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A large format camera looks like something your great-grandfather may have used. There are two panels, one at the back and the other at the front, connected by lightproof bellows. The panels are attached to rails and the photographer typically composes the image on a ground glass screen at the back of the camera under a dark cloth. In today’s tutorial, you’ll get a complete primer to large format photography.
A Reisekamera 18x24cm view camera (photo by Jan von Erpecom). This model was in use around 100 years ago – but the basic design of large format cameras has changed little since.
There are several features that differentiate large format cameras from 35mm, medium format and digital cameras:
1. The front and back panels (called ‘standards’) move independently of each other in a series of movements called rise, fall, shift, tilt and swing. This gives the photographer control over converging verticals, the plane of focus and depth of field within the image. Lensbaby products and expensive tilt-shift SLR lenses are attempting to imitate this functionality.
This diagram shows the different parts of a large format camera (illustration by Chris Heald).
2. Large format cameras use sheet-film – single pieces of film (not rolls) that come supplied in sizes of 5×4 inches or above. The film is loaded into a sheet film holder in a darkroom or changing bag. You can also buy polaroid backs – commonly used to check the lighting and composition before committing the image to film.
3. Most large format cameras can only be used mounted on a tripod. There is no viewfinder – you look at the image on a ground glass screen under a dark cloth and use a loupe to magnify the image to check for sharp focus. This made the process slow, and too some a bit tedious. The trade-off is the huge negative and complete control.
4. Large format cameras are completely manual. There is no autofocus or auto exposure.
Why photographers use large format cameras
The design of a modern day large format camera differs little from those made 100+ years ago. They are slow and cumbersome to use, and offer none of the flexibility and convenience of digital cameras or 35mm camera systems. But photographers still use them. Why is this?
The biggest advantage of large format cameras is image quality. If you want to make a large print then ultimately you’ll get a better quality image from a 5×4 inch negative than you will from the smaller negatives of medium format and 35mm cameras. You’re not likely to notice the difference with a 10×8 inch print, but you will if you’re making large prints to sell as fine art in a high-end gallery. >Large format cameras are also used in advertising when the final image is going to be displayed at a large size.
However, the latest high resolution digital cameras are challenging this, producing image quality that some photographers claim matches that obtained by 5×4 inch large format cameras. If your goal is to create large images, and you have a large budget, it is also worth looking at a high resolution digital camera system as a potential solution.
The other large reason for using large format cameras is to take advantage of the camera movements. For example, on a 35mm or medium format camera the plane of focus is parallel to the camera back. With a large format camera, thanks to the bellows, you can tilt the lens downwards, while keeping the back of the camera upright. This tilts the plane of focus downwards. Landscape photographers use this technique to obtain landscape images with front to back sharpness without having to stop all the way down to the narrowest aperture settings.
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