When I first jumped into large format (LF) photography, there were many things I didn’t know and many things I didn’t understand. In fact, those two things are probably still true. However, through a combination of relentless forum-lurking and searching on the internet, I have acquired what I’d like to think is a working knowledge of the LF world.
The most important question to ask first is – What constitutes large format photography? Based on what I have seen on the websites, the typical LF camera uses sheet film (as opposed to roll film like 135 or 35mm format, or 120 medium format film). This means that although panoramic cameras that use 120 film can give image areas larger than the typical LF sheet film, they are typically not considered part of the field. The film area of typical sheet film can range from 2×3″ film (for a Miniature Speed Graphic, say), to just about any size that a film manufacturer is willing to coat. We can limit that to 11×14″ film, which may be the largest film format apart from custom runs. Even larger formats like the famous Polaroid 20×24″ cameras should rightly be considered as ultra large formats, or ULFs.
Of the existing (at the time of writing, anyway) formats, the 4×5″ and 8×10″ formats are by far the most famous. If you are reading from across the pond, you may know these as 5×4″ and 10×8″ formats, respectively. Funny, you Europeans. 🙂 These film sizes are available in black and white negative, as well as color slide and negative formats. Each sheet of film is loaded (in the dark) into a film holder, which is a plastic/wood construct, about half an inch thick, that holds the sheet film flat. Because the film holders are typically difficult to load in the field, one has to carry multiple film holders to get extra exposures and for different types of film, which quickly adds bulk and weight to the set-up. In addition, one typically takes at least two shots for each scene, with one shot developed using standard development conditions, and the second with development modified for that particular shot. This bulk is perhaps the most inconvenient part of LF photography. On the flipside, the ability to process one sheet at a time allows the great masters like Ansel Adams to bend each film sheet to their wills.
Types of Cameras
Generally-speaking, LF cameras can be categorized into three groups – Press Cameras, Monorail Cameras and Field Cameras.
Of the three, press cameras are perhaps the most commonly-depicted in popular culture. They are the cameras one sees in old movies and cartoons – large, squarish bellows-cameras with an attached handle-mount flash.
These workhorse cameras are used by many photojournalists, including the most famous of them all – Weegee. They are also often shown in old movies, where paparazzi hounding celebrities would almost invariably be wielding one of these beasts, indiscriminately flashing the faces of the unwilling subjects. Amongst the LF cameras, press cameras have the greatest portability (they are designed to be used handheld), but least control over the final image (they have the smallest range of camera movements, although some are surprisingly capable field cameras).
On the other side of the spectrum is the monorail camera. One may recall seeing them in the studios of some obscure artist, taking fine-art photographs of nudes or still life. These cameras are not designed for portability by any stretch of imagination – even the smallest 4×5″ monorail cameras are surprisingly heavy creatures, tipping the scales at 10 pounds or more. All this weight also requires a commensurately hefty tripod, further adding to the stationary nature of these instruments. However, what one gains from such sacrifices are some of the most extensive movements possible on a camera. Swings, tilts, rise and fall, shifts, and extra long bellows draw – all these make them uniquely powerful tools for perspective control. The extra weight also helps to make them extremely sturdy, yielding unparalleled results in terms of image sharpness for any given lens.
Sitting between these two are the field cameras, so-called because they are meant to be used out in the field, not in the studio. The field cameras are frequently lightweight cameras with a range of movements somewhere between the monorail and press cameras – front (but not rear) rise/fall, swings and shifts are common. They are, in short, a compromise between flexibility and portability. An interesting observation is that while most press and many monorail cameras are made of metal/plastic, a large number of field cameras are made of hardwood (with brass/aluminium hardware). In addition, at the very large end of the size spectrum, the distinction between a field and monorail camera blurs (these cameras are often called view cameras, the superset of most existing LF cameras), perhaps highlighting the decreasing portability of these larger cameras.
Next time round, I will write briefly about operating the view camera. Stay tuned!