First Steps: Finding Your First Large Format Camera

Once you’ve decided to step into the world of large format photography, the first thing you’ll begin looking at is what camera you should buy. There are several options, and it’s not always entirely clear which is the “right” choice when you’re just starting out.

Size

Large format cameras are aptly named — rather than a roll of tiny 35mm film, or a larger roll of 120 film, they require sheets of film. These sheets start at 4 inches by 5 inches, and you can buy film that exceeds 20 inches on a side (at great cost, mind you). Understandably, as the size of the film increases, the cost of the camera (and pretty much everything else) increases with it. For that reason, it is almost always recommended that beginners to large format photography stick with a 4x5 camera. These cameras are plentiful, can be bought used for fairly cheap, and lenses and other accessories can be found easily and often at fair prices. If you choose 4x5 and it turns out you don’t enjoy it as much as you thought you would, you can divest yourself without losing too much money. The same isn’t necessarily true with larger formats.

As an example, take these eBay searches for 4x5 and 8x10 cameras:

This is typical of the 4x5 market on eBay currently. Used cameras can be found for under $250 dollars, but cameras in the $400-$600 range are more common. Of course, you can spend  a lot  more if you’re so inclined.

This is typical of the 4x5 market on eBay currently. Used cameras can be found for under $250 dollars, but cameras in the $400-$600 range are more common. Of course, you can spend a lot more if you’re so inclined.

This is typical of the 8x10 market on eBay. On average you can expect to pay about twice as much for a used 8x10 as for a 4x5. Again, prices can vary wildly — typically towards the more expensive side of things.

This is typical of the 8x10 market on eBay. On average you can expect to pay about twice as much for a used 8x10 as for a 4x5. Again, prices can vary wildly — typically towards the more expensive side of things.

type

There are two common types of large format cameras: field and monorail. These two types differ in a number of ways, with field cameras primarily offering fewer movements (or, the movements that are offered aren’t as extensive) and monorails, which tend to be larger and less portable.

A field camera is one that can be folded into a compact shape for ease of transport. These cameras are often made of wood, but can also be found made of metal and even carbon fiber. Most field cameras will have the full suite of movements available on the front standard — rise/fall, tilt, shift, and swing — while the rear standard in many cases only offers tilt movements. However, in many cases, such as landscape photography, it won’t be necessary to have every last movement at your disposal.

Monorail cameras, on the other hand, are often much bulkier and heavier than their field camera counterparts. These cameras are typically intended for studio use, and therefore the weight and size aren’t usually an issue, as they would be if taken deep into the back country. Perhaps the largest benefit to using a monorail-type camera is that they often offer the photographer access to all movements on both the front and rear standards. Access to movements is particularly helpful if you’re interested in architectural photography.

The decision between field vs. monorail isn’t quite as important as the size of the camera. If you intend to hike with it and don’t mind the added weight, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a monorail camera. Likewise, a light weight field camera can work perfectly well in a studio setting.

what I went with

My Intrepid 4x5 MK3 in the wild at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan

My Intrepid 4x5 MK3 in the wild at Tahquamenon Falls State Park in Michigan

Almost 100% of the photographs that I take are of nature scenes. Therefore, I was looking for a camera that was portable, light weight, well-built, and I wasn’t overly concerned with having all of the possible movements available to me. In addition, I had never shot a piece of film in my life, and since I didn’t know if I would take to large format, I wanted to keep my initial spending to a minimum.

As I noted above, there are plenty of used 4x5 cameras available on eBay of varying quality and price points. Many of these cameras are made of metal and are quite heavy, and at the time I wasn’t sure if my tripod head would be able to hold them securely enough. Then I discovered the Intrepid 4x5 large format camera. The Intrepid camera was initially offered as a Kickstarter project, and after finding huge success there they have since launched upgraded versions of their original 4x5.

The camera is made of birch plywood and metal and weighs in at just shy of 2.5 pounds (1.1 kg). When folded, the camera is approximately 7 inches on a side and 3 inches deep. This is, by far, the lightest and most portable large format camera available on the market today. In my opinion, buying it new from an active company ups the ante one notch further; it will be much easier to source replacement parts if needed than for a camera that has been out of production for decades.

The final deciding factor for me purchasing the Intrepid 4x5 was price. The newest edition is currently selling on their site for £280, or about $350 dollars as of mid-June 2019. This price is comparable to the myriad used cameras on eBay, but for a brand-new camera!

I’ve had my camera for about a year now and overall I have been extremely happy with my purchase. The camera is well-built and has held up perfectly being tossed around in my backpack and carried up and down many hiking trails. The biggest complaint I have against the camera is the ground glass; it is rather dim, even with the lens aperture wide open, and it is almost impossible to see anything when stopped down. I purchased a (cheap) fresnel lens to help with illumination, and now I am able to see much better on the ground glass, which helps enormously with composition and focusing.

 
The view on the ground glass after I added a fresnel lens to the camera — a significant improvement at little cost.

The view on the ground glass after I added a fresnel lens to the camera — a significant improvement at little cost.

 
John EmeryComment