"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!