Guides: Getting Started with Large Format Photography Stories

Whether you are completely new to the world of large format photography or perhaps just getting back into it, this guide covers everything you need to get set up. As with other photography formats there are countless accessories and add ons you can get but here we are just focusing on the basic items you will need to get out and take photos.

1. The camera

When it comes to large format you have a few options in terms of the film and camera size, the most common being 4x5, 5x7 and 8x10. If you are a total beginner we would generally advise starting with 4x5 as it is the most compact, making it easier to adapt to when jumping up from 35mm, 120, or digital. It is also the most affordable and has the widest available range of lenses, film stocks and other accessories.

The Intrepid 4x5 MK4 or Black Edition 4x5 are both fantastic cameras for starting out in large format. They have all the features of traditional or high end 4x5 cameras but are a fraction of the price and weight. Large format can seem intimidating at first so the last thing you want is feeling like you have to spend a fortune getting started or end up lugging an enormous camera around.

Buying new rather than secondhand you also have the advantage of ongoing support should anything to happen to your camera, as well as an ever-expanding range of accessories and help from our team if you need any advice along the way.

2. Lens and lens board

Large format lenses are interchangeable across different camera brands, to mount them you first need to attach them to the right lens board for your camera. The Intrepid 4x5 takes 96mm x 99mm lens boards, we make our own branded boards or you can use most Linhof / Technika style boards as they are the same size.

There aren’t any modern manufacturers of large format lenses but thankfully there is an extensive secondhand market, especially when it comes to 4x5 lenses. Across the main brands - Nikkor, Fuji, Schneider and Rodenstock - you will find great quality lenses that are often very affordable. Getting a lens from a dedicated camera store can be the best option in terms of ensuring what you’re getting is in top working order. However you can also get some great deals on eBay, just be sure to check the condition first and ask for extra pictures if you are unsure.

The Intrepid 4x5 accepts focal lengths from 75mm-300mm but if you are starting out with 4x5 we highly recommend getting yourself a 150mm lens at first. This is equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera and considered the 'standard focal length’ which is roughly what the human eye sees. 

The other main thing to consider with lenses is the shutter. You will see our lens boards come in three sizes - Copal 0, 1, and 3. This corresponds with the size of the shutter your lens has. Copal is the most common type of shutter and most other shutter types (Seiko and Compur) come in these 3 standardised sizes. 

We have a lot more information on large format lenses in our lens buying guide. Lenses can seem like a particularly confusing part when it comes to getting a large format kit together but there are simpler than they seem! Get in touch with us if you have any questions regarding lenses, our team can even help you find some if you are unsure.

3. Film holders

Unlike your standard 35mm or 120 roll film, large format film comes in individual sheets. To expose them in your camera the film first needs to be placed inside a film holder. Also known as double dark slides, film holders are lightproof boxes which hold one sheet of film on each side. They are completely light-tight as unexposed film is totally light sensitive, but they have a removable darkslide to take out when you are ready to take a photo. 

We stock TOYO film holders in 4x5 and 8x10, they are some of the most reliable on the market and come brand new so no risk of light leaks. You can find a variety of older film holders secondhand, but make sure you are getting fully tested film holders, as losing your negatives to light leaks is never fun. The oldest tend to be wooden whereas the more modern film holders generally plastic. 

Intrepid cameras take all brands of standard sheet film holders, just make sure you get the right size for your camera. It’s good to invest in a few film holders as there’s nothing worse than running out of film when you’re out on a shoot. We would recommend having at least four in your kit which would give you a total of eight frames. 

4. A dark cloth

While not necessarily an essential piece of kit, we highly recommend investing in a good quality dark cloth, it will make focusing and framing much easier and quicker to do.

If you are shooting outside in daylight the light will make it very hard to see what you are composing without a dark cloth. The dark cloth basically acts as a shade to allow you to view the ground glass clearly, so you can be sure you are getting super sharp focus every time. Think of it as equivalent to looking through a viewfinder on a 35mm camera or using the focus hood on a waist level viewfinder.

You can of course improvise with a blanket, coat or any large piece of material, but having a dedicated dark cloth will make things much easier. Our dark cloths feature a drawstring to be fastened to your camera, so they will stay attached even if you are outside in breezy conditions.

Intrepid dark cloths are handmade in the USA by Wanderer, a fantastic small company helping to keep large format photography alive. They also make lightweight wraps designed to fold around Intrepid 4x5 or 8x10 cameras to protect them in a bag. 

5. Film 

This is of course an obvious one, but there are lots of different options when it comes to film choices, especially for 4x5. For someone just starting out we recommend initially opting for a box of black and white film. Black and white is incredibly forgiving and generally works out to around half the cost of colour film. This means you can experiment with different exposures and really get used to how the camera works.

When it comes to colour film there are two key types: colour negative and colour positive / slide film. Negative film is very versatile, it has great dynamic range and can handle being under or overexposed by a few stops. Slide (positive) film produces deep, saturated colours and high contrast, when exposed perfectly it can look just like the scene did in real life. However there is far less room for error with slide film, it really doesn’t like being under or overexposed even a little so can be challenging to shoot with.

Some popular colour negative films are: Kodak Portra 160, Kodak Portra 400, and Kodak Ektar 100. And colour slide film: Kodak Ektachrome E100,  Fujifilm Velvia 50, Fujifilm Provia 100. 

Each film stock has its own distinct look, so it’s a good idea to research all the options available, we recommend trying a range of different film types to find what works best for your photography.  Have a look at what your favourite photographers are using, research how different films work in different conditions and just try as many as you can!

We only covered sheet film here, but you can use lots of different film types and alternative processes with large format cameras. If you are interested in wet plate collodion, alternative processes or using adapters to shoot roll film / instant film you can find more information in our specific guide articles on these. 

5. Shutter release cable 

While not technically crucial we highly recommend using a shutter release cable for all your large format photography. They simply screw into the lens and when you push the button they will fire the shutter to expose your film. Doing this by hand without the cable release could result in unnecessary vibrations on the lens and effect the sharpness of your photo.

You can get shutter release cables in a variety of different lengths, but you would only need a long one if you plan to do self-portraits. 

6. Tripod

Using a tripod with a large format camera is essential to keep the camera and lens stable when shooting. As our cameras are so lightweight you aren’t limited in your choice of tripod. With the Intrepid 4x5 MK4 or Black Edition 4x5 you can opt for the affordable, lightweight tripods designed for smaller film or digital SLR cameras. Some people like to use a heavier tripod as they can offer more stability to your setup but it is entirely personal preference. 

When choosing a tripod take into consideration what you are most likely to be photographing. If you are going to be hiking regularly with your kit then you definitely want a lightweight tripod which can fold down nice and small and doesn't add much weight to your kit. If you’ll be doing more studio work or using very shallow depth of fields then you may wish to use a heavier tripod for increased stability. 

7. Light meter

As large format cameras are totally manual there are no automatic settings or inbuilt light meters. This allows you to have total control over your photography but it does mean a light meter is an essential item.

Some of the best digital light meters are the Sekonic range, the gold standard being the Sekonic L-308. There is also a huge range of light meter apps available for smart phones. App based light meters actually work really well and are great when you are starting out as they are often free or very cheap.

It’s important to remember smart phone meters can only take reflective meter readings, whereas a dedicated light meter will have two modes - reflective and incident. Incident metering is done from your subject to measure the light illuminating it or them. While reflective metering is done from the camera towards your subject and calculates an average reading from the light reflecting onto your scene.

There are also spot meters which are favoured by landscape photographers as they allow you to measure small areas within your scene in order to calculate a more precise reading. But if you are just starting out it’s best to get used to standard metering before trying to get your head around spot meters.

8. A way to load film

As large format film comes in single sheets rather than on a roll, it must be loaded into your film holders in the dark. If you have access to a darkroom or a room you can temporarily block out all light in then you can do it there.

The other option and generally the most popular is using a changing bag or changing tent. These are specially designed out of lightproof material and have two holes for your hands to go into, allowing you to load your film holders pretty much anywhere. This is especially useful if you are going on a long trip and have a limited number of film holders, or want the option of changing between different film stocks. 

There are a range of options when it comes to changing tents / bags, one of the most premium is the Harrison Film Changing Tent, designed originally for the motion picture industry when they still used film, but favoured by professional large format photographers. The other popular option is the Paterson Film Changing Bag, it is one of the most affordable on the market, but still very well made and simple to use.

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