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Thursday, August 7

The art of Large Format

Next time a digital photographer tries to argue that there is as much skill and involvement in using a DSLR as there is in film photography, show them this video. It's only a few minutes long but it gives a nice flavour of what it's like using a 10x8 Wista camera. It's so easy to pick up a 35mm SLR and snap away but LF is a real labour of love. Photographer Luis Placido used long-expired Tri X sheet film and developed the negative in ABC pyro, contact printing the image.

My own LF efforts have ground to a halt somewhat. I'm in a bit of a photographic rut where it seems too much bother hauling the Speed Graphic around when an OM2 is just so much more convenient. It's happened before and it will no doubt pass. I'm pretty sure it's got something to do with the summer months: I just can't get inspired by fair weather and it's been very nice in my neck of the woods for several weeks. At times, it's an effort picking up the OM2 to be honest.

There are a few things that are distracting me as well. Most immediate is the kitchen which I'm in the middle of redecorating. I've also just added to my classic bicycle collection with a 1948 Hobbs of Barbican which was a barn find that needs a complete restoration. And on the horizon is a classic car which should be sitting in my garage within a few weeks and which will take up a lot of time over the winter as it, too, needs a lot of work done to it. I'll not say what it is just yet - although it's nothing exotic - because the deal isn't done yet.

So, in the midst of all that, I've tended to forget about my photography, something that I'll put right soon enough I'm sure.


Richard Sintchak said...

Terrific video, thanks for posting that.

David M said...

This is a very poetic film (and a very beautiful leather camera bag.)
I draw slightly different conclusions. Sadly, it perpetuates the myth that large format photography is done by hairy old blokes with beards. I am one of them (with a slightly tidier beard), but I'd like to emphasise that it's a medium that everybody can use. That everybody should use, at least once.
On the positive side, it seemed to show that no single step in making the image is impossibly difficult, nothing is beyond the abilities of a normal person. (And Sudek used LF cameras with only one arm). As I see it, the skills are mostly in the head with LF images – the careful framing, the conscious choice of exposure and development, the nice adjustment of focus, the gentler way of working, the refinement of personal rituals – all the joys of (pre)visualisation, as you will know from your own experience.
The only thing missing from this film is a demonstration of the astonishing texture and detail which is one of the glories of LF photography, particularly in contact prints. Alas, this is not possible on even the finest screen (enlarged details don't have the same impact) and we must seek out and view physical examples. Many LF photographers speak of the shock of a face-to-face encounter with an actual print and their immediate conversion to the art of Inconvenient Image Making.

Regular Rod said...

Simple! Chronicle the restorations of the bike and the car using large format! Multi-tasking to get more things done that you want to do...


Bruce Robbins said...

Great comment, David. I should take your advice and make the effort to seek out some exhibition contact prints. My pal, Phil, keeps threatening to sell all his gear and buy a 10x8. That's maybe the danger in getting too close to a contact print?

Bruce Robbins said...

Bloody hell, Rod! That would take some commitment. And I'd have to do it colour otherwise you wouldn't see the rust. Haha.

Bob Smith said...

This is what you need to do digital

No wonder I like film

Bob Smith said...

To do digital photography properly this clip shows how it is done..

I just love film


Doug H said...

Our little LF group had up to 13 attending members just a few years ago. Now, too many have left the format for the ease of digital. To me, its still about craftsmanship. I have an older Kodak Master View that enables me to get negatives that reward contact printing. Whether I print with enlarging paper, contact paper ( Fomalux) or Palladium on watercolor, the hands-on craft shines thru.

Dr. Elliot Puritz said...

Wonderful short film . I used 8x10 for quite a while. As I approached 75 years of age carrying the equipment began to become an issue. I continue to believe that 8x10 and contact prints can be magical. Your results indicate why.....:}

Thanks again.


Nick Jardine said...

Hi Bruce.

I didn't like the video. Nothing against LF, I use 5x4 myself.

The internet is awash with these 'homage' type videos to LF, always in B&W with loads of 'mood music' and water running sound effects.

Then what you see at the end is a very standard image beautifully framed and held proudly by it's creator.

This is not a great image, it's boring - yet people seem to confuse the craft of creating the image with that of capturing a great photograph.

Ask yourselves, if this image had been taken on a DSLR would someone being making a video about it ?

It's when we lose our rationality and just become sentimental about images that puts darkroom or LF photography at risk in my opinion. When it becomes about saving the process rather than creating vital images that draw an emotional response from an audience then we've lost.

Bruce Robbins said...

Good points, Nick. I think the thing with LF, and particularly 10x8 and up, is the detail and texture. You have to see these prints in real life to get the most from them: looking at an image captured in a video doesn't play to the strengths of LF.

I remember a few years back having a blog exchange with a photographer who had gone from 35mm to 5x4. I thought his LF stuff was dull and asked him if he would have taken the same subjects in 35mm and, if he would have, then would he have considered them to be good photographs. But when you see LF prints close up the detail and texture are often so immersive that it becomes about more than just the subject. So I don't know if you can compare two images on screen and judge one to be boring or not as good when that one is an LF print. The computer screen is a great leveller.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Bruce - trying to get an interesting LF photograph is the hardest thing in the world - I say that, because despite a ton of film used and man-hours wasted, I still don't think I've got there - I'm not sure if it is the proportions of 5x4 that automatically make me compose poorly, but it is something, and I wonder if the modern eye is SO completely besieged by the longer rectangle, that the squatness of a 5x4 just makes you think . . naah.

Jon Hoffmann said...

Loved this

Doug H said...

The problem that many have with LF is that they stop at 4X5, then exclaim what's the big deal? With today's 35mm & MF films and associated developers, 4X5 is overkill. Unless you are needing perspective control movements, etc., the smaller formats are more than adequate.
To see the power of LF, you need at least a 5X7 contact print. For my 8X10 camera, I carry a 5X7 reducing back for when the subject needs a different aspect ratio. Printed on good paper (eg, Ilford Gallerie, Fomalux or Lodima), the image will pull you in.

David M said...

A quiet word...
Perhaps your mate Phil should have a little real-life try-out before selling everything. The camera is bigger, although not that much bigger (LF cameras are mostly empty space, after all), but the film holders, lenses, tripods and dark cloth are heavier and bulkier. It's the bulk that seems to make the difference, not the weight. The cost isn't all that much more in practice, you will find.
Although setting up and exposing are much the same as with 5x4, getting the kit to the scene is a bit more trouble. On LF forums, "How do you carry it?" is a popular topic.
And beware! Once Phil has inhaled the heady fumes of 10x8, the devilish mainline of 11x14, 16x20 and even 20x24 will beckon. I managed to turn back from a particularly tempting 11x14 camera, complete with holders and even film, on eBay. But only just. What swung it was the lack of a rotating back. On such slender threads do our futures hang.
And I could foresee the Platinum Print waiting to ambush me in the fragrant rose garden of contact printing perfectionism.
So by all means Phil, take the plunge, but take a plunge into thinking before you commit. Think of it as a marriage, but keep at least one mistress camera for family snaps and posting on blogs

Herman Sheephouse said...

Doug and David - thank you for the kind words of encouragement. I often walk a long way, 9 or 10 miles into mountainous regions with the Wista (it used to be a Sinar, but carrying that to 3000 feet nearly killed me)- 8x10 really appeals, as does the thought of making just one image at a time. As for carrying a big boy, I have a US ALICE pack which with padding should suffice, but add water and provisions and the weight of boots for when you need to go off country and it becomes a young mans game . . it is tempting though . . . damn tempting. I'm halfway there with the Sinar - all I need is a new back and bellows and a lens . .
Watch this space:

Omar Özenir said...

Excuse my ignorance, but is that a shaving brush he uses to dust off the lens? If so, I quite like the idea!

David M said...

I forgot to mention that 10x8 enlargers are quite large too. They're fairly regularly available on eBay for either a pittance or a King's ransom. All are "Buyer collect"of course.
When the desire for a slightly larger print strikes, as it will, you may find that scanning and digital printing seem to become more morally acceptable, somehow. A 15x12 (1.5x) enlargement will preserve the 10x8 quality for all except those happy few die-hards who insist on prints with curly edges. (You can spot them by their flattened nose tips)
And for alternative processes, it now seems standard practice to create a digital neg with radically adjusted contrast and a bit of corrective dodging and burning. The alternative (I mean the other) way is to shoot two negs, one developed normally for contact printing on sliver paper, and one developed for the alternative process of choice. I've never gone this far, although I used to bracket my shots. And I've only dabbled very briefly in alternative processes so I'm no sort of expert. It's fairly easy (well, in fact it's a lot of mucking about) to make an alternative print, but I found it very hard to make a good one.
Having said all this, by way of encouragement, I have to take off my hat to anyone who's carried a Sinar up hill and down dale. A teeny folding wooden camera will seem like a holiday. My best wishes to you.
Now I have to prove I'm not a robot. Hats off to Mr Turing.