Large Format

A Brief Description

For many amateur photographers, large format is one of the great mysteries. Perhaps you saw one of these monster rail-mounted contraptions on your last trip to the local camera store or you wondered what kind of Polaroid film could possibly come inside such a huge box. Well allow us to shed a little bit of light on the subject.

As the name implies, large format uses big pieces of film. These range from 2x3” (really rare) and 4x5” (most common), to 5x7”, 8x10,” and a few crazy formats larger than that. The cameras are quite large to match, and typically can only take one photograph before being reloaded. The main reason for large format is size and resolution – as a large piece of film yields better enlargements and depth than a smaller piece. Even in this digital age, large format is still extremely popular for fine art, still life, portraits, and advertising work. As of today, even the very best digital equipment (and most insanely expensive) cannot compare to a drum-scanned 4x5” slide.

But there’s more to it than that. Many large format photographers praise their equipment for its “soul.” Shooting these beautiful cameras is like manipulating a clockwork piece of art. It’s a slow, deliberate, and very satisfying process. Training yourself on large format will force you to critically think about what you’re doing – and make you a better photographer in the process.

Benefits Of Large Format Photography

A few of the advantages that shooting large format can bring:

Enormous negatives & resolution
As the large format frame (and resulting negative or chrome) is so much bigger, it offers incredible detail, resolution, and depth. You see, any time an image is enlarged, it loses resolution – because the individual grains (or pixels in digital) become larger and more visible. If you start with a larger original, then you can enlarge it more before the loss of resolution becomes apparent. And it’s not only useful for huge prints – the bigger image results in denser and more finely detailed images at normal size. The result is that a large format image, viewed at a size of 5 inches or so, will look incredibly detailed and nuanced compared to a 35mm enlargement of the same size.

Shallow Depth of Field
As your format gets larger and lenses let longer, the depth of field becomes more selective and sensitive. Shallow depth of field results when only a small portion of your subject is in focus. You do this by selecting a large aperture setting for your lens. Compared to 35mm and 120, large format film is capable of an extremely shallow depth of field. You know those great magazine cover portraits where a person’s eye is tack-sharp but their nose and ears are already quite blurred? That’s large format in action. Its shallow depth is a creative technique beloved by many photographers.

Ground glass composition
While looking through a little viewfinder can be a hoot, it just doesn’t compare to composing your image on a huge, beautiful ground glass screen. The image is reversed, so it takes a little getting used to. But you’ll get the hang of it pretty fast. Another bonus is this: whenever it’s sunny out, you really need to drape a shroud, a sweater, or a jacket over the camera and your head so that you can see the screen. This is so old-school – and such a ridiculously good time – that it’s almost overwhelming.

Tilt and Shift
If you’ve shot SLR’s, then you’ve most likely heard of a tilt and shift lens. You see, when shooting architecture or nature (especially tall buildings), standard lenses tend to have “converging verticals” at the top of the frame. This means that the beautiful lines of your subject are distorted, and buildings can often appear to be “falling back.” As this is the only thing that most of us are used to, we don’t even notice it. But when you take the same shot and correct it with a tilt and shift lens, then you’ll soon say “ahh, that’s what I was missing!” With the Bulldog – and most other large format cams with bellows – you can tilt and shift the lens plate to a variety of settings – thereby banishing converging verticals forever.

Slow It Down
This is more of a philosophy than a technical feature. Shooting large format is definitely not convenient. You have to load the film back. Then compose the shot. Then insert the film back. Then fire. Then remove the film back. You’ll need a tripod and maybe a shroud. You’ll need a bag to carry around all of this bulky equipment. But the upside is the careful deliberation that all of this work requires. More thought is put into every picture – thereby allowing you to really focus on the composition, layout, and feeling. Regardless of your experience level, you’ll find that shooting large format inspires you to shoot in a more critical, analytical, and careful way. Your large-format shots will most likely be some of the best photos that you’ve ever taken. And the skills that you’ll learn will have a positive impact on your 35mm, 120, or even digital work.

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