The Large Format Photography Minimalist Getting Started Guide

January 19, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

The Large Format Photography Minimalist Getting Started Guide by Tim LaytonThe Large Format Photography Minimalist Getting Started Guide by Tim Layton I love large format photography with a passion and I enjoy helping other photographers learn the technical aspects to ultimately unlock their creative vision. 

If you have been thinking about getting started with large format photography, but you are concerned that it may not be for you or it is too expensive, I have created this article to help you identify the absolute minimum to get started and enjoy the wonders that large format has to offer.  

The Minimalist B&W Large Format Photographer

Free Analog Photography Journal by Tim LaytonFree Analog Photography Journal by Tim Layton When you break it down, you really don't need that much to get started with large format and then over time if you decide to move forward, you can always add more functionality to your setup. 

I've included a list of large format accessories that I use at the bottom of this article to give you an idea of the things that you may want to consider in the future, but the vast majority of these items are not needed when you are just getting started. 

In my minimalist approach, I am breaking large format down to a very simple and cost-effective approach by using darkroom paper as your negative versus film.  I like this option over using x-ray film because you probably already have some darkroom paper, plus, it is a lot easier to handle, process, and manage thatn x-ray film.

Darkroom paper makes for a great negative medium and it is many times cheaper than film.  Paper also simplifies your process as well as reduces the number of chemicals that you need. 

If you think using darkroom paper is a concession, think again, because my best selling fine art print of all time is made with an 8x10 paper negative and I use this medium on a regular basis.  In fact, I have an entire video workshop dedicated to teaching you everything you need to know about paper negatives

If you are considering large format photography, I suspect you likely already own several important items that will be helpful to you.  I will make a list for you below and then provide some context. 

  • Any 4x5 camera of your choice (used 4x5 cameras from B&H)
  • A standard lens (120-150mm range)
  • One film holder (used holders from B&H)
  • A threaded cable release
  • Tripod (probably already own)
  • A pair of 3X or 4X reading glasses (much cheaper than a loupe)
  • An old white t-shirt is sewn inside of an old dark-colored sweatshirt or hoodie to use as a darkcloth. Of your can go to the fabric store and get some window darkening fabric too. 
  • A box of 8x10 RC glossy B&W paper to be used as your negative and your print.  You can cut a single sheet of 8x10 paper into 4 negatives making this approach very cost friendly. 
  • No light meter required (use sunny 16 rule) or use an existing digital camera as your meter.
  • DIY contact printing setup made from basic art and hardware store supplies.  I suggest using a night light bulb in the 7.5W range and a simple shop light reflector.  
  • Variable contrast printing filters to allow split-grade printing.
  • 4 darkroom development trays (dev, stop, fix, wash)  
  • Dektol paper developer (I dilute to 1:3 for printing and 1:6 or 1:9 for negative development by inspection)
  • Normal B&W print processing chemicals (stop bath, fixer). 

4x5 is the most popular format, and also the smallest, lightest, and most economical as well.  You can find trustworthy used cameras from reputable dealers like B&H and KEH online. 

A standard 120mm to 150mm lens also doubles as a closeup and macro lens too!  Just make sure you have twice the bellows draw of the focal length of your lens if you want to do 1:1 macro photography. 

You can choose to either contact print your paper negatives, scan them, or both!  If you decide to scan your paper negatives, treat them like you were scanning a print.  This just means that you would scan the negative in reflective mode and not transparency mode like you would with film.  I scan my paper negatives in 48-bit RGB color mode to get the best results and then invert and convert them to black and white inside of Photoshop.

In the section below, I share some helpful tips to get you started with paper negatives. 

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If you would like to give paper negatives a try, I will help you get started in this section. 

While it is possible to use paper negatives with roll film cameras, it is more feasible to use a large format view camera.

The first thing you want to probably know is you will need to rate your paper at an amazingly low ISO value.  I have tried all different kinds of darkroom papers as a negative, and I like Ilford RC Glossy Grade 2 paper the best.  I rate it at EI 12. 

Since the graded darkroom paper is mostly blue-sensitive, there is no need to use any filters with it.  I control the contrast by pre-flashing the paper, either in the darkroom or in the field.  You should run some basic tests based on your style of photography to find the EI rating that works best for you.  I think you will probably find a rating in the EI 6 to 25 range and pre-flashing is a very simple way to open up your shadow values and also help tame the contrast.  

One trick that I like to do is to just pull out the dark slide half way and then do another exposure for the same time.  By doing this, you are effectively doubling your EI rating of your exposure.  So for example, If your meter said to use 1 second for ISO 6, just pull the dark slide out half way, expose it for 1 second, and then pull the dark slide out the rest of the way and expose again for another second.  The side that received 2 seconds would be EI 6 and the side that received the 1 second would be EI 12.  This gives you a really easy way to nail down your EI rating for your style of photography. You could even do that for 3 or four sections versus two as I described. 

You can develop your exposed paper negatives in open trays under red safelight using your preferred paper developer.  You can dilute your favorite paper developer a little more than normal to give you more time to evaluate the negative.  I like to use Kodak Dektol diluted at 1:4 or even 1:9 for even slower development because it gives me plenty of contrast and enough time to watch the negative slowly develop. 

Another trick is to make the developer a little cooler than normal, and that will slow down the development time too.  I try and snatch the negative out of the developer when I see the density building in the highlight values.  Remember, the highlights are nearly black on your negative.  


If you want to work with color instead of black and white, I have some suggestions that will help.  

  • Any 4x5 camera of your choice.  4x5 is the most popular format, and also the most economical as well. 
  • A standard lens (150mm range).  You can also do closeup and macro photography with a standard lens too. 
  • One film holder
  • A cable release
  • Tripod
  • A pair of 3X reading glasses (much cheaper than a loupe)
  • An old white t-shirt is sewn inside of an old dark-colored sweatshirt or hoodie to use as a dark cloth.
  • Handheld meter or another camera with a meter.  Slide film is less forgiving than other film types for exposure. 
  • Color slide film such as Provia 100F

This setup is simple, but it will require you to either send your film off for development or get a rotary processor with temperature control to develop your film.  I don't recommend developing slide film when you are just starting out because it is expensive to get the equipment and adds a lot of unneeded complexity.  It is easier to just have your films developed by a lab and see if you want to pursue this path more seriously.  The beauty of this approach is the film is your final product.  You can lay your large format slides on a light table or hold them up to window light and enjoy them.  Lay your large format slides on a light box and snap a photo with your phone to share with your family and friends.  If you happen to own a scanner, you could scan your film too. 

Large Format Photography Accessories

Tim Layton With 8x10 Large Format CameraTim Layton With 8x10 Large Format Camera Your large format camera, lenses, tripod, and film holders are only the start of what you need as a large format photographer. 

I get a lot of questions about the tools and accessories that I use, so I developed this page to share my most frequently used items with you.  I only share the items that I use on a regular basis so you can rest assured that I am happy with these accessories.  

I have a comprehensive large format photography video workshop series that I have developed to walk you through everything you need to know to become a confident and solid large format photographer whether you are printing in the darkroom or scanning your film. 

I use Ilford HP5 and FP4 as my standard large format films and Kodak D-76 as my developer except when I make platinum prints directly from my large format negatives and then I use Pyrocat HD

If you have any questions about any of the large format photography accessories that I list on this page, you can contact me and I am happy to help you.  

Really Right Stuff Tripods and heads Tripod and Heads - Purchasing a tripod and head is one of the most expensive and important accessories you will buy during your time with large format photography.  I have several tripods, more than I care to admit.  However, I have a couple of different tripods that I use most of the time and the others serve very specific purposes or were just collected over the years. 

I standardize or Really Right Stuff across the board for my tripod gear and accessories.  It is expensive, but it has no equal from a quality and performance standpoint in my opinion. I have been using the same Really Right Stuff in brutal field conditions for over 15 years without a single failure or incident.  I also use the Really Right Stuff L-Plate brackets on my smaller medium format and digital cameras and the replacement feet on my telephoto lenses. 

I use a Really Right Stuff universal leveling base along with the BH-55 ball head for the vast majority of my large format photography. You can also get the universal leveling base with the Arca Swiss clamp which allows you to use the base without any other accessories required.

Harrison Film Changing Tent Film Changing Tents - I use the Harrison Film Changing Tents in my darkroom and on the road.  Having a light safe environment for loading and unloading your film is critical. 

I own the standard size tent for loading and unloading my 4x5 and 5x7 film, and the large tent for 8x10 film, and the jumbo version for 11x14 and I also use this as a portable darkroom when I am traveling on the road. 

You can also use the Harrison film changing bag that comes in small (27"x30') or large (36"x36").  I prefer the tent style so I don't have to fight the material over the top of my hands when handling the film and when using the tent as a portable darkroom. They are expensive but will last a lifetime.  

Focusing Loupe Loupe - You will need two kinds of loupes as a large format photographer.  A focusing loupe to use on the ground glass to help you make sure your image is in focus and a viewing loupe to use on a light table to critically look at your film.  I have several different sizes, but I have settled on Peak loupes for my focusing needs and Carson loupes for viewing my film on a light table.   

You will have the choice of several different magnifications for your focusing loupe ranging from 3.5X to 15X.  I prefer something in the 5X range for general focusing on the ground glass and 10X for very detailed fine focusing.  You may need to try a couple of different magnifications and determine your personal preference.  Also, if you need an adjustable diopter, you will want to keep that in mind when selecting a loupe.  

Another trick that I use is that I have a pair of high magnification reading glasses in the 5.0 to 6.0 range that works really well for quick focusing.  I still use the 10X loupe for critical focus, but it isn't needed all the time.

Light Meters - I have several light meters, with some of them being 30+ years old, like my Pentax Digital Spot Meter (just like Ansel used), but mine was modified by Zone VI Studios to easily work with the B&W Zone System. 

For my modern light meters, I use the industry-standard Sekonic light meters.  For ambient metering, the small L-308 is an excellent choice that also measures flash in addition to ambient light.  I use this meter with slide film all the time and it is super small and very easy to use.

For spot metering, I use the L-758 (purchased in 2010) and the L-558 (purchased in 2005).  The current model, L-858 is a one-degree spot meter that is a state of the art piece of equipment. It is able to take incident and reflected light readings of both flash and ambient light with an expanded measuring range of -5 to 22.9 EV at ISO 100.  

Backpacks - I have more backpacks that I care to tell you about.  They each have a different purpose, but there are two of them that I can recommend for different purposes. 

F.64 Large Format Photography Backpack The F.64 Backpack is a good beginner backpack or storage bag that will handle formats up to 8x10". The main body of the backpack has two compartments and comes with two 4"x5" detachable film pouches. A hideaway rain cover is always ready to guard against the weather. There are removable dividers that allow you to customize the interior to your specific needs. It has ergonomically designed shoulder straps with sternum and waist belts plus an extra pad that adds lumbar support to allow you to carry heavy loads. It has rubber tabs that allow you to attach a belt, which would allow you to attach a tripod, and 16 loops can hold accessory pockets.  I use this backpack for short hikes and to store my gear during travel.  The price is very reasonable on this backpack.  I prefer the Gura Gear G Elite pack for my longer hikes, but it is also twice the cost.  

Gura Gear G Elite G32 Pro Camera BackpackGura Gear G Elite G32 Pro Camera Backpack The Gura Gear G Elite 32 Backpack is a professional quality backpack that I use for all of my long hikes.  I can pack with large format cameras up to 8x10 in the pack, making it very versatile. The butterfly design allows for the organization of a lot of gear, and provides access to one side at a time or the entire pack, depending on what users need at any given moment. The internal compartments also feature a completely customizable internal divider system for different setups, and there are various pockets throughout including two full-length front accessory pockets, an expandable exterior mesh pocket, and multiple interior mesh pockets

This professional quality backpack is designed for comfort, even on long journeys, the bag offers multiple carrying methods and supports in addition to the adjustable and padded shoulder straps, including a stowaway harness, removable waist belt, a durable sternum strap, and riveted carrying handles on the top and side of the bag. Users can carry much more than just their camera gear, as there is a way to configure the bag with a multipoint tripod/monopod attachment and M.O.L.L.E. attachment points on the side. Additionally, it comes with a removable rain fly that can double as a ground cloth and a custom-fit dust bag.  

BTZS Focusing Hood Dark Cloth - I primarily use the BTZS Focusing Hoods because they are the best design and easy to use.  The elastic around the end that covers your ground glass is simple but very effective.  Also, the exterior is white to help keep the heat down, and black on the interior to help you see better. 

You can get them from Fred Newman at the View Camera Store.  I have several different sizes for my various formats from 4x5 up to 11x14.  They are incredibly simple, durable, and should last a lifetime.  Fred is a great guy and regular contributor to the Darkroom Underground Magazine

Level Levels - I keep two and three-axis bubble levels in my large format photography kit as well as a small six-inch carpenters level that I frequently use to ensure my camera is level with the horizon. 

Being level with the horizon, or even in the studio for commercial, portrait, or product photography is important.  Your eye is easily tricked, so I just use a level to make sure I get it right on the film and this minimizes cropping or other fixes later in post-production. 

You can also put a leveling base on your tripod too, which is an expensive option, but highly useful. I use a Really Right Stuff universal leveling base along with the BH-55 ball head. You can also get the universal leveling base with the Arca Swiss clamp which allows you to use the base without any other accessories required. The Really Right Stuff is painfully expensive, but I view it as a lifetime investment and I have gear that I know performs as was designed without fail.  

Large Format Lens Spanner Wrench Spanner Wrench - I use the Rodenstock Spanner Lens Wrench that has all the right sizes to mount a large format lens properly. This wrench is designed to work on modern shutters that include Copal # 0, Copal # 1, and Copal # 3. 

This tool should work on just about every large format lens made in the last 75 years, or possibly even longer.  Even though the sizing is based on the Copal shutter, the wrench will also work on most other shutters as well to include Compur, Prontor, etc. The wrench is made of high-quality stainless steel.  The spanner wrench is a very simple tool, but important and should last a lifetime. 

Lee Filters Lens Filter Holder/Hood/Filters - I use the Lee Filter system after having tried just about every other option over a twenty-year period.  I only wish I had gone with the Lee system earlier.  

Whether you are doing black and white photography or using C-41 or E-6 color film, you are going to need filters to create your best images.  I use the Lee Filters Foundation Kit along with the wide angle filter lens hood as my large format photography filter base kit.  The wide angle hood has slots for two 100mm wide filters which I use for almost all of my filter choices.  I store my filters on the Lee 10 Filter Pouch which allows up to 10 100mmx150mm filters. 

B&W Filters - Red, Orange, Yellow.  I use the 100mm x 100mm filters and slide them into the wide angle filter lens hood on the Lee Filters Foundation Kit.

Graduated Neutral Density - Lee has a special bundle that includes three 100mm x 150mm graduated ND filters that includes the 1, 2, and 3 stop filters.  I think the graduated ND filter set is foundational and a requirement if you photograph anything outdoors. Also with these filters, I use the wide angle filter lens hood on the Lee Filters Foundation Kit.

Domke Protective Wrap Protective Wraps - I use the Domke Protective Wraps on everything from my cameras and lenses to my accessories.  I like to use the wraps on anything that I place in my backpack from my meter to my lenses, and other accessories.  

The protective wraps come in a wide variety of sizes an colors allowing you to customize your gear based on your own personal needs.  The Domke Color Coded Protective Wraps are constructed of padded knit nylon with a non-scratch nylon backing. These squares can be wrapped around small cameras, lenses, electronic flashes, tools, or anything else that will fit inside a bag or case. Touch fastener tabs on all four corners allow them to be wrapped in any shape.

Tenba BYOB Cases Small Cases/Bags - I like to compartmentalize my gear and protect each individual piece, especially the expensive lenses, light meter, etc.  

I use a variety of different sized bags as interior storage bags/cases that I place inside my backpacks. I really like the Tenba BYOB cases and I use them in a lot of different scenarios depending on which system I am working with.  The Tenba bags are designed for this exact purpose and with their adjustable interior dividers and top handle, I find them very useful.  I wrap my lenses in the Domke Protective Wraps and I have never had an issue with my gear.  

Tenba 7 interior dimensions are 7” x 5” x 3”

Tenba 10 interior dimensions are 10” x 7.5” x 4" 

Tenta 13 interior dimensions are 13” x 9” x 5"

I also really like the inexpensive Ape Case Cubeze QB35 as an interior miscellaneous bag to store all sorts of things within my larger bags and packs. 

Thread Cable Release Threaded Release Cable - You will need a couple of different cable releases for your large format photography kit.  I always carry at least one extra cable release with me at all times.  I place one cable release in the main camera bag along with the camera, meter, loupe, etc.  Then, I have a bag where I keep extra parts and supplies, and I place two additional cable releases in there as a backup. 

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