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.
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.
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.”
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:
Camera capable of shooting 4×5 (or 8×10) film (find on eBay)
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.
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.
You don’t want to rush things. Each picture currently takes me about 5 minutes to prep and set up.
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.
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.
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!