A Beginner's Guide to Large Format

Compiled by James Ollinger

I'm not an expert in this subject, but I figured I knew enough to write up a short file in FAQ format. If you would like to contribute, correct, or comment on the file feel free to email me or post. Flames will be ignored.

The Question List

Questions & Answers

Q1. What is large format?

Cameras are often divided into groups by the general size of the film that they accept. Large format cameras usually use sheet film that is 4" x 5" or larger (though the cameras can be modified to take smaller films). Medium format cameras generally take large roll films, like 120, though cut sheet films smaller than 4x5 are still sometimes used. Minature cameras (you don't hear that term much anymore) take 35mm or 828 or thereabouts. Half-frames take half-frame 35mm. Subminis (like old Minoxes) take even smaller film.

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Q2. What is a large format camera?

Large format cameras tend to be view cameras, which is itself a generic term. View cameras are generally configured to have a rail or a flat bed running horizontally. There is a front standard where the lens is attached. There is a rear standard that holds the ground glass (for focusing) and the film.

In between the standards is a light-tight bellows or bag. The image is focused by changing the distance between the two standards. The standards may also have movements that allow them to tilt or swing relative to each other. These movements allow the image to manipulated in camera for various effects.

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Q3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of large format photography?

Large format offers two big advantages over smaller format photography:

The disadvantages include:

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Q4. What are the different kinds of view cameras? What's a technical camera, a press camera, etc?

As mentioned in Question 2, view camera is a very generic term. View cameras are subdivided into various kinds of cameras. The class describes the general configuration of the camera; but it is important to realize that there is a lot of blurring of categories. Large format cameras often resist pidgeon-holeing.

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Q5. What are the various sizes of film?

Sheet film is typically measured in inches. The most common (and smallest) size is 4x5. The two other common sizes are 5x7 and 8x10. There are also less common sizes available, such as 11x14 (which many people like because it contact prints a large photo).

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Q6. What are the different movements?

Movements allow the front (lens) and rear (film) standards to be adjusted relative to each other, which allow for special optical effects. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll define neutral or normal position as when the lens axis (an imaginary line that runs through the optical center of the lens) is perpendicular to and centered on the film plane. This is the configuration almost all cameras normally have. Most cameras are fixed in this position. View cameras, however, can change this.

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Q7. What do the different movements do?

Rise, fall, and shifts are generally used for cropping or positioning an image in camera without moving the camera location. For instance, if photographing a tall building whose top is cut off, the front standard can be raised (or the rear standard lowered) until the top of the image appears (that is, if the image circle is big enough to allow it. More about that under lenses). This is a valuable capability because it doesn't alter the perspective the way tilting the camera upward would.

Tilts and swings are used for two purposes—to change perspective or to manipulate the depth of field. Have you ever looked at a photograph of a skyscraper (or any tall building) and it looked like it was collapsing because the walls were converging? This is called keystoneing. It usually comes from tilting a camera upward—parallel lines converge and the perspective is loused up. Large format cameras can correct this—if the camera is pointed upward, the standards can be tilted so that the parallels no longer converge. This is invaluable in architectural photography.

Focus control is more difficult to explain. With a fixed lens camera, depth of field is simply the area in focus from a certain minimum distance to a certain maximum distance. This area of focus is actually a three-dimensional space—and this space's position can be altered by the movement of the camera standards. A classic example is a photograph of a wall that runs diagonally from your camera position. Suppose that it is impossible, with a fixed lens camera, to get the whole wall in focus because the depth of field just does not get large enough to cover. A view camera can shift the depth of field to run parallel to the wall, so that all of the wall is in focus. The same thing can be done with landscapes, where a nearby chair in the bottom of the frame can be in focus along with the distant hills in the top of the frame. Lens and film plane movements offer controls that are unheard of with fixed lens cameras.

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Q8. I'm thinking of getting into large format. What do I need to start out with, and how much will it cost?

Here's my beginner's list:

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Q9. What is a good starter camera for a large format novice?

A lot of people learned large format photography using old press cameras—like Graflex Speed or Crown Graphics. The nice thing about these cameras is that they're rugged, hand-holdable, and may have coupled rangefinders—features which may ease the transition from smaller, familiar cameras. The downside is that they may have very limited or no movements on them, which removes one of the big advantages of large format photography. If you do decide to get a press camera, try and find one that allows at least some front standard movements.

I recommend looking at used view cameras. Good used view cameras can often be found at comparable prices to press cameras, and may offer full movements. They may not be as handsome, nor offer system accessories like the more expensive cameras, but may still be good as student cameras, and can be sold later when you are ready for something better.

Another way to go is to build your own camera. Bender Photographic makes two camera kits—one 4x5 and one 8x10. The 4x5 kit runs around $230 and the 8x10 kit is about $100 more. Those are very good prices compared to new view cameras. I have not personally built them so I can't personally testify to their quality, but I have read various magazine articles that are complimentary, and Bender's been selling the cameras for several years now. If you are interested in building a kit, check out his site.

It's also possible to build a camera from scratch. There are a couple of web pages on the internet (see my links on the main page) by people who scratchbuild cameras, and I've seen a book on the subject. I don't recommend it to a large format novice—I think it would be more work than it's worth. It seems to me that it would be better to get a premade camera (or build a kit) and get comfortable with large format first, and then attempt a scratch built camera to your own specifications.

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Q10. There are so many view cameras lenses available. What should a novice look for? What is a barrel lens?

Last question first: view camera lenses are typically mounted in shutters. When they are not, they are said to be in barrels. Thus a barrel lens has no shutter. Barrel lenses are generally used for cameras that have an alternate shutter (perhaps a focal plane shutter), or when the film is so slow that a shutter isn't necessary (like in alternative, historical photo processes where an exposure may take many seconds or minutes, and all one has to do is remove and replace the lens cap). Novices will probably not want barrel lenses.

View camera lenses, because they can be used on so many different cameras, tend to hang around for a long time. The result is that there are a large and confusing number to chose from.

Many people (myself included) subscribe to the theory that novices should get a servicable camera, but get the best lens they can afford. The lens is the eye of the camera—the camera is just a light tight, sturdy platform. A mediocre camera and a fine lens can made a fine image, but a fine camera and a mediocre lens will likely yield a mediocre image. A good lens is an investment that can be used on future cameras.

Modern lenses—those made in the last twenty years or so—tend to be better than older lenses because of lens coatings. Coatings tend to reduce flare, raise contrast, and contribute to overall performance. Most new lenses are made by Nikon, Fuji, Schneider, and Rodenstock.

Older lenses tend to be single coated or uncoated, and their quality will vary depending on how good they were to start with and how well they've been treated since. Always try to inspect used lenses—check the shutter speeds, the diaphram, and look at the optics for scratches, dust, murkiness, bad coating, etc. (Some people do like older lenses because they have lower contrast, which may be valuable in portrature to smooth wrinkles and blemishes. In fact, there are "portrait lenses" that were meant to just that.

One of the most important things to note in any lens is the image circle. The image circle is the diameter of the acceptable image projected by the lens (usually measured with the lens stopped down to f22). A lens has to have a large enough image circle to cover the film—otherwise vignetting will occur. Ideally a lens has a large enough image circle to cover the film and then some—which allows for camera movements like swings and tilts. If the image circle just barely covers the film, then any movement away from neutral will cause vignetting.

This is extremely important for lenses used with films larger than 4x5—since many lenses will cover 4x5 with some movements, but won't cover 5x7 or larger. Modern lenses have documented image circles. Older lenses, however, may be more difficult to determine.

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Q11. What is the difference between various shutters, like a Copal 0 and a Compur 2?

The name of the shutter reflects the manufacturer. Compur and Prontor are German. Copal is Japanese. Ilex is (was—they're defunct) American. I don't know about other brands. I don't believe there is a difference in quality between the major brands.

The numeral after it refers to the size of the shutter—specificially the size of the hole you have to bore in the lensboard to fit it. The lower the numeral, the smaller the shutter. A size 00 is the smallest. A size 3 is the largest modern shutter, though older shutters can be found in size 4 and 5. [Thank you, Kirk Fry]

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Q12. What is bellows extention factor and exposure factor? How do I calculate them?

The brightness of light falls off rapidly over distance. Most cameras have lenses that are fixed into position, and the distance the light travels from the lens apeture to the film plane is short. On a view camera, the lens can get moved out quite a distance from the film. The closer the focus point of the subject is to the camera, the farther out the lens is from the film. When the lens is focused at infinity, it's relatively close to the film.

As the distance between the lens apeture and the film grows, light falloff becomes more of a concern, and after a point it has to be compensated. This is called either bellows extention factor or exposure factor.

The point where the lens distance becomes important is when the focus point is less than ten times the focal length of the lens. For example, a 6-inch lens requires the bellows extention factor added in when focusing on a subject less than 60 inches (5 feet) away.

There are a variety of calculators and rulers that can be used, and there are various mathematical formulae. Here is a simple one:

        Exposure factor =  (v/f)2
where v = the distance from the lens to the film plane (the bellows draw)
f = focal length of the lens

Here it is in action. You meter the subject and you the meter reads 1/125th at f22. You're using a 6-inch lens and your bellows are racked out 8 1/2 inches.

(v/f)2 = (8.5/6)2, which is 1.417 squared, which is around 2. In which case you would either drop the shutter speed to 1/60th or open the aperture to f16.

Ansel Adams, in his book The Camera, gives a slightly different version of this formula that will yeild the same result. His formula is F = v2 / f2 (where v and f are the same as described above). Using the same data, F = 8.52/62, which is 72.25/36, which is approximately 2.

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Q13. What are some good books on the subject?

My favorite is Leslie Strobel's View Camera Techniques. It's expensive and it's dry, but it's an excellent reference book. One of the things I like best about is that it charts the specifications of many modern view cameras and lenses.

Ansel Adams's classic The Camera has a chapter about large format cameras.

Steve Simmons, who edits and publishes View Camera Magazine, wrote Using the View Camera: A Creative Guide to Large Format Photography. I'll write more about it if I get a chance to read the book.

The above-mentioned View Camera Magazine is well worth a look. The telephone is 800-894-VIEW, and the address is View Camera, 1400 S St #200, Sacramento CA 95814.

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