Finally, I made a decision. It wasn’t easy to do, but after investing much more money than I had originally budgeted, and lots of time, I’ve decided to give up on 4x5 large format (LF) film photography. In fact, if you’re looking for a great deal on my equipment, all in great condition, just write me… firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why I Went for Large Format
I told you I’d keep you posted on this as the year - and my experiment- developed. I first got into large format because my clients often request large prints. No, I’m not referring to 20 x 30 inches here. I’m talking really big, like 5 FEET by 9 FEET! No 12 megapixel or even 24 megapixel camera is going to measure up to my standards when blown up to that degree.
A 4 x 5 view camera offers tons more real estate on which to place an image, making enlargements a breeze. Film still has some attractive properties that digital can’t quite match. Plus, I often like to slow down my photography and will spend hours capturing one image. So it seemed like LF would be a good match for me. Besides, I had my very capable assistant, Bob Boyer, eager to help me make the transition. Bob has a good deal of experience in LF.
But, there were barriers I had to overcome to use LF proficiently. First there were the several films, each one of which one has to be intimately familiar with to make the proper choice for the circumstance. I was juggling Velvia 50, Ektar 100, Portra 160, Portra 400… I’m sure you get the point.
Then there were the various camera movements to learn, which it turns out I really enjoyed. After the first trial and error results, I started to really enjoy the final products as they came back from the lab.
Finally there were the myriad metering issues involved. LF is not like a point-and-shoot, or even a good DSLR like my Nikon equipment, in that the camera itself does the metering, and usually quite well. With LF I had to go back to my roots and use a hand-held meter. Then I had to decide in every circumstance whether I needed to use incident or reflected light readings, depending on my subject, how the scene was lit and the effect I wanted. Once the reading was obtained, I had to translate it into the correct f-stop and shutter speed.
Of course, we have all become spoiled by digital with its instant results, viewable on the LCD screen in a fraction of a second. With LF film photography it’s back to waiting until the film is packaged, mailed, processed and sent back to me. I also have to keep accurate records of each shot taken, so I can compare it to the final results. With digital, all that info is automatically available in the EXIF file information.
However, the biggest obstacle it turned out was the extra weight and bulk of lugging around the LF equipment. There was the camera itself, a wonderful piece of machinery by Arca-Swiss. Unfortunately, a LF camera takes up lots of room. Then there were the lenses, film, film holders, film changing tent, etc. Because I also had to take my 35mm equipment with me, I felt like a mid-Eastern caravan when I left the house for a shoot.
The Final Decision
Still, I kept giving it my best shot, so to speak, spending weekends and evenings trying to master the art. If nothing else you LF photographers have earned my undying admiration.
It was when I went to the Yukon on my most recent assignment that I made my decision. First, I had to take my normal 35mm equipment with me. That gets packed into a 45-50 lb suitcase, barely under the airline weight requirement. Plus, I carry my 200-400 lens as carry-on, and I still have accessories in my checked luggage!
Now, add to that a Pelican suitcase with 40 more pounds of 4x5 gear! Aside from an extra $50 in baggage fees each way, I had to lug that around the airport and into rental cars. I was still willing to make that sacrifice, but then this happened…
I was setting up on my LF equipment on a ridge at the Yukon border with North West Territory, overlooking a scenic valley and the ribbon of Dempster Highway below me. Big vista, a perfect opportunity for LF. It was cold, the winds were blowing, and so I had to move fast to get everything in before conditions shifted, which they do with alarming frequency above the Arctic Circle.
So, set up camera on tripod, level it, open lens so I can compose and focus, duck my head under the focusing cloth, tilt, shift, swing, focus, tilt, focus again, fine tune, focus again, check with the magnifying loupe against the screen, focus more, take a meter reading, double check it, close the lens, cock the shutter, put in the film, take out the slider, press shutter release, put slider back in, take out film holder. Whew! One image taken. Oh, crap, that cloud covered the sun!
Now I’m back where I started, a bit wiser, but no further along in terms of gaining pixels. Now I have to sell my LF equipment. I’m already exploring some medium format options, which I now realize is probably a reasonable compromise. Instead of 12-25 megapixels, I’ll be able to get 40-80. I’m looking at the Hasselblad H4D-40 and the new Pentax 645D. Your opinion? As always, I’ll keep you informed.