This post has been much-delayed, but here it is. I will write a little about how to operate a view camera. For most large format photographers, the main draw of the format is not only the huge negative, but also the range of camera movements not possible with other formats. Think about this – a tilt-shift lens for Canon costs upwards of 2 grand, with only a fraction of the movements possible with a 500-dollar view camera. It’s no wonder so many still prefer to use this somewhat antiquated technology, despite the bulk! I will leave the details of perspective control to more qualified practitioners like Ansel Adams and Leslie Stroebel. For now, I’ll focus on the mundane.
Parts of a Camera
A typical view camera consists, essentially, of two standards (front and rear) and a bellows joining these two parts. The standards also typically sit on a rail or bed, on which they are moved to achieve focusing.
Unlike typical lenses for smaller formats, there are no hard stops on a view camera, so one is free to achieve macro focusing, as well as focusing past-infinity. The front standard holds the lens board, which in turn holds the lens.
The rear standard holds the ground glass, onto which the lens projects an inverted image.
The view camera typically uses cut/sheet film or photographic plates (dry or wet), and each exposure is made onto the whole sheet/plate. There are some rollfilm attachments that can be used as well, where a 120 film is advanced after each exposure – the raison d’etre being, of course, the option to achieve great perspective control on a convenient format. Film is pre-loaded into holders (see below) that are inserted into the spring-back (see above) that holds them in place.
What I could never understand before owning a large format camera is that once the film holder is inserted, the view on the ground glass is obstructed. Initially, it seemed very strange to me that one should be expected to focus so finely using the ground glass and a loupe, only to have that same view obstructed at the most critical point of exposure, so I figured there must be something magical about large view cameras that allows the user to expose the film even while maintaining the view (a complicated prism system, perhaps?). There isn’t. One simply depends on his experience to get a good composition, almost blind.
With the exception of some Speed Graphics, the shutter, if present, is found on the lens. Older brass lenses that have no shutters can be fitted with Packard shutters, which mount either in front of or behind the lens. In most large format lenses, the lens cells (optical parts) are mounted onto shutters of standard sizes. These standards can be based on the Copal standard or the Compur standard. The specifications can be found here and here.
The lens preview lever is used to open the shutter during focusing (this is not the same as a timed exposure or bulb mode, since it appears the spring mechanism is not engaged). The shutter must be cocked before each exposure. The shutter release can either be depressed directly, or via a cable release that is screwed into the cable release thread. The PC contact is used for triggering flashes. Lens boards come in many different sizes, and unfortunately there isn’t really a set of standards for the dimensions. However, lensboards for more popular cameras, including Linhof (Technika), Toyo/Omega, Deardorff/Kodak, and the Speed and Crown Graphics have emerged as pseudo-standards. Holes of the appropriate size can be drilled into each board, onto which either a mounting flange is installed, or a lens may be held in place directly using a retaining ring.
Before anything is done on the camera, film has to be loaded into the film holders. Large format film is special in that every single film type has a unique notch pattern on the top right hand corner (emulsion side towards you). When loading the film in the dark, remember to ensure that the emulsion side will face the lens. It’s pretty easy once you get used to it, but be extra careful the first couple of times. The film holders typically have rails on either side that help to hold the film down. Make sure that your film slides under the rails by trying to pry the film off the film holder – there should be resistance on both edges. Once loaded, the retaining tabs on the film holders should be rotated to prevent accidental withdrawal of the darkslide. Remember that dust is Public Enemy Number ONE in large format photography. Keep your film holders in Ziploc bags!
The basic operation of a view camera is pretty straightforward. After setting up the camera, the preview lever on the lens is depressed, yielding an image on the ground glass. Under many shooting conditions, this image will not be bright enough, so the photographer has to put a dark cloth (a thick, dark T-shirt will do nicely) over the read standard, and focus using a loupe against the ground glass. This is similar to how a projector works best when the room is nice and dark. Needless to say, a good, sturdy camera and tripod is necessary to ensure that there will not be any focus shifts when removing the dark cloth and when inserting the film holder. After focusing (by moving the front and rear standards forwards and backwards) and performing the appropriate perspective control (tilt, shift, swing, etc), the dark cloth is removed, the lens is cocked, the preview lever is released, and the film holder is inserted. The dark slide on the film holder is then removed, the shutter released, and the dark slide is quickly replaced (because we want to minimize the effects of any possible light leak). The dark slides are typically marked so that the orientation is obvious – the top part of often painted black on one side and left unpainted chrome on the other, and by convention a dark slide is inserted with the chrome side out during film loading, and reversed (black side out) after exposure. One easy way to remember this is that an exposed film contains an image, which is black on the negative. Usually each scene is exposed twice – the first development is a rough exposure to help gauge the development conditions, and the second exposure is a back-up/fine development.