A wee taster: large format photography

Large Format Landscape Photography WorkshopsA long time ago I booked for a May one-day workshop exploring large-format photography; I had to postpone this because of my broken arm, and went this weekend instead. I hope to show one of two of the images at a later date if they’re any good, but spending a take exploring what large format cameras are capable of, and the possibilities they offer, was great.

Theoretically knowing what such things can do is quite different to experiencing it, to trying it.  As someone suggested to me, it’s a bit like knowing  about cars in theory, but actually doing the driving is quite different.  This was just an introduction, but the two workshop leaders, Dav Thomas and Tim Parkin, worked well together to explain what we were aiming for and how to achieve particular things.  After showing us some of the mechanics of the cameras and why certain things worked they did, we had a go at focusing on trees in the middle-distance and heather and grasses in the foreground – if you’ve never used an LF camera before, this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds, though very satisfying when it finally works!

After lunch, we went up the hill and took some photographs.  For a newbie, it takes a long time to frame and focus each image, so, including a walk to the top of a hill (and a quick march back down at the end of the day in the pouring rain!), I took three photographs in just under 4 hours.  I think setting up, framing and focusing took between about 20 and 45 minutes – perhaps I’m just slow, but I think the other three people on the workshop were taking just as long.  Of course, it does get faster with practice – I started with a complicated composition in the woods that didn’t really work as well as it might have done had the sun shone consistently.  I then moved to another spot, and took time to get that set up correctly… a good 45 minutes, I think!  My third and final image was simpler in composition and took about 20 minutes, and I was able to release the shutter just as the first drops of rain came down.

So why go for large format?  Aside from the phenomenal detail and corresponding image size involved, for me the attraction would be in what it becomes possible to do when you can tilt and shift the lens and the back of the camera independently of one another.  Last night, after coming back from the Peak District, I found myself dreaming of retaking this image:

Goslpie harbour, final image

Goslpie harbour, final image

When I was in the harbour I wanted the lines of the jetty to be straight and for the coils of rope in the foreground to be visible, as they were when I looked at it without the camera, but it was an impossible effect to achieve with an SLR (these were taken on a DSLR).  Here is the ‘straight out of the camera’ image:

Golspie harbour, from camera

Golspie harbour, from camera

Straightening the lines of the jetty has introduced distortion – still acceptable, I think – into some of the other elements of the image, such as the white boat on the left and the blue boat in the foreground.  It’s also removed part of the coils.  I knew that I wanted what became the final image, and knew that if I took it as it was I could ‘fix’ the perspective in Photoshop.  But with a LF camera, such post-processing changes could have been largely unnecessary, or at least much reduced.  A tilt-shift lens could probably have helped me here as well, but in terms of cost, it seems to me to make more sense just to go with a LF set-up instead of a tilt-shift lens – and then one can benefit from the quality and flexibility of LF too.

So is a LF camera going to be added to my collection of tools in the future?  The one concern I have is that I struggled with the dark-cloth – I know that I am a little claustrophobic and it required considerable will-power to spend long periods setting up each shot under the dark cloth.  A black fleece jacket, which is much more open than the professional cloths Dav and Tim offered, might be a better solution for me.  I think my next step will be to borrow an LF camera sometime and play a little more with it, but I see no reason NOT to invest, once my finances allow!

In the meantime, if you’re wondering whether this might be something for you, or you just want to try something a bit different, do go on one of Dav and Tim’s courses – it was enjoyable, informative, and the two of them are a good team.


5 thoughts on “A wee taster: large format photography

  1. Mike Green

    Interesting item, Michael. I may book myself on one of Tim/Dav’s workshops sometime next year. As to the time taken: with a tilt-shift lens I’m now down to a couple of minutes for setting up most compositions, whereas it started out nearer 15-20, so it does get quicker. That said, I suspect a proper view camera is more difficult than a single PC-E lens… I’m very much sold on camera movements though, so I suspect either LF or MF with movements is the way to go in the future – you’ll be hooked 😉


    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Go for it – the workshop was great, and even if you decide not to buy an LF camera, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the workshop!

      As you may recall, I asked you about your usage of the tilt-shift lens a little while ago. I’ve been wanting to engage with the idea of lens movements for a while. Now, having been on the workshop, it’s clear to me that LF is the way I want to go with that. And getting started with an LF kit appears to be cheaper than, for example, the wide angle Nikon tilt-shift lens. One day, of course, I’d like both!! 🙂

  2. Tim Parkin

    Really glad you enjoyed the workshop! The weather certainly made you go fast on that last shot! You should look at getting a viewer for the LF (something like the one on this page – http://www.ebonycamera.com/acc.html) or perhaps a 45 degree viewer (http://gbl.bz/uQuTNQ). I used to take about 40 minutes to get a shot right (I was spending a lot of time getting the shot far too right) but over time have learned what I can skimp on in terms of exposure and focus and can happily get a shot in about 5 mins if necessary, usually about 10-15 though. I’m not sure I could get properly happy with a composition in less than four or five minutes though so it won’t get any less than this. I usually spend about 10-20 minutes on a composition if it’s not obvious though.

    1. Michael Marten Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Tim – it was a really good day. I didn’t expose correctly for the last shot, which was massively underexposed, (to the extent that no sensible amount of Photoshopping can rescue it), but it’s all a learning process…

      The viewer links are really interesting – I think it’s the kind of thing that might suit me really well, and would help with the cloth issue. I’ll let you know what happens on this front!

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