Getting started with large format photography

I’ve been using film cameras for a while now after going from film to digital and then back fully to film sometime in 2009. One of the great things of film cameras in the last 10 years has been the abundance and low cost, allowing anyone to buy the top professional systems for a fraction of price, think of anything between 1% to 30% of new prices.

As such I bought and sold countless cameras in 135 and 120 formats but that is all the easy stuff. The one that always eluded was sheet film. 4x5, 5x7, 8x10 and all that. The reason? Cost and complexity. Cost can be kind of mitigated by buying used (new ones are still in production for prices that make Leica prices affordable). But the complexity is still there. As such, I’m writing up this little guide of how I collected the kit I did.

The camera

First, the Intrepid Camera. While everyone else sells new large format cameras for thousands of pounds, they sell brand new 4x5 cameras (and 5x7 and 8x10) for less than what a beat up 50 year old camera goes for. Dealing with camera failures is something I am used to with 35mm but when you’re shooting 4x5 at £10-20 a shot I’d rather know the camera works before the sheets come back ruined from the lab.

Let’s start with the bits you will need. Buying the camera is just the first step. Instead of going through what bits you’ll need I will just list what my current kit is and you can make up your mind as to what you need:

  • Intrepid 4x5 camera body
  • Nikkor 90mm f/4.5 SW lens (with Copal 0 shutter and lens board)
  • Nikkor 180mm f/5.6 W lens (with Copal 1 shutter and lens board)
  • 6x Toyo double dark slides (film holders) + pouch for them
  • 2x cable releases
  • Dark cloth
  • Tripod
  • Lightmeter
  • Rodenstock lens key
  • Magnifying loupe
  • Bag to carry all that
  • Film loading tent
  • Pen, notebook, gaffer tape, lens cloth, etc

Shutter board what?

First things first, buying the camera from Interpid is easy, just choose the bellows colour. Then you have to buy all the other stuff. When it comes to lenses, buying large format lenses is not like buying a lens for your SLR. A lens has 4 parts to it:

  • Front element
  • Rear element
  • Shutter
  • Lens board
The Nikkor 180mm f/5.6. Front element is the large on top right, rear element the small on the left. Copal 1 shutter on Intrepid board. The Rodenstock lens key is used to tighten the shutter on the board (there is a retaining ring at the back).

The front and rear element come together and most likely you get a shutter too. You will probably get a lens board too. But the shutter can be changed and the lens board will most likely need changing. The way it works is this: the shutter screws onto the lens board and then the front and rear elements screw onto the shutter. When screwing the elements on the shutter make sure you hold the shutter and not the board as you will just unscrew the shutter. Tighten the front element a bit, then the rear, then hold both elements and tighten them together. The complete lens and board then go onto the front standard, ie the front of the camera.

Shutters come in three sizes and from different manufacturers. Seiko, Compur and Copal in size 0, 1 and 3 (don’t ask where 2 went). When I trawled eBay for lenses I opted for ones with Copal shutters as general internet wisdom says they are the newest and most reliable. Then you have to get a lens board that has the right size hole for the shutter size and that fits the type of camera you have. The lens board bit is easy, I just ordered the right size ones from intrepid and that was that.

When the lenses arrived I unscrewed them from their boards, then screwed the shutter on (I used a Rodenstock lens key to tighten it, this is good to have to tighten the retaining rings every now and then) and then screwed the front and rear elements. Have a bit of a think what orientation you want when you screw them on, ie shutter/aperture markings on top or side.

Nikkor 180mm f/5.6 W lens
Nikkor 180mm f/5.6 W lens
Nikkor 180mm f/5.6 W mounted on a Copal 1 shutter and a Technika lens board. Linhof Technika boards are interchangeable with Intrepid boards. Note that aperture/shutter marking are on both sides of the lens.

The next thing you have to figure out is how the lens works. In all my excitement when the lens arrived I though it was broken as I could not fire it. On a large format lens you have the usual shutter speed and aperture controls. Then you have the shutter release button (you can see it in the picture above just above the B/1 second speeds). Next to that is the cable release thread. Then you will have a little lever to cock the shutter and finally the shutter open/close lever. That’s the bit I forgot about.

Copal 1 shutter closed.

In the photo above, you can see the following bits of the shutter:

  • The open/close lever is at the bottom, by the 1/400 speed.
  • The shutter release is the straight lever at the top, under the “Intre” on the board.
  • The metal protrusion to the right of the shutter release is where the cable release threads.
  • The round knob by the 1–1/2 speeds is the shutter cocking lever.
  • The little metal bit next to the 1/15 speed is the flash sync port.
  • The lever with the red arrow on top is the aperture control.

When you take a photo with a large format camera the process is this:

  1. Focus with shutter open and aperture wide open (to make it easier)
  2. Stop down aperture and set the shutter speed
  3. Cock the shutter
  4. Close the shutter
  5. Insert the film holder
  6. Remove the dark slide
  7. Fire the shutter
  8. Put the dark slide back in
  9. Remove film holder
  10. Open shutter to focus/frame for next shot

Because you are effectively looking through the lens on a ground glass where the film would normally be, the shutter needs to be open to allow viewing. Then, when you are ready and you put the film holder in place you first have to close the shutter before you remove the dark slide (otherwise you just burn the film). Then when you fire the shutter it will open for the correct time and close. You just need to remember to put the dark slide back in before you try to remove the film holder or open the shutter.

A lot of steps, right? That’s why I made a checklist for the first few sheets. So, back to the shutter, if you want to dry fire it when you first receive it remember to cock the shutter and close it. Then you can fire it.

Double dark what it was?

Double dark slide is the lingo for a double film holder. Effectively a box with dark slides on each side that lets you load two sheets, one front and one at the back. I got these new from Intrepid as I did not want to chance used ones that leak.

Toyo 4x5 double holders. You can buy a “twin double slide pack” that has the two you see above for loading 4 sheets. Or a “double slide pack” has one of the above for loading 2 sheets. Straightforward really.

You have to be methodical with those two, each dark slide has light and dark patterns on either side which you use to tell if you have shot that sheet or not. And there’s a little bit where you can write with a pencil what film is loaded.

Do I really need a tripod?

Yes. No, that flimsy £30 rubbish you bought from Amazon won’t do. The Intrepid may not be that heavy overall, however it is big and the weight is spread well outside the head base area, as such it produces enough torque to make flimsy tripods unstable. The large surface area acts as a sail in windy conditions too and finally at some point you will lean onto it and put a dark cloth on it and all that stuff. Since you are spending £10–20 a shot you might as well make sure the tripod makes it easy to hold the camera stable and frame.

Consider also that the Intrepid is a very light camera. Most large format cameras weigh double that and if you get to 8x10 the tripod cost will be the least of your worries!

My personal choice is a Gitzo 3 series with an Arca-Swiss P0 hybrid head (and a large Arca plate). Not cheap but these are amazing bits of equipment on their own which make it a breeze to setup and align the camera.

Other bits

Some of the other little bits you’ll need are:

Lightmeter: I have a Sekonic L358 which I had for ages. But I also use one of the free apps on my phone which works just fine in daylight. Just beware that phone apps are limited by the phone camera sensor. At night there will be a limit to how low light they detect, below that they just get stuck in the last valid lowest reading and that’s it. In any case, if you are doing very long night exposures it is better to go off tables. Beware of reciprocity failure for exposures over a few seconds (look it up, this is a whole subject on its own) and also consider condensation forming on the lens.

Cable release: you can get away with just triggering the lens yourself however you are probably introducing vibration and movement if you do that with your finger. I carry two as they are cheap and light enough and you never know when one will break.

Loupe: you really do need one to focus properly. I have a cheap slide viewing loupe from Jessops which, miraculously, I kept since my slide shooting days 20 years back. Does the job just fine and allows for critical focusing.

Dark cloth: You can use a jacket or a sheet or whatever. I opted for a dedicated dark cloth from Wanderer, it secures on the camera nicely and makes viewing the focus screen a breeze.

Bag: all this stuff is heavy. Very heavy. So get yourself a comfy backpack. I fit all my stuff into a PeakDesign medium camera cube which goes into one of their backpacks. Nice and neat and easy to access.

The camera goes into its blue wrap taking up most of the space. The two lenses are on the side and there’s space at the bottom for 3 film holders. Another three holders go on top of the camera and the dark cloth is packed elsewhere.

Loading tent

Finally, one of the most important things you’ll buy: the loading tent. You will have to load film in complete darkness. Do yourself a favour and get a film tent, not a bag. The bag will sag around hands and get in the way. The tent will stay out of the way. I cannot stress how important that is! I got myself a “Calumet film changing room”, which looks like a radioactive material chamber. Annoyingly the base is not flat so it rocks left/right as I load film but it does the job.

There are plenty of videos online to show how to load sheet film. After loading the first 20 sheets I have concluded that I should have done what everyone on those videos does: waste a sheet and do it in daylight. You may think that is expensive but the cost of one sheet learning how to do it is nothing vs the cost of a whole box ruined because you didn’t load it properly. Watch the videos carefully and make sure the film is loaded correctly in the grooves of the holder, it can go in the wrong place which means it will not be flat where it should, ie the shot will be out of focus.

Do not take the dark slide out fully as you do not want to be looking for it by touch and trying to figure out which side (exposed/unexposed) you have to put it back in. Beware of the dark slide locks, they are easy to twist and will stop the dark slide coming out leaving you fumbling in the dark.

Another tip I read in a forum is that you should really try to load at most 5 holders/10 sheets (which is what most film boxes are anyway). Your hands will get hot and sweaty pretty quickly and you will leave sweat marks on the film. Load 10, have a break, air the tent, clean your hand then load the rest. Clean your hands and dry them before loading!

Finally, keep the empty box! You will need it to send the film once shot. Ask for the box back too. This way you can load half a box, then store the shot film in one of the empty boxes and load some different film.

Interpid tips

The Intrepid is a nice camera but the price reflects some of the compromises that had to go in. For me the only annoying thing is that there are no zero clicks or marks for the movements. You just line it up by eye. On my MkIV they put bubble levels but the rear one is not level so I cannot use these to align the front and back.

The zero positions you’ll need are zero rear and for the front:

  • zero shift up/down
  • zero tilt up/down
  • zero swing left/right

The rear you can do by eye, just line up the wood with the black frame it tightens on. For the front I used a ruler and pencil to mark the zero swing position for the lenses I have.

As you can see I put some blue tape (to match the bellows!) on the bottom that screws on the wood. That provides a bit more friction to stop the front standard moving too freely.

For the shift up/down I figured that the 0 position is where the top of the wood (where the bubble level is attached in the photo above) lines up with the top of the hole of the aluminium frame (not the top of the frame itself). That doesn’t really matter match as shift will be your most used movement and a bit off doesn’t matter.

For the tilt I just push both top and bottom of the wood and feel it level with the aluminium frame. Not ideal but not really sure what else to do.

What is missing

After shooting 15 sheets and getting the results back I realised I’m missing a couple of bits that would make my life easier. Both are related to the weather. The camera is not waterproof by any means or standards. Yes the wood will dry and so will the bellows if not too wet but remember that when you pack the camera away the bellows will just compress the water in the folds. So you will need to dry it as soon as possible.

As such, if you find yourself in less than dry conditions you will need a water repellent dark slide that will protect the camera. You will also need a hood for the lens to keep the front dry. At first I thought of getting a basic metal/rubber screw on hood but I am not sure how well these work once you start applying movements to the camera. The alternative is these expandable “compendium” hoods that cost nearly as much as the lens. I’ll hold off for now I think.

Done

So there you have it. The camera is complete, the tripod is ready and you have all the bits to shoot large format. If you found this little guide interesting, I have written a little summary of how to load sheet film here. Good luck!

Ready for action in Dorset

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