My Foray Into Large Format Photography by Taylor Blanchard

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film
This post may contain affiliate links. If you click on a link and make a purchase, Shoot It With Film may receive a small commission at no additional cost to you.

Written by Taylor Blanchard

About the time I started printing in the darkroom, I acquired my first medium format camera: a Holga 120S. The more I printed my negatives, the more I gravitated to 120 film.

I love printing on 11×14 and 16×20 paper, and I realized that larger negatives can make much crisper, larger prints. I started imagining the possibilities of even larger negatives.

Captivated by the beautiful designs of large format cameras, I was overcome with romantic notions of working with cameras steeped in photographic history. However, I also felt intimidated and therefore apprehensive to dive into the format.

Every time I would research large format, I would become more overwhelmed.

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

My First Attempt with Large Format Film Photography

After getting a handle on the basics, I finally took the plunge and bought an Anba Ikeda folding 4×5 field camera – a classic cherry wood camera – a bit dinged and obviously well-loved.

When the camera arrived, I was so excited that I immediately purchased film. We were going to Folly Beach in South Carolina for a long winter weekend, and I had visions of setting up the camera at the ocean’s edge, composing photos of the beautiful gray vastness.

Then I tried to open the camera. I had no idea what I was doing. When I finally opened the camera, it was so fussy – I didn’t know which knobs to loosen and which to tighten. I struggled to get the lens in place. Once I had the camera open, I couldn’t get it closed again.

I quickly realized I wasn’t quite ready to take the camera on that particular trip.

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film
Grab your free copy of the Shoot It With Film magazine!

Building Confidence Through Practice

When we returned, I set about the process to learn everything I needed.

I spent a few days practicing with the camera in our living room: setting it on the tripod, opening it, attaching the lens, metering, focusing, setting the aperture and shutter speed on the lens, inserting the film holder, removing the dark slide, pressing the cable release, and putting the dark slide back in.

When I was finally comfortable with the camera, I practiced loading and unloading the film holders in the light with my eyes closed (I wasted a piece of film for this) and then in my changing bag. I also practiced getting the film onto the Mod54 film processor for the Paterson 3-reel tank.

If you want more info on the basics of large format, check out this article here.

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film
Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

I was finally (I hoped) ready and devoted a few afternoons to taking photos in Charlotte where we live.

I shot CatLabs X Film 80 to start, which is moderately priced for sheet film. I recommend starting with a less expensive film when you first start shooting large format, so it’s less painful if you make a mistake.

When it was time to develop, I was so focused on successfully getting the negatives onto the film processor that I didn’t use enough chemistry in the tank (750 ml instead of 1000ml), which yielded uneven negatives.

Nonetheless, there was enough detail to know the negatives were properly exposed, which gave me confidence.

After several successful outings with black and white, I ventured into some higher-priced color film: Kodak Portra 160 4×5 sheet film and Kodak Ektar 100 4×5 sheet film.

I was blown away by my first color images from the camera. The colors! The range!

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film
Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

Printing Large Format in the Darkroom

Printing 4×5 in the darkroom has certainly lived up to my hopes. One unexpected joy is making contact prints on small paper stock.

For enlarging, I am just as amazed as expected about the range of tones and how easy it is to get a crisp image even at larger paper sizes.

I’ve not necessarily found it easier: I still need to do just as much work with contrast filters, split filter printing, and dodging and burning. After a few years of printing on RC photo paper, I’ve also been printing on fiber paper to get the full range of tones and contrast.

Also unexpected: I still want to shoot 120 and even 35mm, and have a newfound appreciation for small prints, which can feel more intimate and full of small details.

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film
Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

Embracing the Journey & What I’ve Learned

Beyond the basic operation of the camera, there is always something new to learn with large format.

My approach has been to tackle each aspect of large format as it arises. For example, I first used a very flimsy tripod, and then realized it wasn’t sturdy enough, so I started researching tripods suitable for large format cameras.

I also was getting vignetting on many of my early images, which led me to learn about image circle — or how much coverage a lens provides your negative to allow for camera movement.

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

Setting up a large format camera in the field will certainly elicit stares and often comments or questions. I’ve also realized that simply telling someone “this is a 4×5 camera” or “it’s large format” does not really explain what it is.

Many people don’t know there is film larger than 35mm. It’s a fun opportunity to strike up a conversation and talk about film, and people will often share stories of their own film camera, or their parents’ or grandparents’ cameras.

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film
Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

Film is a slower process, and 4×5 photography slows down the process even further. Because it takes longer to set up the camera and take a photo, I spend more time pre-visualizing what I want to capture.

I’ve also been very conscious to not take a photo if I set up the camera and don’t see my vision. It’s helpful to have a 35mm or medium format camera with me in those instances, so I can still take a photo.

Since buying the camera, I’ve taught my husband Marc what I’ve learned. He also loves taking film photographs, and we have a good routine in the field to set up the camera. I haven’t yet convinced him to load the film holders or develop the negatives though!

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

Almost a year into my large format journey, I’m still learning and getting comfortable, but it’s been an incredible part of my photographic journey. I’ve learned a lot about reading the light in a scene.

Any wagers on how long before I want to buy an 8×10 camera?

Large format film photography image - Shooting Large Format Film Photography by Taylor Blanchard on Shoot It With Film

Thank you so much, Taylor! Taylor is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out her other articles here.

You can also check out Taylor’s work on Instagram.

Leave your thoughts and questions about large format film photography below in the comments!

Shoot It With Film Magazine Issue 01 Promo Image

Taylor Blanchard

Taylor Blanchard is a regular contributor for Shoot It With Film, and she specializes in landscape and travel photography. Find her other articles here.

Tags:
Blog Comments

As for wagers, I’d guess you’ve already looked… If only out of curiosity.

Matt – ha, yes definitely! I think two things are holding me back: having to buy new film holders and lenses for 8×10. But, I am sure it will happen eventually.

Fantastic article, Taylor!! I’m dying to try large format. You make the experience sound so magical and worth the hard work.

Cami – it really is magical and I think you would love it. You could get some great photos in your studio space too!

Leave a Comment