Choice of Medium: Digital or film-based?    Research and development in film-based equipment has been much slower than improvements in digital technology which behaves more like the computer market. Here are some questions to pose when trying to draw conclusions at any given point:

  • Has digital caught up?
    • By what criteria?
    • Can it render the qualities that we prize in B & W printing?
    • Are inks as stable as silver emulsions?
    • Is there greater exposure latitude with some color and b&w films?
  • How long will modern equipment be serviceable? Repairable? Will this only be available for the longer term with professional equipment? What are repair costs?
  • What is the market value of a 6MP semi-pro body when 10-12MP point-and-shoot cameras are available for $300? Should we think of camera hardware as expendables, since the "film" cost is less?

These and many more points of comparison are changing so rapidly in digital photography that making choices on the basis of continual well-reasoned economic analysis is daunting. While there can be some crossover between digital and film based equipment, in medium and large format work, this happens at the high end of the market and is well beyond the budget I have established on this site. Many photographers--particularly those on limited, moderate budgets--who do both film and digital work have two distinct sets of equipment--digital cameras and lens kits, computers with photo-editing software and ink-jet printers; then medium and/or large format film cameras and lenses and darkrooms. Of course it is possible to use labs to process and print film and possible to shift horses after film processing, scan negatives and slides and print with computer-based equipment.

If photographers make an exclusive choice between the photographic media it may be based on comfort level, previous investment or aesthetic preference or it may be that a commercial sector of photography that they are involved with demands one or the other. So I don't even suggest a choice here, but proceed with an exploration of film-based cameras.

...and an idea...Film photography represents a front end investment in materials, processing and, usually significant setup time. I've found it convenient to explore with digital--locations, framing, color/b&w, lighting--both in shooting and editing, always keeping in mind the possibilities with film. After looking at digital results, I may return to a location with the film/LF equipment to explore possibilities with those media.

Choice of format. As photographers explore larger film formats, there is a central issue--medium or large format. Medium film formats are generally considered 6 x 4.5cm, 6 x 6 cm, 6 x 7 cm and 6 x 9 cm; large film formats are 3 1/4 x 4 1/4 and 4 x 5 inches, ultra large (ULF) film formats include 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 inches or larger. The development of panoramic formats have enriched film choice. 6 x 12cm and 6 x 17cm on 120 rollfilm fits better in the LF category, since these require 4 x 5 cameras. Custom panoramic sheet film formats can be made to several sizes, but ones based on standards sheetfilm sizes like 4 x 10 and 5 1/2 x 14 offer better choices of materials.

In the general medium format market, you can select from fully automated super-35 SLR designs--typically in 6 x 4.5cm, 6 x 6 cm and 6 x 7cm; twin-lens reflexes--typically with a square 6 x 6 cm format; 'miniature' press cameras using different sized rollfilm backs; older or new 120 rangefinder cameras with less or more automation; and 6 x 9 technical or monorail cameras.

Post WWII large format equipment is pretty much limited to press, technical, field and monorail cameras and Graflex SLRs. Each of these designs have major and minor advantages and major and minor limitations. Each photographer has a style and a current and intended mix of subjects and shooting environments to be supported by a mix of equipment.

Narrowing the Focus. To make this subject more manageable, at this point I want to greatly reduce the scope of equipment considered. Medium format SLRs--like Bronicas, Hasselblads, Mamiyas, Pentaxes--and medium format rangefinders--older ones like Graflex XLs with lens sets are generally available in our budget. These are all useful for hand-held work with moving subjects as well as good image quality for closeups, portraiture and landscapes and the larger medium formats like 6 x 9 challenge the image quality of the 4 x 5 format, but most medium format cameras provide no opportunities for standards movements since they use rigid metal bodies with barrel-type lenses. There are some exceptions, though some are beyond the budget, the support standards movements that are often necessary for controlling perspective and optimal focus control.

Some MF exceptions:

  • Pacemaker Graphic 23 (Century and Crown)-- Affordable, rugged, manageable, excellent focusing range for 120 rollholders. Modest front rise/fall, tilt, shift and (with slight modification) swing; rear tilt.
  • Technika 6 x 9. Expensive, heavy, precise. Later models have full front and rear movements. In good condition, beyond the budget and as heavy as many 4 x 5 technical and field cameras.
  • Ebony 6 x 9 field cameras. Well beyond the budget, but well worth studying for a general appreciation of LF photography.
  • Horseman VH/VH-R. An affordable Technika clone, well made, manageable. Moderate full front and rear movements. Revolving accessory back for good workflow with rollfilm. Limited support for widefield lenses.
  • Gowland Pocket View. At about 3 lb., provides extensive front movements.------
  • --two of the three exceptions that have movements--the 2x3 Technicas and the Ebony field cameras--are beyond the budget. The Horseman VH/VH-R is within the budget and may represent a good option for those who know they will only be shooting rollfilm, but in general, exploring LF photography is better served by looking at larger formats.
      Notes on 2 x 3 vs. 4 x 5

Incidentally, with a 4x5 camera, you are not limited to 4x5 sheet film, since there are many 120 rollholders that can be used with the G international (Graflok) back and some rollholders that can be used with backs that do not have removable ground glass focusing frames. Here is more information about film sizes.

The shopping targets. Not everyone needs inexpensive large format equipment, but if you have gotten this far in this site and are not independently wealthy, I can assume that you are just starting in large format photography and would like to experiment with this format without taking a second mortgage. One of the goals, of this site, based on my personal experience, is to identify 4x5 cameras and perhaps a single lens for under $1000, either new or used.

Why pick this format? The choice of 4 x 5 format seems obvious to most, though who can argue with the photographer who wants to get that last ounce of resolution from 11 x 14 contact prints. For most of us, going beyond 4 x 5 gets exorbitantly expensive, since in addition to cameras and lenses, we must also buy enlargers and lenses. Conversely, there are persuasive arguments that with modern emulsions, 6x7 and 6x9 formats provide quality that rivals the 4 x 5 format, particularly with print sizes through 16 x 20, though the large negatives will provide nicer gradation. There are a few 6 x9 technical and monorail cameras, and with some exceptions, most are nearly as large and heavy as their 4 x 5 counterparts.

When working with groundglass focusing, many find examining 6 x 9 panel to be tedious, since the traditional way of doing this is careful examination of the glass with a handheld loupe. Reflex and magnifying viewers bring viewing into the 20th cy at least, and while these kinds of viewers work less well with slower--f /8 to f /11--lenses, they do work reasonably well with faster modern MF lenses, and many of the viewers offered are the swing away type that allow open access to the GG for loupe inspection for critical focusing. I know of two technical cameras--the small Technikas and the Horseman VH/VH-R--that have good reflex viewers. Ebony makes a bellows focusing hood for their 2 x 3 and 4 x 5 cameras and a removable magnifier. If you are convinced you want to work with rollfilm formats, you may want to explore small techincals--Technikas and Horsemans--or small monorails. There are many reflex and magnifying viewers for 4 x 5 cameras. Here is a page that outlines different camera backs and focusing options for equipment for MF and LF cameras with movements .

Once considerations of automation have been set aside, I think that investing in 6 x ?-only equipment is unduly limiting for the first time buyer. This provides no basis for direct comparison of the two formats, while buying a 4 x 5 camera lets the user try both 4 x 5 sheet film and 120 roll film for an initial evaluation and for continued selective use. Finally, 4 x 5 is the sweet spot both in terms of feature selection, brand and model availability, and cost.

The LF Camera Market. In general, higher prices may bring clever engineering that makes LF cameras operate more smoothly, have greater rigidity, and/or reduce weight, but there are also examples of higher prices bringing significantly diminishing returns. Forums that report the experience of users and that allow emerging users to ask questions are good places to gain vicarious experience and to get insights into the benefits, or not, of trading up.

Obviously, carefully used cameras fetch prices considerably higher than heavily used ones. LF equipment can range from nearly new equipment bought by an aspiring LF photographer who never gets around to using it to equipment that has been used so much that it is no longer reliable. Dealers are usually well informed, honestly represent their goods and get market prices for them. Individuals may offer equipment in auctions and provide complete and frank assessments of condition, but auctions can also offer equipment that is only generally described and sold 'as-is,' where the less-informed buyer is not well equipped to ask pertinent questions. Most LF cameras are simple mechanisms and older equipment may just need careful cleaning and minor repairs, if you are willing to live with worn paint and slightly corroded metal. If you aren't so lucky, apparent bargains may arrive with problems that are not easily repaired. Lenses and shutters are critical, so their condition is important. Here is a page that can help you recognize problems and ask important questions when shopping.

Some issues to keep in mind when considering your first LF purchase:

  • Costs: Is there a floor beneath which you shouldn't descend? Where do diminishing returns really set in? Is there a sweet spot that you should aim for?
  • Weight/bulk: Large format photography uses large cameras. In your intended use, will some cameras be just too large and heavy? What are "must have" features for an outfit that will meet your photographic needs?
  • Flexibility: Will your first purchases give you the basis on which to evaluate the general opportunities of larger formats and find those combinations that fit your personal needs and style?

    ...and another idea...if you are the kind of buyer who relishes researching options, immerse yourself in the rest of the site and linked sources. If you only wish to test the water, consider investing $200-300 in a Crown Graphic 23 with a 101mm Ektar or a Crown Graphic 45 with a 152mm Ektar and some film holders and a basic tripod to see if you like film and MF or LF work. This will let you evaluate larger formats and basic movements. If you find that you aren't interested or wish to trade up, you should be able to recover most of your original investment.

You may purchase a lens with your first LF camera, but maybe not, and even if, you will probably want more than one, issues that you can explore in the next section.


04/26/2011 1:52