The Simplicity of Large Format is an Advantage

April 07, 2015  •  1 Comment

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I was preparing some notes for a large format landscape and nature photography workshop and I had an overwhelming sense of appreciation for the simplicity of large format photography.  

That may seem like an odd statement to a modern digital photographer because large format is a mystery to most digital-only photographers.  Generally when people don't understand something, they typically avoid it, or think it is complex. Large format is about as simple as photography gets.  It is just "different" than a pure digital approach to photography.  

Before I share my thoughts about large format and landscape photography, I want to acknowledge that I view cameras and equipment as tools.  These tools help us tell stories and share emotion with our viewers.  How each of us do that is a personal choice and I have no judgement of how others decide to work.  To that end, I believe the closer we stay to the experience of creating our stories in the field, the better the final result.  I believe this because of how my mind works.  I am relaxed when experiencing nature, and the moment that I start thinking I lose that state of mind and sense of peace and tranquility.  

My dad told me when I was a young boy that it is impossible to be mad and happy at the same time, so pick one and run with it.  His words ring true to me when I think about my photography and experiences in nature.  It is hard to be in a peaceful state of mind when I am thinking about all of the technical jargon about photography (white balance, image stabilization, focal length, aperture choice, ISO and so on).  

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Using large format allows me to work in a very simple and humble manner. It forces me to plan better, which in turn, allows me to be more relaxed and present in the field. After I setup my camera, I let all of that go and just experience the landscape and nature.  When I identify the moment that I want to share and communicate, I simply release the shutter.  I may flip the film holder over and take a second exposure, but that is it.  I am not taking hundreds of exposures in an outing - just one or two.  

If we think about why we love creating landscape and nature photographs, then it becomes increasingly clear why simplicity is important.  Our ability to tell a story is the single most important thing that we possess.  No one really cares about how you did it or what you used to create the story.  That would be like asking a novelist which pen or ink they used for their manuscript. Photographers worry about gear, regular people and consumers of your work don't.  

Modern digital cameras are complex compared to view cameras.  In fact, camera sales are down globally for digital cameras across all manufacturers.  Some uninformed people claim it is because of the iPhone and the evolution of smart phones with cameras in general.  I don't think that is true.  There is an increasing theory that sales are down because of the complexity of modern cameras.  I agree with this line of thinking.  When I pick up any film camera made in the last 50 years, I instinctively know exactly how to use it.  I pick a film that meets my needs and select my aperture and shutter and press the shutter release.  That applies to a 1950's 35mm camera or a Hasselblad medium format camera.  It is that simplicity that allowed photography to grow to its current state.  

Go to your local camera store and pick up the latest Canon or Nikon DSLR.  The reason they offer free classes on how to use the camera is because they know that they are basically selling you a NASA space rocket that requires a significant time investment to learn how to use properly.  I do believe it is possible for most people to learn the majority of the features of their DSLR, but most don't and they are missing out on a tremendous amount of opportunity.  The basic questions about camera use that I get asked in my workshops is astounding to me.  I would consider many of these people advanced amateurs that have the ability to create good photos.  

The interface and menu systems on modern DSLR's are like the cockpit of a 747 airplane.  I am not convinced with all the so called "improvements" of modern digital cameras that we have increased our abilities to tell better stories.  

I wrote this article to help make people aware of how important simplicity is when working creatively.  If you can get into a mindless state and be one with your DSLR, then that is wonderful.  If you can do that with large format and film, wonderful.  It doesn't matter what tools you use, it matters what you have to say and giving yourself the best opportunity to have meaningful experiences that are worth sharing.  

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-Tim Layton 

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Tim Layton
Darkroom & Large Format Photography
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Comments

Rolf Schmolling(non-registered)
Well Tim,
though I share some sentiment and analysis about the special complexity modern digital equipment imposes on its users I'd make the point this special difference is less great than we "analogists" might want it to be. I feel at home with film cameras… but because I already learned how to use them in my adolescence. I read a LOT about it – not just technique – about photography and read other photographer's books… about then then only means of reproduction/image creation through darkroom work… but up to the point that I felt insecure and fed up because I had the feeling that I had no images of my own in my head any more. Part of this was due to the fact that spending a night in my makeshift darkroom and getting just three images "right" was tiresome… anyway, when fed-discovering photography some 4-5 years back I rediscovered skills and -sets and that was the reason I felt at home. I never learned to use a (film-based) tool like say a Nikon F801/F100/F5/F6 which is distinctly different from say an F2/F3 or my – then – beloved PentaconSix TL. The cameras I mentioned are much much nearer to nowadays DSLRs: photographers relying on the built-in computers and program-modes, partly influencing/shifting them in one or the other direction. Nowadays digital bodies have another added problem, all the necessary post-production, program & computer-based to achieve a certain output, something which is probably easier film based, I would argue, just because of the 100+ some years of experience of the film-making companies. Photographic neophytes of today have a different starting point: much more being at home with computers and computer based output for example, they probably would see many many many more images on screen – period – bevor ever seeing even a (digitally) printed output! For these people all we rely on and feel at home at varying degrees (never tried alternative printing techniques, never used Pyro based developer, so far never toned an image; have a working knowledge and routine in processing my favorite black & white film (Tri-X 400) at different speeds between 200 and 3200 ISO…) would be totally alien and probably very complicated and even frightening. They would face investment both material (film, changing bag, tank, spiral, chemistry) but predominantly knowledge (just look at some of the questions posed a the usual places following this (nice!) analog revival when it turned hip to shoot film again)… The question would not be so much: can one afford film – we know it's much cheaper than buying an DSLR & computer – but the commitment one needs to take in comparison to nowadays digital easiness to shoot 550 cat & coffee cup photos and "show them around" to the whole world at no perceived cost.

Anyway, the point I'd like to make is that when I now pick up – um… drag around and set up (say baby trolley ;-) ) – a large format camera, I can use some part of my skill set, but – in my experience so far – this special tool adds a lot of very special complexity to the experience. I can draw on my understanding of exposure and measurement, but would – different from processing 135 and 120 film ins mall tanks – make amends for the different medium sheet film poses (that's one of the reason I look very much forward to your course!) including the very chances this offers: development based on the one image/negative I try to create to differ from a roll of images. But things like view camera movements and similar related factors will probably be a very different kind of problem to nowadays novices.
R. [might copy that comment and rephrase it for my tumblr]
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