What is a Large Format Camera?


Introduction to Large Format Photography


Lesson Info

What is a Large Format Camera?

Hello, I'm Daniel Gregory, and welcome to introduction to large format photography. I'm really excited to be here. As a passionate photographer and as a fine art photographer, I've been using large format cameras for a really long time, and for me, it's just an amazing way to connect with photography and the history of photography. So, I'm really excited you came, or coming on this journey with me. We're gonna cover a lot of information today. We're gonna talk about all the different aspects of the camera. We're gonna talk about to, all the different kinda gear you would need, and then we've actually got a couple of shoots where we're gonna actually show you how to implement the large format camera. The great piece about really what is large format photography is one of the questions a lot of people ask me because we're used to shooting on iPhones. We're used to shooting with digital SRs, digital SLRs. We shoot with a lot of different kinda cameras, but the large format is generally an...

ything larger than four inches by five inches. So, if you think about the size of an actual camera, the large format film itself is larger than most of the backs of cameras, and so, there's some really great benefits to that. The interesting piece about large format photography is that it also has a variety of sizes. So, we can talk, we're gonna look at a number of different cameras and a number of different sizes. Large format photography is also, it's a little bit more historical. So, if we think back on the original cameras, those were all large format cameras. They were actually wheeled on carts, carried by mules and horses. So, these were really big cameras and really heavy cameras. As cameras developed, and as they changed, they shrunk down smaller, and smaller in size, and when the Brownie camera from Kodak was introduced, pretty much everybody was able to start carrying a camera around, and that really saw the push for standard and normal photography that we experience today. When you think about large format cameras, the classic example is Ansel Adams, and you think about Ansel Adams and Yosemite, and he's got that dark cloth over his head, and he's behind that really large camera, that's kind of the classic large format camera. The other big piece about large format gear is it's one of those things where the barried entry is not super high because we have a lot of cameras that are available because they've been around for 150 years, and as the transition to digital is exist, has happened, we end up with a lot more cameras available on the used market. So, you could spend from very little money to thousands and thousands of dollars. So, what's great about this is, if you even just wanted to dip your toe into large format photography, the barriered to entry is pretty small. So, why would somebody choose a large format camera? One of the big pieces for that is, you're gonna think about a practical reason for that. There's some practical reasons to actually wanting to use a large format camera. One of the things that a camera does is it has a lot of movements. So, we're gonna cover what all the movements are and how they actually work in a little bit, but those movements allow you to control the perspective of different things in the frame. So, if you're pointing your camera up at a building, and you're able to adjust and make movements to the cameras to compensate for that. You're allowed to change the shape of objects within the frames. You can actually distort, and change the convergence of different objects within the frame. You can change the relationship between one another. You can actually shift and move objects so that they are positioned different in the frame by making different camera movements. This gives you a lot more control than you normally have in a smaller format camera. For most people, when they think about the ability to control that perspective, they do it in post-production. If we're in Photoshop or if we're in light room, we might use the perspective control or the transform panel in the camera. Those allow us to make those movements, but we can actually make that happen in the camera. That gives us a lot more control. Anybody who's ever done those transforms and used the digital tools for that, know that you're gonna give up some information when you make that crop in post-production. Using one of the large format cameras, we're not gonna have that issue. The other piece that we really get, is we get incredibly, precise control when we're focusing a large format camera because all those movements allow us to shift the image plain, the focus plain, and the film plain, and we're gonna look at what all those are in a second. The ability to manipulate all of those gives me a lot better control over how I'm actually able to focus the image. The other piece is once you use one large format camera, they're all pretty much the same. Some will have more movements than another. Some will have a few more features than another, but once you kinda learn a large format system, you can translate that to any other camera. So, it's really practical in that regard. You're not having to learn a whole new menu system, a whole new set of buttons, a whole new set of features. The other piece about this from a practical standpoint that I think for a lot of people becomes the real reason they step into large format photography is, it's the rendering of the colors, tones, and textures. So, if you think about the size of the capture that actually happens, and we talk about this a lot in the digital arena, and when we talk a four thirds. We talk about a full frame. We talk about a crop sensor. All of those different elements come together to determine, actually, how much information is captured on the sensor. Well, with film, we have a very similar thing. Right here we have a 35 millimeters image. That's a 35 millimeter slide, so when we look at the perspective size, we have 35 millimeter. The next image, same photograph but scaled for six by seven. So, six by seven is six inches by seven inches. That's the same aspect ratio as an eight by or a four by five camera. That's why I selected that. If we look at the next one, here's a four by five image. So, you can see now the actual size of a four by five image compared to 35 millimeter and six by seven, and finally we end up with an eight by 10. So, that's the actual size of an eight by 10 negative, but when we look at those in relationship to each other, if we look at the spread of tones from here to here, from here to here, here to here, and here to here, I just have a lot more information to work with as I'm dealing with the different tonal shifts that are happening. Same thing happening down here. I've got much more detail that's present down here because there was actually more surface area of the film to record and capture the tones and the textures. That space, this space, is a lot of the reason why people, from a practical standpoint, wanna use large format photography. To give you a sense of really how much more space is there, the square inches of an eight by 10 negative is about 80 inches. A four by five is four frames of a four by five negative, make up the same space as an eight by 10 negative. One roll of film, whether its 120 film or 35 millimeter film, is about 80 square inches. So, if you think about taking one photograph with an eight by 10 camera, that's the equivalent, in terms of the amount silver being used, for an entire roll of 35 millimeter film. You're just gonna have a lot more information to work with and a lot more things to process. So, beyond the practical reason is the aesthetic choice, the artistic choice. There's a lot of artistic reasons why you would wanna choose a large format camera, and for me, this was a thing that ultimately pushed me over the edge. When I started photography, and I started working, it was still when film was present, and I shot a 35 millimeter camera, and I felt like I was missing something with the process. As a fine art photographer, I've spent my career trying to get impassioned and dedicated and in touch with my emotional side of my work, the introspection side of my work, so that I can convey things that were significant and important to me, and it's not that I couldn't do that with a smaller format camera, but I just found that I needed something that was letting me see the world in a different way, and that's one of the things that shooting with a large format camera does is it's gonna change your perspective. It's gonna make you experience photography in a completely different way. It's an incredibly slow process. It's an incredibly methodical process and you're gonna see that when we walk through all the options that the cameras have, and when we actually do the shoot. There's a lot decisions to make. There's a lot of things you have to do each and every time that force you to slow down and get more caught up and more present in the moment. There's a contemplative, and I think meditative approach to this as well. As you spend time behind the camera, we're gonna talk about the ground glass. You actually look at your image, and because of the amount of time it takes to focus and get all the movements and everything set up, you just get lost in the world that you're actually trying to photograph. You're gonna put a dark cloth over your head. It's that hood that goes over you, you saw in the Ansel Adams photograph, when that goes over your head, the rest of the world disappears. So, it's really about you and the subject in front of you, and all of the other distractions disappear. It was those pieces in the large format world, that kinda pushed me into large format photography, and I actually went really big. That was my first large format camera. That's an eight by 10 camera. So, I was shooting 35 millimeter, and I jumped to eight by 10. So, I skipped a lot of formats in between, and then eventually went back to four by five 'cause that's really heavy. When we, when I picked that camera up, when I started working with that camera, it became really apparent to me that there was something also about the connection to the past in photography. That's something that's really important to me. I teach photography at the Photographic Center Northwest in Seattle, and that connection to the past, I find its something that really helps people push their photography forward. If we understand the shoulders that we're standing on that come before us, whether it's Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, whoever it is from our past, we see that there's a connection there, and these cameras, because they're tied to that, for me, created a really interesting experience of actually wanting to work with the camera. Now one of the first things that happens when you work with a large format camera is that's how we see the world. So, we're here in the Roosevelt Valley in Yosemite in Yellow Stone. This is how we normally see the world, but when you work with a large format camera, you see the world backwards and upside down. Whops, I went one, yup. So, here we are. We're inverted from where we were. So, here's the original, and we invert, and we go upside down. So, now everything is completely different than what I was seeing before. So, at this point, it's no longer am I seeing trees, sky. I'm now looking at shapes and tones and their relative volume. So, how much does this weight in the frame as tonality? How does the rolling element of the tones in the clouds, how are they mirrored in the shadow lines that are created in the ground, foreground below? So, I'm no longer looking at is this a tree, is this a mountain? I'm really able to extract out what are those various tones and shapes. If we come back to that earlier example of looking at the sunset photograph. Here's the normal way we would look at it, but if I go back and look at it, it's now upside down and backwards. I'm in the same position now, where now I'm abstracted into, how does this leading line move and operate? How does this tonal relationship relate to the mirroring of the tones here? How is this negative space weighted to here? And like I said, sure we can do that with a different format camera, but we're forced into this position with a large format camera, and it's so immersive, and when you're under the hood, you really get caught up in what is my understanding of the communication of light, and as photographers, that's all we're really communicating with. We've got light, color, gesture, form. There's a few things we actually get to talk and create the story with, and the abstraction here makes me really get clarity on my language that I'm using for that story. My nouns and verbs become very, very simple. I get to create very simple sentences, very simple structures of the photograph that are truly based on what I want, and because of the ability to manipulate and control the photograph, I can emphasize or de-emphasize certain things. So, if we take a look at this next photo, this is an exploded in the whole rainforest. So, this tree is probably a couple of hundred years old. I couldn't get my arms around it. Now, I shot this with an incredibly wide-angled lens. So, this is shot with the equivalent of about an 18 millimeter lens in 35 millimeter world. I am about five inches from that tree. So, I had to actually position the tripod legs so that they were folded back and titled forward so that I actually didn't get the tripod in to the exposure. So, here's the actual scene. Now, that tree in that angle back was really important to me. I wanted to really emphasize that angle. It wasn't really there. So, I'm able to position and change the positions of the camera to show that, but when it goes upside down and backwards, one of the first things I noticed was how to build the diagonal between the one camera, between the bottom of the frame and the top of the frame? So, where this line should be positioned, not as a tree but as a line to help illustrate the story and create the acceleration on the diagonal back, I got to look at this piece and this piece. How are they related to one another? And, I could move that line up and down in the frame and side to side in the frame. So, I got compete control over of how much of those two things were related. I was also able to come in and pick up the very edges of this and the very back of that to all that in focus. So, if you think about five, six inches from something on a 35 millimeter camera and then getting everything in focus, that's gonna be next to impossible to do because of the way depth of field works. So, it's that controlling of the camera that made such a huge difference.

Class Description

Explore a new (or rather historic) way of approaching your photography. When you learn to utilize a large format camera like a 4 x 5 you’re forced to slow down, observe and shoot sparingly. Artist and educator Daniel Gregory, will start with the basics like what exactly is a large format camera and why you should use one. He’ll demonstrate the art of using this workflow and give a guide that sets up up for success in the field.

You’ll learn:

  • How to setup and care for the camera
  • Camera movements
  • Metering and exposure techniques
  • How to pick the best shot when in the field
  • How to add studio light to a portrait
  • Color correction techniques using film and gels

Some of the most legendary photographs were shot using large format cameras. In this course, you’ll learn the art and technique that went into capturing those memorable photos so you can start to craft and create imagery on your own.



Daniel is an excellent teacher. His approach of teaching common mistakes and then explaining the proper way to do something is very helpful. The entire film series is excellent. I can't say I have a favorite over any of the others classes in the series. Each class covers great information. I learned photography back when digital didn't exist. Even after shooting film for so many years, I still learned some great tidbits from these classes. I highly recommend this series for anyone considering learning film or getting back into film.