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 Nature Photography :: About equipment :: Large format

 

Tachihara 5x4" field camera
Nikkor 90/4.5 SW
Schneider 210/5.6 Symmar
Horseman 6x12 roll film holder
Pentax digital spot meter


This section gives an overview of the large format equipment I used and why I used it.

It is broken into several sections. Click on the links below to go directly to an area of interest or scroll down to read the entire article sequentially.

NOTE: I no longer use the equipment described here, however if you are getting into large format photography the information is still valid.

In general
Camera
Lenses
Camera case
Tripod
Quick release plate
Light meter
Filters
Viewing frame
Change bag
Enlarger
Darkroom

In general

"Gee you must have a good camera". You've probably heard that more than once. Normally I just agree; sometimes I try to explain about the difference between good cameras and good vision. One day I may just ask "Why?" I'd like to think the answer will be something like, "Well the definition and tonal range is exquisite" or, "They're so sharp". If this is the case then yes, the camera did help. However the answer is more likely to be, "They're such good photos" in which case the person is assuming what most laypersons do, that cameras make photographs.

What most people don't understand is that inspiration and vision make great photographs, not cameras. You can have the latest Leicanikolta and all the lenses in the world, but if you can't see what to point them at you may as well use a house brick.

This is not only a layperson's affliction. Photographers also suffer, although usually not in such an overt manner. Nevertheless it's common for a photographer to think that a new camera will transform his or her images. I know this because I've thought it myself many times. I've been convinced that if I could just buy an ABC model 2000 (in pro-black of course) with the latest 800mm f1.4 dohicky then my wildlife photography would soar to new heights. There have been times when I could actually afford the object of my fantasy, although I don't recall a vast improvement in images immediately following the purchase.

I think I'm finally over my equipment addiction. Recently I had family over from England and they offered to buy me some duty-free photographic equipment. I couldn't think of a single thing I needed.

I don't know what equipment you currently own but I would bet you dollars to donuts that, if you're unhappy with your photos, your equipment is not the problem. The answer is not to buy more equipment, but to learn how to use what you have. Of course it is possible that your equipment is not up to the job. If you are using a fully automatic half-frame point-and-shoot camera in an attempt to create large high-definition prints then you are likely to be disappointed. Just remember, there's a difference between owning high quality, appropriate equipment and buying the latest gadgetry.

In the mid-eighties I bought a Canon T90, the latest and greatest 35mm SLR at that time. I bought it directly from Canon before its general release, and, while I was on a roll I also purchased some new FD lenses. Within a year the EOS series was released. I no longer had the smartest camera on the block, and to make matters worse all my FD lenses were obsolete. I decided enough was enough and I dropped out of the technology race.

For landscape photography, and I stress landscape photography, I thoroughly recommend that you use a manual camera, or at least a camera that can be set to fully manual operation. You don't need seven segment active matrix metering and you don't need linear predictive focusing. These features are useful in other photographic pursuits but just get in the way with landscapes.

What you do need is a camera that will do exactly what it's told, a camera without a mind of its own. And don't start branding me as some kind of Luddite. When it comes to technology I'm the Grand Pooh Bah of gadget freaks; I've got more computers, scanners and electronic gizmos than you can poke a mobile phone at. It's just that the rampant featurism prevalent in today's photographic equipment is totally out of place when it comes to landscape photography. Worse than that, it can actually make life more difficult.

So what equipment do I use? Before I discuss individual items I should mention that you don't have to spend a fortune to "get into" large format photography, or indeed photography of any kind. There is quite a lot of good secondhand equipment around. With 35mm equipment there are many people who thought they would "do" photography. They buy a lot of equipment then the phase passes and they move on to painting or woodwork. You can often buy all of their equipment for a very reasonable price.

This is less likely to occur with large format, because normally, a large format photographer has been in the game for a while and is not going through a phase. Still there are people who retire or just get tired. Once again you can find reasonable bargains from such people. One thing that is important though is time. If you need to start right away you will probably wind up buying new gear, however if you have time the bargains will pop up occasionally. It took me about a year to put together my large format camera kit and I already owned an enlarger and most of the necessary darkroom equipment. A friend of mine recently bought a 4x5" enlarger with a lens and timer for a very good price. He has no darkroom and can't use the equipment yet, but it's a lot easier to build a darkroom than find a good second hand large format enlarger.

   

Camera

When it comes to landscape photography I am unashamedly biased towards large format cameras.

The sheer quality of the image, the tonal range and the detail, all make the inconvenience worthwhile.

I fully admit that they are difficult to use and carry, however I feel that features such as camera movements to help with depth of field and vertical convergence, and being able to process each sheet of film individually make the difficulties worth it.

Also, after my experience of trying to keep up with the latest technology, I find it somewhat comforting to know that this particular camera design has changed little in over a hundred years.

The Tachihara 4x5 field camera is made of cherrywood and folds to a relatively small size. This style of camera, while not as sturdy as those made of metal, does the job and is ideal for landscape photography.

 

 

Of the large formats available I chose four by five inch (4x5") because I felt it was the best combination of practicality and image quality. There are other formats but each has disadvantages that I felt outweighed the advantages. For example, it is very difficult to get film for 5x7" and it's almost impossible to lug 8x10" equipment around the bush. Some people do, but they must have levels of fitness and/or determination much higher than mine. I own and use a Tachihara 4x5" view camera.

The Tachihara is made from brass and cherrywood and, while not as sturdy as its more expensive metal brethren, it is sturdy enough to do the job. Most importantly it is roughly half the weight of the metal variety. This feature alone is enough to earn a hearty recommendation. I haven't used any other similar view camera so I can't recommend the Tachihara over another brand. What I can recommend however is this style of camera (usually called a "field camera") as they fold and unfold very quickly and, as mentioned, are much lighter than the metal variety.

One common method used to enter the world of large format landscape photography is to buy an old press camera, a Speed Graphic or Linhof. I cannot recommend this approach. The cameras weigh a ton, their ground glass screens are usually very dim and most of them have no movements, or at least they don't have the movements that are vital for landscape work.

Pocket camera
Of all the places I've been and all the photographs I've taken I hardly have any happy snaps. I guess I used to think that the taking of happy snaps was beneath me, but the result is a lifetime of experiences and friends with very little photographic record. I can't pull out the albums and reminisce because there are no albums. I've tried carrying one of my 35mm cameras on walking trips but even the T90 is just too heavy to carry as well as my other gear. More importantly it's too bulky to carry in a pocket so it gets stuffed inside my pack and never gets used.

To rectify this problem I recently bought a small point and shoot camera, specifically an Olympus XA. The XA has a very high quality lens, is only semi automatic (aperture preferred) and, because they are now obsolete, cost about a half or a third of a new pocket camera. I confess though that I find a range finder a little disconcerting to use; I miss an SLR. Maybe one of the new APS SLR cameras will be small enough. Don't be like me and miss a lifetime of personal images, take a camera that allows you to get the 'happy snaps'. In years to come you'll be very grateful you did.

   

Lenses

My 35mm arsenal includes ten lenses, ranging from 16mm fisheye to 800mm mirror lenses. Despite this I find that I use my 28mm and 100mm almost exclusively.

Realising this I decided that I only needed two lenses when I put my large format kit together. I purchased a 90mm Nikkor SW and a 210mm Schneider Symmar. The Super Angulon is very close in coverage to my 24mm lens, while the Symmar is more the equivalent of an 70mm short tele or portrait lens. Why did I choose these two lenses? Did I analyse test reports? Were they recommended by a colleague? No. They were simply the first two "name brand" lenses that I encountered while browsing the newspaper adds for secondhand photographic equipment.

Don't worry too much about what lenses you have. I find that I tend to "see" photos that will fit the lenses I have available.

   

Camera case

Over the years I've used just about every style of camera case available. They all have features appropriate to different types of photography, however I haven't found any that are suitable for long, multi-day bushwalks.

I have three main requirements of a camera case. I'll explain them and the reason for each by detailing my modus operandi in the bush.

A large proportion of my bushwalking is in terrain that has no paths at all, or where the paths are little more than markers on some trees. This means that I am often "bush bashing" which in turn means that, as much as possible, I try not to strap items to the outside of my backpack.

Therefore requirement #1 is that the camera case must fit inside my backpack.

I usually base camp which means setting up camp in a likely spot and spending a few days there. This allows me to explore the area for periods of usually an hour or so. This exploration almost always involves some rock climbing. A normal, over-the-shoulder camera case is quite uncomfortable to carry for this length of time and downright dangerous when climbing, as it swings around uncontrollably and changes your centre of balance.

So, requirement #2 is that the camera case must be able to be worn like a backpack.

I did use a LowePro Compact AW (over-the-shoulder style) for a while but it didn't conform to requirement #2 and was too heavy, which brings me to...

requirement #3; weight. The camera case must, ideally, weigh nothing while providing a good measure of protection for the enclosed equipment. The LowePro provided good protection but weighed too much.

So, after all that, what did I buy? I bought a $20 day pack and fitted some partitions made from closed-cell foam and gaffer tape, total outlay about $30. The resultant "camera case" conforms to all the above criteria and cost almost nothing, a rare event in the photographic world. If you decide to follow my example, look for a day pack that is as rectangular as possible and that unzips entirely around three sides so the lid can be folded back all the way to access your equipment.

The day pack is good for short explorations, but if I intend being more than twenty or thirty minutes from my camp I need to carry some wet weather gear and emergency equipment. For walks from half an hour up to a whole day, I put the day pack inside my normal pack and throw in some food, Gortex coat, first aid kit and a bivy bag or ground sheet.

Why all this when I intend going for a three hour photo stroll then returning to camp? Well I may intend returning in three hours, but what if I break a leg or get bitten by a snake? I once took a (potentially) very bad fall while in the mountains. Fortunately I landed in a few inches of water and did no real damage, but, that was blind luck. If I had broken a leg I would have been immobilised and probably have had to spend the night there. The day had been hot and I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt (both quite wet after the fall). Less than an hour later the temperature was near freezing, and that night there was a blizzard with high winds and sleet. I would have looked pretty silly sitting there in my wet shorts.

   

Tripod

Pity the poor the landscape photographer. He's just finished drilling holes in a toothbrush and cutting the labels from tea bags to save weight, and now he's faced with having to buy a tripod; an item that, almost by definition, is going to weigh a ton.

Standing in the camera store, facing a forest of tripods, there are two voices competing for attention. The bushwalker voice is saying, "Get that small one over there, the one with legs in 48 sections so it folds down really small. In fact don't even bother with a tripod at all". The photographer voice is saying, "Hmm that 40 kilogram studio dolly looks about right".

In this case both voices are wrong. Some compromise is required between the stability of the tripod and your ability to carry it. There's no point having a really solid tripod if you're too exhausted to set it up at the end of the day. One thing's for sure, no matter which tripod you buy, it will appear to double its weight and halve its height once you get it into the bush.

Any photographer who works in the field has conflicting requirements when it comes to tripods. On long walks I use a Manfrotto 190 (equivalent to a Bogen 3001). Many people would tell you that this tripod is far too small for large format cameras and I would partially agree. However I'm not convinced that you need as sturdy a tripod as is often recommended for large format. When there is no wind almost any tripod will do, and when there is wind the design of the large format camera is such that it is easily buffeted and will probably move regardless of the tripod's stability. The Manfrotto 190 is however a little short which is very inconvenient at times, so on shorter walks I carry one of my large tripods, a Manfrotto #055 or a Benbo #1.

Photographers seem to have a love-it or hate-it attitude towards the Benbo tripods. They are a little awkward to use at first but once you get the hang of them I find they work very well.

There is a new breed of tripod made of carbon fibre hitting the market at present. I have looked at their specs and decided that, although they cost a fortune, I would get very little benefit from them. Compared to my Manfrotto 190 the currently available models are still the same height, have more leg segments (usually a bad feature in a tripod), and they are only 300 grams lighter. Maybe when the manufacturers have amortised their development costs the price/feature ratio will be more favourable.

Most tripods come with a pan tilt head. These heads have one advantage in that you can move the head in the vertical dimension without disturbing the horizontal alignment, and vice versa. However most of them are quite heavy and have great big handles that catch on every branch you pass. There are solutions to these problems You can buy a lighter head, and it's often possible to get a version with shorter handles. Nevertheless I prefer a ball head. They have almost no protrusions and have a simple one-handed operation. I use both Benbo, Manfrotto and Slik ball heads and find they are all up to the job.

I actually think that a large format photographer can get by with a smaller tripod head than those used for most small or medium format cameras because there is no need to tilt the camera vertically. With most rectangular format cameras you have to tilt the entire camera for a vertical composition. This places a lot of strain on the head and means that you need a larger and sturdier (read "more expensive") ball head. With large format cameras (and some medium format cameras) you simply rotate the back so the camera remains in its normal, balanced, position.

   

Quick release plate

Regardless of what tripod and tripod head you use, I recommend that you attach your camera to it with a quick release plate.

These nifty little devices allow you to quickly attach and remove your camera without fumbling with threaded knobs. Quick release plates are very convenient when using SLR and rangefinder cameras as they allow you to explore an area to look for different compositions. For example, if you have set up your camera and then decide that the shot might look better from three metres to the left. You can quickly remove the camera and check out the new composition. If it doesn't look good just replace the camera.

   

Light meter

For my money there is only one kind of light meter that is of much use for landscape work: a spot meter.

I detail my reasons in the essay on my system of exposure and contrast control. Suffice to say that you need accurate readings from objects that are very small or appear that way because of their distance from the camera. A true spot meter with a one-degree angle of view is the only convenient way to do this. You can get spot attachments for a hand held meters, or cameras with a spot setting for the meter etc. but, to my knowledge, none of these options has a narrow enough angle of view.

I use a Pentax digital spot meter. I chose it because it is simple, small and light. Some spot meters can average multiple spot readings, take flash exposure readings etc. I don't think any of these features are important in landscape photography. All I need is a device that, when pointed at an object, will tell me how bright that object is.

You can get the Pentax calibrated to give it a flatter and more accurate response curve, frankly I don't think you need to be that accurate.

   

Filters

I use Cokin filters. This is mainly because, with adaptor rings fitted, the filter holder fits both lenses. Therefore I only need one of each filter type and one lens hood.

Speaking of lens hoods, I find the Cokin model particularly good because it comes in sections that clip into each other to adjust the depth of the hood. I own two of these sections and use one on my wide angle lens and two on the tele. If I had a longer tele I could buy a third section to increase the depth even further.

At present I use only two filters, Orange and Red. However Cokin is renowned for the vast array of special effects filters they manufacture. I make my opinions about special effects filters plain elsewhere so I won't waste any more time on them here.

   

Viewing frame

With a rangefinder or SLR camera it is an easy matter to wander around the countryside checking out different compositions through the viewfinder. This is not so with most large format cameras, so you need a viewfinder equivalent.

If you were to take a 35mm slide mount and hold it 300mm from your eye, the area visible through the hole in the mount would be equivalent to that visible through a 300mm lens. Move the mount to 100mm from your eye and you can see what your 100mm lens would see, etc. The same applies for any format if you use a frame that is equal in size to the negative of that format.

Enter the viewing frame. A viewing frame is basically a rectangle of cardboard or similar material with a hole cut that is the same size as the negative of the camera you are using, in my case four by five inches. If I hold this frame 210mm from my eye I can see what will be included in a photo taken with my 210mm Symmar lens, holding it at 90mm shows me what my wide angle lens will see.

I knew about viewing frames for a long time but could not think of a convenient method to measure the distance from my eye while using one. Then I spent some time photographing with friends of mine on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and was dumbfounded at the simplicity of the method they used. A piece of string, calibrated and used as follows. Cut some string about one metre in length, punch a hole in the frame and thread both ends of the string through the hole. The string should now form a loop. Put this loop around your neck and slide the frame along the string. When the frame is at appropriate distances from your eye (90 and 210mm in my case) mark the string with a marker pen. Now remove the string from your neck and tie a knot in the position of the mark that was furthest from your eye. Trim any excess string and you have a calibrated viewing frame.

To use it, simply put the string loop around your neck, pull the frame out to the knot when viewing for your longest lens and in to the marks for your other lenses.

   

Change bag

A change bag is a light-proof bag with two sleeves for you to insert your arms. Change bags are often used by camera stores to rescue a half exposed roll of film from a jammed camera. Reloading double-darks in the field is another use for them and, on long car-based trips, I sometimes need to do just that. However I avoid using them like the plague as they harbour dust and, in hot weather, cause your hands to sweat profusely which is bad news if you touch the emulsion of a sheet of film.

Despite this I carry a change bag at all times. On two occasions it has got me out of trouble when Grafmatic film holders failed. Once, while photographing on the side of a steep cliff, the Grafmatic jammed. I had already used three sheets of film and did not want to lose them, but I could not remove the Grafmatic from the camera without jeopardising the film. I placed the entire camera inside the change bag, removed the Grafmatic and applied some percussion maintenance (I bashed it) to free the jam. My change bag also does double duty as a focusing cloth.

   

Enlarger

I use a Beseler 45MCRX enlarger. This enlarger is built like a brick dunny and is a real workhorse. It can handle formats from 35mm to 4x5" and uses either a colour diffusion or a black & white condenser head. I own both and normally use the colour head but occasionally have to mount the condenser head to increase contrast when printing very thin negatives.
   

Darkroom

Most of my other darkroom equipment is very standard and includes a simple electronic timer, large fibreglass and small stainless steel sinks, an old cabinet-style clothes drier, two secondhand work benches (one holds the enlarger and the other is used as a general work area), an archival print washer, light table, processing trays in various sizes up to 20x24" and a stereo.

For prints that are too large to be processed in the trays, I have three large troughs. These troughs are long enough to accommodate the standard 42" roll paper.

Processing tanks
When I started developing sheet film I had all sorts of problems obtaining even development and consistent results. At the time I was using a daylight processing tank, the design of which seemed to preclude even development. In despair I tried tray development but couldn't get the hang of it. Finally I designed and built my own set of small dip and dunk tanks and a special hanger that holds up to six sheets of film. The results were a revelation. Perfectly even and consistent negatives. The only catch is that the entire process must be performed in darkness, so I needed a method of timing. A friend reminded me of a method using a tape recorder so I recorded a set of tapes that prompt at appropriate times, telling me to "Put the film into the stop bath" etc.

Note: David Houlder, a friend of mine, took my design and modified it to improve the way the sheets are held. He has documented the design at, davidhoulder.com/info/4x5tanks.html

One aspect of my darkroom that is slightly innovative is the plumbing and construction of the large sink. It is built as a free standing unit, with all copper plumbing built into the framework of the sink and connected to the main water supply with two washing machine hoses.

This arrangement satisfies three requirements. First, it is legal because it connects to existing taps; second, it is easily isolated if a leak occurs; and third, it can be removed and reinstalled with a minimum of fuss, an important consideration when I move house.

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