Back in my day…

… we ate every bit of the mammoth!

Okay, this is way before “my day,” whatever that may be; the camera I’m about illustrate was produced from 1949 to 1955 or so, a solid decade or more before I was even born. The camera that the family had while I was growing up was a Kodak Brownie Super 27, while my first camera, aside from yard-sale finds, was a Palmatic 110 from an unremembered manufacturer (I suspect whoever first used the word “palmatic” failed to register it and so several manufacturers ended up using the same name.) That camera had the option for an electronic flash, but I didn’t receive it and couldn’t afford it myself (I was twelve at the time, I think,) so I used Flip-Flashes for it, a plastic bar of eight flash bulbs, purposefully raised above the lens to prevent red-eye; fire off four shots, then flip the bar over to plug in the opposite end and fire off four more. No other options or controls, and even the film loading was via drop-in cassette, so hardly a challenging camera. When I later moved up to a true 35mm film camera, my mother happily took over the 110 camera and used it until the film could no longer be found, even after I bought her two 35mm cameras of her own.

Eventually, I acquired a Graflex Graphic View II, which is a classic full-motion large format rail camera. I haven’t done a lot with it, for several different reasons which we’ll be coming to. But first, let’s examine the concept that is “large format.”

Graflex Graphic View II large format camera
What this refers to is the film size, which in this case is 4×5 inches, or 100×125 mm if you like – much bigger than a 35mm film frame (24×36 mm,) which itself is larger than the vast majority of DSLR digital sensors (15×23 mm, give or take – it varies by manufacturer.) Rather than making a huge roll of film to crank through some apparatus, the film comes instead in single sheets, reflecting its origin in chemically-treated metal plates, and later on glass panes, both of these well over a century old now. 4×5 film was the ‘portable’ version, reduced from the old standard of 8×10 inches. Roll film first appeared in the late 1800s, but couldn’t compete with the clarity and detail of sheet films, especially glass plates, for a long time.

So with large format, this large piece of film pretty much takes up the entire back of the camera, and instead of putting a shutter curtain in front of the film itself (what’s called a focal plane shutter,) the shutter was built into the lenses, generally as an iris diaphragm that doubled as the aperture – in other words, it would slap open to a fixed point, the ‘f-stop’ setting of the camera, when the shutter was tripped. Most LF lenses come bundled complete with the shutter mechanism, though variations exist. This does, of course, make them expensive in their own right.

Now, to throw an image over such a large area, the lens usually has to be further away from the film. Moreover, there was no such thing as ‘zoom’ (variable focal-length) lenses during the heyday of LF, so each lens was a fixed focal length. Thus, let’s say an object six meters from the lens would only be in sharp focus if the lens was 30 cm from the film (I’m making these up for brevity’s sake.) To focus, you moved the lens, mounted on its own board, the correct distance from the film.

Which is where those bellows and rail and all that come in. The front of the camera, with lens board and lens attached, could slide forward and back as needed, usually on a small crank wheel attached to the rail, but sometimes on a track beneath the lens board (you’ll see these on the old pocketable rollfilm cameras.) To keep this heavy apparatus balanced on a tripod, usually both the front (lens) and back (film) portions of the camera could move independently.

Achieving sharp focus was much more fun, and now you’ll know what those guys were doing under the dark sheet (usually, anyway – I won’t say they never took the opportunity to fish out a booger or anything.) Before the film was even put into place, a ground glass back was affixed to the exact same location that the film would be, and this would allow the photographer to see the image that would eventually make it to the film, since it acted as a see-through projector screen. But it had to be pretty dark to make it out clearly, so hiding under a blackout cloth was necessary. The photographer would put their head underneath, then open the shutter to throw the image onto the glass, and focus and compose the image as they desired. Once it was all set, they would lock down the settings and close the shutter.

Graphic View II showing ground glass focusing screen and hood
[You can see the ground glass focus screen here, the grey area within than pop-up hood, etched with grid markings to make composing images easier.]

4x5 film holder
Film holder with darkslide partially removed – note the dot pattern on the white edge of the reversible slide, used to tell if the film on that side has been exposed or not
Then, they would remove or flip away the ground glass back, and insert a film cassette. With the old style glass pane film, this cassette was often wood and pretty bulky, but as acetate film came into common use, the film cassette could become slimmer and lighter, made of plastic and light metals. These, by the way, were preloaded in a darkroom, because of course the film couldn’t be exposed to light before the photo was taken. The 4×5 cassettes that I used are double-sided, one sheet of film per side, with a thin plate over top to seal out the light. By the way, large format film comes with a notch pattern along one edge, because film has to face a certain way, so loading it in complete darkness would be haphazard without this – the notch also tells the type of film you’re handling, a kind of photographers’ Braille. Which makes me wonder why cameras don’t have Braille markings on their controls. It’s discrimination…

Once the film cassette is in place and the shutter has been confirmed closed, the cover plate over the film, called a darkslide, can be removed. At this point the film is ready for exposure, and the shutter can be safely tripped. Once the film has been exposed, the darkslide is reinserted and the cassette can be flipped over to use the second sheet of film therein.

Let’s go over that again, right from the start, just so you get the entire idea. Get out on location and set up the tripod – this is typically very heavy, because the camera is heavy and the weight will make it more prone to tipping, plus it needs stronger materials just to be held motionless. Open up the camera case and take out the bellows and rails, and affix to tripod. Crank out both lens and film standards (the bellows end frames attached to the rail that hold their respective components) to rough working distances and to maintain balance. Select a lens, already attached to a lens board, and slot it into the lens standard. If necessary, affix the ground glass back, then drape the blackout cloth over top of the back of the camera.

The *cough* author using a large format cameraGet underneath the cloth, and lock open the shutter (most shutters have separate controls to lock open, for focusing, or trip the shutter for exposing the film, more often in the fractions-of-a-second realm.) Adjust the standards and the tripod until the subject is framed as desired and in tight focus, and adjust aperture until desired depth-of-field is achieved. Lock down all controls. Close the shutter.

Get out a film cassette and slot it into place – the Graphic View II has a spring-loaded glass back (‘Graflok’ back) that simply lifts up out of the way and lets the film cassette slide in underneath, so it doesn’t have to be swapped. Take out exposure meter and determine the proper exposure for the scene at hand and the already-selected aperture – no, there is no auto-exposure meter built anywhere into this assembly, so light readings have to be done with a handheld meter.

Remove darkslide from film cassette. Ensure everything looks hunky-dory, and trip the shutter. Replace darkslide. Congratulations – you just took one frame of film!

As you might imagine, large format isn’t used for anything except the most exacting of images – not sports, for instance. The benefit is the extremely fine detail that can be made into very large prints, because the film is so large and the grain commensurately smaller for the final print. But because so much time and effort is expended into just one frame, typically the photographer will ensure that everything is ideal, as perfect as possible, before tripping the shutter. This means a lot more time is spent picking the right location, the right conditions, and the right light – but it also means that nearly all images taken, once someone is familiar with the whole process anyway, are keepers. There is little to no experimentation – the photographer usually knows exactly what they’re going to get, and has paid attention to, for instance, how deep the shadows under the trees will render, and where the clouds are in the sky. Solely due to the effort involved, large format makes the photographer compose the image meticulously, ensuring that what they take will be captivating.

In this way, it’s an interesting learning tool, but there are cheaper and easier ways to accomplish this too. One is the exercise of only shooting one frame a day, with the idea that it has to be a keeper, able to be displayed – I’ve done this a couple different times over the years, and it remains beholden to both conditions and available time. This can also be done by not limiting the number of shots per day, but still stipulating that at least one is meticulously planned and cannot be discarded. And then there’s simply the ‘checklist’ method, where you ensure that a list of factors has been checked or met before tripping the shutter – this can be as simple as ensuring the settings (like white balance and aperture) are optimal, or as complicated as following some specific composition rules like determining that every part of the frame contributes to the whole, or the subject maintains the proper framing and relationship to the background.

But wait! We haven’t even touched on some of the unique reasons for using large format, or specifically one with full-motion standards. And for this, we’re going to have to illustrate some traits.

First off, LF lenses are typically optimized for the flat plane. If you think about it, the center of any lens is closest to the center of the film plane, with the edges of the film plane being a smidgen further away, so LF lenses are ground to accommodate these slight differences – and well outside of the normal field of view too, because there’s a specific use for this.

Let’s imagine shooting a tall building, for instance. To get it all in the frame, you’d have to tilt the camera back a bit and aim upward, and what this does is tilt the film plane too, with the end result that the film is no longer parallel to the front face of the building, with the top edge leaned away. Coupled with the lens distortion, this exaggerates the ‘taper’ of the top of the building and makes it seem to be leaning away from the camera/viewer (and in a way, it is.)

Graphic View II with forward standard shift
So instead of tilting the camera back, the film plane is maintained vertical and parallel to the building, and the front standard with the lens attached is raised vertically – itself still parallel to the building too, but much higher horizontally than the rear film standard. You might think that this means the image doesn’t even reach the film, but LF lenses are designed with this in mind, and throw a large enough image area that the film still falls within the circular image projected by the lens. Basically, the light path is not horizontal, but at a vertical diagonal, with the far end being the top of the building and the near end being the film itself. With film plane and lens held parallel to the building, the leaning distortion vanishes. They even make specialty lenses for SLRs that can do this same trick, called tilt-shift lenses, and they’re expensive as hell while having a limited application, largely because the mirror box (the space between the lens and film/sensor where the reflex mirror sits) is only so big and cannot accommodate much of a shift in the light path.

A full-motion rig can also maximize depth-of-field, especially for closeup subjects where the depth often drops much shorter – the more you magnify something, the shorter the depth-of-field. So picture a scene with an insect or reptile or something. Typically, the top of the frame contains stuff that is further from the camera than the bottom of the frame, with the subject (the focused point) falling in the middle. This can mean that the top and bottom of the frame go out of focus, because they’re not at the right focal distance. But if we tilt the rear film standard to mimic this slope, leaning the top forwards while keeping the front lens standard vertical, we tilt the film closer to the focal distance for as much of the frame as possible, increasing the sharpness of those areas which are not at the focal distance, and making depth-of-field increase greatly.

Except, we actually tilt the film backwards, because all lenses throw the image upside-down onto the film/sensor, so we have to move the bottom forwards, because that’s the top of the photo. And yes, this means that, when composing and focusing the image on the ground glass, it’s upside-down.

This trick has also been used in reverse, usually on large scenic images, tilting the standards to minimize depth-of-field and throw everything but that at the correct focal distance well out of focus – there are even digital filters to do this now without needing a tilting film plane. When this is done, it gives the appearance of a macro photo with its very short depth-of-field, and can make a standard landscape suddenly appear to be a model, just because the focus seems to indicate this.

I still have this camera, but haven’t dug it out in a while. Large format doesn’t lend itself very often to what I shoot, and I never developed the style and subject matter to take best advantage of it – this would typically be large size prints of elaborate landscapes (or, you know, big group portraits intended to fill a lobby or something.) I did a few experiments on B&W film, developed myself and contact printed, but did little more than that. Right now, the market for my own images isn’t what it should be, and I can’t imagine developing a market for specialty large format slides. Still, it remains in my possession until I either sell it to an enthusiast or decide to start working on a different aspect of photographic work.

4x5 monochrome contact print
8×10 inch contact print of 4 experimental negatives
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