First results from large format photography

I’ve had my Intrepid 4x5 for a while now and so far have shot about 30 sheets of film, 10 each of Portra 160, E100 and Ilford Ortho 80. I have to say…I am not exactly thrilled. I just never got that initial wow moment from the sheets and to be honest half of them were ruined because I just didn’t know how to work the camera (a few light leaks, misaligned film, bad focus, etc).

Until this week. Not exactly a wow one but I finally got some results that are pointing in the right direction. So, what are they?

A couple of months ago we went (ha…what a concept in 2020) to the Borough market in London Bridge and just bought random fruit and veg that we never had before (if you have never been there it is a fantastic location to buy exotic and exquisite food items). At the same time, we had some bulbs and seeds delivered for our garden and amongst the various little parcels and packets was a resurrection plant, aka Rose of Jericho. I had never come across one of those before, I didn’t even know they existed, so given the lockdown restrictions it was the perfect time to get the Intrepid setup to shoot it.

To go through the setup a bit (shame I didn’t take a photo actually), I placed the plant on a dark background near our garden doors and setup the camera on the tripod to look straight down. I used the Nikkor 180/5.6 pretty much fully extended. That was a bit challenging as being a novice and all I didn’t think of moving the front standard to the outermost position, ie the one used for the really long lenses. That would give me a bit more extension vs trying to move the tripod higher and then cropping the shot. Lesson learned!

In any case, the setup was pretty simple, no movements or anything applied, just a couple of straightforward shots at f/32 and f/64 on Ilford Ortho Plus 80 and another two on Kodak Ektachrome 100. I underexposed a bit on purpose as I wanted a more muted look as well (I just rounded down the exposure basically), the detail in the plant is quite intricate so I though a bright shot would probably loose some of that detail. The results? Here:

Kodak Ektachrome 100, f/32 on the left f/64 on the right. Exposure was 30s and 1 minute.
Ilford Ortho Plus 80, again f/32 on the left f/64 on the right, same exposure times.

Now, I’m not exactly thrilled with the results straight out of camera. The ones you see above have had some treatment applied, namely a bit of burning the background to make the plant stand out a bit more. Also, the f/32 shot on the E100 had light leaks. Additionally, it was the first time I had to think a bit of reciprocity failure in daylight shots, I suppose f/64 and slow film is just slow regardless of time and day. It was quite fascinating really having to wait for a minute for a shot vs hearing the click of the shutter straight after you hit the release.

Regardless, after working a bit on them I’ve come to like the f/64 shot on Ektachrome and the f/32 shot on the Ilford. This was the first time in years I actually worked on an image in Lightroom beyond a bit of cropping and straightening.

Ektachrome

Let’s have a look at the Ektachrome shot first.

1 top left, 2 top right, 3 bottom left, 4 bottom right

Frame 1 shows the original. As much as I like seeing the film rebate that is not what I wanted. So I cropped that out and cropped a bit more to centre the plant and enlarge it a bit in the frame: frame 2 top right.

Then I used the clarity slider to make things pop out a bit more (+28). That increased the definition of the plant a bit but also brought the background more into view as you can see in frame 3, bottom left. This was the f/64 shot so the background was quite well defined, which is why clarity enhanced the details and made it stand out more.

To counteract that, I used the burn brush to darken the background, that leaves the plant as the focal point. Bit of dust removal and then done. Here’s the final (incidentally I think it looks soft on Medium, it is much sharper when viewed in Lightroom):

Ilford Orth Plus 80

Let’s look at the Ortho image now.

1–5, again 1–3 top left to top right and then 4–5 bottom left to bottom right

There was a bit more work on this. It started with a bit of cropping as that sheet was not straight in the holder (frame 1, the original). I cropped that a bit and rotated a tiny bit (frame 2). Then used the shadow and light tones to tone down the background and bring up a bit the plant itself (frame 3). I then used the burn brush to darken the background further, just like with the E100 shot (frame 4). Finally, I used the grading tool in Lightroom to add a tone. This was my first time using it so I randomly played with the sliders. Eventually the shadows are a bit more blue, the mids a bit more orange and the highlights a bit more purple. Maybe it works…maybe not. A bit more dust removal and here’s the final:

Final thoughts

These shots are far from particularly ground breaking or interesting. However they were quite valuable to me as they were the first “proper” shots I managed to get with the Intrepid. Large format photography is a bit of a long process in many respects, I have to say 30 sheets (and ££££) later I was beginning to get a bit disappointed with the results so it was a relief to finally get something that I might just print big to see how it looks.

I suppose the takeaway from this is that the entry barrier is much higher than 35mm, or even medium format. With my 35mm cameras I could get very good results with minimal editing straight away. With large format not so. The scans from the lab are effectively a starting point vs a final product, the final image is very much dependant on what I do with it later as well vs just making sure it happens in camera. So if you are starting out with large format photography just like I have, don’t be too disappointed if the first sheets seem like a massive waste of time and money. It takes a while, it takes effort but there is indeed light at the end of the tunnel.

Thank you for reading!

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