On a recent Meet-up outing to the beautiful little town of Chesapeake City, Maryland, I tagged along with my Brandywine Photo Collective friend, Gerry Meekins, to learn how he shoots with a vintage 4×5 camera. (That’s photog speak for four inches by five inches, the most popular negative size for large format photography).
What is now called large format photography was once the only format. Early cameras were boxy and heavy, and the recording medium at first was not film, but glass! You had to be really devoted to the art! Much later, roll film was developed for making motion pictures, and that film, 35 millimeters in length per frame, became the recording medium for very small cameras that grew renown under the prestigious name, Leica. No doubt due to the convenience of cameras that size, 35mm eventually became the prevailing format.
So, what about medium format? That middle rank flourished with the popularity of roll film. Perhaps you may remember the plastic box Kodak Brownie? That was a medium format camera. Believe it or not, some photographers still like to shoot film, and medium format gives them negatives large enough to produce excellent large prints.
The three formats are distinguished not only by the size of their recording media, but also the pace of shooting which the respective equipment affords or demands. With small rangefinder cameras you can grab quick close ups without being noticed. With rapid firing, automatic focus digital single reflex cameras (DSLRs) you can freeze a bird in flight or the descent of a drop of water. Medium or large format equipment is generally too clumsy for such work.
Medium format photography is more carefully planned and often done with a tripod. The medium size of the equipment lends itself to studio work. The pace of medium format photography is slower, more cognitive in my experience.
Slower still is the painstaking art of large format photography. The sheet film it employs is expensive. Mistakes are costly, which is one reason to take great care for each capture. Moreover, the equipment is designed for the most precise recording possible. Why not take your time using the equipment to its fullest advantage? Large format landscapes will knock your eye out with their exquisite detail and nuanced tones. But, I suppose that’s not the only reason why retro photog friends like Gerry shoot large format. For I’ve observed that there’s a peculiar pleasure to each kind of shooting. It’s exhilarating to capture a bird in flight, or a smile in full expression. Such is the joy of quick photography, which can be accomplished best with more portable equipment. There’s another kind of pleasure, though, in shooting slowly, planning your shot contemplatively, taking time to meter and figure proper exposure and compose to perfection. If you prefer this kind of shooting, you might give medium format a try. And, if you’re ready for attempting the challenging craft of the first photographers, then tag along with a 4×5 shooter as I did, and see whether you’re ready for really, really slow photography!
Have a look at the video below to see the highlights of my day with Gerry.