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We all strive for quality in our photography. We invest in more megapixels, bigger sensors and even our time into learning new techniques to ensure our images are as technically perfect as they can be. There is one way to ensure you are getting the very best in image quality, a sensor so large that its height and width would match some mirrorless cameras and a megapixel count that would be through the roof. We are talking about large format film photography of course and today we are going to take a look at exactly what that is.
You might think that large format photography is beyond the reach of most photographers but if you have a good understanding of light and exposure and can frequently make your first shot count, then large format is actually quite accessible.
What is Large Format Film?
Large format film is generally anything from 5×4 inch (102x127mm) and bigger. The largest medium format frame is 6×9 inches so as you can see 5×4 is a significant leap in size. The film is a single sheet rather than a roll and is loaded into a double sided film holder. This obviously needs to be done in complete darkness, either in a darkroom or what’s known as a dark-bag or changing bag – a black cloth sack that has a zip entrance and two elasticated holes in which you place your arms, providing a light tight environment.
Beyond 5×4 film sizes can go to 8×10 inch (20x25cm) 11×14 and up to 16×20 inches. There are also some speciality panoramic film sizes used for, for example, shooting school or college years.
Large Format produces stunning detail. By Jay DeFehr
What are the Advantages of Large Format?
Put simply, quality. If you enlarge a 35mm negative or full frame sensor image to 8×10 inches, you are magnifying it 8 times. That magnification carries with it all the blemishes and technical errors such as lack of sharpness and noise or grain through to the final print. When you enlarge a 5×4 negative to 8×10, you are only magnifying the image x2 hence a massive increase in overall quality. Use an 8×10 format film and you are effectively making a contact print, a 1:1 representation of whats on the film.
Other advantages include perspective control, which we will explain in the next section and the fact you are not tied to one type of film, you can have different films in different holders. Also, creating a large format image is a slow and thoughtful process that requires a good degree of preconception. Combine this with the cost of film it becomes a very effective photography trainer.
Large format cameras generally consist of a front plate connected by a bellows unit to a back plate. The lens is mounted on the front plate and will usually include both an inbuilt shutter/aperture and shutter release. On the rear is a glass focussing screen. Focussing is done via this screen, often with a dark cloth over the photographer’s head to aid viewing. Once focus is achieved the film holder is slotted in, the dark slide, which protects the film from light is removed and and the exposure made. Most film holders are double sided so they can be quickly flipped to get a second exposure.
There are two basic types of large format cameras, the field camera and the monorail camera. Field camera are the more portable of the two and consist of a solid flat bed with two rails. The bellows are attached to the rails and can be wound forwards and backwards to focus the image on the view screen. Field cameras, as the name suggests are relatively portable and can be folded flat for transportation, making them ideal for landscape photographers.