1 year (more or less) with large format film
Well, guys, I’m hooked. It’s almost been a year since I placed the order for my first large-format camera, the first version of the Intrepid Field Camera, and I’m finally ready to share some details about my experience.
Over the weekend, I shot and processed some of my first sheets of color reversal film and it’s lit the fire inside me, surely to burn brightly for the rest of the summer.
It hasn’t been all smiles and sunny 16, though. It’s been a very trying experience for me in my progression; cutting my teeth with large format film photography has shown me a fair share of failure along the way. It’s important for me to identify my mistakes and learn how to produce better results by overcoming obstacles, without spending a whole lot of money.
In the beginning
When I placed my initial large-format order, I also bought a small stack of FP100C from a local photographer who was cutting the cord and going full-digital (Thanks again, Jamie!). That pile of beloved peel-apart pack film proved to be very helpful with getting my feet wet in large format with the Intrepid.
I quickly sourced a relatively decent Polaroid back and, before long, I was cursing and swearing when I couldn’t figure out just how to load it. Luckily, it only cost me one sheet before I realized I incorrectly loaded the back.
Sometimes, I overreact. It’s human nature. So, when I mistakenly thought the entire pack of film was fouled, I was very relieved to find it was only one sheet wasted. One thing is for certain; I went through a lot of film when I first started getting familiar with exposures on the Intrepid.
My initial experiments continued with 3 boxes of Ilford Delta 100 sheets I had acquired in a $100 film mystery box purchase. I exposed a few shots with the pinhole lens that shipped with my kit, using my iPhone as a light meter, and just enjoying the ride. The pinhole didn't last long for my tastes but who knows, maybe one day I'll give it another shot.
I realized landscapes were not quite working for me, but I was really enjoying portraiture, so I stuck with that for a while.
On top of being a bit clunky and awkward while shooting for the first time, large format photography also poses its own challenges when it comes to scanning developed images. This aspect encouraged me to set up the darkroom, more than I would have otherwise, just to see the results of the large format film printed to paper - and it was good. My usual scanning workflow is primarily with the F135 Pakon or Epson V600, which only support 135 and 135/120 format films, respectively, which is much easier that taking over the only bathroom in my apartment for the weekend.
This whole experimentation phase was fruitful in that it allowed me to get more familiar with the hardware and getting a taste of the different measures required for processing and post-processing, even if I didn't make many spectacular photos.
Once the weather warmed up in the spring, it offered more possibilities than being confined to shooting indoors. Finally, I was able to shoot instant outdoors without having to put cold clips in my armpits! Being able to freely maneuver your arms while your peel apart film develops feels like a luxury after a long winter but making it easier to be outside and shoot was much more beneficial for my progression.
Beyond the basics
Summer is finally here, and I’ve rekindled my love for landscape photography. My winter hibernation helped me learn some fundamentals of large format shooting, and now I’m taking the next step by learning to use movements. Previously, I was just happy to simply see the faint, inverted image in my viewfinder, but perfecting my technique has now become my focus.
For me, this means stopping down and aligning my focus with a little bit of tilt. The process of perfecting technique is so rewarding and motivating. I respect the process of learning, and I recognize the necessity of understanding the basics before moving on to more challenging techniques. I see the product of my experimentation (and the stacks of wasted film) transform into taking better images and it has only deepened my motivation with large format film.
Inspiration leads the way
I have a goal in mind for my large format aspirations. I want to make beautiful images, on large format slide film. That’s it.
Color reversal film is majestic, and not something to be taken lightly. When you add slide film to the context of large format photography, it’s a recipe for something truly magical.
At $5/sheet, or more, large format slide film is not the film you want to make your mistakes on. Ideally, by the time you’re packing slides, you’ll want to know what you’re doing.
Slide film has no dynamic range. Well, it does, but barely anything close to that of negative films. A couple stops on either side and that is about all you can afford with color reversal film. It is a bit of a drawback but, if anything, will quickly teach you the importance of nailing exposure and you will be rewarded with brilliant colour and contrast.
I still have a bit to learn on this front. For the time being, I’m trying to shoot areas with less contrast or not directly into the sun. Unfortunately, there is only so much I can do without filters. I do have one 2-stop circular ND Grad, but not being able to place the transition manually on my scene can be very limiting. My goal is to try multiple ND Grad filters and possibly a reverse ND grad to balance those head-on sunset shots.
Until then, I’m happy shooting south-west or north-east to get that golden hour glow on the horizon.
*I have since made the jump and bought a drop-in filter kit with some ND Grads - more on that in a new post.
Three legs to stand on
Aside from informing my future filter purchase decisions, I have a few other things I can credit for the advent of large format slide film in my shooting.
I have Felix, Benson and Tashia, and they do a fantastic job supporting me, but when I talk about needing more support, I’m referring to my tripod. I’ve realized what I consider important, in a tripod, has changed.
I used to value compact size and portability but those properties are no longer on my list of wants, let alone needs.
They have yet to show up, but my new legs are sturdy, tall and rigid. Hopefully the new head that will be permanently mounted atop, along with the sturdy legs, will not make too heavy a combination.
*My new tripod legs and head have since showed up and have made a world of difference - more on that later
This could get expensive, he thought, as he indecisively clicked ‘Submit Order’ on yet another piece of large format equipment.
I know, buying more gear to solve a problem has GAS (gear-acquisition syndrome) written all over it. It’s a fair assessment, but I will assure you I’ve nearly exhausted my current tripod, trying to make it work for my Intrepid camera on a windy Saskatchewan day.
I’ve resorted to using a 10-pound sandbag as support-weight just to keep things steady and, even then, it can still move depending on the wind.
In my crash course through large format photography, I’ve tried to get by without directly purchasing some components and, in some cases, it helped me get to the next step.
One thing crucial for me was knowing another large format photographer. Martin set me up with a lens (albeit, one with a homemade cardboard lens board), a Grafmatic back, some other paraphernalia I’m still unfamiliar with, and some BTZS tubes. Thanks to Martin, I didn’t have to buy everything I needed to start making photos with the Intrepid.
As it turns out, the Grafmatic back didn’t work for me, the lens had terrible timing issues and, while the obscure BTZS got the job done, the entire setup wasn’t practical for me.
The hodge-podge of rag-tag photography accessories did, however, help me get from one point to another, and gave me the first steps to lead me where I am now.
I’ve traded the Fuji 150 for a Nikon Nikkor 180, the cardboard lens board for a proper aluminum board, and I’m now using the MOD54, instead of the bizarre thing that is “the BTZS”.
No end in sight
There have been a lot of ups and downs through my experience with large format photography. I’ve failed a lot. It stings when you feel the first blunt-force of a mindless error, such as leaving the aperture open and burning your last sheet of Velvia 50, or facing the dark-slide the wrong way and losing track of your exposed film. Then, you see positive results and everything, no matter how ridiculous, seems justified.
Despite the rollercoaster ride, I’ve somehow managed to keep at it.
My transition into large format photography gathers all I know about photography and puts it to the test. Technique, theory and practical applications I’ve studied, and experimented with over the years, culminate to where I am now, looking through the ground glass of “Big Red”.
I haven’t felt this motivated in months and I’m going to ride this wave as long as I can.
Images "scanned" with Canon 70D on iPad mini for backlight.