Many of you will know that earlier this year, I acquired a large format 4×5″ studio monorail. It’s an Arca-Swiss F Line with standard bellows; it has full but ungeared movements on both front and rear standards, a telescoping monorail and takes Graflex film holders. I paired it with a Schneider APO-Symmar 150/5.6, which turned out to be the right choice as I’ve not yet felt the need for longer or wider – somehow, it matches my perspective perfectly. Film – my beloved Fuji Acros 100 – and spare holders arrived a little while after the camera, and I’ve had a complete working setup for about a month. Today’s article comprises some collected thoughts after living and working with it for a while, from the point of a primarily digital photographer who’s also gone back to revisit medium and now large format film.
The camera is neither small, nor light. It requires some fiddling to set up and use; you need to put things in the right order or you might land up with the vertical standards blocking film loading, or knobs that face the wrong way, or a focusing scale that goes from 15cm to 30cm with no markings in between (hint: the rail is on backwards). For the most part, the camera is well thought-out; the knobs lock positively and the movements have zero detents that still allow small amounts of movement without snapping back to the centre position. Only focusing is geared; the rest is unlock-move the standard-relock. It is very important to remember to lock all movements before inserting a film holder, because that requires some force – enough that it may occasionally result in the standard moving. Especially if you weren’t aware of two small sliding lock tabs on the side of the hinging ground glass holder, as I wasn’t for the first few frames.
Technically, it is not a difficult camera to use: the (tiny) lens barrel – it’s a symmetric optical design – holds the shutter speed, aperture and shutter cocking controls; shutter release is off a cable release that’s threaded into the side of the lens barrel. Another lever controls stop down/ open up/ prime for shooting. Maximum speed is 1/500s, though you’re almost never going to use that anyway. More familiar territory are going to be the B and T settings; though if you need say 3.5 seconds, you can always set it to 1s, fire it three times, and then 1/2s. No need to worry about advancing film: you will remember if you loaded or unloaded it :)
Click here to see how much resolving power a 4×5″ negative really has. You’ll be taken to an actual-pixels 100% screen cap from my 27″ Cinema Display, which is 2560x1440px.
Before we get to loading, it’s useful to understand how the shooting procedure works:
- Unpack and assemble camera, mount on tripod. There is no way to use it without a tripod. And a big heavy one at that, preferably with a geared head, and an Arca clamp – the camera’s monorail has a dovetail built into the bottom already.
- Zero all movements. This is important.
- Open up the lens – both aperture and shutter – but do not cock the shutter – in fact, do not store the shutter cocked; it can weaken the springs and affect timing.
- Mount the ground glass in the right orientation – portrait or horizontal; the camera is square so you just need to turn the holder. The film holder is integrated into the ground glass holder.
- Get rough framing using the tripod head.
- Get rough focus using the rail; I find it’s easier to lock down either the front or rear standard and only move one for focusing. It doesn’t matter which.
- Apply any movements you might need; start with rise/fall – this does not affect focus distance. Then move on to tilt; I find it easier to use the front tilt and keep the rear standard planar – you can view from the same position – unless your bellows restricts movements and you need to use both standards.
- Fine tune final framing and lock down tripod head.
- Fine tune final focus; check it with a loupe if necessary on the ground glass. A viewing hood is almost always a must; I use a swatch of black velvet, but I’m starting to think that a T-shirt might be a much better idea; the elastic neck would keep it around the camera ‘s rear standard and stop it from blowing away. Note to self: buy black T shirt later.
- Lock down all movement and focusing knobs.
- Close the shutter, set aperture and exposure.
- Load film holder; it slides in behind the ground glass, displacing it out of position and putting the film in the focal plane.
- Check shutter is closed. Remove dark slide from the side facing the lens (film holders are double sided).
- Cock shutter.
- FIre with cable release. The shutter will remain closed after the exposure.
- Replace dark slide, lock in place and remove from camera.
- Open shutter.
- Open aperture.
- Re-zero movements and begin again.
If that sounds like a bit of a faff, rest assured that it’s much easier in practice. In fact, I find it much easier to shoot this thing than trying to set up a tilt-shift shot with the D800E; if you don’t have enough movement on one standard, there’s always the other one, too. And having +/- 30 degrees of tilt and swing is insane – more than you’ll ever need. That said, I’d recommend doing some trial runs in a quiet place first. The camera tends to attract a crowd, and if you don’t work well under pressure, you’re likely to miss a step and flub something somewhere.
I actually found the film handling to be far more of a pain. When loading, you’ve got to be very careful when separating out sheets not to scratch them; they’re in a big pile inside the pack. Then you’ve got to load them emulsion-side up – notches on the right side if the film is facing you, threading the sheets into thin retaining rails inside the holders. Replace the dark slides inside the holders, with the exposed/ fresh indicators facing a consistent direction: the dark slides are usually painted on one side on the top with bumps or ridges so you can tell which is which in the dark. Oh, and remember to insert the slides carefully: it’s again very easy to scratch the emulsion with the leading edge of the dark slide if you didn’t load it properly – assuming you didn’t scratch it when handling it. Clearly, more practice will be required to produce perfect negatives. It took 50+ rolls of experimentation before I was happy with the 120 results; I’m only one box (20 sheets) in, so we’ve still got a way to go.
The holders must again be unloaded in a dark bag or dark room. If all has gone well, they’ve sat flush to the film holder, i.e. in the focal plane. Removing them is a pain because they won’t want to come out; the holders usually have a small depression on the inside under a flap so you can slide a thumbnail in there. Again: be careful not to scratch either side. I roll mine up into tacos along on the long axis, then load them into my usual Patterson System 4 tanks; each tank will take three tacos when the spools are excluded. You MUST put the central spigot back in, otherwise the tank will not be light tight. Develop as normal from there.
Oops. Time for some forensics: there are several things that went wrong here. Firstly, I didn’t curl the taco tight enough when inserting it into the tank, so there are some vertical scratches; there are also some horizontal scratches (faint) from the dark slide hitting the film; I’ve also got a corner curl/ stress mark and a light leak.
If all has gone well, you can now proceed to scanning/ digitising. For some odd reason, the large sheets seem to attract more dust than rolls; I don’t know if it has to do with the static properties of the film (it’s also thicker than roll film) or something else, but scrupulous cleaning is a must, as is spotting afterwards in Photoshop. I copied these with the D800E on a lightbox, with the camera and lighbox both perfectly planar and a set of geared axes taking care of the motions. After some experimentation, scanning at approximately 2200DPI (6 stitched frames with reasonable overlap) seems to yield the best results – the LF lenses don’t seem to resolve at quite the same level as MF Zeiss glass; I tried some 3500DPI equivalent copies (8 stitched frames with minimal overlap) and didn’t see much extra resolution, but plenty of extra grain. 2200 would appear to be the best compromise between grain and detail resolution. It’s also entirely possible that we’re starting to see diffraction; you really need to be at f16 and below for reasonable depth of field – even after taking into account movements.
Interestingly, the stitched files respond better to a post processing workflow that’s closer to what I do for digital B&W rather than film; I have no idea why this is the case, but I suspect it’s because you have a bit more tonal range since your net magnification is lower and the noise floor thus becomes negligible. The finished files yield a clean ~100MP, which is enough for a 20×30″ Ultraprint – though of course they still look stunning at smaller sizes. I suspect at longer viewing distances, you’d have no problem going as large as you wish.
Initially, I thought that I’d also use this with the CFV-39 digital back and D800E (by means of a spare F-mount on a spare lens board) – I’ve changed my mind. I wouldn’t want to drop the back or expose it too many times in the field, and the movements simply aren’t precise enough to work with smaller sensors; 1 degree makes an enormous difference. To give you an idea, I usually work within +/- 5 degrees with the Nikon PCEs.
I suppose what I haven’t answered is the question of how I feel about the output. In all honesty, I’m still trying to decide. The slow nature of photography means it’s confined to static subjects – still life, architecture, landscapes; you can’t be stealthy with it, and though exposure and focus aren’t limiting factors for reportage work (it has the same latitude as a Hasselblad, pretty much) – the viewfinder and needing to load film quickly will be. The only way to truly appreciate the output is in print form; a lighbox is useless because you’re looking at negatives*. And even then, even with the Ultraprint process, we’re still looking at reasonably large prints. The only area where the large format ‘look’ is felt is in the depth of field and perspective because of the camera’s movements, or if you use it wide open; other than that, I actually think the output somehow lacks that organic feel of slightly smaller formats – the tonal transition at lower output enlargement sizes is too clean. That said, I do very much enjoy the process – there’s a lot of enforced thought that goes into the production of each frame, and I hope at least that much comes through. I’m sure clarity will come with practice…MT
*Slide film is impractical where I live, so forget it.
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