavier
  • Pricey; some models can cost more than a digital SLR camera
  • Not as easy to use, more steps and things to remember (not hard though!)
  • Noisy shutter (clop-clop sound)
  • Hard to hand hold because of flip up mirror at slow shutter speeds

Looking at this list, you may have a strong inclination one way or another, but I encourage you to really think about the features rather than which camera has more pros or cons. For instance, I place tremendous value in the removable film back, so I'm willing to sacrifice price, shutter sound, and size to get that feature. I also recommend you search for high quality used versions of these cameras and maybe pay a little more for one from a photography shop that specializes in the cameras. eBay can be wonderful, but a camera shop is more likely to catch that fungus in the lens or a shutter that doesn't 'feel' right. Here's some recommendations of places to look:

There are other places to buy these cameras, but I have experience with these, hence my recommendation of them as resources for buying. And I don't get any kick backs or perks for recommending them!

Winter Inspiration: Tulip Collage

In a blast of unwelcome suddenness, it got very cold in England. While I will still go out and take many photos in the winter, the dreary and grey days can sometimes be tough on creative expression. No worries, this is the best season to work on some indoor studio work!

This photograph was one of many large format film images I took this weekend in my home 'studio.' I put quotes around the word studio because I used the furthest thing from a formal studio to get this image. I really like the resulting photograph and hope that seeing how I did this will inspire your own creative outlet and expression this winter.

Before I get into the how of the photograph, lets look at the finished image (negative was scanned on an Epson V700 scanner)...

There is one thing that really makes this image unique and different. Study it closely and see if you can figure it out. 

Need a hint? Look at the lighting.

That's it! Most people would light this subject from the top - meaning they would light the top of the flowers rather than the stems. Instead, I have the light coming from the bottom, so the stems and base of the flower have all the texture and detail.

Now how'd I do this? First step, I bought some tulips. They are a great flower for photographers because they are relatively inexpensive. I paid $7 for 20 at a market in Cambridge. 

Onto the 'studio' - in this case, my studio was actually an outdoor patio table that I setup in the sunlight coming through the big french doors in our house. The background is standard white tissue paper. I used my large format 4x5 film camera and set it up on a tall tripod. It was so tall I actually pulled out a step stool to be tall enough to get the focus correct. I metered for f/22 and selected an exposure of 15 seconds. At that length of time I don't mind being a little inaccurate, so I counted the exposure in my head.

The very unsophisticated setup I used to get this photograph. You can see the natural light coming from the door was all I needed with a long exposure.


Ran the negative through a standard development and scanned it here. 

I love shooting 4x5 for my 'studio' work because of the size of the negative. It's HUGE. Here - this is next to my iPhone 6 plus. Yeah, it's a big phone, but it's the negative that we're looking at here!

The large format negative vs the iPhone 6 plus

Hopefully that helps you find some inspiration to make some artwork this winter. You don't need to use a big film setup - you can use any camera - but don't let the lack of a professional studio stop your creative expression. The sun is a wonderful light!

Quick Shot: Not So Normal

One thing I really like about film photography is the ability to do some not-so-normal things with it. For instance, unlike with a digital camera, I can combine two different scenes on one negative to create a single image, called a double exposure. In this case, I shot a wooden plank door on one of the colleges in Cambridge, followed by a scene overlooking punts on the river Cam. 

The interesting thing about these shoots is that it's very difficult to pre-visualize the resulting image. In this case I really didn't have high expectations, but the resulting negative is one of my favorites from the roll. I particularly like how the trees in the upper right corner are almost 'segregated' by each wooden plank from the door.

The photographic society Magnum used to require photographers to submit prints showing the borders to prove there was no cropping or funny manipulation. So in a nod to Magnum photographers, I have scanned it so you can see the whole border of the print - no photoshop involved!

Shot with Hasselblad 503CX + 80mm f/2.8 lens on Ilford Delta 100.

Quick Shot: Love that Black and White Film

I LOVE shooting 120mm film. I love the square. I love the look. I love the size of the negative and the detailed enlargements. I love the look of film. There's nothing my digital camera can do to compare to the images that I can get from 120mm film. 

I took my Rolleiflex 2.8F 120mm film camera along to Greece and was rewarded with some wonderful film shots. Today I'm sharing a selection of those images - developed and scanned in my home studio. I think you'll be able to see what makes these film shots so unique from their digital equivalent.