Large Format Camera Solutions

Linhof 4x5 Master Technika Classic Rangefinder Metal Field Camera
Linhof 4x5 Master Technika Classic Rangefinder Metal Field Camera

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Large Format Camera Film

Pros and cons compared to medium & 35mm formats


Old studio camera.

Lens and mounting of a large-format camera
The term Large Format simply means big film size. Large format cameras use sheet film sized 4x5" or larger with the most common film sizes being 4x5" and 8x10". Why such a large film size? Because in photography, the bigger the film size, the better the quality. A larger negative produces better quality prints because it requires less magnification than a smaller negative would. For example, to create a 8x10" print from a 35mm negative, you must enlarge the print 8 times. If you had a 4x5" negative, you'd only have to enlarge it 2 times. And if you used an 8x10" negative, you wouldn't have to enlarge it at all! In addition, a larger negative offers a much greater range of tonal values and less apparent graininess due to the greater number of silver halide crystals on the image.
  • The ability to skew the plane of critical focus. In a camera without movements the film plane is always parallel to the lens plane. A camera with tilts and swings allows the plane of focus to be skewed away from the parallel in any direction, which in many cases can bring the image of a subject which is not parallel to the lens plane into near-to-far focus without the need to stop down excessively. Both standards can be tilted through the horizontal or swung through the vertical axes to change the plane of focus. Tilts and swings of the front standard alone do not alter or distort shapes or converging lines in the image; tilts and swings of the rear standard do affect these things, as well as the plane of focus: if the plane of focus must be skewed without altering shapes in the image, front movements alone must be used. The Scheimpflug principle explains the relationship between lens tilts and swings, and the plane of sharp focus.

  • The ability to distort the shape of the image by skewing the film plane, most often to reduce or eliminate, or deliberately exaggerate, convergence of lines which are parallel in the subject. If a camera with parallel film and lens planes is pointed at an angle to a plane subject with parallel lines, the lines will appear to converge in the image, becoming closer to each other the further away from the camera they are. With a view camera the rear standard can be swung toward the wall to reduce the convergence. If the standard is parallel to the wall convergence is entirely eliminated. Moving the rear standard in this way skews the plane of focus; this can be corrected with a front swing in the same direction as the rear swing.

  • Improved image quality for a print of a given size. The larger a piece of film is, the less detail is lost at a given print size because the larger film requires less enlargement for the same size print. In other words, the same scene photographed on a large-format camera will give a better-quality image and allow greater enlargement than if photographed on a smaller format. Additionally, the larger a piece of film is, the more subtle and varied the tonal palette and gradations are at a given print size. A large film size also allows same-size contact printing.

  • Smaller apertures can be used: much smaller apertures can be used than with smaller format cameras before diffraction becomes significant for a given print size.

  • The camera operator is forced to think more than is required with a hand-held camera with exposure metering and automatic focusing, as the camera is cumbersome and slow to set up, and without automatic features. An ambiguous advantage.

  • Low resale value is an advantage for buyers, but not for sellers. A top-of-the-line 810 camera that cost $8,000 new can often be bought in excellent condition, with additional accessories, for $1,500.

  • Lack of automation: most view cameras are fully manual, requiring time, and allowing even experienced photographers to make mistakes. Some cameras, such as Sinars, have some degree of automation with self-cocking shutters and film-plane metering.

  • Large size and weight: the old adage "View camera photographers have strong backs and weak minds" may raise a smile from some practitioners. This and the previous point make view cameras unsuitable for action photography. Joking aside, large format photographers have, if anything, strong backs and large minds because large format photography requires a clear understanding and mastery of the entire photographic process because there is no automation involved while small format photographers can rely on such automation. In addition, large format photographers have to understand technical matters that aren't an issue in smaller formats such as camera movements, etc., and others which are much less of a concern (if at all) to small format photographers such as bellows factors, reciprocity, and so on. A great amount of time and study is needed to master those aspects of large format photography making this a disadvantage in that sense.

  • Shallow depth of field: view cameras require longer focal length lenses than smaller format cameras, especially for the larger sizes, with shallower depth of field. This can be turned to advantage; some photographers make use of the narrow range of sharp focus and blurred rendering of background and even foreground.

  • Small maximum aperture: it is not feasible to make long focal length lenses with the wide maximum apertures available with shorter focal lengths.

  • High cost: there is limited demand for view cameras, so that there are no economies of scale and they are much more expensive than mass-produced cameras. Some are hand-made. Even though the cost of sheet film and processing is much higher than roll film, fewer sheets of film are exposed, which partially offsets the cost.

  • Poor availability: many large-format products have been discontinued, and others are increasingly expensive as demand declines. It becomes difficult and expensive, or impossible, to obtain required equipment and materials.

  • Some of these disadvantages can be turned into advantages. For example, slow setup and composure time allow the photographer to better visualize the image before making an exposure. The shallow depth of field can be used to emphasize certain details and deemphasize others, especially combined with camera movements. The high cost of film and processing encourages experimentation. Because view cameras are rather difficult to set up and focus, the photographer must seek the best camera position, perspective, etc. before exposing. Beginning 35mm photographers are even sometimes advised to use a tripod specifically because it will slow down the picture-taking process.

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