mikegreenimages

Mike Green's thoughts on landscape photography

Musings on: the lure of large format photography

I’m postings these musings – and this is the first of them – mainly to produce an history of the direction my photography takes over time; it’s my record essentially, something I can refer back to and marvel at how wrong I was. The intent is that I can reread these at some unspecified, future date, and see how my thinking has changed over time. If they provoke thought in anyone reading them, so much the better! And if I do reread them – it’s entirely possible I won’t, given my past dabbling in the writing of diaries and subsequent lack of ever having reviewed them – it will have been a worthwhile use of time. I also find it’s rather useful in clarifying thoughts to actually write them down, so let’s see if this works.

Two years ago, the most photographic equipment I ever carried around was a small, light – let’s call it highly convenient – compact digital camera. Prior to that, I’d generally carried a compact camera and some slide film. Now, after twenty months of using a dSLR, I find that not only am I already hauling about 10Kg of ‘stuff’ up and down hills, but I’m alarmingly drawn towards lugging around a large format camera – quite possibly in addition to the existing kit. This causes me some degree of consternation!

The appeal of large format to me is mainly the image quality and the nature of the compositional control they provide, but also, I’ll confess, since they’re rather nice objects: they look like ‘proper’ cameras, what with the bellows and the black cloth to shield the ground glass from the sun. They’re ‘serious‘ cameras! Then there are all the beautifully-engineered knobs and worm screws which lock down the camera and allow precise control of where exactly the plane of focus is, and what the perspective is doing. And that comes back to function: the movements provide the ability to design an image with just the focus that will suit it, and with perspective distortion removed if that will enhance the result further. It all adds up to an entertaining device to use and a great tool for making landscape images.

But then there are the downsides. They’re relatively bulky; setting up a shot takes a fair bit of time (OK – Ansel Adams’ ‘Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico‘ was relatively brisk; I’ll grant that); no instant feedback, since they use film; all the extra post-processing steps involved in film (developing and scanning, re-scanning the less-than-perfect scan…); I’m sure there are more. I’m optimistic that these will keep me LF-free, but not utterly convinced. Oh! And there’s the additional problem that pesky, SLR-types come and ask you for demonstrations when you’re trying to set up a shot – I know this, I’ve been the pesky SLR-type. And lastly: will large format film be available indefinitely?

At the moment, I’m comfortably on the don’t go there side of the metaphorical line, but a year ago it would never have remotely occurred to me to consider acquiring such an archaic and arcane piece of kit. Is this a slippery slope, or will my recent purchase of a 24mm PC-E lens, enabling tilt and shift – though only in one plane, and an LCD screen is not remotely as good as ground glass to compose on, so there is considerably less flexibility than a large format camera – will this lens mollify the allure of LF? Or will it show me what can be done with camera movements, and move me even closer to the LF ‘edge’?

The trouble is, I recognise, and have been told, that I already have something of a large format approach to making photographs: I tend to spend non-trivial amounts of time setting shots up and tweaking the composition and focus, and then I wait for the light to be just as I want it (well, in reality, I take several shots of the same thing whilst waiting, since I’m using digital capture, but I know that this habit is, at least in part, to kill time!). Going out and making just one or two compositions in a session seems fine to me; and this, it could be argued, is not making the best use of the possibilities offered by SLRs. i.e. I don’t compose through the viewfinder – at least I often don’t – and I can readily live without autofocus.

And then there’s medium format of course. Not as good as LF in terms of absolute quality, and without the inherent ‘movements’ capability, but better than 35mm and its digital equivalents. I think I can safely say that I’d move to medium format immediately if it weren’t for the fact that digital backs are so alarmingly expensive right now. Trouble is, they really are expensive; and, given that fact, the affordable option for me is medium format film, which comes with most of the downsides of LF film, but without the absolute quality jump LF gives…. nor the movements… which leads straight back to going the whole five miles, as they say, and giving LF a try.

For the time being, I’m sticking with a dSLR and hoping that medium format digital backs will come down in price, but I do wonder how long I’ll be able to resist LF. Oh dear, heading back to the 19th century here…

Your thoughts? Am I doomed?

6 Responses to “Musings on: the lure of large format photography”

  1. Paul

    Hi Mike, I’m enjoying reading your thoughts equally as much as looking at your images. I succumbed to the lure of LF towards the end of last. The big deciding factor for me came at the point when I looked at my dSLR kit (at the time a Nikon D2x + mixture of lenses) and felt I needed the upgrade benefits of a TS lenses. To get the best from these lenses I think Live View is a big help, so it would have needed a upgrade on the camera body too. Faced with this decision I went for the LF route with some good quality lenses that suit my style, plus all the accoutrements that go with a 5×4 camera. Financially going to film was the cheaper option, and certainly more enjoyable, I feel more satisfied with the results. I’ll be the first to admit that results may not be without plenty of effort and time, but for me thats part of the charm

    Do I regret the move, occasionally when you need to put an order in for film or when the bill lands from the lab. I new the running costs were going to be hefty, but maybe only the same as the hidden deprecation on a new dSLR. I would suggest trying one of Tim or Dav’s workshops, but be aware it could either quash your temptation or fuel it.

    All the best
    Paul

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Hi Paul,

      Thanks very much for taking the time to both read it and to say that some of this stuff is entertaining :-)

      I’ll certainly agree that the ability to zoom in on Live View is pretty much essential for using the tilt/shift lenses; even then, it’s not anywhere near as easy as on a 5×4 ground glass (I had a brief play with one up on Lewis last year when someone was kind enough to let me marvel at their Chamonix). When I was out making my recent ‘Talon’ shot, I at one point had a fleece over my head, studying the 3″ screen; much as you would do with a dark-cloth, though less good in both respects ;-)

      I can well see why you went that way. Earlier this evening, I was regretting how much a 45mm PC-E lens would cost me (too much!); combined with the depreciation argument, film just could be cheaper – certainly it would in the short to medium term – I can see ‘drum scanner acquisition escalation’ too though… ouch (price-wise). As to a Tim or Dav workshop: that’s another thing I’m resisting, though I may succumb in the not too distant future on that one.

      Thanks again,

      Mike

      Reply
  2. Tim Smalley

    I’ve just been reading about wet mounting transparencies on a flatbed scanner and it appears to deliver the kinds of results one would expect from a drum scanner. A good quality Epson should deliver 90% of the results you’d get from a drum scanner and, with wet mounting, you should get very close to a drum scanner. The colours and detail levels certainly seem to be more reminiscent of those from a drum scanned transparency, that’s for sure.

    The running costs on digital are much cheaper, but then you have to replace your camera much more often. I don’t expect to have to upgrade from the Chamonix for quite some time because it does everything I need it to and I get a new ‘sensor’ every time I make an exposure – I can choose what I want the image to look like at this stage and even choose the size of the film (should I want a longer focal length than 300mm).

    The bill I got from the lab the other day wasn’t the most pleasing I’ve ever had (over £4 per sheet, including delivery both ways) and neither is the cost of buying film, but I anticipate spending much less than the £3,000 or £4,000 or so I was spending on digital equipment every two years. I’m looking at ways to bring the cost of developing down (I’d like to get it below £1 per sheet) so I think the next job is to start developing my own film, but I need to seriously think about that before making the investment.

    When it comes to lenses, I’ll maybe add a few more focal lengths – a 135 and a 210 or 240 would complement the three lenses I have – but I’m unlikely to upgrade the lenses I’ve got as I’m very pleased with the results thus far (having just got my first lot of transparencies back).

    I used Tim’s and Dav’s workshop as a platform for understanding the focal lengths that would best fit my vision – there’s no point trying to figure it out from using conversions, as they vary massively. I’d already made the decision to make the move at that point, so for me it was a matter of ‘what’ rather than ‘if’. I learned plenty during the day – despite already being familiar with some aspects of large format – and walked away knowing exactly which lenses I was going to buy, so for me the investment was very valuable.

    Tim

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Thanks for all the tips, Tim.

      I am gradually recognising the inevitable, I have to say, and when I do decide to ‘give it a go’ I shall certainly go on one of Tim and Dav’s workshops; that’s a particularly good reason for doing so – I’d not thought that choosing focal lengths would be that tricky, so that’s good advice. My reticence is in part down to the difference between marginal cost and ‘capital cost’: I’m slowly moving to taking fewer and fewer shots per composition, and when I get to the stage of just two or three of a given composition (and I’m not far off now), I think I’ll be happy with that and willing to move to paying ‘per capture’. Right now, I’m pretty much working in a large format kind of way anyway; easing myself in gently, so to speak!

      Interesting comments on wet-mounting too. I shall read up on that as otherwise the initial investment is really rather significant.

      Mike

      Reply
  3. Bob Garrigus

    Mike,

    Great article (among loads of good ones on your blog). I have been in the thick of this same contemplation for the past year or so and we seem to be on the same sheet of music. Tilt-shift lenses were a massive revelation for me as well both technically and creatively but took me that next step in now wondering what more I might do with the added control offered by LF. Although there are some instances where mastering techniques like focus stacking can really advance my perpetual pursuit of sharpness and DoF it sometimes seems like I’m doing things the hard way as compared to the great capabilities I might realize in purchasing one of those beautiful looking Chamonix on e-bay. As soon as I get close to hitting the “Buy Now” button I fall prey to anxiety over perceived (rightly or wrongly) loss of control in areas like film purchase, immediate feedback, development cost, scanning, etc. Somehow it is this notion of a loss of control and the inherent cost of gaining it back by doing my own development and scanning and such that makes me decide to postpone the decision another day. I’m also not certain that my normal display and publication needs warrant LF. Although I do have the requirement to submit large files (50MB-200MB) to my stock library, most of my display is via web galleries at no larger than 1024 pixels on the long end. As much as others might disagree I simply cannot see enough difference at those tiny resolutions to warrant the change. When I get the occasional print order I only rarely need to go larger that 16″x24″. Would I even realize the true benefits of LF in my work? Would LF perhaps change the manner in which I display images? I really have no idea.

    I’ve still not mustered the courage to order that first LF camera although I have a beautiful Chamonix for sale open in another browser tab. For now I continue to use my Canon dSLR like a view camera complete with three tilt-shift lenses, live view, dark cloth, light meter and focusing loupe. I imagine the LF togs down the scar from me would find this amusing and simply shake their heads at another digital guy in denial :)

    PS: Oh crap, I see Joe Wright just made the leap, I wonder if I should move into LF?

    Reply
    • Mike Green

      Hi Bob,

      ‘….. another digital guy in denial…’: I like that phrase; I think you may have a point. LF really is very appealing in so many ways. In my case, that is [still] largely for the movements capability. Yes, I can certainly see the attraction of using film and controlling the whole process, including developing and scanning, but each of those things is a huge new step to contemplate (more in terms of hassle and space than cost, perhaps, though the latter is non-trivial too). I certainly think the results from film can be, and often are, better than digital is right now, but that’s not the main draw for me, it’s the movements capability. At least, that’s how I feel now, a few months after writing this article.

      Given unlimited cash, today I’d be straight out to buy a medium format camera, with movements, and a digital back. Sadly, whilst I could talk myself into the camera and lenses purchase, the digital backs are just horrifically expensive at the moment, and likely to remain so I fear :-\

      I’ve decided that this indecision over ‘perfect format’ is quite possibly a good reason to stick with digital and SLR for the near future – at least – and see how my views change further…. There’s the whole ‘carrying stuff’ aspect too: MF seems a good compromise there. And then there’s the cameras: the Chamonix is such a lovely item, and astonishingly good value; and so is the Linhof Techno (albeit rather more expensive!).

      Ho hum. Decisions to be put off longer I think!

      Yes – I saw that Joe had branched out (rather than moved). I do, as a principle, very much like the fact that ‘old’ technology is still better in pure quality terms. Speaking as someone who buys new LPs whenever possible, and whose LPs sound better than my CDs, I’m definitely a fan of analogue technology rather than digital… So many parameters though; so many competing pros and cons (even if you take money out of the equation completely, the choice is not obvious).

      Let me know if you make the leap – I’m always looking for additional input to my already-less-than-clear decision process!

      I’m just rambling above really: the only thing I can say for certain is that MF, LF, as well as film, are alluring. Beyond that, and taking cash into account, I’m not sure that I’m any closer to a decision either :-\

      Thanks for reading, and I’m very pleased that you have enjoyed some of my musings :-)

      Mike

      Reply

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