Large Format Photography is so SLOW - Why Bother?
Any large format camera is big, cumbersome, and has multiple focus and perspective controls that demand a lot more of the photographer.
If you photograph outside, you are typically fighting the wind on some level and getting your gear into position can be a feat within itself at times.
So, if it is this difficult, why bother in the age of digital photography?
Well, I can't answer this question for you, but I can share some of my thoughts that keep me in the large format game.
First, I do sincerely believe the slow and contemplative large format process makes me a more thoughtful storyteller.
Many people see all of this as a burden. I see all of this as an opportunity to connect with my subjects and work in a way that just isn't possible with a faster paced workflow.
I have some new articles that I am writing about my planning, composing, and technical aspects that I hope will help you as a large format photographer and if you are an experienced person, maybe you will learn a new way of doing something you are already familiar with.
Going slow is part of the magic of large format photography...
The emotional, physical, and monetary costs force me to up my game and truly plug into the present.
No fiddling around with my phone or checking emails. I am completely absorbed into the present moment and my senses are fully engaged.
Being able to share and transcend my experience outside in nature into something that touches someone's heart is what keeps me moving forward, even when I have those difficult days when I want to give up.
I could live 100 lifetimes as a large format photographer and still need improvement. This makes me very hungry to be outside as much as I possibly can with my large format camera because I know that I only have one life and there is no guarantee that tomorrow will come.
It is the morbid reality along with a never ending desire to share the awe and beauty of nature that drives me to push myself to levels that I never thought possible.
I have met strangers high in the mountains by total chance that has forever left a permanent mark on my heart and soul.
I will never forget the time when I met a woman a couple of years ago in Aspen Colorado. She saw me with my big large format gear photographing the famous Maroon Bells and started to ask me questions.
She asked my name and when I told her, she literally started crying. I didn't know how to respond to that and I stood there in total silence thinking of how I might be able to comfort her.
She then asked me if any of my photography was hanging in a specific cancer care facility in Colorado. I said, yes, I recently sold some new prints to them. As tears were coming down her face, she shared with me that she is recovering from cancer and my photographs helped her get through some of the most difficult days of her life.
She told me that my images gave her hope and also brought her a peaceful feeling.
She hoped that she would recover and be able to hike in the mountains again one day and even if that didn't happen, these awe-inspiring images of nature brought her peace unlike anything else.
She went on to describe the characteristics and qualities of my prints without any idea that she was describing the benefits of large format film.
On many levels, I will never forget this woman and I can only hope to impact others in the same kind of way. Even if that never happens, knowing that I made her life just a little bit better during her greatest hours of suffering is enough to keep me going for the rest of my life.
I learned a long time ago that my life isn't about me, it is about what I can do for others. This chance meeting with this woman in the mountains is one of those special moments that we have in life that reminds us of why we work so hard as photographers and invest so much of our time, money, and resources.
The many discomforts and challenges associated with large format photography are key to helping me refine my skills and take my storytelling to higher levels.
I use digital cameras for many different areas of my personal life and even within my business, so I am well aware of the pros and cons of the latest technology.
If I were a sports photographer, then it would be a no brainer to use the latest and greatest digital gear. If I were a fashion photographer, once again, it would be a no brainer to use the latest and great digital gear.
But, guess what.... I am none of those things. I am a nature and landscape storyteller that uses large format photography as my vehicle of choice because the special qualities of analog film simply cannot be duplicated with digital cameras and computers.
The rendering of light, especially with longer exposures and even demanding scenes that have backlighting is simply different with analog film. In my interview with Clyde Butcher in the January 2019 edition of the Darkroom Underground, Clyde talked about this effect as well. It is these types of differences along with the unique clarity and emotional intangibles that keep me pushing through the seemingly downsides and obstacles of large format photography.
I will continue to use large format cameras and film as long as I am physically able. And if a day comes when that isn't possible any longer, I plan to retire my days as an active photographer and redirect whatever time I have left in other ways that will hopefully help people.
I do not believe I would start using digital gear in order to keep creating photographs. These are my choices and I have no judgment about the choices that other photographers make for themselves.
I am about half of the way through my third decade as a large format photographer and I have never been more excited to be outdoors experiencing the wonders of nature and creating large format photographs. I believe that I am using the best tools available for my work in spite of them being many decades behind the latest digital photography technology.
I look forward to your comments in the section below and send me a note if you are a large format photographer and say hello and introduce yourself.
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Good article Tim. I’m a large format photographer and love the images I can get with it and analog materials. I primarily make black and white landscape images, but also can’t resist pointing my camera at my kids. I have nothing against digital, indeed I make digital images too, but when I’m looking to create an image that I want to outlive me, I always choose my view camera with analog black and white film. The format and analog process compel me both see and compose my best. And it shows up in the final image. Thanks for all you do for large format photographers.
For some of the reasons you describe, Tim, I decided to take the plunge into large format photography. I bought a Chroma 4x5 camera made (from acrylic!) by my friend Steve Lloyd (a camera, incidentally, that was designed by Steve in collaboration with a group of us on the Talk Photography Film & Conventional forum). I've got myself a lens, a dark bag, film, filters, tank, the whole shebang. My idea was it would really force me to slow down and take more care, rather than running round like a mad thing with my Pentax LX.
Sadly, it's not quite working out like that. Everything being so expensive and difficult, I've got it into my head that I should only take the LF kit out for that super "hero" image. But in normal life (that part of life where I might occasionally have time to work on it), those images don't seem to be available to me. I know this is failure of imagination, but the effect is that in 18 months I don't think I'm up to double figures in shots taken on the LF, but have burned through maybe 50 135 films in colour and black and white (and taken a few shots I'm actually pleased with!).
I guess part of the issue is time, and part is that when visiting more photogenic areas I'm usually with other people (non-photographers). No way does a LF kit fit in that mix.
I don't know how to deal with this, and having well over £500 tied up in a camera I never use is really beginning to bug me! I guess this is a niche version of the "inspiration fails me" periods that all photographers probably go through from time to time. I wish I could say "please send some inspiration" but if I did, nothing would come, it's all up to me.
Sorry this is a bit of a moan, but I needed to write something down about my frustration, and it happened to be in response to you!
This more or less sums up how I feel about large format (and photography in general).
I've always found, with whatever type of camera I use, that I would get consistently better results if I put the camera on a tripod, took time to compose and metered carefully. Not just technically better, but to-me-subjectively better also.
But as formats and cameras get smaller and faster, I tend to get sloppier and lazier. I rarely use digital or 35mm on a support (and usually on a monopod only because the light is low). My 6x6 TLR is usually handheld and before I sold my Pentax 645 gear I really had to force myself to put that otherwise fast-to-use camera on a tripod for best results. Sure I could use something like a Mamiya RB but with that amount of weight and bulk, plus the slower operation, I might as well skip medium format entirely and just use 4x5.
Plus with digital and even roll film, one can effectively shoot indefinitely. Several thousand RAW on a card? Several hundred frames on a handful of film rolls in one compartment of a bag? Sure.
Large format with a 4x5 Sinar F? I don't have a choice, it's tripod or nothing. So I'm already being "better" about the shot just by using that camera. Nor can I just shoot with wild abandon, because I have at most 12 sheets loaded at a time, split between 2 or 3 types of film. I wouldn't *want* to carry any more than 6 holders at a time.
The other thing it has done, which I honestly needed, is to force me to be more focused on *what* I shoot. I don't just run around spending my time shooting any old random crap now, I have to concentrate on what I really want to shoot, which is the landscape.
Also, hard to argue with the effect of looking at a well-exposed 4x5 slide, or the detail one can get from large format film!
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