Is "the effort" really what makes LF photography great? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Pardon me if Im out of bounds here, but Ive often wondered if large-format photographers talk too much about the travails of their chosen medium. Go to a large-format photographers website and youll likely find lengthy discourse on the heavy equipment, the unwieldy format, the time-consuming setup, the expensive film, the demanding pre- and post-exposure steps to making the ultimate print. Ditto for books by and about LF photographers: in the introduction or the back theres invariably an essay or a note explaining that readers should not expect similar results unless they are prepared to suffer greatly for their art the way that photographer does, on a daily basis. Even on this website newcomers are (to my reading) over-warned about the huge leap they are making, from "easy" 35mm and MF photography over to "our side," excruciatingly difficult LF photography.

Dont get me wrong: Im presently working in 4x5 and 8x10 (and have worked in 11x14), and I agree that large format photography can be very demanding, expensive, unwieldy, and frustrating. But must we repeatedly tell everyone it is so? Must that always be the starting point, the most important thing to stress about the art? I guess it troubles me when it goes beyond legitimate advice or explanation to making "the struggle" the primary badge of honor, elevating us LF martyrs above the teeming "lesser endowed" masses, with their puny cameras and postage-stamp sized film. We end up emphasizing means over ends, accentuating the creator more than the creation, focusing on "the tools" and "the process" instead of the final product. Its almost as though we want photographsand photographersto be judged based on the format used rather than the final result. A great photograph cant speak for itself, were saying: viewers must be told how much energy was expended to produce it before they can decide whether they like the image or not.

But what really makes a great photograph? I recall the words of a younger photographer who was lucky enough to spend time in the darkroom with large-format impresario Paul Strand, often acknowledged to be one of the greatest photographers (and fussiest printers) of all time. Strand, the younger man wrote, "never let me forget that the ultimate goal was to produce a picture, not a print."



-- Micah (, April 15, 2000


I think there is a resonance that occurs, between process, method, and outcome. I have always sensed it was healthy and out of respect for the medium and those that blazed the trail before us.

two climbers reach the top of Everest. one carries oxygen, the other breathes only the air off the Himalays unaided. we judge the outcome as both standing on the peak, but the climbers understand the difference.

-- daniel taylor (, April 15, 2000.

It is amazing the giberish that some put on the toating of equipment. The means to the end is the beautiful quality that is derived from the LF craft and to me it is worth the time and effort. To me it is preferred and not that combersome but that is what I prefer. Scott

-- Scott Walton (, April 15, 2000.

There is a definite theme of slow-demanding-heavy and of course the always mentioned "contemplative" nature of large format. I am a recent convert who found all of the above to be true and apparently attractive because I tend to ignore my other formats in the quest to master this one. I've often thought (and my 35mm friends often wonder) why go to so much bother when you can get the same image so much easier other ways. My answer is that I can't get the same results either techinically or in my own personal satisfaction from 35mm as I can from a view camera. I enjoy the process as much as the results but I know that most people wouldn't, otherwise APS wouldn't exist. I also am very glad that the warnings about the difficulties were out there. I have often felt like an idiot after one or the other mistake only to find that most everyone makes the same mistakes and has the same problems rasseling with the beast. I think it's wise to warn people so they don't jump in blind. These same warnings (which I got in abundance) only served to make it more attractive. The effort is worth it.

-- Bob Finley (, April 15, 2000.

If I've ever had a point posting on this forum, it was that L.F. doesn't have to be expensive and onerous and as techno-oriented as some folks seem to think it is or want to make it seem.

-- Sean yates (, April 15, 2000.

I agree with Bob, I am glad for all the "warnings" about LF. It helps me not make the same mistakes myself. Some people overdo it but what can you do....

As to the equipment, I don't think that much stuff needs to be lugged around for LF. I use the same backpack as I did for MF. The lenses I use now are lighter weight and I use 2 instead of 4. Film is heavier, but QL isnt too bad. The field camera is 6 lbs but a 6x7 with prism and backs, etc... weighed almost the same. I think the weight problem is solved by how you approach it and how much $$ you spend...(Gitzo)

The best part is viewing highly detailed chromes on the lightbox. My advice to people shooting landscape is to seriously consider LF if they are looking at a medium format system. Personally I "see" better using the ground glass than looking through a tiny prism. And the cost is about the same as new MF.

It is a big leap from 35mm but if you are technically minded and heed the advice out there you can do this with very few mistakes. When I processed my first box of Velvia QL all of the pictures came out, most were in focus and I had no light leaks. I got the same results from a box of TMAX loaded by hand - except one neg fogged on one corner.

LF can try your patience at times but for me it is a time to relax, enjoy the view and try to place what I see on the film.

-- Alex Corbishley (, April 15, 2000.

I totally agree aith Micah and Scott. I want to gag myself with a loupe when I hear such gibberish.

Rebel! Proclaim to the world your LF pictures were "snapped" with an APS camera. Hehe.

-- Brad Evans (, April 16, 2000.

Micah: I would offer this suggestion. For those of us that prefer working in large format, each photograph is an event. From looking until we see something worth "the effort" of setting up the equipment through printing the negative, that photograph is unique. Even to the point of developing one negative at a time for more precise control. Some of us brag about how much equipment we carry in order to be prepared for that one shot, others of us bitch and moan about how much equipment we have to carry in order to be prepared for that one shot. But in either case, the effort is a part of the process. What makes LF photography "great" are the finished photographs made by careful workers, and the association with others who share our preference for this type of equipment. I (And others, I'm sure.) would never tell anyone to jump right into large format without giving serious thought to "the effort", to say nothing of the expense. But we'll be there to help out any way we can should someone new to LF need a little support.

-- Paul Szopa (, April 16, 2000.

I haven't noticed much complaining going on in this forum, but it is the only one that I frequent. Where are you seeing this?

-- J.L. Kennedy (, April 16, 2000.

Indeed there are people who heroize "the effort" of large format photography a bit much, but I think the technical medium is not irrelevant to the meaning of the work.

This became particularly clear to me when I saw the Carleton Watkins exhibit some months ago at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I couldn't help but think, even as I admired his remarkable compositions and the fine tonal gradations of his albumen prints, what it must have taken, when any trails that existed in the Sierras would have been rough at best, many years before Ansel Adams was out there with his relatively compact field camera, for Watkins to get to the base of Half Dome with his 11x14 or thereabouts plate camera, heavy glass plates, and portable darkroom for mixing collodion and coating the plates, then making an exposure without a light meter, and getting it all home on said trail without those big sheets of glass breaking. Knowing something about "the effort" here can really change one's appreciation for the photograph.

-- David Goldfarb (, April 16, 2000.

One possible explanation for the phenomenon that Micah observed is that commercial photographers may need to justify to their potential clients the added time and expense of LF. Top-level architectural photographers need to charge several hundred dollars per shot, and to an unsophisticated client this will, without some explanation of the burdens and expenses of LF (as well as the benefits), seem exces

-- Stewart Ethier (, April 16, 2000.

Because it is different! Period. The images are different also. Most 35mm and some of the MF users are happy snappers. The camera is for them, a capturer of fleeting moments in life. Not something easily caught by the cumbersome LF system users. Most small format users shoot film at a prodigious rate compared to LF users. And because of this difference in type of image and rate of film use, the two basic styles are profoundly different. 35mm shooters generally shoot a subject from many different angles hoping to luck out.(hahaha) Whereas LF and their some of their MF cousins contemplate each potential image. It takes time to setup for each shot unlike handheld cameras. The equipment is heavy and misery likes company. And the process of developing each type of film and printing the images. LF means detail, detail, detail. 35mm and their MF counterparts just print for the life of the image. Most print small due to their inherent weaknesses in resolution. Most printing of LF is for spectacle(large) and not for action like their puny 35mm distant relatives. Ouch! Did I say that? And just like a backpacker fresh from 7 days out in the field, when passing someone just starting out at the trailhead the chest seems to get a little bigger along with the head. And the stories! Oh those stories told at the trailhead and the last campfire at night. Same with the LF shooter. It is different! So enjoy it. Praise it's abilities and whine about it's problems. It's all about having fun. But I can shoot my Speed Graphic w/flash and push film through it until it starts smoking. Curtain shutter at a 1000th of a second can really freeze the action too and with such a large negative. OOOOh, that large negative. Oui ve. James

-- james (, April 16, 2000.

"Oui ve" ?????


French for "Oy Vey" ?

-- Sean yates (, April 16, 2000.

Format is a very personal thing, and in some cases defines our personalities better than any other aspect of photography. And there is a place for all types of formats and personalities.

I was at Yosemitie recently, when a grand view appeared. I was in a parking lot with at least 30 other people. The sun went behind a cloud. The bus left with most of the 30. Then the few others using large and medium format left. One guy and I remained to see if the sun would shine upon us again. He was using a 35mm SLR and I was using a 4x5. I suspect someday he'll move up to LF. He has the patience.

I don't think 4x5 is demanding, expensive (it certainly costs less to get into a 4x5 view system than one of the MF SLRs), unwieldy, and not at all frustrating. Above 8x10, and I think some of these come more into play.

I find it easier to get good results with 4x5 than with any other format, which is why I use it. If I found something easier, I would use it because I am lazy. (Lazy is good. It makes us invent easier ways of getting the same results.)The hardest part of 4x5 work to me is developing, but my Bogen daylight tank fixed that.

I don't think we ought to brag or think heroicly (sp?) about our efforts. Let our pictures speak for themselves.

-- Charlie Strack (, April 16, 2000.

Whatever the Jewish mothers on old movies always say after hearing their sons did something wrong. Is that how you spell it Sean? See you learn something everyday no matter how brain dead you are. Lumberjack

-- james (, April 16, 2000.

Es tut mir leyd. Ikh veys nit. Ikh bin an Amerikaner.

-- Sean yates (, April 17, 2000.

I've never seen any books on LF photography that insist on you "suffering for your art". I have seen books books written about photographers where a writer who is not a photographer is impressed with all the gear. The basic mindset for most large format photographers is patience, not penance. In my own large format photography efforts it often seems like there are long periods of contemplation punctuated by a moments of frenzied activity. And Paul Strand was absolutely correct.

-- Ellis Vener (, April 17, 2000.

Back to the original question: The reason some LF people lord their equipment over others is because they think it makes them more prestigious. They think a larger camera means they have better photographs, not just technically, but in all aspects. It is a status symbol. I attended a camera club meeting last year to hear a friend speak. Their two "large format guys" sat together, in the front row, isolating themselves from the group. They were special, don't you know, they use 4x5. Their arrogance was alarming. I have heard it many times, "Well, I used a 4x5, so of course it's sharp as a tack and smooth." I get a big kick out of them. Little do they know I have a different LF for each day of the week if I want. I just let them ramble on.

-- E. L. (, April 17, 2000.

Yo Sean, I always spelled "Es tut mir leyd. Ikh veys nit. Ikh bin an Amerikaner." as "Es tut mir leid. Ich weiss nicht. Ich bin Amerikaner." Do you speak western German, the type one might hear in Punxsutawney, perhaps? Anyway, anyone who hauls a 5x7 Linhof with a wooden tripod and several film holders miles into the wilderness is ostentatiously masochistic.

-- Ben Snyder (, April 17, 2000.

There is more to it than suffering and equipment. Somewhat like fishing. I mean, serious fishermen use trawlers and nets .... DJ

-- N Dhananjay (, April 17, 2000.

maybe it is simpler. maybe, we feel like we have struck the motherlode. we have stumbled upon and tripped the light fantastic, and in our sense of wanting to share it with the world, we extend our tripods, set our sights, and puff out our chests a bit too much. I think it is that we are so enchanted with the process .. it is so wonderful to behold, and that we want to share it with everyone.

-- daniel taylor (, April 17, 2000.

Couldnt resist joining the fun. A small (large?) point everyone missed can't be allowed to rest: Serious MF and 35mm can be every bit as heavy or heavier than LF. A Nikon F5, no lenses weigh in at 1.3 Kg. Add to that an 80-200 Zoom and now you have a 2.6 Kg load. To cover the shorter focal lengths and macro, the weight goes up and up. By the time you have three lenses you are not far from the weight of a field camera and a set of lenses. In MF, same story, only worse. This downed on me when I weighed my MF and LF gear. MF = 30 lbs. vs. 22 for LF. The latest 350mm tele for the Contax 645 is a 'feather' at 3.8 Kg. (8.36 lb) pounds; any volunteer porters? (My Master Technika only weighs 6.1) Yes, Focal length range, (Fx/F Standard lens) which potentially is greater in 35 and MF accounts for much of the weight problem there. It may be said that by limiting the lenses in 35 and MF to the same range, 35 and MF come out lighter than LF. True but wrong: the very justification of 35mm and MF for the serious landscape and nature photographer is indeed this wider Fx/F range. This wider range is great for some subjects (wildlife, tele-scapes)) but for everything else it comes at the price of quality. Finally, in 35 and MF the lenses consist of a little glass and a lot of metal that takes the place of the bellows in LF. These "bellows" in 35mm and MF are expensive and heavy. In conclusion, any one wishing to brag of heroic/masochistic deeds can do so in any format. Julio

-- Julio Fernandez (, April 17, 2000.

Serious LF shooters 'actually' shoot with 8x10 at a minimum and the preferred format is 7x17 or larger. Serious miniature format shooters make up the shortfall easily by hauling around 600 f/4 tele lenses. The quest for the biggest & heaviest cannot be set by negative size alone.

-- Dan Smith (, April 17, 2000.

No, it isn't the effort, it's the prints. But you'd have a hard time convincing most people that large format photography is not as hard as it looks. I tried recently in Yosemite. I was set up taking a photo of shadows on a boulder near the base of Yosemite Falls when I heard four people walk up behind me and a man say "That's a serious camera."

They hung around while I shot, and I offered to let them look at the ground glass. The guy with the Nikon F100 around his neck took me up on it, and came out from under my jacket (substitute dark cloth) mightily impressed with my photographic skills. I started to give him a quick rundown on just how simple 4x5 cameras are, but his eyes began glazing over before I had a chance to show him my spot meter.

He wandered off muttering something to the effect of "I'll never be that good."

I should have run up to him and said "You don't know if I'm any good because you've never seen any of my prints."

The prints are what we're doing this for, and they're the reason we use large format. And with a bit of practice it really isn't all that difficult. I find follow focusing a swimmer coming at me far more difficult. Ever try to follow focus with your loupe on a ground glass? I usually just prefocus and wait for the action to come into the frame. Gotta get me one of them fancy autofocus cameras for sports.

Now that I start thinking about it, 35mm photography is much more difficult than 4x5. With a 4x5 we can laze around and wait until everything is perfect. If it an't, we just pack it up and go have a couple snorts of sungle malt. Seems that every time I shoot 35mm I'm expected to come back with good art no matter the conditions.

-- Darron Spohn (, April 18, 2000.

And on the same note. Was tucked under the darkcloth, trying to photograph the freezing waters of Lake Michigan in Feb. Came out for a breath of air. Saw a lady in a car taking my picture. Felt mildly curious and I looked around and besides me was another soul with a point and shoot, also taking a picture. The incongruity between my setup on a tripod, with loupe and spotmeter around myneck and this unencumbered soul with just the camera around his neck was too funny. More to the point, I think the lady had the nicest shot of the day. DJ

-- N Dhananjay (, April 18, 2000.

For me, the difference between my commercial/documentary work (on 35mm/6x7) and my personal work on 10x8, is two-fold.

Firstly, it is an 'escape' from the pressures of working at speed, covering all angles, meeting deadlines. It is a way of working which allows me to draw breath, relax and really look at things.

The 'effort' of carrying the equipment is part of the ritual too - and yes, in a strange and sometimes painful way, part of the pleasure. Apart from anything else, it keeps you fit!

Secondly, and of course more importantly, the final print quality is the main reason why we invest this effort. Because of the slow and, dare I say, 'contemplative' nature of the work, the attitude of the photographer to the subject matter can afford to be more subtle, or understated than in other formats.

The quality of the large-format print is such that delicate nuances and subtleties of meaning emerge from the detail. With the large-format image one can speak more quietly but with a depth and richness of tone not acheivable in other formats.

This is not to deny the other formats their own unique abil

-- Stephen Vaughan (, August 22, 2001.

There is the objective quality of the image (what Strand meant by "a picture" I guess), and then there is a personal quality, what it means to the photographer. I think the effort which has gone into making the image enhances greatly the second aspect, although it is often not relevant to the first one. But since most of us photograph for our enjoyment, the second aspect is very important. There are situations when LF does enhance the objective quality of the image (for instance a large print of Misrach's sky series has a beauty which is totally absent from smaller reproductions). However, the circumstances which let the image speak for itself are pretty rare. After all, how many prints have you seen in person, rather than reproduced in a book or on a web page ? Maybe the "LF speak" is meant to make up for this deficiency. I don't need to tell people who view my prints (a modest 24x30 standard size) that they were LF because they appreciate the detail, but for someone who seems the work elsewhere, I'd like them to know it as LF.

A second thought is that this doesn't have anything to do with LF. All photographers like to talk about the effort involved into making the image. There are no credentials required, no barriers to entry in photography. Everybody could have made the same image by chance. But this wasn't chance in my case, since it took me so much effort.

-- Q.-Tuan Luong (, August 22, 2001.

Anyone who thinks the importance of a fine image is due to the format used is living in fantasyland. While there are some who choose a format based on how they may look using it there are more who choose based on the intended results. And yes, there is certainly satisfaction in overcoming the inherent unwieldy nature of the larger camera & ending up with a fine image. Our photographs can stand on their own whether we shoot with a minox or 20x24 camera if they are good images. Bigger cameras have more control and that is why some of use them... for working with subject matter where this control is useful. The contact print is an excellent reason to use a big camera & the flighty nature of a marsh wren an excellent reason to use 35mm. The subject does dictate the gear in many cases. When we have to choose we weigh the pros and cons before making our chosen compromise. Everything from tonalities to grain to personal comfort factor into the decision as to what we end up using. In the end it doesn't matter at all if the photos are no good.

-- Dan Smith (, August 22, 2001.

To answer Micah's original question, in my own case "effort" is certainly not what makes LF photography attractive although use of a big camera does provide some satisfaction to an exponent of an old fashioned earn-your-own-way, DIY work ethic. After 30 years of fairly serious 35mm, with some b/w processing and enlarging, the exciting cause of my own turn to LF was simply a desire to produce a better 5x7 or 8x10 b/w print. Some study suggested 4x5 as an attractive format, but my initial plans ran aground on the realization that I would need a new enlarger and lens that might equal or exceed the cost of the camera itself. But a way out of this dilemma opened up when I read in Charis Wilson's biography of Edward Weston that at the time of their meeting in 1934 all of EW's 8x10's for sale in his studio in Carmel were contact prints (Through Another Lens, pp. 5-6). That was good enough for me. I upgraded the camera and decided to do contact prints in the style of this great artist.

But there is a more personal, autobiographical dimension to my decision to take up this (as it must seem to many "outsiders") arcane, even obsolescent artistic endeavor. It is this dimension that to my surprise I have found absent in this and related discussions in this forum, since most shooters stick to the technical merits of LF or comment on more philosophical issues but hardly ever explain what got them into LF in the first place. In my own case, my father was a professional studio photographer and besides his routine commercial shooting of portraits of children in a trailer back in LA, he also did some nice darkroom work of his own. A 5x7 and tripod, film holders, and evening loading of sheet film in a closet are among the distant memories that finally after nearly 50 years prompted me to try to figure out what he was doing. An additional motivation was the prospect of returning at least in our minds, after many years in a foreign country and now in Pennsylvania, to the West Coast of our birth and early years--our homes, a university community, and the landscape. Further reading revealed that among the more immediate founders of American LF photography were Adams, the Westons, Cunningham and others whose biographies and subjects so closely coincided with our own experiences, even if a generation or so ahead of our schedule. But it could have been Arizona or New Mexico, or Pennsylvania, or New York City, or anywhere else that our art form has been practiced.

But I agree that much of the reason for going to such trouble, expense, and, yes, effort in pursuit of our craft has to do with its technical features. For me it's all hand work, and there is great satisfaction in following the entire process from previsualization to framed print. Photography is creative in contrast to many merely passive hobbies or pastimes; it produces a tangible result that you can display in home or office or make a gift of. Out of necessity where large or heavy gear is involved, LF makes for companionship; and during the short time we have been taking the rig out we have enjoyed the frequent, sometimes well informed and usually well- meaning questions posed by strangers--an excellent opportunity, I might add, to spread the gospel of LF photography.

So, my own reasons for doing LF photography are largely a function of my own space-and-time circumstances, but above and beyond the personal element, we have found shooting to be a satisfying and rewarding activity. Process is a lot of it, but frankly I'd find something else to do if I couldn't have produced a decent print after a full year of peparation. Results do count, but at the same time our goals our modest: a few well-crafted prints to hang of the wall that give us--not critics, or a potential buyers, or web-browsers-- some personal satisfaction even if our whole Weltanschauung is hopelessly dated. Because I don't have to shoot LF for a living, I can enjoy the luxury of seeing photography as a hobby. Like oil painting, pottery-making, or playing the oboe or banjo, LF doesn't make a whole lot of sense in a technological world, but the big camera still gets respect and it's not so eccentric as to isolate the photographer from other human beings. All the best, Nick.

-- Nick Jones (, August 23, 2001.

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