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Some recommendations for getting started in Large Format Photography

After going through the agony, pain, endless searches and questions, and final joy and excitement of my first large format camera, I thought I would start a page to share some experience and advice.

First off, buy a large format camera! If you truly enjoy the entire process of photography, there's simply nothing like shooting with a fully manual large format system. And you don't need that much to start. A basic system is only a camera, one lens & shutter, a few film holders and hopefully a tripod. To get instant feedback, enjoyment and experience, I recommend a Polaroid 545i holder and film. You get to see your work right away and don't need any darkroom facilities. I'll list out my recommendations to get started because it took me many weeks of talking (and listening!) to finally purchase what I did. And I don't regret a single piece of equipment...

I might mention first the format. I mostly talk about and use 4x5. I have recently started exploring 8x10. They may both be considered 'large format', but let me tell you that 8x10 is large! The mind wants to think that it's only twice the size. In reality, it's 4 times the size and weight! And many things run at comparable costs. The second a lens covers 8x10, the price triples... The cost of film quadruples (well, it is 4 times the film area after all). The 8x10 format is really another whole story as is 8x10 Polaroids. But so are the returns! There really is nothing that could ever compare to an 8x10 contact print. And I'm only ignoring the larger formats because I can't afford them ;-) I would never attempt to talk anyone out of trying the 8x10 format and heartily recommend it as the initial investment can be very close to 4x5. But for the sanity of mind and care of the wallet, we'll discuss 4x5 equipment from here on...

The camera. There are a lot of arguments for a full blown view camera. And their abilities and benefits can't be disputed. Even field models. View cameras are not always more expensive than field cameras but they are generally heavier and larger. Some field cameras can be quite large & heavy also. But some of those field cameras can also offer almost all the features of a View. Do you need the extra features, movements and bulk? I don't (most of the time)... If you do, then you probably already know what you want and need and part of that is not this page ;-)

I recommend either a Crown or Speed Graphic in 4x5 format. A Pacemaker model is not only more recent (post 1947) but has some extra features that are worth getting. The main added feature of a Speed is an internal focal plane shutter. Most people don't need it or even want it. I Like to play with things, so I went for a Speed. Another advantage is that Speeds are usually a bit less costly! Odd, but since more people want the lighter Crowns, the Speeds are easier to get. Get one with a 'standard' lens, usually anything from 127mm, 135mm or 150mm. It will usually already be mounted in a shutter and on a lens board as a complete camera and you're ready to go! One thing to make sure of is that the camera has a "Graflok back". This is the same as the current "universal" back and allows the use of any of the modern back accessories (roll film holders, Polaroid, etc). Another major advantage of Graphic cameras is the support. Even though they haven't been manufactured in a long time, graphlex.org is a fantastic resource for info, specs, articles and a great help board. One of the main reasons it holds my recommendation. Shop carefully! Make sure the cameras are complete and from someone reputable. Prices can range anywhere from $150 to $650 depending on condition, model and accessories included. I wouldn't worry about a 'newer model' such as the Super Graphic or even a top mounted range finder model. If you're really getting into large format, who needs a range finder? And you pay more for the newer models. Any post war Pacemaker model (side or top rangefinder) will do fine as long as it's in working condition.

Now if you happen to find a great deal on an older model that doesn't have a Graflok back? Buy it anyway. I have the older type 'spring back' or 'Graphic back' on one of my Graphic View IIs. The only disadvantage is that I can't use the Graphic style roll film holders or easily use a Graflarger back to turn the camera into an enlarger. It's still fully functional and can still use roll film holders like the Calumet C2 120/220 holder and 545(i) Polaroid holders. If you get 'stuck' with a camera without a Graflok, don't worry about it. Just go out and enjoy using it!

Almost any place that sells you the Graphic will also sell you the film holders and any other accessories you need. See the used camera dealer listing here to find one. Don't buy the older wooden film holders. Besides being much older, they tend to not hold the film that flat and would be more prone to light leaks. Stick with the newer Riteway or Fidelity plastic holders. Many of the used dealers do not sell film, so you'll have to go to a new dealer for that. A later note... I recently bought some older Graphic wooden holders more for collectors than users. They seem just fine to use and I plan on trying them out. If they're in good shape, there should be nothing wrong with using them.

I highly recommend a Polaroid 545i holder & film. If you know nothing about Polaroid film, visit their web site (also on my dealer list) and download the spec sheets. You can also get a 545 (no 'i'), the older model, which will work just fine even though Polaroid says the 'i' is 'improved'. These should range anywhere from $50 to $135 in the used market. The main advantage (for me!) is no darkroom is needed to get the prints or load film and you get almost instant feedback from your camera. Try Type 52 B&W to start. It's a fast 400 film that does have to be coated for permanence, but yields nice results. Type 59 is a good color film. If you need a negative and don't have a darkroom, try Type 55P/N. It will give you a B&W print and true negative. The only disadvantage here is that the print and negative have different film speeds! I have successfully obtained a decent print and negative at the recommended 50ASA, but using the 'proper' speed for either the negative or the print will offer much more satisfactory results. As I write this, my memory seems to be failing... I think I was using an ASA of 64 for the print and 32 for the negative... If you buy Type 55, remember to also buy some sodium sulfite powder to mix the solution to clear the negatives. All that info is in the Polaroid spec sheets. Anything will work to soak the negative that is water tight. A tupperware container, plastic baggie, covered bucket, up to the fancy specialty bucket-holder combo sold by Calumet on their web site. If you try Polaroid film, use a good meter as they are very sensitive to the correct exposure. The 545i holders can also be used with the new Kodak & Fuji quick/ready loads. Another benefit.

I also recommend you use a good meter. Many people start by using their 35mm camera meter. And that works, but you'll soon get tired of carrying around the 35 when you're shooting LF. I use newer Sekonic L-718 digital ambient/flash meters. They are excellent and accurate. But they are digital. Just doesn't seem to fit... So for the LF, I use my Gossen Luna Prof F ambient/flash. Also accurate as anyone will testify. If you have to buy a meter, a used Gossen Luna Pro F is the way to go. Still supported by the company, accurate, dependable and it will measure incident, reflected, flash and even infrared light (for infrared/meter info, see my infrared page). An older Luna Pro (no 'F') is also a fine choice but doesn't measure flash light. Check to make sure these take a standard 9 volt battery. The older models used mercury batteries that are no longer available. Although I use Duracell 675's in mine with no problem and Wein makes a Zinc/Air replacement also. This is also a great opportunity to own the legendary Sekonic L-398M Studio Deluxe II! Not overly expensive. Uses no batteries. More accurate than anyone needs. Works as incident or reflective, but won't measure flash and not the best in low light. The newest models are the Studio Deluxe II L-398M. There are a lot of good meters out there...

Any flash can be used with the LF including the new auto electronic flashes (but not camera-dependant models!). I have a Sunpak 622 that I bought just for the LF because it's a bit hard to shoot at f3.5 when the best lens you've got starts at 4.7 and you really should be shooting at f16. The 622 offers a bit more power (GN 200 @ ASA 100). Before that I used my Vivitar 283's (GN 120) and they worked just fine. If you don't already own a good electronic flash, look for one with at least a GN of 160. They're affordable used. If you want to be authentic and have a lot of fun, go for the bulb flash. A Graphlite 3 cell with reflector can be had for $65 or so and bulbs are about a buck a piece. And they throw a lot more light than most electronic flashes! Just watch your fingers ;-) Make sure you get the 5 inch reflector (or 7 inch) , some bulbs like the common #5 or 5B and the correct cord to match the shutter to the flash. Watch out for the type of synch on the shutter! Many older shutters are synched only for flashbulbs. If you can, make sure your shutter has 'X' synch for electronic flash. After the 1960's, many of the shutters were offered only in X Synch. This may take some looking into on your part and asking some questions.

Additional accessories should include a good sized changing bag to load the film holders. A decent tripod to hold the camera while you're focusing and figuring out how to set the shutter and load the film. Any good used tripod will do. Stay away from small, light duty types because they'll have trouble with the weight of the 4x5 and shake too much. The best types have supports from the legs to a center column. A cable release of at least 24 inches. A loupe to see accurate focusing on the ground glass. I use a Toyo 3.6x loupe and find the size, length and magnification just right. A 'dark cloth' is not a necessity with a Graphic because of the viewing hood, but it does come in handy now and then. Filters come in real handy also. They can be 'series' type using push-on adapters or screw-in just like the 35mm. To use the screw-in's, you will need the push-on adapter and a series-to-mm adapter though. I also have the Lee Gel-Snap gel/polyester filter system. It holds onto the lens front by a rubber band. Sounds 'cheap' and maybe is, but it works fine! The best buy here is the kit of B&W filters that includes the holder. It's only about $57 new. The push-on adapters also come in handy for this since the front rings on the shorter (150 to 90mm) lenses are a bit too small for the rubber band to grip. Put the push-on adapter on the lens first, then the Gel-Snap holder onto the push-on. Works fine. A case to hold it all surely comes in handy too. Original old Graphic cases can be found for under $50 if you look around. If you go for the Graphic, also find a copy of "Graphic Graflex Photography" by Morgan & Lester at an 8th edition, 4th or higher printing so it has the info on the 1950's Graphic and Graflok backs. The 10th or 11th editions are the best to find.

One more thing to recommend. If you're going to shoot 4x5, then shoot black & white. Of course you can also do color, but B&W (to me) is photography in it's truest essence. And it's a whole lot easier to develop & print yourself! A great aid to B&W is a #90 viewing filter. These used to be extremely popular as can be read in Ansel Adams books and many others. They are still available. They are a dark amber in color and almost take the color out of a scene, allowing you to see a representation of what it will look like in B&W. You can get a plain gelatin filter made by Kodak, but it's very fragile and difficult to use. Two better alternatives are actual "viewing filters" made by Tiffen and Zone VI. The Tiffen is a small circular glass filter mounted in a nice holder with a handle and neck strap and come with a nice case. It's small, easy to carry and works great. I bought mine at B&H and is probably available elsewhere. Then I saw the Zone VI version available through Calumet. This is also a glass filter (gel filter mounted in glass), mounted in a round plastic holder with a view window sized for the format of your choice plus attached neck strap. Of course I bought the 4x5 format. I like this one much better because it not only shows me the B&W view but frames the view in the size & shape of my photo. The Zone VI View Filter is more fragile only because it does not come with a protective case to guard the glass filter. This is usually not a concern when in use (hanging around your neck), but finding a suitable case when in storage is a good idea!

Okay, that's the start of my LF recommendations. This may all get expanded into other info on films & developers or techniques and such. There are hundreds of places on the internet to gather more info. But like my dealer listing, started because it took me so long to find a list of reputable dealers, I thought I would share some experience and whatever else here to hopefully save someone else the time I've already invested into this.

For very good new user information to help people get started in large format photography, see the following web site which both have excellent "getting started" sections.

A large format photography home page

A special note about buying used and ebay... I have bought quite a lot of used equipment. Some from reputable dealers, some from not-so-reputable dealers and some through ebay. First off, everyone is entitled to a mistake. The reputable dealers fix the mistakes promptly and politely! The not-so-reputable dealers need a push and sometimes a threat! Purchases through ebay are a huge gamble. Think about it. You're buying something from someone you've never met or even heard of before. You pay up front before you get to see the item. What are the odds?

Okay, so far they've been pretty good for me. But I've also been as careful as I can be. I've taken a chance on some cheap items, but investigated the expensive ones. Follow ebays recommendations. Check the seller's references (feedback). Listen to their attitude. Actually read what they write and pay attention. Examine the pictures VERY carefully. If there's any doubt, pass on it! And watch the price. I've seen far too many items sell for far more than they can be had at real dealers where their's much less to worry about. Sometimes for more than can be bought brand new! Don't get caught up in the auction/bidding frenzy. Set a top price you're willing to spend and don't go over that no matter what. Be careful, cautious, smart and informed. There's always a few days between the start and end of any auction. Spend that time finding out what the item is really worth. If you need more info about it, ask the seller. Any legitimate seller will be more than happy to supply added info or pics. I've gotten a few 'bad' deals, but all but one was my own fault for not paying attention and none (but the one) was really 'bad'. Just a minor surprise... It's also a good idea to look at the sellers other auctions to see what kind of stuff they deal with. And be very careful about those people who say "I don't know anything about this...". Sometimes it's true and sometimes it just means they're trying to hide something.

Pay as much attention to what is not said as what is said about an item. An example. With Graphic cameras there's always a concern about the condition of the bellows. You don't want one full of holes... Many sellers specifically mention that the bellows are "light tight" or "no holes or cracks". That's good. I bought a nice Crown Graphic but didn't notice that there was no mention at all of the bellows! Yep, there was a bunch of holes along one side. Easily repaired (for me) and the price was okay so I didn't mind. I didn't actually buy this package just for the camera. But what if I had and expected to run out and start taking pictures? What if I didn't know how to repair bellows?

You can get a deal, you can do okay, and you can get taken. But the odds are in your favor if you're careful. It also helps to know someone who has experience with ebay to give you some pointers. Thanks Carl! ;-)

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Modified on Friday, April 03, 2015