Photography

How I’m feeling about large format film photography

Self-portrait. Linhof Master Technika

The short version is that I have a love/hate relationship with large format film photography.

I love the detail and depth. I love the tonal values and focus fall-off that seem impossible with smaller formats. I love that I can decide on a frame-by-frame basis what film, developer, or process I’m going to use. There’s no waiting until the end of a roll. It’s as close to instant gratification as one can get when shooting film. I love the big negatives!

On the other hand, everything else about large format is a pain in the ass. I thought I’d do studio and environmental portraits when I bought my first 4×5 camera in 2013. I admire the portrait work of photographers like Judy Dater and Judith Joy Ross who worked primarily with large formats. It turns out I’ve only done a handful, and most of them are self-portraits. An example…

Self-portrait. Linhof Master Technika.

When they work, they really work. There’s nothing like it. But when they don’t, it just ends up being a giant waste of time and money. My “hit” rate is pretty low, so the net result is that I get very few images that I love and a lot more that are mediocre or worse.

And then there’s all the supporting gear needed. Loupes and dark cloths and tripods and hoods and releases and bags and film holders. Not to mention that printing 4×5 film requires a ginormous enlarger.

Film is expensive, large format film is more expensive. Per exposure prices are hovering around $2.25 for black and white and $5.50 for color. Then there’s all the gear for processing 4×5 sheets.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder if it’s all worth it. I guess if I could have a permanent studio with a camera mounted and ready to go, it would be easier to justify all the fuss. But setup and teardown introduces so many opportunities for failure that I’m less and less likely to bother.

Maybe one day I’ll decide it’s worth the trouble, but right now I’m thinking of leaving large format film photography behind.

When I feel the urge for smooth, high-detail film photography, I think that medium format (120) and the Hasselblad will do just fine, and without nearly as much fuss.

Sunsetting the Canonet

This is probably the last roll I’ll run through the Canonet. I can’t seem to focus it and I don’t trust the shutter speeds. Also, it has scratched a couple of negatives and the frame spacing is all over the place. It’s a nice camera to look at, so that’s how it’ll spend its remaining days.

Here are a few more from that last roll. I told you I can’t focus it.

I need a new film scanner

My Epson V750 Pro, purchased in 2009, has scanned thousands of rolls of film, slides, and prints. After making strange grinding noises recently, it has finally ground to a halt.

Continue reading…

Feelings about the Leica M10-R

I’m feeling twitchy about owning the Leica M10-R .

The M10-R is an astonishingly good camera. World-beating build quality, timeless design, and a fantastic 40-megapixel sensor, all in a small, beautiful package.

Still available new in 2022 for an eye-watering $8,995 (I bought mine used), the M10-R is also a ridiculously expensive camera. Buying one is a big deal and a significant investment.

I am fortunate enough to also own Leica M film cameras, and being able to share lenses between those and the M10-R is very handy. And OMG those Leica lenses! The control layout and handling are the same as well. It’s like having both a digital and film platform for using 70 years of tiny, wonderful Leica lenses. I can carry a full film and digital arsenal with 2 bodies and lenses in a tiny bag.

So, why am I feeling twitchy?

I worry about having such expensive, relatively delicate equipment swinging about around my neck. It makes me nervous. It’s hard to relax and make photographs when I’m so worried about losing or breaking the camera I’m carrying.

Unlike film Ms, digital M cameras depreciate steadily in value. Not as quickly as other digital cameras, perhaps, but still, the trend is downward.

But mostly, I feel guilty having such a fine camera because I’ve barely used it. I’ve been shooting mostly film for the past month or so, leaving the M10-R idling in the bag. I can justify the expense for something I’m using all the time but to have the M10-R sitting in the bag “just in case” is hard to stomach.

Still, I love the camera and I’m keeping it. At least for now. I know me, and I know that the digital-film pendulum will swing back the other way soon enough, and when it does I’ll be glad I have the M10-R.

I love this boring photo of a lamp

My wife bought an awful, kitschy plastic lamp and set it on one of the floor speakers. I, of course, balked.

That was a week ago and somehow the lamp is still there. I hate the lamp, but I don’t mind the light that it throws against the wall, and my wife loves it and thinks “it’s adorable”. Who am I to judge?

I took a photo of it. It’s just another boring snapshot by a film photographer looking for excuses to finish the roll. It’s exposed the way I intended and it’s composed nicely, but it’s not a great photo. I love it anyway.

I love the photo because it makes me smile. It makes me smile because I love my wife and it reminds me of one of the many reasons why. That’s the best kind.

What makes a good family photograph?

Aidan and Gail chatting on the couch

The above photo is a good family photograph. Why? Because it doesn’t just capture members of the family, it captures a family moment. So many family photos are smiling selfies taken at arm’s length. Selfies say, “Here these people are.” but not much more. They’re fine, but ultimately not much more than basic record-keeping. I much prefer photos showing family simply living and interacting in their natural habitat. Here’s another from the same roll:

Gail and Alice (2021)

These were both taken with a film camera in low light, so required a slow shutter speed and wide aperture. This meant missed focus and some motion blur. I don’t care. It’s the moment that counts, not the sharpness. And being film photos, it means I’ll forever have the original negatives on my shelf. Of course that doesn’t make the photo better, but it does make me feel good.

The shitty camera with you

The best camera is the one you have with you. Unless it’s a shitty camera. In that case the best camera is the one you left at home. Idiot.  

– Jack Baty, Twitter 2010

Large Format: Challenges

There are too many things that can go wrong when shooting large format (4×5) film.

I made four exposures of my friends Steve and Bryan this afternoon. Two of the four were ruined right off the bat: The first, because I’d left the shutter open when pulling the dark slide. The second because I didn’t expose it at all and processed as though I had.

Large format is hard.

There are so many opportunities to fail that making a successful image is really quite rewarding. Today wasn’t a rewarding day. Both of the photos that weren’t completely ruined were spoiled in other ways.

The above image was taken while facing into the sun. That was dumb. I was so flustered after accidentally exposing the first negative that I basically ignored the actual subject of the shot.

And the following image shows some blooming/flair around the overexposed decking and table areas. I’m not sure why it’s so severe. The lens may have been dirty.

Linhof Master Technika | Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S 135mm | HP5+ 400 Scanned with Epson V750 D-76 1+1

Oh well, I’ll just need to keep practicing because when it works, it’s awesome.

The Linhof Master Technika

Anyone who’s dabbled in large format photography knows the name “Linhof”. It’s one of those companies with a long history and a reputation for building some of the best 4×5 field cameras available. I’ve always been curious about them. Are they really “the Leica of large format”?

My first 4×5 camera was a beat up Burke & James press camera. Then a beat up Crown Graphic. Then a Speed Graphic, and finally a Wista Field Camera. The first three were super cheap. The Wista was bit more serious, but it was such a beautiful wooden camera.

The problem I have with large format is that I hate tripods. I had the most fun shooting the Speed Graphic hand-held. This is not how large format is done today, though. Maybe back when Weegee was doing his thing, but now it’s for sharp and super-detailed landscape and architectural work, mostly. Maybe studio portraits. Nonsense, I want to do hand-held, informal, environmental portraits. My Speed Graphic has a light leak, though, so I haven’t been shooting much 4×5.

Then one afternoon I spotted a Linhof Master Technika kit in one of the forum classified sections. It was the camera, lenses, grip, viewfinder, cams, and film holders. The camera was recently CLA’d and had the bellows replaced with genuine Linhof replacement bellows. Basically, it was everything I’d need for handheld 4×5 work. Plus, it was the mythical Linhof.

I bought it. The gentleman who sold it to me included a stack of large format photograph books, negative sleeves, a cool Grafmatic film holder and a bunch of hand-written notes with details about many of the items. I couldn’t be happier with the purchase.

And the camera? It was made in 1972 but looks and feels almost new. The short version is that it’s as well-built and smooth as I’ve been told. Everything is solid and tight and moves like butter. Its build quality feels so far beyond that of my old Graphics that it’s hardly fair to compare them.

It came with three lenses: A 90mm Schneider-Kreuznach Super-Angulon f/8, A 135mm Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S f/5.6, and a 240mm Fujinon A f/9. All three lenses have lens-specific custom cams that allow for accurate focusing using the rangefinder. This means I can focus and shoot hand-held with any of them. And just look at that giant grip!

90mm, 135mm, and 240mm

I’ve only had the camera for a week, and shot maybe a dozen sheets so far. It’s a joy to use, and I hope to use it often. Here are a few photos I’ve made while getting used to using the camera.

Linhof Master Technika | Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S | Ilford Delta 100 100Scanned with Epson V750Home developed in D-76 1+1 | 11min at 20C
Linhof Master Technika | Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S | Ilford Delta 100 100Scanned with Epson V750Home developed in D-76 1+1 | 11min at 20C