Having convinced myself that I would never get into Large Format (sheet film) photography, I finally talked myself into buying a 5×7 view camera with an additional 4×5 back. Such is life.

This new series of posts will describe how I get on with the new format for I will undoubtedly make mistakes. I don’t mind sharing these as I have no pretences to keep up and writing about them helps me to stay objective. After all making mistakes is the only way of learning anything.

In this first post I talk about the rationale for going into large format and the kit that I acquired.

Post 1

Why sheet film?

I actually find this difficult to answer. It’s not a wholly rational thing. As I get older I am guided more by intuition than reason.

When I boil it down, I think a view camera will make me a better photographer. I saw a step in this direction when adding 120 to my approach. As documented in many other places, a view camera promises a slower and more deliberate way of working, a potential for a better quality print, the ability to process individual negatives to suit prevailing light conditions and the use of camera movements to improve depth of field and composition.

Of course there are possible disadvantages. Weight and cost are often identified but these are not decisive for me.

Although I decided to buy a new camera and lens (more on this later) view cameras and lenses need not be hugely expensive. With care, good deals are to be had. As for sheet film, this does seem to be more expensive but one has to reckon on a much higher incidence of ‘successful’ pictures given the more deliberate nature of the LF photographic process. I define success just in terms of getting a specific look from an image that I ‘saw’ when I pressed the camera shutter.

I reckon that a 36 roll of 35mm film will yield me 2 or 3 keepers if I am lucky and a 12 roll of 120 film about 2 or 3 keepers. Mind, that’s ‘keepers’, not great pictures. With 35mm I am more willing to take a chance and often I will not meter the scene, especially in street photography. Inevitably, as we are talking about roll film, the development plan for the roll will not suit every negative on that roll.

For sheet film every picture will have been metered and taken using the zone system and then developed accordingly . So on the technical side the strike rate should be higher. And on the compositional side the same should apply. Camera movements, the use of a loupe for focus, the inverted nature of the fresnel screen all make for more careful composition. With sheet film one is less willing to ‘wing it’. It’s not so much the monetary cost of getting it wrong as the time invested into that picture – travel, set up and composition, development and printing.

As for weight, my view camera and lens is no heavier than my Hasselblad and 50mm Carl Zeiss lens.

So cost and weight are not decisive barriers.

There is a more serious potential disadvantage to sheet film. The larger the format the more likely that the sheet film is not held absolutely flat in its holder in the camera or in its carrier in the enlarger or scanner. If the sheet film is not held as flat as a roll film frame then the promise of better relative quality may not be attainable since the sharpness of the image would be compromised.

The thousands of sharp images made by view camera photographers over many years suggests that taking certain precautions mitigates this risk. The use of properly designed and machined film holders and reputable sheet film mitigates problems in-camera. Wet scanning and the use of good glass carriers in an enlarger reduces the risk of problems ex-camera. But the potential issue is real as I saw with my first paper negative taken with a view camera.

Another potential problem is the shallower depth of field that comes with the relative longer focal lengths associated with view cameras when compared to smaller formats. The depth of field of a 35mm format 50mm (normal) lens at f16 is greater than that of a 210mm lens (normal) f16 for a 5×7 format. So in relative terms a view camera lens would need to be stopped down further to achieve a comparable depth of field. To compensate for stopping down one would need to to reduce shutter speeds in the view camera lens but this might make for relative lack of sharpness on a windy day. Against this argument, the sweet spot of a view camera lens (f16 say) is different to a 35mm format lens (f 8 say) due to greater diffraction in a stopped down 35mm format lens.

So there are trade-offs to be made. This potential problem is one reason among others why I opt for a medium speed sheet film (Ilford HP5 Plus). It buys me more depth of field.

There is a non-technical reason. I love the arcane. I love things that are in danger of disappearing, still hanging on. Anything that requires specialist knowledge draws me in. Komboloy, hand-knife design, fly-tying, certain types of philosophy, advanced dog training, gothic architecture. A strange thing that I can’t really explain to myself. This is probably the main reason for getting into large format sheet film photography. Arcanum. What’s important to me is just the business of doing it.

My Camera

My main areas of focus for LF will be Critical Landscape and some documentary work. So the criteria for camera choice was that it needed to be robust, fairly weather-proof and reasonably light. It also needed to be quick to set up and simple. Rear standard movements are not important to me as long as there is some tilt and swing in the front standard.

So I chose a Mike Walker Titan XL 5×7. It is light and strong (made from steel and injection-moulded ABS) and simple in that the rear standard is fixed. Also Mike Walker has a great reputation for helpfulness and care. The fact that he lives 20 minutes away from me was a bonus as I was able to meet with him and chat in detail about the camera. I know that if I have problems he would do his best to help me.

I chose the 5×7 as I wanted the option of contact printing from negatives and also working with paper negatives. The 5×7 format print is large enough to see properly and handle. However as an insurance policy in case 5×7 film becomes harder to source or in case I cannot get access to a 5×7 enlarger, I also bought a 4×5 back.

My first lens

This was a trickier decision. The whole business of LF lenses for someone coming from 35mm photography can be daunting. I decided to buy a new lens and chose a Rodenstock Apo-Sironar S 5.6/210mm. Expensive, but I have always gone for the best lenses I can afford, whether it be Leica or Hasselblad – lenses are the most important part of the set-up. I decided on a normal lens rather than wide, as I have always found that a normal focal length is a good place to start.

The lens came mounted on a board and Copal 1 shutter. I found that I had a UV filter that fitted the lens and also found that my Lee 100 filters were compatible with an inexpensive Lee adaptor ring that I found on eBay.

Other necessities

I bought a 3/4 inch Manfrotto plate for my Manfrotto tripod. However the head is not quite up to the camera so I will be looking for a new head soon. There is a slight amount of creep in the head, nothing too serious but enough to cause a problem on long exposures.

5×7 and 4×5 film holders are Fidelity and Toyo. I already owned a Rodenstock 4x loupe. The 4x magnification seems to work well for me. For a dark cloth I splashed out on a Paramo one. It is weather-proof and doubles up to protect the camera in a downpour.

For film I decided to standardise on Ilford HP5 plus and FP4 plus. I already have some experience with them and they are readily available in the UK.

First picture

To learn the mechanics of the process I decided to use paper negatives: Ilford MGWT.

Here is my very first picture.

Window at home, from a 5 x 7 paper negative, scanned and inverted in PS.

A couple of things I learnt from the first picture: 5×7 paper is not the same size as 5×7 sheet film. The paper is slightly bigger hence it did not lie absolutely flat in the holder, as you can see in the curve on the lefty hand side.

Secondly I scratched the paper negative slightly when taking it out of the film holder, as it was wedged in tightly. I was able to mend the small scratches with PS.

Next steps

Next steps will be to process film using a Paterson Orbital that I have just bought.