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So Why Use A 4×5?


Posted on July 15th, by graham in Classic Camera Corner. No Comments

So Why Use A 4×5?

So you would think that in this day of digital cameras that offer immediate results, have incredible exposure latitude, are compact in size (and take pretty darn good pictures!)  that large format photography would be dead.

Actually, at Seawood we are selling more 4×5 view cameras than ever before!

How is this possible?

Perhaps we are beginning to see a backlash against the new technology. I frequently hear people say that they are spending enough time at a computer as is and they want their photography to be a more tactile experience (and what could be more tactile than shlepping a huge camera for 5 miles to get one shot!).

It also requires quite a lot more discipline to shoot large format. Digital photographers frequently use the “shotgun” approach to get a great image; that is they shoot a LOT of photos in a short amount of time, then cull through them later hoping to find the one diamond in the rough and then discard the rest.

Use a view camera and you will be considered prolific if you shoot more than five shots in  single day!
One reason for this is that they are very slow to use.  It takes time to get the camera properly set up, you can’t look through the lens once the thing is loaded. Another is cost; some film is as much as $9.00 per shot once you factor in processing fees. At that price you want to make every one count.

So what’s the appeal?

It’s a completely different approach to photography. It is slow, methodical and deliberate. Photos are created, not taken. It’s waiting fo the light to get just right. It’s looking for the perfect composition, one that looks equally well viewed upside downand backwards (as you see the image on the ground glass).  It’s about taking your time. And pissing off your loved ones for taking so long.

What is a large format camera?

Large format cameras usually use 4×5” or 8×10” sheet film. Less common sizes include 5×7, 2-1/4×3-1/4 and 11×14. They are very simple cameras with no electronics or built in meters.  Essentially just a light-tight accordion with a frosted groundglass on one end for viewing, plus a lens with a built-in shutter mechanism on the other, and some bits to hold it all together.  Some are made of wood, and some are metal.

View cameras haven’t changed much over the years; in fact if you purchased a view camera in 1890 you could still use it today.  And you’d be really old.

What’s Scheimpflug?

Ever look at a photo of a landscape where the flowers in the forground are tack-sharp as well as the mountains in the background?  Chances are it was shot with a large format camera.  It’s a big advantage over your puny little camera because you cau utilize what’s known as the Scheimplug Principle to get more Depth Of Focus.

With normal cameras the lens and the film (or sensor) are on the same plane; that is they are parallell to each other. With a view camera you can tilt the lens forward so the plane of focus is more parallel to the image plane resulting in greaterDOF.  Conversely, if you tilt the lens backwards away from the plane of focus you can get extremely shallow DOF.

The front and rear of the camera are called ‘Standards”.  Tilting the lens standard forward or back is called a “tilt”. It can also be swung left or right ( a “swing”) to be on a paralell plane with your subject if needed.

Tilting the front standard affects your focus, tilting the rear standard affects your perspective.

A Little Perspective

You can also alter the shape or perspective of your subject by tilting the rear standard.  As you look at an image on the ground glass ou can actually see it stretch  the top and botom of the subject  as it is moved.

It is possible to take a photo of an egg and have it look perfectly round.  Very useful if you need photos of round eggs.

The most common use of this is to correct for “Keystoning” in architectural photography. If you are looking upwards at a building with a wide angle lens the building will look narrower at the top as the vertical lines will converge. By doing a back tilt you can straighten those lines to get a normal perspective of the building.

Which One Should I Get?

There are several different types of large format cameras.  For most people I would recommend getting a 4×5. 8×10 is really cool, plus you can do contact prints directly off the negative, but it is a much larger and heavier camera.
4×5 film is also more readily available than 8×10 and is still a relatively huge negative.

Here’s some different types we frequently sell:


4×5 Wood Field :

Wista, Nagaoka, Zone VI, Tachihara, are examples of 4×5 wood field cameras.

These are generally lighter and more compact than metal cameras.  Also a side benefit is they are warmer to the touch, which is appreciated after you’ve been freezing your butt waiting in the snow for sunrise to get that perfect shot!

Most have limited or no rear movements.


4×5 Metal Field:

Toyo, Crown Graphic, Meridian, and LinhofMetal cameras generally lock down better than wood.

It can be frustrating to spend 20 minutes setting up a shot only to have the rear standard slide out of position as you shove a film holder in place.

Some have extendable rear standards allowing at least some rear swing and tilt.


4×5 Monorail

Monorail cameras have both the front and rear standard mounted on a single metal bar. A clamp on the bar attached the camera to a tripod. The bar may either be cylindrical, rectangular or square.

Though (usually) heavier than their folding counterparts, monorail cameras offer much more perspective control movements.  This is particularly useful in photographing architecture.

The longer the lens, the longer a bellows must be to achieve infinity focus.  Monorails generally have longer bellows allowing you to use longer focal length lenses 400mm and above.  Some let you attach multiple monorails and bellows together for unlimited length!

Some also have interchangeable bellows allowing you to substitute a bag bellows for the traditional accordion type.

The wider the lens, the closer the front and rear standard have to be to achieve infinity focus. Wide focal length lenses (below 90mm) sometimes require the bellows to be so compressed that you can’t do camera movements. A bag bellows allows the standard to be much closer together eliminating this problem.


Cost to get into large format photography?

Surprisingly cheap!

As these are very uncomplicated devices and readily available here at Seawood Photo, and you can usually find a good camera and lens combination starting at under $350.  Monorails in particular are easy on the wallet.

Pretty good when you consider that relatively diminutive medium format SLR’s usually cost $600. and up!





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