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Introduction To Large Format, Part I
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.
Modern View Cameras
Although the basic concept of the view camera has changed little since the early days of photography, refinements in design, materials and manufacturing have brought today's large-format cameras into the realm of space-age technology. Offering precision adjustments of the lens and film plane, modern view cameras provide unparalleled control of the large-format image. With the aid of computers, designers have improved both the speed and quality of large-format lenses. Yet, it remains what it has always been--a tool for the creativity of the user.
Types of View Cameras
Virtually all view cameras can be divided into two basic design types--flatbed and monorail. Each type of camera has its own advantages and disadvantages. Choosing the one that's right for you is largely a matter of knowing what types of subjects you'll be working with and under what conditions you'll be photographing. All view cameras have three common components: a rear standard to hold the film, a front standard to hold the lens, and a flexible bellows to adjust the distance between the lens and film. The way the standards are joined defines the type of camera.
Often referred to generically as field cameras, flatbed cameras are light and portable enough to carry anywhere. In a flatbed camera, the two standards travel on a rectangular framework or "bed." The frame usually consists of a dual telescoping track that allows you to easily adjust the lens-to-film distance. Most flatbed cameras can be folded up into a compact, self-contained box for carrying. Potential limitation of field cameras is that not all of them accept interchangeable bellows--a major drawback if you work with very wide-angle lenses.
In a monorail camera, front and rear standards travel on a single tubular channel or rail. The great advantage of monorail cameras is their extraordinary flexibility and almost limitless combination of camera movements. Front and rear standards can be independently adjusted to the most extreme angles&emdash; usually far beyond the needs of most shooting situations. Some monorail cameras are designed in modular fashion so that parts like standards and bellows and extension rails can be snapped in or out easily. Monorail cameras are particularly popular with studio and industrial photographers whose photography frequently demands radical camera adjustments, or use of more elaborate accessories.
The drawback is a lack of mobility. If you're working in a studio or at locations where bringing your equipment is no problem, a monorail camera shouldn't present any real handicaps. But if you're traveling some distance by foot, a monorail camera can be a burden. While all of those great accessories are fine in the studio, they can quickly become a nuisance to keep track of in the field.
Regardless of which type of camera you're thinking of working with, the questions of portability and convenience should be given serious and realistic consideration. Field and monorail cameras range from a few pounds to 30 or more pounds. And remember, where the camera goes, so must the film holders, the light meters, the camera case, and the tripod.
Selecting a Format
Over the years, view cameras have been made to accommodate a variety of film sizes, from as small as 35mm to as big as 20x24" and larger. Today, the two main view-camera formats in use are 8x10" and 4x5"; and though rapid strides in film technology are noticeably eroding the quality differences even between these two, each format does have its own virtues and benefits.
Which format is right for you?
Choosing a camera on the basis of film size requires serious consideration of several factors. In many commercial applications (studio still lifes, for instance), the quality of reproduction will almost certainly be an important priority. Many product photographers prefer working with 8x10 cameras because such large negatives (and transparencies) allow far greater freedom in post-production techniques--retouching, stripping, making composites, etc. Industrial photographers, on the other hand, may prefer a 4x5 format camera because a wider variety of lenses are available in this size and because it is more portable and easier to use.
Though view camera prices tend to increase substantially as the format size increases, there is a far greater difference in price among the brands within the same format. Precision, high-quality workmanship, and durability generally account for the differences. Lenses for 8 x 10 cameras are less plentiful and more expensive than lenses for smaller formats; and the size of the film you use has an effect on cost throughout your processing and printing system.
For those who must produce photographs in more than one format, it is not necessary to purchase a completely separate view camera for each film size--there are alternative methods of adapting cameras to different formats:
A. The interchangeability of lenses with the appropriate lens board adapters.
B. Reducing backs, available for many larger view cameras, allow you to use smaller film sizes.
C. Some view cameras, called convertibles, use a more elaborate system that involves switching bellows and rear standards to change formats.
D. For switching to an even smaller format, roll-film backs are also available and allow you to use 120-size roll film on your view camera. In essence, you can convert a 4 x 5 camera to a medium format view camera. Some brands of view cameras also allow you to attach your existing 35mm or 120-roll-film camera body directly to the back of your view camera.
A Choice of Accessories
Camera and lens manufacturers have made considerable progress in simplifying view camera operation. The shutters on most modern view camera lenses, for example, can be opened for focusing and closed with a separate lever without altering the shutter speed or aperture setting.
Several devices enable you to set the shutter speed and the f/stop from behind the camera. Another somewhat more sophisticated device automatically opens the shutter and diaphragm for focusing when a film holder is removed from the camera. To "correct" the upside down ground-glass image, there is a reflex viewer that also eliminates the need for a focusing cloth.
An exposure meter with a probe to take spot readings directly from the ground glass simplifies exposure readings. One of the benefits of exposure reading taken at the film plane is that it eliminates the need to calculate an exposure increase for the extended lens-to-film distance. As an aid in previewing a setup, instant print film backs are available in both the 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 inch formats. Using an instant print film back allows you to produce test results for checking the image before committing to the final result. You can examine composition, lighting, and exposure--in black & white or color.
Continue to Part II »
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