The Simplicity of Large Format Photography is an Advantage For Me

April 07, 2015  •  1 Comment

The Simplicity of Large Format Photography is an Advantage by Tim LaytonThe Simplicity of Large Format Photography is an Advantage by Tim Layton It occurred to me that our success and failure is linked to our perceptions.  I think this concept applies whether you are talking about photography or life in general.  

You could ask random photographers from around the world about using large format film and you will get all sorts of reasons covering a wide range of pros and cons.  

I realized for myself that the slow and contemplative approach for large format photography is an advantage for me and that is what I am going to write about in this article.

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Tim Sr. and Tim Jr. working in the field with an 8x10 large format view cameraTim Sr. and Tim Jr. working in the field with an 8x10 large format view camera 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.

Even photographers that use both analog large format and the latest digital gear have personal reasons for use each tool.  

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 purely digital approach to photography and I think a lot of newer photographers, in particular, are missing out on a unique opportunity to take their work in new directions and arguably to a higher level. 

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 emotions with our viewers.  How each of us does that is a personal choice and I have no judgment 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. 

Tim Sr. and Tim Jr. working in the field with an 8x10 large format view cameraTim Sr. and Tim Jr. working in the field with an 8x10 large format view camera 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).  

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 set up 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 that hopefully mean something and resonate with my audience. 

If we think about why we love creating landscape and nature photographs, then it becomes increasingly clear why simplicity is important.

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Tim Sr working in the field with his 8x10 Large Format View Camera.Tim Sr working in the field with his 8x10 Large Format View Camera. Our ability to tell a story is the single most important thing that we possess as photographers in my opinion.

No one really cares about how you created the photo or what you used to create the story.  Only other photographers think about that stuff. 

That would be like asking a novelist which pen or typewrite or software application on their computer they used to create their manuscript. People only care about the story, not the tools used for the process.  

Photographers worry about gear, regular people and consumers of your work don't.

Modern digital cameras are complex compared to view cameras.  This is not a criticism, just a fact.  Simple doesn't infer "better" as complexity doesn't guarantee a superior result.  However, if your process and methods are simple, you have more cycles to pay attention to your subject matter and connect on a deeper level in my opinion. 

Camera sales are down globally for digital cameras across all manufacturers and some of the big-name companies are in real trouble. Some uninformed people claim it is because of the iPhone and the evolution of smartphones 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 along with the convergence of how modern-day people consume photography.  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 in my opinion. 

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Go to your local camera store and pick up the latest digital camera. You will be holding something that will be replaced within the next 9 to 12 months because of the manufacturer's requirement to generate new revenues.  

The reason they offer free classes on how to use the camera is that 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 digital camera, 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 are astounding to me.  I would consider many of these people advanced amateurs that have the ability to create good photos.  There is a growing disconnect between knowledge and quality of images and I think this is a dangerous slope that will ultimately have negative consequences for all stakeholders. 

I am not convinced with all the so-called "improvements" of modern digital cameras increase our ability to tell better stories.  I believe the simplicity of analog film cameras and in particular, large format cameras, are catalysts to connecting photographers with their subjects in a way that helps them create better images and resulting stories.  While I may be biased in regards to choosing film over digital in my own work, I believe this statement still stands up on its own merit. 

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 digital camera, 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 as a photographer and giving yourself the best opportunity to have meaningful experiences that are worth sharing.

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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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