Lifestyle photography - Piano Yoga

Here are a few fun shots we added to the end of a central Houston portrait session. We managed to combine Julia's yoga poses with the piano - the cat wandering into the center of the shot was a welcomed element for the composition!

I broke out the large format 4x5 camera to get a few film shots with a more classic look and the ability to angle the plane of focus. 

If you are struggling to load your MOD 54, read this

At this very moment you have your hands deep in a dark bag trying to load your 4x5 negatives. You've called a nearby family member to Google 'load a mod 54' for you because you've forgotten the details of what it looks like and things aren't going well. 

Don't panic. It is going to be alright.

  1. First things first - locate the ridges at the top of the MOD 54. The ridges on the negatives must be on the same side on the top left (note that this is different from the location of the ridges when placing them in a film holder, which is top right in that case).
  2. Get your first sheet of film in your hands. Bend it along its length and place it to the very bottom of the stack before releasing the bend. Check with your fingertips that the film isn't held up in one of the upper notches.
  3. Your breathing should be easier now and your heart rate lower. We are going to make it.
  4. The easiest notch to locate is the upper one, so here is the secret tip - load the second sheet into the upper notch. "That's crazy!" you say - but keep your trousers and/or pants on. From here you can carefully move the film down to the middle notch one side at a time. You know you've done a good job when you feel the sides of  two sheets of film are parallel.
  5. The third sheet of film goes into the easy upper notch and can be left there. Again, check the sides of the sheets are parallel. If they are not, work backwards until you find the offending sheet/notch combination.
  6. Repeat these steps for the three sheets on the other side of the Mod 54.

Hopefully you got this done before the combination of stress and time made your arms perspire streams of frustration in the dark bag.


Using reading glasses to focus a 4x5 camera

A 4x5 focusing screen is big, and an 8x10 one is even bigger, but they are often a bit dim and so critical focusing can be a pain. Many photographers use a loupe to magnify the ground glass, but good ones can be very expensive. I've used cheap ones, which work fine, but it is yet another item to keep track of and worry about scratching in your pocket between shots.

reading glasses for 4x5 camera focus

So what about strong reading glasses? I have no idea why they aren't more popular for this purpose, but I've found them to be a great solution. You can find them on Amazon and eBay for very little cost, and at strengths of 4 or even 6 diopters. I guess they are often overlooked because they are only found in lower strengths in the local drug stores.

Here's why I like using reading glasses for focusing:

  • They can be kept on your head when not in use. No need to fumble looking for a loupe in your pocket.
  • Super cheap so you don't have to worry about them and you can carry spares.
  • Compact and often come with a storage case.

There is a drawback, however.  A traditional loupe is placed directly on the glass at a fixed distance, but glasses have the extra variable of eye-to-screen distance. I find that I have to focus on the etched lines on the ground glass first to know I am focusing on the correct plane. 

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

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

Good habits for loading large format film holders

Large format film holders have dark-slides with a white and black side so you know if the film is exposed or not, but if you have a few holders on the shelf, how do you know which are even loaded with film? Which are ready for developing?

Everyone has a system - here is what I do:

4x5 film holder system
  1. Empty. Film holders sat on the shelf have no film in them. They are ready to be loaded.
  2. Loaded, un-exposed. These holders are in Ziplocs, slides are white-side out and handles down in the bag so that I don't accidentally pull out the slide when removing the holder from the bag. 
  3. Loaded, exposed. Same as above, but the slides have black sides out. The holders stay in the bags until they are emptied for development. 
  4. Back to step 1.

Sandwich-sized Ziplocks are the perfect size for 4x5 film holders and help protect against the elements when out in the field. 

I process images in batches of 6 (3 film holder's worth) because this is the capacity of the mod 54 insert for the 3 reel Patterson tank. Used film holders are cheap (check out the bargain ones on KEH) - I keep two sets of 3 holders so that I can still shoot even if I have one batch still to process.