The Lure of Large Format

I can’t believe it, but I’ve finally gone and bought a large format view camera after 25 years of dithering about it. So that’s another of life’s ambitions achieved.

My early years as a photographer were spent taking black and white landscapes, having my own darkroom, learning the Zone System and going on workshops with Fay Godwin and John Blakemore.

A large format camera is synonymous with landscape photography, especially in America, and was used by Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Wynn Bullock, Paul Capanigro and many others. I religiously read the Zone VI newsletters by Fred Picker and bought View Camera magazine ( stuffed full of ads for lovely wooden large format cameras).

MamiyaBut I always chickened out. My tiny darkroom didn’t really have room for a 5×4 enlarger and it just seemed a step too far. I compromised and bought a Mamiya 6 medium format camera which was delightful and gave me that bigger negative size and accompanying increase in print quality.

Digital was creeping in but like many others I was sceptical that it could match the quality of analogue photography. But the pressure to conform to this new chapter in photography was there and six years ago I succumbed and bought a Nikon D300. I was immediately bowled over by how easy and quick it was to produce quality images. Before, I had extensively used a spot meter and tripod but now the temptation was to hand hold, bracket and then adjust in Photoshop. Indeed Photoshop did seem like a dark art at first, but I have embraced it and now have a very good working knowledge. I’m incredulous of how easy it is to spot, change exposure and control contrast amongst a myriad of other edits you can achieve in seconds. When I think of the burning / dodging exercises in the darkroom….

Digital has introduced me to colour and encouraged me to explore subject matter other than landscapes and try portrait and still life categories for example. The ease and proficiency of digital printing has also come on in leaps and bounds and gives results that can be compared to the darkroom.

But somehow digital has come to feel to me to be almost too easy and doesn’t satisfy that feeling of achievement at hand crafting a photograph that I felt in the past. I should say that producing a print of my best images is very important to me and it just doesn’t feel right that trillions of images never get beyond the camera or phone let alone onto the computer and beyond that to the print stage.

Chamonix Box

As we now find boxes of old glass negatives in attics, no doubt future generations will trawl through car boot sales for old digital cameras full of images from past times. But will they be able to access them?

So to the point of my story. My desire to have a LF view camera has never gone away even if it was just to look pretty on the mantlepiece. I didn’t want to grow old and be bitter and twisted that I never had one. So I bought my lovely Chamonix 045-F1 from China. I was so revved up when I ordered it that I wished I could have just gone out and bought one on the spot. I was expecting a 3-4 week delivery time but it came 4 days later. I was so excited I couldn’t open the box for 2 days!

Chamonix Camera

What I’ve realised is that I can combine the art and craft of large format with the ease of printing digitally. It means that I can develop my own film which I always greatly enjoyed but then scan it and use my Epson printer. So I don’t need a darkroom which I didn’t want again anyway (bit annoying to have to buy some darkroom stuff again that I sold for a pittance a few years ago). So this is the hybrid workflow that makes sense for me. I’m sure many ‘traditional’ photographers and darkroom workers who haven’t gone digital would say what is the point of using film then processing it digitally – just use a digital camera in the first place.

Perhaps that argument allows me the opportunity to summarize why I really felt the desire to express myself photographically with large format photography. (I will still use my digital compact on many occasions not least when travelling or doing a reccy).

  1. Digital technology is transitory. Upgrades are constant and I begrudge being made to feel that my camera is out of date. My Nikon D300 is still an excellent camera six years on. LF cameras and lenses haven’t really improved or changed (lighter) much in the last 100 years and will still beat the resolution of all but the most expensive digital cameras at a fraction of the cost.

  2. Using any film camera leads to a greater understanding of the basics of photography. The relationship of the aperture and shutter settings and what the effect of changing either of them will have on the exposure. Relying on auto exposure is not the answer if you are interested in photography.

  1. Creating an image with a LF camera is a much slower, thoughtful, meditative process. Being in situ longer within the landscape makes you feel more at one with your setting. Just seeing the image upside down stops you in your tracks. Loading the film, setting up the camera, focussing, making camera adjustments and time just flies by. Don’t start as the sun is about to set. Funnily enough I still don’t have the mentality to take lots of shots with a digital camera and I like taking my time over making a photograph (better to be on your own).

  2. I find Large Format photography a link to the past and all the master photographers who have gone before. I’m sure many of them would have gobbled up digital photography with a big smile on their faces and never looked back (Ansel Adams) but I find it reassuring to be walking in their steps and have the same limitations in technology that they endured. I somehow feel Edward Weston would have kept on with his view camera even if presented with today’s latest digital offerings.

CF with Chamonix

So there it is. I wanted a challenge and I’ve certainly given myself one. You might want to do the same.


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