Beginners Guide To Buying a Large Format Camera
I have seen many photographers want to get into large format, but the unknown can be a major stumbling block.
In this article today, I share several key questions and considerations that every photographer should consider and think about before buying a large format system.
Large format photography is unlike any other type of photography in my opinion. One of the things that I like the best about large format is that you have endless opportunities to explore, grow, and evolve through many different chapters of your photography career. With this versatility, also comes a lot of choices and options that can be paralyzing to a newcomer.
In this article today, I share the basics of what I think you should be considering before you pull out your wallet and make a purchase.
If you are an experienced large format photographer and can think of something important that I didn't include in this article, please scroll down to the bottom and share your comments.
I have a comprehensive set of video workshops dedicated to teaching large format photography.
Before buying or getting another large format camera, have you thought about connecting with a friend or someone that has the camera you are considering? There is nothing better than trying things out for yourself.
Are you sure you really need or want this new camera? What is missing in your current gear? What will this new large format camera actually help you accomplish that you can't do now?
I have a growing list of over 45 large format tips aimed at beginners and professionals alike that you can review.
Assuming you are still determined to buy a new large format camera, I would suggest asking yourself the following questions to make sure you produce a proper requirements list.
1 - Format
Film prices are reasonable for 4x5 compared to bigger formats and you have the widest range of film choices in 4x5 too.
If you are new to large format, 4x5 is the right way to go. Don't even think about starting out with 8x10, even if you would like to be like Ansel or Weston one day. It is just too expensive and complex as a starting point. I know a few people who have ignored this recommendation, and every one of them regretted not listening to this advice.
2 - Size Requirements
What do you plan on doing with your large format camera? Will you be hiking and working in the field frequently? Will you be working exclusively in the studio?
Make sure you are clear about your use cases because the difference in size and weight of large format cameras vary significantly. For example, my 4x5 Chamonix weighs in at about 3.5 lbs and is very compact. My Linhof Super Technika weighs about 3X of my Chamonix and is basically a brick compared to the Chamonix. If I am hiking for long distances, the smaller and lighter Chamonix is my pick. If I want/need the rangefinder function of the Linhof, then it is a clear winner in spite of its weight and size.
You will likely find that any camera has advantages and disadvantages. You just need to find one that meets your needs and you can manage and accept the disadvantages.
3 - Bellows
Make sure you are very clear about how much bellows draw you will need for your new camera. This works in both directions, minimum and maximum. For example, if you want to use a long 450mm lens on your 4x5, then you will need a camera that has enough bellows draw. Also, if you want to use a super wide 47mm lens, then you need to make sure your camera bellows minimum draw will support that as well. As a side note, there are some helper solutions if you are close such as recessed lens boards or top hot boards for a little more extension.
Do you plan on doing closeup or macro work? You will need 2X your focal length of bellows draw for 1:1 work or possibly 3X or more if you want more magnification. A standard lens typically makes for a great macro lens with large format.
4 - Movements
What type of movements do you really need for your style of photography? Your requirements will likely influence your style of large format camera (e.g., field camera, press camera, monorail, etc.). You will always get rise, fall, and shift with any large format camera, you just need to be clear on what you want or need for your style.
Architectural photographers will have much different requirements than a portrait photographer for example. If you are not sure about the type of movements you need for your style of photography, ask an experienced large format photographer for their input and guidance.
5 - Lenses
The topic of large format lenses and shutters is full of rabbit holes for you to explore. If you are just starting out I have a very clear recommendation that you will thank me for later.
Particularly if you are new to large format, get a standard lens and use it for a while and figure out if you need something wider or longer based on your style of photography.
Get a modern lens mounted in a good quality Copal shutter and if you want to explore vintage glass in the future, that will be fun, just not a variable that is advisable if you are new to large format.
There will be plenty of time to explore and enjoy vintage large format lenses, it just isn't the right place to start because you are managing a lot of variables just getting the basics figured out and under control.
6 - Lens Boards
Make sure you stick with a standard lens board like a Linhof style for your first large format camera. Some of the older cameras use a proprietary lens board and that will be a stumbling block that you really don't need when you are just getting started. Many places will list the lens board size by the size of the shutter. For example, Copal 0, 1, or 3 or you may see references such as 35, 42 or 65 mount on websites like KEH. Bottom line is that you need to make sure you have the right lens board for the lens you want to mount and use.
7 - Film Holders
There are a variety of good used 4x5 film holders available on eBay, but you need to keep a few things in mind. A good place to start is to get 5 or 6 holders. This will give you 10 to 12 exposures and this is more than enough for a day's work in large format. If you can get the new Fidelity Elite style holders, then you should be in good shape. Avoid the older wooden holders for now. Also, don't assume your new holders are light safe. I always suggest cutting some enlarging paper and put it in your holders. Go out and set your light meter to ISO 12 and expose a sheet in each of your holders. Come back and develop the paper negative in your favorite paper developer (e.g,. Dektol, Ilford Multigrade, etc.) and verify your holders are in fact light safe. You will thank me for this tip one day.
8 - Required Accessories
While there are a lot of nice to have gadgets and accessories for large format, you really only need a few things to get started.
Loupe - You will need a way to magnify the image on your ground glass. You will either need a focusing loupe or you can even get by with "cheater" glasses. I keep a pair of 3X glasses in my large format kit.
Dark Cloth - you will need a way to shield light and allow you to see the image on your ground glass. You can buy a commercial dark cloth or use a DIY solution like an old hoodie sweatshirt or some window light blocking material.
Cable release - you need to be able to trip your shutter, so don't forget to get a shutter release cable.
Tripod - you will need a sturdy tripod for your large format camera. I always recommend the biggest and heaviest one that you can tolerate.
Light Meter - Any modern light meter or even a digital camera will serve as a light meter.
Spanner Wrench - you may need to tighten your lens to your lens board or change it in the future, so having a spanner wrench is a really good idea.
Film Changing Bag/Tent - you will need a light safe solution for loading and changing your film.
Level - if your camera does not have an integrated level, then pick up some small/cheap levels and find one that works for you. It isn't always easy ensuring your camera is level on one plane, must less two.
Other options like backpacks, lens and film holder bags/cases, and filters will all likely come into play at some point in the future.
I hope that I have helped you start thinking about your requirements before buying a large format camera. If you have any specific questions, please scroll down and enter your question in the comment field at the bottom of this article.
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