LESSONS IN 4x5

It’s been a year since my dive into large format.  A year that’s been comprised of, first, treading lightly and shyly around 4x5 shooters/cameras, to now.  That’s to say, I have not remained shy, instead opting for a balls-to-the-wall approach.  But let’s start from the beginning.

THE CAMERAS

Graflex RB Series B, Graflex Speed Graphic, and Chamonix 45-N2.  I own all of them, and they all have different shooting styles. (An interjection here: I am the least technical person, so I might not use the correct terminology.) To begin, the Graflex RB is essentially a comically larger version of the Mamiya RB/RZ67.  It even has a rotating back (hence the RB) and can be shot in portrait or landscape orientation.  The hooded waist level finder reminds me of the sorting hat and it’s just a silly looking, but very capable, camera.  I have it paired with either a Zeiss Jena Tessar 210mm f/4.5 or the 9” Buhl f/3.6.  I’ve got three slotted holders and need a few more, though I’ve been toying with the idea of sending it to 20th Century to get the back converted.

The Graflex Speed Graphic is my most used camera in this series.  It came with an Optar 135mm f/4.7, but I’ve never used it.  Instead, I have paired the godly Aero Ektar with the camera and all my swirly dreams have been met since.

Most recently, I picked up the Chamonix after a friend posted a photo of their’s.  It was the most expensive of the three, and sometimes I dream of selling the kit for a ridiculous amount, but more recently, I’ve been taking it with me whenever I go camping to take landscape photos.  I’ve got a Nikkor W 210mm f/5.6 for portraits, and a Rodenstock 90mm f/6.8 for landscape, though it might not be wide enough.

THE LESSONS: (by order of importance)

1. Take it slow, but move efficiently - by that, I mean take time composing the shot, nailing the focus, and most importantly, remembering to close the lens and cock the shutter before removing the darkslide (can’t tell you how many sheets I’ve exposed because I forget to close the lens).  When all micro-focusing adjustments have been made, I move fairly quickly with this last step because even the slightest movement from your subject will cause the focus to be off. In the image below, I thought I had focused on the subject’s eyes (as is the trick), but I remember taking a while to load the film and so I think he moved a little, resulting in an image where the sharpness is on his chest/abdomen instead of his face.  The second image was really just a silly experiment, knowing failure to capture something in focus was high.  These doofuses were shaking and laughing so much, I basically had to spray and pray. 

2.  Try all the films you’re interested in, but maybe hold off on expired films - needless to say, film is expensive, and it gets exponentially more unaffordable as you go up in format.  In regards to 4x5, if I calculate the price of the film and the price for processing, I am easily looking at $18-$25 PER SHEET!!! While it’s cool to want to try all the films from present to yesteryear, it just isn’t economical.  I am still learning this lesson: sometimes I’ll get results that have the most horrible colour shifts because they were stored improperly, or maybe there are pinhole rips in them from who knows what.  However, sometimes, you just get really awesome results you aren’t even considering, so that’s why I keep shooting my shot with expired film.  The risk/reward ratio is pretty skewed towards more risk than reward, though.  The first example is shot on expired Provia 100F.  What’s known as a punchy slide emulsion came out extremely lackluster in all colours except hues of cookie-cutter-home beige.  The second photo is with Astia 100F, expired in the early 2000’s.  This image was heavily post-processed: I played with the colour curves and boosted saturation/vibrancy to get an image that still showed the huge colour shift towards magenta.  Lastly, this portrait shot on very expired Portra 160VC yielded such spectacularly surprising results.  It manifested some kind of psychedelic tones and now I am hoarding this batch for something special.

3. Have the right gear - large format is very expensive, not just because of the film but also the other necessary accessories.  You’ll need a light-proof tent or dark bag to load the film, film holders (more on this below), a loupe, tripod, dark cloth, light meter, and shutter cable at the very least.  My motto is to buy mid-range to more expensive gear so that I don’t have to rebuy multiple cheap versions of X,Y,Z.  I’ve learned that the hard way many times (my tripod, which I grabbed on a “slickdeal” advertisement, is probably on its last legs and will need to be replaced soon and I’ve only owned it for two years).  In regards to film holders, it is absolutely worth it to spend money on new ones, but if you buy second-hand like I do, buy from friends or someone/place trustworthy.  I’ve purchased a few from eBay in a bundle that I thought was a good deal, only to get ridiculous light leaks because there’s a small hole or a bend somewhere.  Examples below.

I’ll keep practicing and experimenting with large format because, despite how expensive it is, it’s just fun and those large negatives/positives are to die for.  If you’re hesitant to dive into this format, borrow a friend’s camera, or message/email/DM me if you’re local, and I’d gladly meet up to give you a test drive (bring your own film, haha).  Happy shooting!


Analog Photographers & Their Cameras

I hope analog photography never dies, because the people are spectacular.  I hope you invest more into the people you meet on your photography journey than in the gear.  I hope that when you go on photowalks, you’ll make new friends instead of add to your follower count on instagram.  I hope that making photos of gas stations and vintage cars is secondary (or even last) to your wanting to link with others and make viable connections.

These are just a few film folks I’ve met along the way.


Yosemite, June 2020

4:30am and the world is noiseless, which is to say the sun hasn’t yet dawned, the day’s opportunities are catatonic, and the weight of air is so still and heavy it can be felt pressing down on your shoulders, kneecaps, fingertips.

This place doesn’t feel the same: less feet, less footprints, less bodies, more disembodying moments atop summited peaks.  Time has slowed to a painful crawl, it is bleeding seconds so thick a half-day hike takes less than that.  Seven months suspended in a sour soupy mix of time and chaos and fear and panic.  But today, this morning, this afternoon, during the sunset drive home, everything is okay, life is good, our lungs are cleansed, our wonderment restored, and our sense of adventure reignited.

Thank you, Yosemite National Park and the day-pass gods for bestowing on us a pass for an abnormally uncrowded Sunday.  Skeleton bare and bone thin, we didn’t need to weave in and out of crowds during any hikes; we exhausted our legs and pumped them with lactic acid biking carelessly and speedily down empty paths leading into the Valley and Curry Village.  We took a lazy nap by one of the numerous beaches, with only wildlife around us.  For an entire day, it felt like Yosemite was all ours.  We absorbed this feeling of solitary existence and gave thanks by tiring our bodies with hikes, swallowing up the day entirely without a second wasted, and becoming whole and wholly sublime. 

9:20pm and it is black, which is to say there is a total and gut sinking absence of colour, the day is concluding, and you can feel your bones creak, the back of your knees stick, and your blood vessels contract.  This is your body’s stimulus for the end of a gorgeous day, of unforgettable memories, of tired feet being put to rest.  Night falls and so does your heavy body, into bed to dream about another day in Yosemite.

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