Camera Kit: Large format 4x5

Large format seems like an extinct branch of photography to the uninitiated, but the format never went away. Actually, it is finding a new wave of appreciation among film photographers. There are a few reasons for the resurgence - there is no digital equivalent sensor size, nor is there a digital camera body capable of tilts, shifts, swings, rises and falls (with the exception of some specialty lenses). Used equipment is found online in abundance, and some entrepreneurs are even making new cameras such as the Intrepid Camera Company, Stenopeika and others. 

Intrepid 4x5 large format camera kit

The jump to large format

As for major changes in your photography workflow, the jump from digital to film is the biggest. You need to find a lab or learn to develop film yourself and then either scan the negative  or darkroom print your images. Most people will start with either 35mm cameras (because they are the most similar to consumer digital cameras) or medium format systems such as the Hasselblad 500 (because the cameras work in the same way as 35mm ones). 

The jump from small to large format film is a little easier. With large format, a few things change. Firstly you no longer need to get emotionally attached to a single manufacturer. You can pair anyone's lenses with anyone's bodies and choose any film holders for the negative size you have chosen. For bodies, you can choose between studio monorail systems which are the cheapest way to get going down the rabbit hole, or fold-able field cameras that have more restricted movements, but can fit in a backpack.

There are also a few extra pieces of kit your smaller camera systems may not have needed - lens boards, sheet film holders, a focus loupe and a dark cloth. Tripods and cable releases are no longer optional - you are going to need them to get even basic shots.

What is it good for?

  • Taking one photograph really well. This process is the antithesis of 'spray and pray'. A lot of time is spent picking and tinkering with the composition. It takes so long to set the camera up that you don't want to waste that time on a mediocre image.

  • Tilts and shifts by design. And rises and falls, too. The cameras are made to move the lens around for perspective control and plane of focus manipulation. 

  • MASSIVE negatives. They dwarf the grain even in 400 speed film.

What's the compromise?

  • Large format is not small. No way are these cameras going to fit in your pocket. Or small bag. Not even a medium bag. With a monorail camera, even a large bag is often insufficient. The compact Intrepid camera, on the other hand, easily fits in a backpack with a couple of lenses.

  • Forget about a quick snapshot. By the time the camera is set up, focused, shutter cocked and film holder inserted, a good deal of time will have passed. If you have a human subject, you have to keep their attention during setup and focusing or else there will be some long silences.

  • Lots of lens research required. You need to figure out which lenses cover your negative, and if you want extra coverage to accommodate small or large movements on the camera. Fast lenses allow for easier focusing via a bright image, but slower lenses are siginificantly smaller and lighter.  You also need to make sure your body can cope with ultra-wide angles (75mm or less) or very long lenses (300mm or more) or if it needs special bellows or lens boards to cope with them. A great list of lens stats to get you going can be found  at www.largeformatphotography.info.

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Intrepid 4x5 folding field camera

  • Lenses: Schnider 65mm f5.6, Schnider 90mm f5.6, Calumet 150mm f5.6, Rodenstock 210mm f5.6, Rodenstock 300mm f9

  • Accessories: Lens board for each lens, film holders (9), focusing cloth, cable release

One too many cameras - the Olympus Trip 35

The acquisition of  a camera with no intention to use it. A classic problem. This is a camera addiction, I guess. 

I can quit anytime I want. I'll quit tomorrow. 

 
Olympus Trip 35
 

what is the offending camera?

I picked up an Olympus Trip 35 as an impulse buy while on vacation. Why won't it get used? Because it is designed to be used as an automatic. There is no way to set the shutter speed, and the aperture settings are supposed to be used only for flash photography (find the manual here). It has a passive light meter that dictates exposure settings for each shot. Can I trust the way the meter is calibrated? Has it lost accuracy with age?

So why keep it?

Because it looks iconic, in keeping with the PEN line of cameras, and this is full rather than half frame. It is very small and pocket-able. Lightweight. And automatic exposure isn't always a bad thing - sometimes taking pictures quickly for memories is desirable. Not every shot is for a project or portfolio. 

Ok, ok. I'll put a roll of film through it. 

 

Camera Kit: 35mm SLRs, the M42 mount

 

35mm film is a tricky one to recommend to people wanting to transition form digital photography. Modern digital sensors cover this film size and the files can be modified to simulate the look of film, with all the convenience that digital offers. If you were to dive into the world of film, I would recommend either medium format or large format for the main reason that they have no digital equivalent (digital medium format is still not as large as even a small traditional medium format - I wrote more about that in a previous post). That said, there are still a few compelling reasons to shoot 35mm film...

M42Cameras

What is it good for?

  • A very cheap way to shoot film. Actually, it might be the cheapest way to shoot 'full frame' 35mm photos period, given that a good digital camera costs so much up front (cheapest "full-frame" is a Canon 6d1 for $1100 refurbished at time of writing). Used film cameras can be found online or in thrift stores for $20-40 and black and white film can be found for $5. Developing at home reduces costs significantly. 
  • It is familiar. 35mm is a modern standard from which we reference other formats (e.g. crop factors, focal length equivelents). There is almost no learning curve when transitioning from digital, assuming you have knowledge about exposure.
  • Easily available. When 35mm became affordable to the masses, they were sold in great quantities. The result is that there are many used/vintage.antique cameras available for very low prices today. 
  • Inter-compatibility. In the large format days, you could use any manufacturer's lens on any other manufacturer's body. Medium format brought with it propriety lens mounts and this is still the case with 35mm. However, one mount slipped through the net - M42 screw mount. It wasn't completely universal, but was used by more than one brand including Praktica, Pentax and Zenit.
  • Lenses can be adapted to modern cameras. Nikon's film 35mm lenses can still be used on many of their digital bodies today. Canon's FD mount and M42 lenses can be adapted for use on Canon DSLRs and many mirror-less cameras because their mirror boxes are shorter than the lens' native mounts. 

What's the compromise?

  • Digital 35mm cameras exist. And they can replicate the film look very well. But that takes a lot of post-processing. If you want to commit to the film look, shooting film makes life easier.
  • The cameras are heavy. They might look smaller than modern digital cameras, but they are often all-metal and hefty. The lenses are built so well they have a weight penalty, too.

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Praktica MTL 3, Pentax Spotmatic SPII, Ricoh Singlex TLS
  • Lenses: Super-Takumar 35mm f3.5, Pentacon 50mm f1.8, Industar 50-2 50mm f3.5, Helios 44-2 58mm f2.0, Sears 135mm f2.8,
  • Accessories: Macro tubes, tele-converter, cable release

 

Camera Kit: Half frame 35mm Olympus Pen

The Olympus Pen ticked a couple of feature boxes when it was released in the 1960s. It was smaller than regular reflex cameras, and it doubled the number of shots you could fit on regular 35mm film by using a half-frame format similar to how motion-picture is recorded to 35mm film. They almost look like a rangefinder camera, but retain the advantage of through the lens viewing. 

OlympusPenFT FV

What is it good for?

  • Economy. Having 72 shots on a roll of film has many advantages like packing less film on vacation, changing rolls less often and halving the cost of film.
  • Experiments. Having lots of frames available reduces the relative cost of shooting film. So this is my go-to camera for testing shutter speeds for star trails, lightning, night shots or water motion. If any shots are visually appealing beyond their experiment value, they are still high enough quality for small prints or publishing on the web.
  • Image orientation. With most cameras, landscape orientation is the default and I find 90% of my images are horizontal. Laziness or camera ergonomics are the reason, I guess. The Pen frame is in portrait by default and, surprise surprise, 90% of my images are vertical. It is good to switch things up.
  • Size. This camera is only slightly smaller than a regular 35mm slr, but the lenses are also smaller. A Pen FT and 3 lenses fit in a small pouch making it a perfect kit for travel. 

What's the compromise?

  • Image quality. With images half the size of  full-frame 35mm, the grain is amplified and the images look grittier. This could be desirable depending on your preferences, but it is very noticeable. This relegates the camera to experiments, test shots and non-critical work like vacation snapshots. 
  • Focusing. The viewfinder is small and focusing is a bit trickier than using a camera with a larger mirror.

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Olympus Pen FT, Olympus Pen FV, 
  • Lenses: 25mm f2.8 Auto-W, 40mm f1.4 Auto-S, 100mm f5.6 Auto-T
  • Accessories: 43mm 8x ND filter, 43mm circular polarizer, UV filter for each lens, cable release

Camera Kit: Medium format film, Hasselblad 500

 

There is something special about an old Hasselblad. Even though it is a cube with no ergonomic considerations, it feels right in your hands. The cla-chunk thud from the curtain/mirror/shutter movements is satisfying. Its looks are timeless. Gooey sentiments aside, there are serious benefits to film medium format.

Hasselblad500

What is it good for?

  • Negative size larger than digital can offer.  There is no digital equivalent to even the small 6x4.5cm format (all digital medium format sensors are 'crop' formats smaller than traditional medium format, but larger than 35mm - more info here). So you can spend $10,000 on a digital crop camera, or $500 on a 6x6cm classic. The negatives are huge, dwarfing the grain to make images look clean rather than gritty.
  • Square format. Though other aspect ratios are available through interchangeable camera backs or other cameras, a square format is often used. It is no better or worse than 4x6 or 4x5, but changing things up is often refreshing. I like the square format to exploit symmetry or make a subject dominant by having it in the center of the frame. The rule of thirds is in the back seat here.
  • Seeing your images sooner. Though you get only 12 or 16 images on a roll, that means you also get to the end of a roll quicker than you would with a 35mm roll. One of my pet peeves of 35mm is having taken some great images and not being able to develop them quickly because there are 20 images still to take.

What's the compromise?

  • Equipment cost. A Hasselblad 500 used to be out of reach of the masses in its heyday. Today, they are relatively cheap, but still more expensive than building a 35mm film kit. KEH and UsedPhotoPro are good places to start looking.
  • Film cost. A roll of 120 film is almost the same price as a roll of 35mm, but you are only getting 12 or 16 pictures on the roll. This triples the cost of film per image.
  • Size. These are not discrete cameras. They are easily strap-mounted for hand-held use, but are heavy and I often use a backpack if i need more than one lens with me. They take up a lot of room and add weight to luggage making them a commitment if you want to travel with them. My Hasselblad with 3 lenses outweighs my large format camera kit with 3 lenses.

What's in my camera bag?

  • Cameras: Hasselblad 500cm with rapid winding crank, waist level view finder, focusing screens (x3)
  • Film magazines: 12 magazine (2), 16 magazine.
  • Lenses: Distagon 50mm f4 CT, Planar 80mm CT f2.8, Sonnar 150mm  f4 CT, Sonnar 250mm f5.6C.
  • Accessories: Extension tubes (10mm, 21mm, 55mm), Hasselblad to Canon EF mount converter, lens focus handles, UV filters, red filter, circular polarizer, cable release

Camera Kit: Digital 35mm, Canon 6Dii

I'm using digital less and less since I discovered mechanical film cameras. Developing the negatives is worth the effort. But digital still has a place, especially when it comes to capturing images of fast-moving sports, children and one-time events where the risks of shooting film outweigh the benefits.

What follows is not a review of this camera, but of using a digital camera alongside film cameras.

Canon 6Dii kit

What is it good for?

  • Unlimited shots. It is handy to not be picture-limited to take images of kids around the house, or on some trips where images might number in the hundreds.
  • Instant gratification. You know what your shot looks like before you leave a scene. You can also spend time experimenting with your lighting set-up. You can get your pictures processed and published online almost instantly.
  • Colour. I keep my film development costs down by only shooting black and white. That means that if I really want a colour image, digital is the easiest way to do it.
  • ISO as a variable for each image. With film you are often stuck at one ISO until you finish a roll. It is nice to use ISO as a variable in the exposure triangle for each image (like large format, actually). 
  • Autofocus. No mechanical film cameras have autofocus and I miss this feature sometimes. Especially when using wide apertures or of fast moving subjects like kids. 
  • Scanning film negatives. I use a DSLR in combination with a lightbox to scan my film negatives. The only reason I don't use a regular scanner is because I already have the camera and don't want another large piece of equipment on the desk.

What's the compromise?

  • Up-front cost. A 35mm ('full-frame') digital camera will cost at least three figures. A film 35mm camera costs barely two figures. And you can shoot a LOT of film for $1000. By the time you've spent that much, a digital shooter will be upgrading their camera to a new model for another $1000 or $2000. A film camera, ironically, will never be obsolete.
  • Size. Compared to film cameras, digital comes with a lot of bulk. This is especially true of the lenses which need to accommodate auto-focus and, often,  stabilization motors.
  • One system (usually). Related to the cost, it is generally the case you need to commit to one system. People are on the hunt for the perfect all-round camera for this reason. This is why the forums are filled with apologists for a given manufacturer (Canon vs Sony, for example). Unfortunately the perfect camera doesn't exist, and a compromise needs to be made, or money thrown at the situation to buy into more than one system. With film, the cameras and lenses are so affordable, you can get 3 systems (street, portrait and landscape, for example) for the price of one digital camera body alone. 

What's in my camera bag?