Okay, seasoned pros will smile at me calling 4x5" large format, as it is just the baby of the larger formats in photography. But hey, I have become super excited about it!
As you know I am right in the middle of my journey rediscovering film photography in all its glory. I don't believe I am doing this because I'm a hopeless nostalgic, trying to desperately preserve some of the long gone good old times. Far from it! It is actually much more a combination of realizing that next to the obvious weaknesses, analog photography does
have a lot of strengths that go far beyond some of the aspects of what digital can do, and that there is something wonderfully refreshing in having to work within a restricted environment.
I grew up shooting 35mm film with a Minolta X700 SLR. The 35mm format (today also known as "full frame") is the format that defined me. The 35mm format speaks a visual language that I understand very well and that I know how to handle. It feels comfortable. Sometimes almost too comfortable.
Then came medium format. 6x4.5cm, 6x6cm, 6x9cm. Later even the in-between 4x3 and 4x4cm film size. Again, a different visual language, supported by having to use a different approach in composition, workflow and by having different depth of field to work with. Initially that felt strange, and it took some time to get used to the new language and find its strengths and weaknesses. And I actually can't claim that I am completely there yet. But I feel I'm getting pretty close, and a certain level of comfort has started to set in. Still far from the too comfortable
Then two weeks ago I attended a large format photography workshop. Two days of venturing into alien territory. And boy have I seen the light.
If you take a look at your non large-format camera, no matter if digital or analog, if compact or full-frame SLR, even at most of the medium format cameras, you will realize that they all have a clearly defined reference framework. The film plane is parallel to the lens plane, they are both on the same visual axis and the distance between film and lens is usually fixed.
On the one hand those conditions help to get to a defined state, which inevitably makes photography easier accessible to more people, on the other hand photography didn't really start out this way.
There are ways to work around those: you can use a tilt lens to leave the parallel universe (sorry, couldn't resist), moving outside the optical axis can be achieved by a shift lens, and the distance between film and lens can be changed by adding bellows in between. Or macro rings.
Enter large format photography.
The lens and the film plane are situated on two independent boards that are connected by bellows. Tilting, shifting and changing the distance are second nature to a large format camera. Total freedom. And we are not just talking about tilting and shifting the lens, you can also tilt and shift the film. Or both.
To say it in the words of a large format photographer friend: PURE ANARCHY!
But wait. A large format camera is heavy. And the film isn't on a roll, it comes in sheets that individually go into film cassettes. If you use a double-sided cassette, you have two shots per film. But you will have to reverse the cassette to take the second shot.
So doing large format photography is not only anarchy, it also is a lot of restriction. If you want to shoot outside, you will have to carry a heavy beast and a heavy tripod, just to return home with a hand full of pictures.
Restriction combined with the ultimate level of freedom. What a crazy combination! And what a refreshing one at that.
I for my part have caught the virus big time. The Fotobörse Darmstadt
, one of Germany's largest trade shows for used photography gear, is less than two weeks away, and at the top of my shopping list is a 4x5" large format camera. Maybe a Toyo, maybe a Cambo, or a Plaubel, a Sinar, or maybe even a Linhof, a Horseman or a Tachihara. Or a folding Graflex.
I have the feeling that this might not be the last time you see me writing about this...