Tuesday, March 20, 2012

My Advice on LF

Occasionally I read from someone who decided to get into Large Format (LF) photography, meaning cameras larger than medium format, "Like Duh?", which has long been consider 6x6 or 2 1/4 photography with twin lens cameras or the type made famous by Hassalblad. LF cameras were, and still are, mechinical and the process mental, especially before light meters.

What distinguishes LF photography is that historically it used, and still uses, sheet film, from 4x5 to as large as you can make sheet film (16x20 is more the practical limit from the past) which has been standardized at 4x5 and 8x10. The intermediate size, 5x7, is disappearing as it's not a common format anymore.

Anyway, back to the topic. When I read these from these guys, and yes, so far they're all guys, to hear it was an impulse buy when they saw a LF camera in a shop or on-line, or decided to try it out and buy a LF camera package from someone offering a "great" deal. Well, the problem is they didn't do their homework and suddenly they realize they're in over their heads.

Not just for the camera gear they bought, which is usually just old and occasionally good, and always well used, but for the process of shooting large format, such as using sheet film and understanding the process of taking a photograph with a LF camera. A little homework and they would and could have saved their money.

Large format photography isn't something you jump into on a whim. First, it's guarranteed you won't be able to resale your stuff unless it's a collectable, has some historical value, or is in excellent shape, and all of their purchases never fits into either of those catagories. So, it's likely they now have stuff they're replace if they stay in LF photography and collect dust in a box somewhere if they don't stay.

So, after working in LF photography for the last 4+ years, here's my advice.

Do not get into Large Format photography

Ever! Never get into it as it's the endless deep hole you'll eventually regret the loss, and really waste, of time, energy and money. Really. Do I regret getting into it? No, I don't for one basic reason. I spent a year just reading and doing homework on the whole thing about LF photography and equipment.

I knew what I was walking into for time and energy, and while I've regretted spending money on lenses I haven't used for a camera that was never made (long story) and will buy another one for these lenses, I've never regretted the time and energy. In part because I like the work and in part because I want to research the early photographers in Mt. Rainier NP and see if I can locate where they took their photographs to get a new one.

I say don't get into LF photography not just because of the equipment, but because of the film. It's not cheap to buy and not cheap to process, even if you process your own black and white sheets. You're not afforded many mistakes as a sheet of 4x5 film can easily run $4+ for the film and processing. Mistakes add up fast.

And mistakes is what you'll make a lot of if you're not experienced or knowledgeable about the basics of photography to work in LF photography. There's nothing automatic about these cameras, unless you have gobs, meaning tens of thousand of dollars, for digital equipment (cameras, backs, lenses, etc.), and it's all mental, especially when it comes to the exposure.

This is where the only digital technology which helps, a good light meter. And yes, add that to the expense. Don't use digital camers as film and digital aren't the same and digital light meters in cameras aren't the real world you see for film. Guessing is not for the beginner, see comment on mistakes above.

In the end, if you don't have the time or energy to work in LF photography, and don't have the motivation to stay in LF photography, don't bother, just keep using your digital camera and be happy. Do not get into it as an impulse, walk away, but then if you're are interested and are thinking about it, do your homework. first.

There are some good Websites, some great books, and some ordinary (me) to great photographers shooting large format. There's no loss of information, avail yourself to it first, and then wait. The equipment won't go away, there's a glut of it in many countries, but your interest may, and likely will. Learn what it takes first. You can take photography classes at community colleges.

In short, get your feet wet without buying equipment which is likely to be resigned to the basement storage. If after a year or so, you're still learning and working in LF photography, then look for something you'll use the rest of your life. LF equipment lasts a lifetime - why there's a glut of it in the used market, it doesn't get obsolete, so you can take the time to spend wisely.

And no I don't regret the still unused lenses, I will have a camera to use them in the near future, but remember even the cameras last a lifetime, so don't buy one you'll replace. You don't need extra cameras. Use what you have and only have what you use. After that, enjoy it, it's a great way to do photography and it's always fun seeing a really good 4x5 slide.


  1. Did you ever get a refund for that "camera that was never made"?

    Oh... and Sally Mann. :)

  2. No, the owner of the company just stopped work on the production model when he was 95% done for 10 cameras. He is getting a registered letter this week requesting a refund of the deposit or one of his 3 prototypes in place of the production version. I won't know for awhile but I'll take either choice but not he keeps the money and there's no camera in the offer.