Written by Montague Fendt
My Journey Into Large Format Film Photography
In 2003, I was among the last group of students in film school to receive an education using a 35mm motion picture film. Apart from feeling extremely proud once I got my hands on a 35mm motion picture Arriflex camera, I only realized much later that it was an extremely helpful piece of education, which impacted my still photography work as well. One month, we had to shoot a 3 minute short film with one 1000ft mag. At 25fps, this gives you realistically about 9 minutes for a 3 minute film! You better be very well prepared, rehearsed, and know exactly what you want to do with your exposure, your movements, focus, and actors. It’s a lot of pressure. Personally, I do feel an enhanced concentration when I hear the precious celluloid frames speeding through the camera. This significantly trained me to pre-visualize shots in motion or stills alike.
Nowadays to earn a living, I mostly work in advertising where I do exactly the opposite of what I experienced in school. I shoot on digital cinema cameras, and I catch myself rolling longer takes than I should and going through a mountain of footage to pick the gold. In the end, everything will be straightened, color corrected, and cleaned up. This is likely why I went back to analogue for all of my artistic work.
Being a life long film shooter, walking into town with a camera that only has 5 photos left always inspired me. Before I press the shutter, I reflect for a fraction of a second longer than I would with a digital camera. I frame a bit more carefully, look at the light more thoroughly, and reflect on the correlation between the subject and the environment a bit more. And when I take the picture, one picture, I usually end up with something I like.
More and more, I started to pre-visualize my shots extensively. It became so extreme that I would wake up with a certain scene in mind, a specific portrait, a look or technique, and it would not go away until I captured it. I often arrive at a place and see an image unfold in front of my eyes. I check the path of the sun, frame the scene in my head, and plan exactly how to capture this scene to capture its essence. If the weather, direction of the light, or any detail is not as I imagined it to be, I will go to great lengths to come back and get the shot some other time.
Long story short, large format was the next logical step for me. It is perfect if you have the urge to capture the kinds of photographs I’m speaking of. It shapes a sort of mindset, leading you towards creating the landscape, the portrait, the city shot, or whatever you always wanted to capture perfect. Maybe because it takes time or because it’s large and every shot is rather expensive, it drives you to thoroughly prepare your shot with a certain purpose. These are all personal feelings which I experience when working with large format. It boosts my discipline, knowing what I want and paying attention to details, measuring light carefully, making notes of everything, being patient, and reflecting on the scene which is unfolding in front of my eyes.
Equipment Needed For Large Format Film Photography
If you start from scratch, these are the essentials of large format photography and home development:
- Large Format Camera and Lens (Find Large Format Cameras at KEH Camera)
- Film Holder (Find sheet film holders at KEH Camera)
- A Box of Large Format Film (Find large format film on Amazon)
For at-home developing: (Check out this post here on Shoot It With Film for step by step instructions and a supply list for developing b&w film.)
- A 4×5 Developer Drum (Find 4×5 Developing Tanks on Adorama)
- Developing chemicals
- Enlarger (for printing in a darkroom) or Scanner (for digitizing on a computer)
To keep everything under control regarding costs, I believe that home development is crucial. Everybody has his or her preference, I use the ‘Ars Imago R9’ developer for B/W for easy consistent results and great value for money. My C41/E6 I develop with a ‘Tetenal Colortec’ kit that you can find online or at your local store. In the beginning, try to be precise and develop by the book. After a few months, it will become second nature.
As you know with any format of photography, lenses are a very personal choice. I can only speak about my own preference and why I chose a 150mm lens as my main workhorse. Most ‘standard’ 150mm large format lenses can be two lenses in one. There’s the 150mm focal length (horizontal FOV approx. 47mm in 35mm format). Even if it’s not classified as a ‘convertible lens,’ by taking off the rear element (Usually on ‘Sironar’ lenses you take off the rear, on ‘Symmar’ lenses you take off the front) it turns it into a 450mm lens (approx. 141mm in 35mm format). It does lose a few stops of light and will create optical aberration, but sometimes this might work for you as a soft focus lens to capture portraits and dreamy landscapes. I shot this photo without the rear element:
Something else that makes large format fun in more than one way is the fact that you work with sheet film holders, which typically hold a single negative on each side. An advantage and something that I love very much. Within a minute, I have the option of shooting one frame of Ektar, then a Shanghai GP3, and a Fuji Velvia 100F, all without the commitment of having to go through a full roll photos. Redscale? Just put the negative in the holder upside down. Liquid emulsions? Easily shoot on positive paper, shoot on coated archival paper, on wood, glass, stone, you name it.
A Tip For Beginners
People will tell you that large format is complicated, hard to get right, a pain to use, that you need a PhD in light metering, that it takes forever to set it up, and so on. Don’t listen. Don’t be intimidated by it for a second, and don’t be discouraged by rather monotonous sounding large format photographers on blogs who tell you how to do everything painstakingly detailed. The process is obviously slower than working on 35mm or medium format, but the possibilities are boundless and beautiful results are quickly achievable. This landscape of Säntis was my first large format photograph:
Why I Love Shooting Large Format Film Photography
To me, it is a truly great experimental system due to all the easily accessible parts. After all, it is just a lens, bellows, and a ground-glass. Personally, I love abstract imagery, and I get rather easily bored by conventional photographic processes. The large format system is a great tool for me to get right out there, creating masks, multiple exposures, in-camera split images, work with what I call ‘in-camera contact prints,’ various negatives stuck on top of each other to create a new take on double-exposure. Sometimes, I end up using my camera almost as a brush to ‘paint’ surrealist scenes just by exposing specific parts of in-camera masks multiple times, creating different shades of grey by exposure compensation, a technique I call ‘Exposure-graph.’
Nowadays, large format often goes hand in hand with a rather conservative approach, shooting landscapes or portraits in a clean manner, which is great and often beautiful. Many times, though, I just want more, I want to expand my large format work beyond the ordinary and into a more surreal and abstract realm.
Thank you so much, Monty! Be sure to check out more of Monty’s work on his website and Instagram. Monty will also have an exhibition this September in Saignelégier, Switzerland of his “Diagonal Compositions” series, “Black Suns” series, and selected experimental work.