How in the H LL do YOU shoot sharp large format portraits? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Anyone with ample experience shooting portraits in large format: I recently begin shooting 4x5 portraits and feel like I've gone back to square one with the basic problem of out of focus negatives. I consider myself a decent portraitist in the SLR genres, but I could use some professional advice on how to coordinate (the taking of) sharp large format portraits. Thanks in advance for your response. Andre Noble

-- Andre Noble (, July 11, 2000


Andre: Assuming that your equipment is properly set up and the ground glass and film plane are the same, I can offer the following tips from the days when I used to shoot portraits on 5x7 film. First, with the longer lenses, you need to stop down as much as possible as the depth of field is very shallow. That means you needs lots of light. That was the reason the old photographers used 1,000 to 5,000 watt lights. Try focusing on the eyes or the tip of the nose and let the depth of field carry the rest of the focus depth. Set up the portrait and then ask the subject to stay still while you insert the film holder and make the shot. Keep an eye on the subject to make sure the position is not changed. You need to focus carefully with a loupe, and re-focus between shots. With the longer lenses, it is possible to get the eyes in focus and the ears out of focus. That is o.k., but you may get the ears in focus and the eyes and nose out of focus, which ain't so good. My suggestion is to use lot of light close up. If you are shooting electronic flash, move the lights close enough to be able to stop down to f11 or f16. For groups, use the back tilt to keep the rows of people in focus. It really isn't too difficult once you get used to shooting LF portraits. Hope this helps.

-- Doug Paramore (, July 11, 2000.

You need a cooperative subject that doesn't wiggle between focusing and actually exposing film, which is _lots_ longer than most people are used to holding very still, and you need to usually shoot around f22 or so.

Try to get your subject into a comfortable position so they have an easy time holding still. A person who's posing stiffly and trying to hold still will at least tend to sway; side to side usually isn't a problem, but front to back movement results in sharp ears or nothing sharp.

As for the aperture, you need lots of light so you can stop down far enough that DOF will cover minor movement and/or focus errors; in LF that usually means around f22, especially if you're using a long lens. Of course if you're using flash that taskes sufficient power.

Practice practice practice.

-- John Hicks (, July 11, 2000.

I do lots of 8 X 10 portraits, some of kids. Nicholas Nixon is the past master in this area (along with Sally Mann), and he makes the point that you really have to work quickly. Some of the finicky refocusing stuff is actually self-defeating. Once you've got everything in focus, you've got to slap that holder in there quickly. The other tricks I use:

Seat your subjects, or have them stand holding onto something that will hold them in place. Swaying is much more of a problem with a standing subject than a seated one.

Don't be afraid to rearrange people so that they are in better focus.

Don't be afraid to use movements as needed to bring a subject into better focus. Especially helpful with groups. My current camera has asymmetric movements (an Ebony), which makes this much quicker and more practical.

Take more "environmental" portraits. If you will enlarge to 16 X 20, the person will still be plenty large enough to make out facial details, but it will be much easier to get them entirely in focus, as the reproduction ratio is so much smaller.

With an 8 X 10, which will wind up as a contact print, a bit of soft focus is probably not a problem, as you won't be enlarging.

The real challenge, and continued source of amazement to me, is getting everything in focus while _still_ having them look natural, or even, as Sally Mann does, mysterious and feral. This is what I'm aiming for in the long run. Obviously not there yet!!

Good luck. There's nothing quite like a well-done LF portrait.


-- Nathan Congdon (, July 11, 2000.

Because DoF is such a problem, you need all the light you can get. that's why studios use flash. That way the subject doesn't get sunburned while their portrait is being taken. And make sure that the subject is in the middle of your DoF zone. Don't focus on the eyes at the expense of the nose or ears. You should get it all with the proper flash power. I've seen photographers use all kinds of props for people to use for stability. James

-- james (, July 11, 2000.

Well Andre...don't underestimate the old "string to the tip of the nose" trick... It's a great way to put your subject back into the proper focal position when you are finally ready to trip the shutter. -

-- Dave Richhart (, July 11, 2000.

Lens choice does play an important part here in whether one is going to shoot environmental portraits, head & shoulder, full body or whatever. I regularly shoot 5x7 with the 150 Apo Sironar, and with a bit of testing found it works very well at 5.6 to 22. Sharp at all of them. So, I shoot a lot of the portraits at f/8, 11 and wide open. Pre-placing the subject & setting focus works well, as does pre- planning where one wants the person or group, getting the cameras set up & then bringing the subject into the equation. A lot of mine are environmental in light that oftimes gives exposures of a second. The old breathe in and out and then in and half way out...hold it while I go 'click' works very well with these times. Well enough to enlarge to 20x24 with Velvia for portraits using available light. I like the 5x7 but do use 4x5 and 8x10. No strobes, all available lighting. I do know one excellent people shooter with LF to 11x14 who has used a slit lamp to position the person correctly for depth with his mammoth format. He puts the carousel slit projection right at the side of the plane of sharp focus, alongside the side of the eye, and since he shoots with studio strobes, it never shows. Sure helps with subjects that weave in an out. The LF camera can help in getting some kids to cooperate as well. A mystery about the really big camera. Some subjects, forget it. Send them to Pennys while reminding them of the first rule of portrait photography. "if you want a better picture, bring a better face".

-- Dan Smith (, July 11, 2000.

I started using a Crown Graphic for exactly this purpose. You can keep a film holder in the back with the dark slide removed and ready to go. Check the focus with the range finder, then frame the image in the sports finder and make the shot.

The Graphic sports finder is built into the front standard, and moves forward as longer lenses are installed. Essentially this is self- calibrating, and provides a relatively accurate framing of the subject, no matter which lens focal length is used. This doesn't work nearly as well with telephoto design lenses, though.

You gotta admire the Graphics for this: they are lightning fast shooters when used by somebody who is familiar with them. With a Grafmatic back, they are probably just as fast as shooting an RB-67 for 6 shots in a row. Graphics are also smaller, less expensive, and more available than the 4x5 Gowlandflex TLR cameras.

Depth of field for 4x5 negs is 6-inches at a subject distance of 5 feet with a 300mm lens at f/22. This is perfect for the nose to ear lobe sharpness zone. In sunlight, this is approximately 1/200th at f/22 with ISO 400 speed film, which is easily hand-holdable. I typically can't shoot much under f/22 using Norman P2000D power packs and umbrellas.

My problem is I cannot use my 300mm lens on the Crown until I obtain an extended lens board. When I get a lens board extended by 75mm or more, I will be able to use the 300mm on the Crown and keep RF focusing. Currently, I run an Apo Sironar S 210mm on the Crown for portraits, as this is the longest lens I can use and still calibrate my rangefinder. Most of my lenses are mounted on Crown lens boards that fit nicely into a Crown-to-Sinar adapter when they need to be used on the monorail.

-- Bruce Gavin (, July 12, 2000.

Good firm, real-world #'s Bruce thanks. I've shot a few with my 240mm and some yes, handheld. I've used the string trick and it works fine and I've also replicated a sort of old-timey head-harness from the photodays of yore(your's not mine) by using an old light stand with a dowel or pencil taped to it's top section. I adjust the height and position of the stand so that the sitter's head touches but hides the pencil(and stand). You should coach the sitter in any method you use... it'll help. Personally I find shooting portraits with a view camera(and or rangefinder) so much easier than with a SLR. It's just me but I can no longer stand to see the viewfinder black out.

-- Trib (, July 12, 2000.

I have shot a lot of 8X10 available light portraits in the field. The photographer has to have great timing to keep things sharp. As one poster said: work fast! I studied with Nick Nixon at Mass College of Art and he would shoot a lot of film, use wide angle lenses and work very quickly. No strings needed to keep things in focus if your subject doesn't have to sit there for 15 minutes while you fiddle.

The first picture on my website was done in a small open ferry boat that had a one cylinder engine. I had to shoot the 8X10 between cylinder bursts. The print starts to go fuzzy at 20X24.


-- frank Ward (, July 12, 2000.

47mm lens, fixed at 6-foot focus. Hand held, with what passes for daylight here in the UK. No problem.

-- Alan Gibson (, July 12, 2000.

Gentlemen, thanks for the informative replies. I saved each to disk for near future reference. Andre

-- Andre Noble (, July 12, 2000.

In addition to the Crown, as Bruce Gavin very appropriately suggested, the Linhof Master Technika with a lens coupled to a rangefinder will also enable you to maintain fine focus right up to the time of the exposure. Lenses as long as 300mm in the Technika can be coupled to the range finder. Additionally, because of the much longer bellows extension, you can get tight face shots in the Technika even with 300 mm lenses. With the highly accurate rangefinder in the MT, you can shoot wide open even with long lenses. Unlike the Crown, which allows you to couple the lenses yourself, coupling must be done in the Technika by the Linhof rep. Furthermore, the Master Technika provides a full range of movements which also makes it the favourite of some landscape photographers.

-- Julio Fernandez (, July 17, 2000.

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