Getting Started with Large Format Film Photography by David Rose

Large format film photography landscape on 4x5 black and white film - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
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Written by David Rose

My analog journey has been an upward spiral when it comes to film formats.

I started shooting exclusively on film in 2015, when I only had two 35mm cameras in my inventory: A fully manual Pentax K1000 and a Pentax ME Super.

It wasn’t long before I was eyeing the next level up in my mind, which was medium format, and I acquired a square format (6×6) Pentacon Six TL in 2016, and later a Pentax 67 in 2017.

The Pentax 67 has been my primary camera ever since.

Recently, I was blessed with a mint 70+ year old Graflex Speed Graphic camera which shoots a whopping 4×5 size film format.

Find Graflex Speed Graphic large format cameras on eBay.

An Easy Guide to Large Format Film Photography
An Easy Guide to Large Format Film Photography
An Easy Guide to Large Format Film Photography
Large format film photography landscape on 4x5 black and white film - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
4×5 Ilford Delta 100, Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic, 127mm

A Bit About Large Format Film Photography

Here, you can see a scaled size comparison for 35mm, medium format, and large format photography.

A large format 4×5 negative is over 2 to 3 times as large as the medium format negatives and over 10 times as large as a 35mm negative.

Film format size comparison chart - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
Quick size comparison of popular film formats from 35mm to 4×5

What is the Benefit of a Large Negative?

There are a few benefits to shooting large format, especially when it comes to image quality. The larger the negative the sharper the image with less grain and better tonal range.

It also has an incredible amount of detail retention when printed. A film print loses quality due to how many times the negative needs to be magnified to achieve a certain size print.

For a standard 8×10″ print, a 35mm negative needs to be magnified 8ish times, while a 4×5 large format image only needs to be magnified twice.

Less magnification = higher quality.

Large format film photography landscape on 4x5 film - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
4×5 Kodak Portra 400, Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic, 127mm

Using the Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic

If you’re a fan of history or classic movies, you might recognize the Speed Graphic as the quintessential press camera that every self-respecting, old-timey reporter would sling with a giant flash bulb mounted to the side.

Vintage photograph of reporters using large format press cameras -
A common sight for celebrities in the 1950s
Image credit: Antique and Classic Photographic Images

I’ve primarily shot on SLR style cameras over the years, so not only has this foray into large format been an upgrade in terms of image size/resolution, but the learning curve of shooting this style of camera has been a fun challenge.

For someone who considers himself to be a somewhat competent photographer, the Graflex Speed Graphic camera has been humbling.

Large format 4x5 Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic -
Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic Large Format Camera
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It took me about 10 minutes before I finally figured out how to open the camera properly. (Protip: when facing the camera from the front, it’s the slightly raised bump on the upper right side which releases the latch holding the front door closed.)

One unique part of this camera is the ability to use either a lens or focal plane shutter.

Most large format camera systems have shutters built into the lens, which is somewhat limiting since you can only use certain types of lenses, but this camera also has a focal plane shutter which opens up the possibility of using non-standard lenses.

Another thing I’ve found is that this camera is a conversation starter, almost everyone who walks by will either make a comment or stop to chat. I’ve had several awesome interactions with older gentlemen who used to shoot on this same camera “back in the day.”

Large format film photography landscape on 4x5 film - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
4×5 Kodak Portra 400, Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic, 127mm

Getting Started with Large Format Photography

If you’re interested in trying out large format, here are some indispensables that will help get you started:

Large Format Essentials and Equipment List:

  1. Camera capable of shooting 4×5 (or 8×10) film (find on eBay)
  2. Sheet Film (find on Amazon or at Adorama)
    • Large format film comes in sheet film instead of the normal roll film that you’ll see in 35mm and medium format. It comes in light sealed boxes of usually 10-20 sheets, and most of the film stocks made for medium format have a large format equivalent, such as Ilford HP5 and Kodak Portra 400.
  3. Manual cable release (find on Amazon)
    • Necessary so that you don’t bump or jostle the camera when activating the shutter, especially useful for longer exposures.
  4. Film changing bag (find on Amazon)
    • To load/unload film from the holders. Also doubles as a dark cloth in a pinch to aid in focusing and composing on the ground glass.
  1. Film holder(s) (find at KEH Camera or on eBay)
    • You’ll probably want to pick up a few of these so that you’re not having to constantly load and unload film in the field.
  2. Light meter (find on Amazon)
    • You can get a dedicated light meter or use another camera with a built-in meter.
  3. Tripod (find on Amazon)
    • Large format photography is typically not a run-and-gun approach, each image takes time and careful preparation, and using a tripod will help you nail the composition you’re envisioning.
  4. Patience
    • You don’t want to rush things. Each picture currently takes me about 5 minutes to prep and set up.
Large format film photography landscape on 4x5 black and white film - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
4×5 Ilford Delta 100, Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic, 127mm

Loading the Film

The fact that you’re dealing with individual sheets makes things a bit trickier since you have to load the film by sliding and sealing it in the holder in complete darkness, which is all done by touch (this is where a film change bag is essential).

Film holders can usually hold two frames of film, one on each side, and there is a dark slide that remains in place at all times until you load the film holder in the camera and slide it out of the way as a final step before you trip the shutter.

The dark slide is typically black on one side, and white w/ raised bumps on the other. After shooting, you want to flip the dark slide over before reinserting. This system allows you to keep track of which sides have been exposed.

Large format film photography landscape on 4x5 black and white film - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
4×5 Ilford Delta 100, Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic, 127mm

Composing Your Image and Using the Viewfinder

With a large format camera, the image you see on the ground glass is upside down and horizontally flipped, which makes composition… fun.

The cool thing about it is that you are seeing exactly what the film will “see” when you expose (no mirrors or rangefinders etc).

Also, once the film holder is inserted, it blocks your view of the image, so you have to compose the shot first, and then slide the film holder in the way and shoot blind.

This is also why using a tripod is essential so that you don’t move and ruin your comp/focus, and it helps to visualize your shot beforehand, either with your good ol’ eyes or another camera (if you have one on you).

For me, trying to compose on the ground glass itself is like trying to ride a bike cross-armed and backwards. 

A dark cloth can also help with composition. You don’t absolutely need this but it does help to nail the focus/comp since the image on the ground glass will be fainter if there is peripheral light coming through.

I’ve been using my film changing bag as a makeshift dark cloth to help isolate myself, but plan on getting an actual dark cloth soon.

The image area is big enough that you can focus without the aid of a split screen or microprism, but I’ve heard that some people will even use a magnifying glass or loupe in order to hit critical focus. 

Large format film photography landscape on 4x5 black and white film - Intro to Large Format 4x5 Film Photography by David Rose on Shoot It With Film
4×5 Ilford Delta 100, Graflex Pacemaker Speed Graphic, 127mm

Developing the Film

Richard Photo Lab and theFINDlab both develop large format film, or you can develop it yourself.

For the film I’ve sent to the lab, I didn’t want to take any chances of having it accidentally exposed to light, so I just sent it still in the film holder. But this meant that I had to wait for the return shipment before I could use that holder again.

For self development, there are adapters you can buy for most DIY developing methods – I have a Mod 54 adapter (find on Amazon or at Adorama) for a Paterson Universal tank which I plan to start using in the near future!

If you want to learn how to develop film yourself, check out these articles on developing black and white film and developing color film.

While I’m by no means an expert yet on large format photography, I’m always happy to answer questions if you reach out to me via DM on Instagram. Hope you found this guide helpful!

Thank you so much, David! David is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here, such as his Guide to Choosing a Color Film and Ilford Black and White Film Guide.

You can also find more of David’s work on Instagram!

Leave your questions about shooting large format and 4×5 film below in the comments, and pick up a Graflex Speed Graphic for yourself or on eBay.

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David Rose

David Rose is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film. Find his other articles here, such as Guide to Choosing a Color Film and 35mm vs 120: Choosing a Film Format.

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Blog Comments

Instead of a dark cloth try a black t-shirt! Put the neck aound the camera body. Won’t blow off, works great, and you probably already have one. Also, to get the sheets out of the holder when developing, I find a bit of discarded film cut like a guitar pick makes things easy.

Such great tips, Michael! Thank you for sharing!

And if you could find yourself couple of good grafmatics, you could be shooting as fast as medium format.

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