Midwest Large Format Asylum

The largest, most active large format photography group in the country.

What is Large Format Photography?

A Large Format Primer

Most large format cameras are also called "view cameras". They generally look like the old-time cameras where the photographer uses a darkcloth to focus. In fact, the basic design hasn't changed much in the last 150 years, though today's cameras offer some pretty sophisticated updates to that basic design.

Large format cameras most often use "sheet film" which as the name implies comes in individual sheets rather than in rolls. This allows the photographer to process each negative individually to control the way it looks. It also allows one to take a black and white photograph and then a color photograph on the very next shot, or to use different speeds or types of film such as negatives or transparencies (slides).

The most common film size, by far, for large format photography is four by five inches. Many other sizes are available from 2 1/4 inches by 3 1/4 inches (6cm x 9cm) all the way up to 11x14 and even larger. There is a camera made by view camera maker Ron Wisner which uses Polaroid film in 20 by 24 inch size! The most common film sizes are 4x5, 5x7, 8x10 and 11x14. There are also panoramic or "banquet" film sizes such as 12x20 which are less common. Those sizes are in inches by the way.

Compare a typical large format 4x5 negative with a 35mm negative. The 35mm negative actually measures 24mm by 36mm or slightly less than an inch by slightly less than one and a half inches. The 4x5 negative measures about 3 7/8 inches by 4 7/8 inches. That gives a film area that is about 13 times that of a 35mm negative!

That large size translates to a huge amount of detail that can be captured by a view camera and just as important, a huge amount of "tonality". Think of tonality as how smoothly a image can transition from dark to light.

View cameras have other advantages over 35mm or most medium format cameras. The most notable of which is that view cameras almost always provide "movements". Movement refers to the ability to change the relationship of the lens and the film. In a 35mm camera for instance the lens is mounted rigidly to the front of the camera and the film is held tightly against the back. With a view camera the lens is mounted on a front standard which can be moved, up or down (rise/fall), left or right (shift), pivoted left or right (swing) or pivoted up or down (tilt). Often the rear standard of the camera where the film mounts provides the same set of movements. Not all view cameras have all those movements but most of them have most of the movements available.

What movements can be used for is enough for another article (or an entire book) but the short explanation is that they allow the photographer to control perspective and the area of sharp focus. If you've ever seen (or made) a photograph of a building with a 35mm camera and it seems that it is leaning over backward you know the issue of perspective. View camera movements can correct those perspective problems.

View cameras do not generally have shutters in them. (There are exceptions.) With a view camera system each lens is mounted in its own shutter. Shutters come in a variety of sizes to acomodate different lenses. The most common shutter line is from Copal.

Another advantage of the view camera is that one can use lenses from almost any manufacturer on almost any view camera. If you have a Nikon 35mm camera you are limited to using Nikon lenses (or those of 3rd parties designed to fit). You can't use Canon lenses on your Nikon or vice versa.

View camera lenses are generally mounted in shutters and they the shutters are mounted on lensboards. A lensboard is usually a square or rectangular piece of wood or metal with a hole drilled in it. The holes vary in size depending on the shutter that is intended to fit in it. While different camera manufacturers use different sized lensboards moving a lens from one lensboard to another is usually a trivial matter. If you upgrade your camera you can continue to use you lenses.

So, are there disadvantages to using a view camera? Well that depends on your point of view! In general view cameras must be used on a tripod which precludes using them for fast action sequences. View cameras take much longer to set up, frame and focus than 35mm cameras or even medium format cameras. For me the elapsed time between deciding to make a photograph of a scene and actually pressing the shutter release probably averages three minutes. If the scene requires using lots of movements to control perspective and plane of focus it might take me five or ten minutes.

View camera lenses are most often slower than lenses for 35mm or medium format cameras. This means that slower shutter speeds tend to be normal. I seldom use a shutter speed faster than 1/30 of a second and at least one member of our group seems to think that exposures of 30 seconds to several minutes are completely normal. Again, this makes capturing fast action more of a problem with a view camera.

View cameras are also bigger, bulkier and in many cases heavier than most other cameras. That makes carrying them around more difficult. For field shooters there are special view cameras called field cameras that can fold and take up less space. They are often much lighter in weight than a studio camera but in the end, a view camera setup consisting of a camera, two or three lenses, some film holders, a darkcloth, a light meter and a tripod will end up weighing a substantial amount (my 4x5 three lens setup including some filters and a Polaroid holder along with a few goodies like a small notebook weighs in at around forty pounds.

There you have it. A brief description of what a view camera is and what it can do for you. You can find a lot more information at the large format photography information site. http://largeformatphotography.infoI