Large Format Photography – Beginner’s Guide!

Large Format Photography – Beginner’s Guide!

Despite loving small 35mm Leica film cameras, I also enjoy large format photography. In this beginner’s guide I cover my three large format cameras that I purchased between 2014 and 2018. Intrepid 4×5, Sinar F2 and Pacemaker Speed Graphic. See my kit list below for getting started with large format photography and you can see a visual of the cameras and how they work on the YouTube video embedded below.

4x5 film photography
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Getting Started: Large Format Photography Kit List

Large Format Camera

The most popular large format camera size is probably 4×5 followed by 8×10. I bought all 4×5 size as it is easier to process the film afterwards and you don’t need a dark room. Popular 4×5 cameras include those made by Intrepid, Sinar, Toyo, Linhof, Wista and Horseman (I probably missed a few others).

Unlike most nice film cameras, large format cameras can still be found at affordable prices. See the current price of a 4×5 camera on eBay (UK) (US).

Intrepid 4x5 Camera
4×5 Large Format Lens

Unlike many 35mm film cameras and medium format film cameras, large format cameras usually don’t come with a lens. Once you have a camera the next thing you need is the lens. You need to make sure the lens will fit your camera. The easiest approach is to buy a lens on a lens board designed for your camera dimensions but if not you can buy a lens and a seperate lens board and take that route. (I did it both ways with my lenses).

Large Format lenses all sound like telephotos lenses as the numbers are bigger but this is due to the larger film format. For example, a 4×5 150mm lens equates to a normal or 50mm lens in 35mm film terms. I then use 75mm or 90mm as my wider lens and 240mm as a longer lens. See the price of 4×5 camera lenses on eBay (UK) (US).

Kodak Aero Ektar 178mm f2.5 Selfie
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More 4×5 Photography Essential Kit

Once you have your 4×5 camera and lens, before you can start you will also need the following –

4×5 Film Holders – You need at least 1 film holder (which gives to 2 photos) but I think the ideal is 3 or 6 holders. Three will give you 6 shots and that is enough to fill the 4×5 MOD 54 insert when you come to develop your film (see below).

Tripod – I use heavy duty and carbon fibre tripods but I find strong heavy duty ones made of aluminium are better for 4×5 film photography. Manfrotto are great and I use a Vanguard too for low level work. Search Amazon (UK) (US)

Tripod Head – It’s personal preference but most people use ball heads or 3-way heads on their tripods. These often come with the tripod legs. Tripod heads with spirit levels are useful to check your horizon is level!

Cable Release – These screw into the lens so that you can fire the shutter without touching the camera.

Dark Cloth – This will help you see to critically focus, especially in bright conditions. To begin with you can just try using a heavy coat as I did or perhaps a blanket to block the light.

Magnifying Loop – I use a plastic 8x loop – See options on Amazon (UK) (US)

Spot Light Meter – I use a Sekonic L-758 light meter for large format photography. The current version is the Sekonic L-858 – See Amazon (UK) (US)

4×5 Film – You will of course need some film! Black and white film is much more affordable thn colour and easy to develop. I use 4×5 Fomapan 100 sheet film.

Hasselblad, 80mm + 21mm extension tube
Film Developing for 4×5 Photography

Film Changing Bag – Also known as darkroom bag. These are very useful for daylight film loading–See Amazon (UK) (US)

Paterson Developing Tank – The easiest way to develop your film at home and it means you don’t need a dark room. You need a 3 reel developing tank for 4×5 photography and then your need the MOD 54 insert – See Amazon (UK) (US)

4×5 MOD 54 insert – Amazing piece of kit. Fits inside a Paterson tank and lets you develop 6 sheets of 4×5 film without a darkroom –See Amazon (UK) (US)

B&W film developer – I use Kodak Xtol developer – See Amazon (UK) D-76 (US)

Colour film developer – I use Tetenal Colortec C-41 kit – See Amazon (UK) (US)

Film Scanner – I use an Epson Perfection v800 flatbed scanner for 4×5 film negatives (+ 35mm and 120 film) – See Amazon (UK) (US)

I think that is everything! If I forgot something please let me know!

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Large Format Photography YouTube Videos

I plan to do more large format photography YouTube videos soon as this is a topic less covered by most photographers.

Pacemaker Speed Graphic

Large Format Photography Workshops

If you buy your first large format camera but then struggle to get started we can cover large format photography during my photography workshops. I often teach 35mm photography as that is the most popular format (or digital), but i’m happy to bring a large format camera to the workshop instead of a Leica if that is your preference!

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Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5

Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5  – Large Format Camera 

After a few weeks of waiting and many hours of reading finally my first large format camera arrives!  It is a 1947 Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5 format film camera but with a few modifications.  The guy I bought it from in the US, Paul, specialised in refurbishing Speed Graphic cameras. More details below.

Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5 – Purchase Decision

I knew large format photography was just a matter of time for me.  I have been tempted in the past but managed to resist the temptation until now.  As I am really into my film photography it seemed the natural progression to push me to learn something new and to challenge myself to master the art of large format photography.  When I was researching large format portrait photos that I liked on Flickr there seemed to be a general theme appearing.  Regardless of the camera body being used I kept seeing the words “Aero” and “Ektar” in the tags.

After some online research I found that an Aero Ektar was a 178mm f2.5 lens that created the most beautiful bokeh and out of focus areas.  An aperture of f2.5 is very bright for a large format lens (considering that for my 6×6/ 6×7 medium format cameras that I own the fastest lenses are f2.8 – Mamiya RZ67 / Rolleiflex SL66E etc).  When I then went to look to buy a large format camera body and an Aero Ektar lens it was like stepping into a mind field.  I had absolutely no clue what any of these cameras were, whether all lenses fit all cameras, whether these old camera worked, how to fit a lens to a lens board.. the list went on and on.

All the cameras I looked at had their standard f5.6 lenses included or no lens at all.  This was of no interest to me at this stage.  I then got lucky one day searching for the lens to find a modified Pacemaker Speed Graphic camera listed with a Aero Ektar lens attached!!  It came with a higher price tag but after many emails back and forth with Paul he persuaded me that it was worth it and most importantly I would have a working large format 4×5 camera straight out of the box.

Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5 – Camera Specifics

Body

The camera I purchased was originally a 1947 Pacemaker Speed Graphic with a rear focal plane shutter and shutter speeds up to 1/1000.  It has a Kalart rangefinder mounted on the body but I will use the rear ground glass for critical focus.  This camera was the standard issue press camera in the US until the 1960s often shot at around f11-f16 using the rangefinder and with flash bulbs for illumination.

Lens

The lens is a World War II Kodak Eastman Aero Ektar 178mm f2.5 millitary aerial reconnaissance lens, hence the wide aperture.  It is a huge and heavy piece of glass but Paul has mounted it to a Speed Graphic lens board so that is not front heavy.  It is also modified to accept 77mm filter and has a custom made hood.  The filter threads will be great on a bright day when I want to use the lens wide open at f2.5 as I can use ND filters and also yellow filters for black and white portraits.

Film Back

My Speed Graphic is fitted with a bespoke 4×5 rotating Cambo film back so I can shoot in portrait and landscape orientation without rotating the actual camera.  This is perfect for me.

Film Formats

  • 4×5 Sheet Film

The camera came with 4×5 double sided film holders to accept single sheet 4×5 film.  4×5 film is more expensive than medium format film and very expensive to develop at a lab.  I pay £3.00 a roll to develop C41 colour film (120 and 35mm).  4×5 film costs £3.00 each to develop!  I have looked into this in great depth and found you can actually develop your own 4×5 film in a mod that fits into a 3 roll Paterson tank.  This cuts the cost dramically and helped my overall decision to buy a 4×5 camera.  I will develop by own 4×5 black and white film in Rodinal as I do for 35mm and 120 film. 4×5 film itself is also expensive, especially colour film such as Kodak Portra.  4×5 Fomapan appears to be the most affordable option so I will try that first.  I have used 120 Fomapan film and it was fine to use.

  • 6×7 Roll Film

A cheaper option is to buy a roll film back to fit a 4×5 camera.  It means you do not get the benefit of the 4×5 film format but it will allow me to practise using the large format camera before I then move onto 4×5 sheet film.  120 roll film is fast and easy to load, cheap to develop and less expensive to buy  (per photo).  My film format options were 6×6, 6×7 or 6×9.  I wanted as big as possible ideally (to make use of the large format camera) but settled for a 6×7 Horseman roll film back as I get 10 exposures per roll plus I don’t use the 6×9 format camera I own very often.

  • 4×5 Polaroid Film

Polaroid no longer make 4×5 film but you can still buy expired 4×5 Polaroid film on eBay, just at a cost.  The next option was Fuji FP-100C45 but again this also has been discontinued.  After more reading I found I can use regular Fuji FP100C in a different Polaroid film back and it will work on the Speed Graphic.  This is perfect for me as I have a stock of FP-100C gloss colour film in the fridge that I bought for my Mamiya RZ67 Pro II and better still I have the discontinued Fuji FP-3000B black and white instant film!!  It seemed a waste to use it on the Mamiya but to get a photo that fills the entire paper from the 4×5 camera is very exciting indeed.  I will practise with colour Fuji FP-100C that costs around £13 a pack (10 exposures) and once I am half decent I will start to use some of my black and white Polaorid film.

4x5 Speed Graphic + Kodak Aero Ektar Lens

I will do some detail photos of my modified Speed Graphic with Aero Ektar lens together with some sample images as soon as I get chance.  Interesting and exciting times ahead! 🙂

Pacemaker Speed Graphic 4×5 Photos Coming Soon!

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