Living Large-My Large Format Photography Journey Begins

Go Big Or Go Home

I've never been much for going home early, so I decided to GO BIG! After almost three years of talking about it, I finally did it, I bought a large format (4x5) film camera. And with the purchase, I officially entered a new stage of my photographic journey. Entering the world of large format photography means that I'll have to adjust the way I go about making an image with a camera and that's exactly what I've been looking to do.

Here's the camera:

The Chamonix 045F1 4x5 Camera

The camera is the Chamonix 045F1. It's a 4x5 camera, meaning the film size is 4 inches by 5 inches. For those of you that don't realize how large that is, here's a nice comparison of the various frame sizes:

Comparison of film sizes

As you can see, the 4x5 film size is much, much larger than even a "full frame" 35mm film or digital camera. In fact the 4x5 is 15 times larger in terms of surface area! What this means is that a well made image on 4x5 film is going to hold significantly more detail and offer the potential for image quality that is untouchable by a full-frame DSLR.

With Potential Comes Challenges

Notice I said "the potential" in the last sentence up above, not "guaranteed". That's because, as we all know (or should know), it's not about the camera. Just because a camera has a large image area (digital sensor, film negative) doesn't mean that it will magically produce Pulitzer Prize winning images. All it means is that there is more opportunity to produce a good image but it's still up to the photographer to make it happen. In fact, some people could justifiably argue that a large format film camera almost certainly guarantees a poorer image quality for the typical photographer as compared to a digital camera. The reason is that the 4x5 camera is entirely dependent on the ability of the person using the camera. There are no electronics or computers at all in the camera. It's basically a light proof tube with a lens on one end and a film holder on the other.

That lack of automation in the camera is EXACTLY the reason I enjoy shooting film and is why I spent the $$ on this camera. Operating a large format camera requires patience and an attention to detail. It forces you to slow down, double check everything and really make sure you are ready to fire the shutter. That whole process is very appealing to me and I find this deliberateness connects me with the images I make.

My goal with this camera is to stretch my photographic abilities while creating quality images that I connect with. I have several projects that I'd like to start and this camera is the tool for the job. 

Other Required Equipment

Along with camera, I've purchased most of the items for my "starter kit". First up is a lens:

Nikkormat-W 135mm f/5.6 Lens

Nikkormat-W 135mm f/5.6 Lens

What's a camera without a lens? One of the things that's nice about large format cameras is that, relatively speaking, lenses are cheap as there are many quality lenses available used. I decided to start out with a 135mm lens. It's considered a "normal" lens because it's in the range that gets used the most. In 35mm equivalents the 135mm is about the same as 45mm. This makes it a versatile lens that can be used in many situation.

Other accessories:

Pentax V Spotmeter, Sheet film holder and some film, both old and new

Pentax V Spotmeter, Sheet film holder and some film, both old and new

One of the things I'm looking forward to getting better at with my 4x5 camera is proper exposure. While today's digital cameras have fairly sophisticated light meters, large format cameras have zero light meters. Many large format photographers pick up a pricey electronic/digital spot meter but I decided to go with an oldie but goodie, a Pentax Spotmeter V. Like the camera, it's an all manual affair but it's easy to use and I expect to learn a lot about getting the best exposure for any scene by using this meter. I plan on using the meter to learn more about the Zone System

The other thing about large format cameras that is neat is the fact that each sheet of film needs to be loaded manually into a holder. I picked up 4 of the Fidelity elite holders from a guy in Virginia who was reducing his camera stuff. With the four holders I can load 8 sheets of film (each holder is double-sided). I'll probably pick up some more holders at some point.

The other item that is needed for a large format film camera is.......FILM. I decided I'd want some sheets of film to practice loading/unloading the film holders and development tank so I searched ebay and found someone selling a box of Ansco Versapan V film form 1963 for $5. I bought it and in addition purchased a box (25 sheets) of modern day Ilford FP4+ B&W film. I've had good results with this film in my 35mm and medium format cameras so I bought some for the Chamonix. I'll probably get a box or two of color film as well. Speaking of film, the larger sheet size of the 4x5 requires a different developing tank so I purchased this one from Stearman Press:

Stearman SP-445 Development Tank

Stearman SP-445 Development Tank

The tank will allow development of up to 4 sheets of 4x5 film and will allow me to develop the film in the daylight. I still have to load the film into/out of the film holders and into the development tank in the dark. To do that I just hang a blanket over the doorway in our hall bathroom and use the vanity as a film loading table.

The First Images

The camera arrived a few days ago so I decided to give it a whirl and see what would happen. I loaded one of my film holders with two sheets of my 55 year-old Ansco Versapan film and took the camera out on our deck. I decided the back yard was as good a place as any to test out the camera. To show how easy and quick it is to take a photo, here's the simple steps in getting one image out of a 4x5 large format camera:

  1. Setup and level camera on tripod
  2. Attach lens to camera
  3. open shutter on lens and focus camera on subject
  4. Throw some sort of dark cloth over your head to block out the light (I used an old Black t-shirt)
  5. Get under the dark cloth and view the scene on the ground glass on the back of the camera. The image is upside down and backwards, just to make it interesting :-)
  6. Focus the camera and make any adjustments
  7. Get back under the dark cloth and double-check your focus
  8. Get out the light meter and figure out the proper exposure
  9. Adjust the exposure for any "reciprocity failure" factors.
  10. Manually set the exposure on the lens
  11. Make sure to close the shutter on the lens
  12. Double-check to make sure that the shutter is closed
  13. Take a film holder and insert it into the back of the camera
  14. Pray that you actually have film in that holder because you won't know until after you take the shot and develop the film.
  15. Set the shutter
  16. Triple check that the shutter is not open
  17. Remove the dark slide in the film holder
  18. depress the cable release and hope that the shutter fires correctly
  19. replace the dark slide in the film holder making sure to flip it over to indicate that the sheet is exposed
  20. Remove the film holder from the camera

Whew, that was a lot of work! One thing about large format cameras is that they are definitely NOT meant for impatient photographers.

I managed to expose the two sheets of film and rushed inside to load them into the tank so I could develop them. I wasn't really expecting much, what with the 55 year-old film or the fact that this was my first time using this type of camera. The opportunity for all kinds of things to go wrong with this scenario was pretty high. Well, imagine my surprise when I opened the tank after developing and I saw this:



I actually had images on the negatives! How good were they? well, that would have to wait until I scanned them, which I did today. The results weren't great but they weren't terrible either. Both images were under exposed. I think that was the result of the film being so old. I set the camera on the assumption that the film was still 100 speed but my guess is that the actual speed was closer to 50 after nearly 55 years of sitting in a box. I also noticed some leftover color on one of the negatives which indicates I didn't do a good enough job of pre-soaking the film to get all of the film backing color off the negatives. Even with that it's easy to see that there is so much more information in a 4x5 negative than smaller sized films. Heck, the scans of each negative were 350mb each, more than 4x the size of a typical medium format scan. Here are the images ( I did no post-processing on them):

Backyard 1 The first image from my 4x5 camera

Backyard 1 The first image from my 4x5 camera

Backyard 2

Backyard 2

Closing Out

If you made it to here, congratulations! I know this was a long post but I hope it has proven informative. I'm really looking forward to using my Chamonix 4x5 camera and making quality images with it. Just like with the other film cameras I've been using I find the process of making an image on film to be relaxing and invigorating at the same time. Will I stop shooting a digital camera? No, I expect I will always use both digital and film cameras for my photography. They each have their strengths and weaknesses and it's great to be able to use both types of cameras to make great images.

Stay tuned as I expect I'll be posting more about my successes and failures (I'm sure there will be both) with my large format camera.