Where to start in LF photography?

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I discovered this wonderful Website while pursuing my interest in pinhole photography. Having read many of the messages that have been posted, I'm now curious to find out more about LF photography in general.

Where should I begin? I would like to avoid unnecessary expense, and expensive mistakes. Clearly reading around the subject will help ... or will it? Might I just get confused? In my experience many photography books seem to be biased towards particular products.

What's the best way to get started? Should I buy a used camera, or build one of the kit cameras?

Any advice would be welcome. Thanks.

-- Ron Hughes (rhcc@compuserve.com), February 10, 1998


A good place to start might be by reading the introductory material on this site. It's a good intro to some of the "nut and bolts" issues of large format work.

As far as books are concerned, the bible of view camera technique is by Leslie Stroebel. It's really a combination textbook/reference work which addresses most of the techncal issues involved. Other books on the subject are by Steve Simmons (the publisher of View Camera Magazine), Harvey Shaman and Jim Stone. I haven't seen the Stone book; the ones I have seen provide decent coverage, but they're geared primarily to studio shooters. If, like me, your interest lies in the landscape, the books are somewhat less helpful. However, they will at least give you a working background.

If you decide to take the plunge, I'd suggest working for a while and doing some trial and error; then, if you like the basic approach of large format, you may want to consider taking a large format workshop. Either way, it shouldn't take too long before you're sufficiently comfortable with your technique so that you can concentrate on the (far more important) aesthetic aspects of your work.

-- Rob Rothman (rrothman@riag.com), February 10, 1998.

After reading these materials, look around for a good used 4x5 camera. You can purchase an excellent Speed Graphic with lens for $350-$500, and sell it for the same if you decide this isn't the right hobby for you. If you decide to stick with 4x5, the accessories (new lenses, film holders, light meter) you accumulate will transfer to a better camera.

Kits can be fun if you like tinkering with them. That way you get the personal satisfaction of using something you built with your own hands. The only drawback to the kits I've seen, and what made me decide not to purchase one, is they are monorail cameras and would not easily fit my backpack.

-- Darron Spohn (dspohn@clicknet.com), February 10, 1998.

I found the Jim Stone book difficult to read. His discussions weren't reinforced with illustrations to clarify what he was talking about. The Simmons book was better at the end of the Simmons book, there are examples of photographers' work with a short commentary about each image. I've seen the Stoebel and seems a tad overwhelming for a beginner. Also check Upton and Upton's (Upton and London) big book on photography. There's a section in their that gives you basic information about LF (it's a great resource, general, for many areas of photography). All of these books are probably available through Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble on the web.

Don't know if they have the equivalent of community colleges (extension courses) in the UK, but I would call around. I was able to get some experience working (shooting, developping, etc.) with a 4x5 at a community college. It cost me $275 for the course (including the use of a camera, lab fees, and instruction) for 11 weeks. Of course I had to share a camera, but at least I didn't have to buy a camera. This way you get to find out whether you like working with 4x5 without having to make a large initial investment. If you hate it, as some of my classmates did, at worst, you have some prints to show for your efforts (and you don't have to try selling your camera if you hate it).

-- Stuart Goldstein (satgre@worldnet.att.net), February 10, 1998.

Many thanks for all the suggestions and tips. Please keep them coming! Meanwhile, I'm sure this information will be of interest to other neophytes like me.

-- Ron Hughes (rhcc@compuserve.com), February 12, 1998.

I too just started with LF photography. I have read (am reading) the Stroebel, Simmons, Shaman books (the authors' names all start with S, also Jim Stone !), as well this very informative web site. Thanks Tuan.

I have found using Polaroid instant films a great and fun learning tool. It is not as expensive as it would seem, since it's unlikely that I want to enlarge or even reprint anything anytime soon, so I don't have to pay for processing/printing. Of course, the true benefit is the instant feedback; I learn from my mistakes much faster with instant films, and can repeat the same mistakes more often! An added benefit is a chance to experiment with the various Polaroid films. Who knows, maybe I'll even get into Polaroid transfers.

- Phong

-- Doan huu Phong (phong@doan-ltd.com), February 12, 1998.

Two terms that frequently seem to spring up when LF photography is discussed are: (1) view cameras (2) field cameras.

Are view cameras only used for studio work, and are field cameras just used for landscape work?

Where does architectural photography fit in?

Apart from the focal length of the lenses that these LF cameras use, are there any other differences?

I'm mostly interested in landscape, but architectural is also of interest. Which books cover these subjects best?

Are there any other good Websites that I should visit?

-- Ron Hughes (rhcc@compuserve.com), February 12, 1998.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of those who disagree, let me try to help out a little on terminology.

The term "view camera" is most often used generically to describe any large format camera (occasionally medium format cameras too) that has the capability for camera movements. View cameras come in several varieties. The most versatile and precise tool is a monorail. These generally have the capability of very extensive movements, and the ability to control those movements with a high degree of precision. The cost of all this is that they tend to be less portable and less convenient to set up in the field. Virtually all studio photographers choose a monorail. Some landscape shooters go for the lighter model monorails, but many prefer a field camera.

A field camera, whether of wood or metal (or some of the more exotic "space-age" materials), is generally designed to fold up into a fairly compact, closed box. This protects it when traveling, and generally makes it more portable than a monorail. The cost is that field cameras tend to have somewhat less extensive and precise movements. Depending on the model, they may also have a shorter bellows draw (which can be an issue if you want to use long lenses or do any close-up work).

To further complicate things, Linhof and Toyo (and possibly other manufacturers as well) offer collapsible monorails, which are supposed to combine the precision and versatility of a monorail with something of the portability of a field camera.

For landscape work, virtually any type of view camera can offer the needed adjustments (subject to bellows draw, as noted above); portability is, however, a real issue. For what it's worth, my sense is that metal field cameras seem to be the most popular type among professional landscape shooters. Many amateurs (myself included) choose wooden field cameras.

As far as architectural work, I haven't done any, but my understanding is that you'll need more extensive movements than for landscape, as well as the ability to work with short lenses. You'll also need some portability (since its difficult to move most buildings into your studio). I suspect that this is likely to translate into either a lighter-model monorail or one of the field models with more movements than most.

-- Rob Rothman (rrothman@riag.com), February 16, 1998.

Some very good answers here. As a former Navy photographer, let me throw in my 2 cents worth if I may.

The very first camera the new students at the Navy photo school pick up is a 4 x 5 monorail view camera. Used to be a Graphic View, I'm not sure what they use nowadays.

the brand is unimportant; what matters is that this type of camera will give you to best feel for how to get used to working with a large very visible ground glass image to "make" your photograph before you ever trip the shutter. The books mentioned above are excellent for learning to use this equipment.

The final exam for this part of the photo course was to set up the camera to do a lot of perspective and focus correction, and then to call the instructor over to look at the ground glass of the student's camera. No negative was even exposed. If your image was square and parallel and sharp you passed.

I would look for a Calumet or Burke & James or Graphic view of the monorail type with all adjustments in good order (knobs all there, lock securely, work smoothly etc.) and bellows in good shape (not scarred, no leaks at the corners) ground glass back in good shape, not bent, twisted or otherwise out of whack. A modestly priced used lens like a Kodak Ektar, Wollensak, Tessar, or Caltar in a working shutter can be had for not too much money and will be more than adequate to get started with. Make sure the dealer gets you a lensboard for your camera, and maybe have him mount the lens for you.

If the dealer is a good guy, you can probably use the camera for a week or two to make sure it is in good order.

I'm kind of caught between using Polaroid 4 x 5 material as the learning material, or going the complete negative / process / print /process route. I'm thinking of doing some teaching using the Polaroid, and, provided the equipment you buy is in good shape, I think that's how I would go. You start taking pictures immediately, and you see right away, IN TERMS OF A PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGE, what your various adjustments have accomplished. You can go right back and try something else right on the spot.

Anyhoo, them's my sentiments. I hope you find your own way and have a lot of enjoyment at it.

-- Tony Brent (ajbrent@mich.com), September 07, 1998.

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