An unusual question for all of you?? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

This question is not about cameras, lenses, packs, darkroom gear, nor processing photographic materials. It is not about the mechanics of photography, but rather its application. It is about the application of large format photography in the field. In fact I have only found one book that even touches on this subject.

Every year I head for the mountains of Colorado at tree line or above. I expend a great deal of money and time executing these photographic expeditions. There is food, film, shelter, clothing, fuel, and tons of camera equipment. To get everything back into remote places I use a llama. Hershey carries about 100 pounds and I carry around 60 pounds for a total of 160 of gear for 5 days. I may take 5 or 6 of these trips each season.

These expeditions are very serious efforts at practicing my art. It has become a goal of mine to extract 1 to 6 exhibition images per day while on each trip. This is no small feat and I often find my self working from 3 AM to 10 PM every day. It is exhausting, but it is also mentally exhilarating.

My to question to you is what methods, strategies, and techniques do you employ in the field to insure success? To increase your productivity? To generate lots of exquisite images? Are there special films that allow you to shoots under more varied lighting conditions? Are there classifications of compositions you use to help identify possible images? Do you classify light such as “holy light” or “dynamic light” to help you in your quest to find an inspirational image? How do you stay fresh and stave off exhaustion so that you “see” what really lies in front of you? The questions are varied and many, but they all aim at plucking forbidden images from the land, 1 to 6 per day. No small feat, indeed.

-- Stephen Willard (, December 12, 2001


The first thing I do is try to get rid of what commercial work pushes on me... The knowledge that I HAVE to get an image. I can go & never shoot a thing if nothing jumps out at me and nothing tickles the keys of creativity. At other times I can shoot more than 50 sheets a day. Getting past the idea of having to produce and letting the light, the land & the surroundings work with how I feel at the time results in better images for me. When I stop & take a second look it us usually because something caught the creative spirit inside. Not necessarily what I see initially, but something in the background or something I need to look closer to see. Taking that first impression often covers up what it was that I saw and I end up with a nice photo but not what the deeper look would have produced. Being willing to set up, explore the world through the lens while under the darkcloth & take the whole thing down & walk on gives better results than shooting every time. Oftimes there isn't anything that works well or I don't get past the initial look and at other times I am able to work past the 'standard nice photo' stage. I look back often as it can be a lot better than what 'lies in front of me'. Frequent breaks, just listening to the land helps a lot.

-- Dan Smith (, December 12, 2001.

Sounds like you have the most important part already figured out. While I can't imagine why one guy would need 160 lbs. of gear to travel five days in the backcountry, you're already making the commitment to be out there, and that's what so many aspiring photogs have the hardest time with. My thoughts on the rest might sound rather simplistic, but there's no substitute for being "in the groove." You're in the elements, ready for the sweet light. The more you put yourself in position to capture those fleeting moments, the more prolific you will be at bringing them home. Personally, I'd stay away from pronouncements like "1 to 6 exhibition images per day." Go with the flow. Dewitt Jones once said (paraphrasing here), "If you go out one day to shoot reflections, and Mother Nature's doing trees that day, then by golly you'd better do trees." And if you consider a long trek in the mountains with very few photos to show for it a bad day, remember my own motto: A bad day in the mountains is better than a good day most anyplace else!

-- Todd Caudle (, December 12, 2001.

I have learned two key "rules" that i follow that has helped my making great images in the last few years. First, I read in an essay somewhere (maybe someone recognizes this and can name the author) that sometimes the best photographs are the ones we don't take. I have taken that to mean it is easy to become obsessed with seeing the world through the lens of a camera and capturing it on film and not just appreciating the miracle of the world around us. I don't think it helps my "production", but I have found that it helps to leave the cameras at home once in a while and just "be there" taking everything in: the sounds, the breezes, the feel of a place, not just what I see on the ground glass.

Second, I became a much happier phtographer when I learned to accept what is given me for weather, quality of light, subject matter, etc. Instead of always looking for the perfect conditions I am learning to pursue the perfect negative for any condition that is presented. Things are much more interesting and challenging if you drive 12 hours wake up the next morning and the clear weather that was predicted has turned into a misty, foggy morning in the mountains. There are exquisite images to be had, but you need to recognize them and the technical adjustments to capture them. That comes with experience and that is where I am now, learning how to make great images in not so great conditions.

Hope this provides some insight.

-- James Chinn (, December 12, 2001.

I feel the self imposed quota of productivity can only lead to disappointment in the end. An artist is not a machine. When he or she attempts to become one, they turn into Thomas Kincade (Check out that thread for a few laughs). I agree wholehaertedly with the poster that suggests learning how to make lemonade when faced with lemons is the important thing. I almost never bring back the images I imagine I will get and that from trips to places I've been to again and again. There are times when we all get creative dry heaves and can't produce a thing worthwhile. I know a guy who insists he never takes a bad photograph and I've witnessed the quality of his output go steadily downhill. Yet, people still clamour for his work and that demand seems to be more the driving force behind what he creates than any desire to get better at his craft. On one hand, I'm envious of someone with so much energy as yourself and the resources to make so many forays to what sounds like such a wonderful place with a beast willing to carry most of the load. On the other hand, had I those resources and time to use them, the last thing I'd want to do is impose some quota on what I MUST bring back from each trip. You can't force art! Art just happens sometimes and other times it doesn't. There is always an element of chance. You increase that chance by learning your craft well. When opportunity and preparedness intersect is when art happens.

-- Robert A. Zeichner (, December 12, 2001.

You have gotten alot of excellent opinions here and what I want to say is that it seems like your putting alot of unnecessary pressure on yourself. Let the day flow. You cannot change mother nature and just remember, your the one out in the back country where most others wouldn't venture. Take a look at your work with the thought in mind "we are our worst enemy" and ease up. If you are technically on, rule of thirds for composition, perfect exposure, magic hour light and all that... get yourself a Holga camera and loosen up, shoot from the hip without using the viewfinder! I'm a "technical" commercial shooter and a few colleagues where after me to loosen up. One gave me a Holga and said to try it. I said something like... "a plastic camera with a plastic lens and you even have to tape the foolish thing up to get rid of some of the light leaks, your nuts..." After the first roll of film to find out what this cheap little thing could do, I started to have alot more fun and the creative juices flowed more and I really got ALOT of great images not only with my large format but the little Holga. In the end, I was purely amazed what a little $20. crap camera did for my visions and my way of shooting. Don't get me wrong, at work I'm still a technical shooter because I have to be but I'm alot more relaxed about it and that helps alot.

-- Scott Walton (, December 12, 2001.

Stephen, I agree with Robert. The notion of counting the number of "keepers" per day is, frankly, appalling. However, I can completely relate to your desire to maximize the time for photography and use it in an intense way. One's best work often arises from extreme intensity in short spurts such as you describe. As Bob Krist says (in the context of travel and scenic photography), 90% of it is access, and you have that part down.

Nevertheless, let me suggest that if you want to spend more time photographing, perhaps it would be salutary to look closer to home. I, too, love the treeless vistas and for a time I longed to go to Antarctica to photograph. I applied for a grant to go there, but was rejected. So I decided to make fictional polar landscapes close to home, in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and New England. These pictures ("Imagining Antarctica") turned out to be some of my best work and helped me and my audience see our local surroundings in a fresh way.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, December 12, 2001.

PS, Scott is right too. My "Antarctica" series was done with a Holga.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, December 12, 2001.

"The more you put yourself in position to capture those fleeting moments, the more prolific you will be at bringing them home."

Well-said. Also, leave some photographs for next time. Our compunction is to capture as much as possible-"you'll be back" and if we aren't, some things are left for memory and will influence our future actions/choices/images. You are already a success for your journey is as interesting as the destination.

-- David F. Stein (, December 12, 2001.

You've gotten some excellent responses, and I'll just add a couple thoughts. The biggest impediment to my work is my 25+ years of commercial photo/illustration work and the ingrained habits of 'production' and deadline. The worst thing about commercial work is that you often don't make the best possible picture because you *must* make enough very good ones for publication. Don't artificially put the same negative pressure on your creative work by insisting on x number of "exhibition images". Anyway, for my own purposes, the very concept of Exhibition Image would be destructive because it implies I already know what the picture should look like. I don't go out and photograph to make pictures I already know, I go out to find, learn, and express new things I've not yet encountered.

-- Carl Weese (, December 12, 2001.

Why not let the Llama carry the other 60 lbs.?

-- Andrew Cole (, December 12, 2001.

Because it's way too much weight. If you carried 160 pounds, then you'd find things closer to photograph. Trust me.

-- Ralph the Wonder Llama (, December 12, 2001.

First, I read in an essay somewhere (maybe someone recognizes this and can name the author) that sometimes the best photographs are the ones we don't take.

James this has been said by Mr Andere Kertesz, although not to me personally...

-- adrian tyler (, December 12, 2001.

For me those days when I'm FINALLY in the right place at the right time with the camera and nothing else to do but take photos are both rare and exhilirating. Those are the days I keep going for. The last thing I would do is spoil that rare freedom by putting quota's on myself. That's what I'm escaping from. Finally just getting to the pretty places is the cake. Bringing back a pic or two is the icing. Sometimes the cake is all you need. I know everyone works differenly, and you perhaps have to consider the large investment and effort more than I might. My wife is wishing for a Christmas tree so I'm going into the hills with a chain saw, and the Deardorff. I've got a new to me 21cm Heliar that I want to try on something. I tend to steal the best pictures. F8 and be there works for this stuff too. What if you wake up some day and realize "all the stuff I did when I was pushing too hard is no good because I was pushing too hard"....and you have to start over? You wouldn't be the first.

-- Jim Galli (, December 12, 2001.

I've concluded that my greatest impediment to picture taking is myself. For example, I've been working in a spot recently. The first few times there, I saw pictures everywhere. After some time, I saw the same pictures I'd made again and again. My mind refused to let me be open to a new experience of the place. I would go there (and don't ask me how I know this, but I know I have more pictures to make there) but I would end up at the same viewpoints again. The human mind is a funny thing - memory comes elbowing its way in saying, "Here, I know how to make sense of this - let me show you." And I think putting pressure on oneself only makes it worse because now your mind is even more furiously trying to make sense of things for you.

As the Zen saying goes, "In order to pour tea into a teacup, you need to empty the teacup first." Or something to that effect. Getting myself to shut up and listen is hard but I think there are ways to do it. Just walking around and observing and feeling, I think are key. I notice that my really satisfying photographs involve an experience first, and then a slow realization that I should photograph it. And to have an experience, one needs to empty one's mind first. No judgments, no pre-conceptions, but just looking and being open. I know it sounds metaphysical but actually I think the experience is almost a bodily response rather than some abstract kind of thing.

Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, December 12, 2001.

my personal approach is to set a goal of getting ONE good photo in a six day trip. if i get two, it's a miracle. if i never take my camera out of my pack for the whole six days, that's fine too; my 4x5 has made many trips with me without ever leaving my pack.

~chris jordan (Seattle)

-- chris jordan (, December 12, 2001.

What an interesting bunch of responses. I'm Just sitting in .... -jeff buckels (albuquerque)

-- Jeff Buckels (, December 12, 2001.


You've already gotten a lot of great responses about not trying to force the images by using a self-imposed quota. Great advice by all. I can't think of anything to add there that hasn't already be stated eloquently by others.

However, one area I would like to comment on is the amount of weight you're carrying. 160 lbs.!!!!! Man, I couldn't come up with 160 lbs. of gear if I took everything I owned - twice! The heaviest pack I've ever carried was a little over 70 lbs. and for last several years, I've gotten my pack weight down to 45 - 50 lbs. for a typical 4 - 6 day trip. That includes all my food, clothing, tent, camping equipment AND a complete large format system with four lenses and 80 sheets of film. And, I often travel solo, so I must carry everything I need - no sharing the load with other campers.

One of the reasons I go into the backcountry is to get away from "civilization" and get more in touch with nature. I know it sounds cliche', but it's true. The less of civilization I carry with me into the backcountry, the less there is between me and nature.

It is also very liberating to not be burdened with a ton of heavy gear. I can cover more ground in less time and still end up with more energy left for photography. Once I get to my chosen campsite, I drop the heavy pack and set-off to do some exploring with a light daypack with the camera gear in it. The total weight of this daypack, including one box of Readyloads, a full water bottle, a light jacket and a snack is about 10 - 12 lbs. (and I also carry my 3 lb. 5 oz. tripod/head in my hand). This feels lighter than air after hauling a heavy pack all day. It let's me scamble around and actually enjoy myself without the burden of a ton of heavy gear. And, I don't find my ultralight 4x5 system to be too limiting in any way. After all, it's not what's one the tripod that's important, it's what's in front of it, and to a much greater degree, what's standing behind it. More gear doesn't ncessarily make a better photographer, but certainly a more weary one after a day on the trail.

I'm not advocating a reckless disregard for your personal safety by leaving behind essential survival gear. I still carry my first aid kit, appropriate food, clothing and shelter in case the weather turns nasty. We all have different preferences and different opinions of what constitutes an enjoyable backcountry experience, but you might want to at least try going lightweight one time to see how you like it. If not, you can always go back to your heavier set-up. Or, think of it this way... if you can get your total weight down to "only" 100 lbs. the llama can carry everything and you'll be free to walk about completely unburdened.


-- Kerry Thalmann (, December 12, 2001.


I agree completely with all of the above responses. Art and Production or art are very different things. Vincent Van Gough (sp?), for all of his great talent, produced fewer than 100 (I think it was actually less than 60) paintings. And sold only one in his lifetime - to his art dealer brother, Theo. Would he have been a better or more recognized painter if he had produced more images? Probably not.

I occasionally give myself a personnal assignment. I. E. take only one lens and work that lens to it's maximun usefullness and possibility. OR Find the image you want. Note the distance and divide by 2. Take the shot. Divide by 2 again. Take the shot. OR Make very large pictures of very small things. (Large format negs of weeds blown up 4 or 5 times are great - makes people look at the beauty in the small world that they step on.)

Steve's Basic Photo Laws:

1. Follow the path. 2. Turn around occasionally - the view is different. 3. Don't stay on the path. 4. Take breadcrumbs. To find your way back to the path.

-- Steve Feldman (, December 12, 2001.

I have to agree that 160 lbs. of gear is pretty astounding, unless you're shooting 20x24" glass plates and lighting up the landscape with studio strobes. I mean, Kenro Izu travels with about 100 lbs. of equipment shooting ultra-large format (14x17" or some such non-conventional size, I think). Lois Connor managed with her 7x17" in China strapped to the back of a bicycle. What all is poor Hershey carrying?

-- David Goldfarb (, December 12, 2001.

> What all is poor Hershey carrying?

Llama food?

-- Gavin Walker (, December 12, 2001.

You have to step outside of your self to really SEE. This requires extreme inner and outer sensitivity as well as responsivness.Be ALIVE!!Most are in waking sleep.They pass their lives in the illusions of either the mind, the emotions, or the body.To be free of this one must know what is and what isn't.One has to know both sides of the fence before a choice is made....when both sides are seen as well as felt... and all is still and silent within...then its time for camerawork!

-- Emile de Leon (, December 13, 2001.

I agree with much of what has already been stated. We are really engaged in a conversation about 'how to live in the world' as much as 'how to photograph the world.' This to me goes to heart of photography as an art. I would like to correct one small art-history error that was made by Steve F. yesterday. Van Gogh actually painted about 800 paintings and made about 800 drawings, all in a ten year period. He was extremely productive, with somewhat uneven results. People who think he was a crazy fellow forget how dedicated he was to his art, happy and willing to put in long hours day after day. But Van Gogh is only one type of artist. Vermeer painted a grand total of 43 paintings that are known. I don't think there is a second-rate one in the whole list. A fairly long lifetime of work and only 43 paintings, most of them quite small. But how many artists would love to change places with Vermeer, if only to be able to paint the quality of light as it moves from an open window across the rough plaster of a wall behind a beautifully realized portrait!

-- Michael Alpert (, December 13, 2001.

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