First Steps: Deciding to Begin Large Format Photography

When I decided that I wanted to try out large format photography, I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. None whatsoever.

This was the first sheet of film that I ever shot and developed

Had I realized that not only would I have to buy a new camera, lenses, and film, but also film holders, shutter release, dark cloth, developer, fixer, stop bath, a tank for developing, a new backpack, a sturdier tripod head, a magnifying loupe, a new collection of filters, associated step-up rings, filter holders, a way to store the negatives, a light table, and a way to scan the negatives, perhaps I would have reconsidered. But planning all of that out in advance would be too much for my impulsiveness to bear, so I dove in head first.

Deciding to get into large format photography is clearly not a small decision, so why did I want to do it so badly? I already had a professional-level digital camera and high quality lenses. I had my panoramic tripod head. I had all the gear I needed, and I generally knew what I was doing. I had already determined that black and white landscapes were the theme I wanted to pursue, and I knew that by using a panoramic tripod head that I could stitch frames together to create extremely detailed and large images for print. I didn’t know it at the time, but virtually everything that I was doing was an effort to replicate the detail and size that a large format film camera makes possible.

The tipping point for me came when I was introduced to the works of Clyde Butcher. For decades he has famously documented the delicate beauty of the Florida Everglades (and so much more) with his array of large format cameras and lenses. When I viewed his work I felt that I was there with him standing in the swamp as he released the shutter, and I said to myself “that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do!’ I immediately knew that if I was to take photography seriously that I had to take the plunge into large format.

The goal of following in the footsteps of classical masters wasn’t my only motivation, however. I had one more innate feeling pushing me in that direction: I tend to be contrarian. I would browse Instagram, look at photos on Reddit, and even on Twitter, and what I saw was basically the same photographs of the same places over and over and over again — like this scene from Zion, or this pretty lake in Banff, or this pointy mountain in Iceland. I didn’t want to be that photographer standing alongside 40 other photographers, all using the same gear, taking the same pictures, post-processing them the same way, just to score a few made-up internet points. I wanted to be different, partly for the sake of being different.

So I chose large format. It has cost me a bunch of money. A far-too-high percentage of my negatives are not perfectly focused, or have light streaks from crappy film holders or me messing up during development, or just plain-old aren’t good photographs. But it’s a blast, and I’m so glad I took those first steps.

John EmeryComment