What is the best large format camera

Does the amateur need a large format camera?

Advanced users in analog photography sometimes use a type of camera which, in the past, was often reserved for professional photographers only, due to the high prices: the large format camera. Today these devices can be acquired quite cheaply on the second-hand market and the question arises whether the amateur, i.e. the enthusiast, can benefit from such a device.

This article appears in the blog section and is tagged cameras.

If you study the Internet forums that deal with (analog) photography for years, you will sometimes come across enthusiasts who take their pictures with a so-called "large format camera". At the time, these analog cameras were mainly intended for professionals (i.e. for people who had to earn money with them) and were usually relatively expensive. Today things are different: you can buy used cameras of this type for a fraction of the previous price.

Do you actually need an analog large format camera?

Simple, transparent technology

Such a camera is actually a rather simply constructed camera, which can also be used extremely well as a didactic demonstration object: a lens bundles light, a shutter lets it into the camera for a certain point in time, a bellows keeps extraneous light away and shows it on a screen Suddenly a (mirror-inverted and upside-down) image appears. Finished. You don't need more for a camera. For the actual recording, a film cassette is pushed in front of the ground glass (or instead of it) and the image (its projection) is then written on the light-sensitive film. This is how a camera works.

"Snapping" in large format: The photographer stands on the camera box, he has a dark cloth over his head so that no ambient light obscures the view of the large screen below.

This simple procedure, which is understandable even for those with little technical knowledge, will certainly have a very special appeal for many friends of analog photography! The entire admission process is traceable.

View of a focusing screen of a 4 × 5 inch large format camera, here a Linhof Technika. No electronics are required for this view. The image appears through simple optical physics.

Now there are apparently two types of amateurs: some want beautiful ones, i. H. also technically well made pictures. The others attach great importance to the way there. This does not have to be short, it should rather be something have to offer.

The route is the goal

And taking photos with a large format camera definitely has something to offer: It is difficult to pull the device out of the hip, aim at it briefly and then pull the trigger. It is not uncommon for a single recording to take half an hour: after that, first of all

  • the camera aligned on the tripod
  • the shutter open-
  • the picture on the screen composed and focused -
  • the cassette inserted
  • the shutter closed-
  • the exposure measured with a handheld light meter -
  • set the aperture and time-
  • the clasp cocked
  • the safety slide removed-
  • the shutter operated with a cable release-
  • the safety slide has been pushed back in

the image (a single one) is finite in the box.

On quiet summer evenings, when I stand in the countryside with such a large format camera, I often have a sandwich package and a bottle of beer with me while I take my landscape photographs with this rather rudimentary technique. Large format photography has a lot to offer for the amateur Experience to do - already while taking the photo and not just looking at the photos themselves.

A friend of mine does landscape photography with a large format camera: exposure times of several seconds are not uncommon. You will be rewarded later with a very high resolution, which, however, only shows up with large prints.

The author as a wandering bird with a 35mm camera, monopod and "shift lens" (against falling trees). For me it turned out: It really diminishes the joy when you have to assemble the equipment from the backpack and pack it again every time on such hikes. This may still work in summer. You won't get very far with it on short winter days. We don't even want to talk about freezing fingers and the corresponding dwindling enthusiasm. Who with an automobile the landscape explore would like, of course, is set up a little differently and can also move across the country with large "cutlery".

But if you want to have exactly such a nice experience (the “deceleration” much sung about in the internet forums mentioned at the beginning), you don't even need to insert a film, some might say. Actually, you don't need to take photos at all, you can simply sit down on a bench with your sandwich and beer and enjoy nature for half an hour before you move on. Unfortunately, you are not very creative and no one will later admire you for sitting on a park bench decelerates Has.

You can also take photos carefully with a 35mm camera and of course with a digital camera. If you value quality and reproducible results, you have to take your time and work manually with the digital recording (I cannot confirm from practice that this is not the case). The above illustration shows an analog 35mm SLR camera with a so-called shift lens (Nikkor PC 35mm Shift), which is used to prevent "falling lines" (distortions). This functionality characterizes many large format cameras - however, the adjustment of the image circle can also be achieved with such special lenses, even on a (single-lens reflex) camera that is much more practical to use.

What is not possible with small formats, however: Only on a large screen (here 8 x 10 inches) can the sharpness be judged properly using a magnifying glass after adjusting one of the standards. Because by adjusting the standards ("Scheimpflug") the sharpness can be adjusted individually via the motif lay. This is (was?) Certainly a main reason why such cameras are (e) used here, especially in the field of industrial photography / architectural photography. For other motifs, in my opinion, this makes no sense - at most as an effect for blurring (“anti-Scheimpflug”), which wears off quickly.

Price effort benefit

Flat film for the large format camera is expensive and it still has to be developed (in your own laboratory or by special providers).

A large format enlargement of the 4 × 5 inch negative from the photo lab is hanging out to dry. Due to the high image quality of a large format camera, every skin pore is visible when approaching the photograph. But is this high resolution relevant for a portrait? Do you have to see every pimple "finely outlined"?

However, anyone who actually strives for an extremely high image quality (i.e. a very high resolution) is best advised with a large format camera (however: sheet film cassettes have relatively poor flatness properties, which can negate a resolution advantage). The question naturally arises: Does the amateur photographer need this at all, who might only want to present his pictures on the Internet or in photo books? Isn't a medium format camera enough for very detailed larger prints or enlargements? (Own opinion: yes)

Taking pictures in huge Large format 8 × 10 inches. The case is not used to transport the camera, but only to store the accessories (the camera itself is stowed in another box). A single photo on color slide film in this format costs around € 18. The development costs are not yet included here. You can also follow a series of photos in which such a “shoot” is accompanied and described.

Many photo artists who present their work in large format in galleries are dependent on such a high resolution. Especially for exhibitions within a certain art market, size, size and an imposing appearance of the exhibits count. And with the large format camera or its large sheet film negative, you have a tool in your hand with which you can take photographs with a resolution that cannot be achieved with modern, affordable digital cameras.


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a classic large format camera from Cambo based on the "optical bench" principle

In the past, these types of cameras were also used in advertising studios or for product photography: Even the 4 × 5 inch sheet films are large enough to be placed on a light table - as a slide - and are therefore ideal for “meetings” with customers . to be able to discuss. This was all before the days of the Internet and "projectors". But just that to shine of a sheet film slide on the light table is definitely something that some amateurs appreciate and say: "That's why I take photos in large format."

So-called "sheet film" is usually exposed. This is available in different sizes (for different camera sizes). The most common format is 4 × 5 inches.

The often mentioned "adjustability" of a large format camera is obviously (if you study the opinions in the Internet forums) an important reason for using such a camera. However, one must ask oneself what this should be useful for: It makes sense that the front standard can be shifted upwards ("Shift") so that the top of the church tower can still be seen in the picture when it is absolutely vertical (no distortion). Why you need “tilt” or “swing” in your own practice is more of a mystery to me.

These functions are needed in product photography, so that you can also use large image scales such. B. can map a chessboard consistently sharp or a very specific part just not. In practice, for the subject of the amateur, these functions should hardly play a role - maybe just to have an effect that (sucked out) Miniature effect (tilt-shift effect).

A sheet film cassette. It has space for two sheet films (you shoot them: a sheet film is stowed on each side).

Sinar F / F2 4x5 / 9x12 large format cameraMentor plate camera large format camera 13x18 86984Schneider Kreuznach (Technika) Super Angulon 90mm f8 large format camera lensINKA ICL-45 4x5 large format camera Sinar compatibleLinhof Technikardan 4x5 S45, 4x5 "large format camera, large formatPlaubel Peco Profia 4x5 large format camera view camera Plaubel Profia 8x10 N large format camera Professional view camera 18x24 BosscreenCambo Legend 8x10 "18x24 large format camera with focusing screen and bellowsSinar P2 professional large format camera 8x10 18x24 large format Sinar P 4x5 large format camera view camera
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As far as the production and advertising studios are concerned: These days, it will be much easier to make difficult (macro) recordings with so-called “focus stacking” - you don't need one Tilt and swing more or corresponding cameras whose lens or back can be adjusted. You simply take several pictures with a slightly shifted focus and pass them on to software that simply converts them into a graphic file in which everything is actually shown in focus from front to back. However, this technique only works with non-moving objects.

Another advantage of the large format: You can develop each individual image separately or adapted. What's that good for? The so-called zone system can be used to control the contrast at this point so that this does not have to be done later by post-production (manual print or computer). However, it is questionable whether this technology still makes sense today, given the availability of multi-contrast paper and image processing.

Of course, the price often plays a role for the amateur photographer: A branded black and white sheet film negative in the 4 × 5 inch format currently costs around € 1.85. Then it has to be developed and those who cannot do it themselves have to send their films (light-tight, often in the cassettes) to special laboratories. You cannot hand in flat films for development in the drugstore. We don't even want to talk about digitizing (however, it should be noted that scanning such a high-resolution original is far less of a challenge for the scanner than digitizing a 35mm negative). It all goes into the money. That is why many friends of analog photography like to work with a roll film back in the format 6 × 9 on their large format camera. With the “large” medium format, you get a good compromise between resolution and cost.

Experiment with alternative lenses and backs

Another feature of this type of camera, however, is much more interesting: Due to the extremely simple structure (lens-shutter-bellows-ground glass / flat film cassette) it is very easy to use "Alternative" lenses to experiment! In particular, if you have a so-called "rear lens shutter" (this is an iris that closes quickly [or slowly]), you can attach any kind of lens in front of it with a little tinkering - be it a monocle, a plastic lens, a 35mm lens, a spectacle lens , ... Such a large format camera can also be easily converted into a pinhole camera. It is precisely this experimentation that is the amateur photographer's profession (because he has the time and can afford to fail). It doesn't necessarily have to be the high-quality large format lenses from Schneider or Rodenstock: Particularly with simple lenses, you can achieve a certain pictorialistic style or at least a soft focus effect.

This photograph was recorded on 4 × 5 inch b / w film. A very old lens was mounted on the camera (a so-called double anastigmat, approx. 100 years old) and the photo was taken with an open aperture. This uncoated lens draws very sharply at one point, while everything else is reproduced very softly. Also noticeable is the "image error" that one branch is reproduced quite pale in the light, which is typical for such old lenses. A large format camera, on which you can now easily adapt the different lenses, is also very suitable for certain picturesque Effects.

A plastic lens from a children's binoculars

is temporarily mounted on the shutter of a large format camera instead of the (now unscrewed) lenses.

The result is photographs with certain distortions. The degree of distortion can still be controlled with the aperture in the shutter.

Furthermore, you don't necessarily have to take photos with conventional sheet film: you can also use your plates pour yourself. In particular, the so-called "collodion wet plate process" or the "ambrotype" has become increasingly popular in recent years.


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A self-coated glass plate dries after developing. Due to their simple and functional design, large format cameras are very well suited for such alternative processes and for experimentation.

In principle, instead of the regular sheet film cassette, you can adapt any type of recording medium (with a little tinkering) - from self-coated panels to video cameras or digital cameras.

These are so-called "collodion wet plates". The photographer had coated these aluminum plates with a “tincture” himself, she ever did wet placed in the cassette of the large format camera and exposed immediately afterwards. Now they still dry after developing. Everything is handcrafted here. With this wet collodion process, you are completely independent of commercial products. Here photography becomes again Alchemy like one hundred and fifty years ago.

With such a Polaroid cassette, the large format camera can easily be converted into an instant camera.

It is more likely to be a technical interest and a certain enthusiasm for what is feasible that induces many photographers today to buy and use a large format camera.Many corresponding photographs (which you can see on the Internet) could have been taken just as well with a medium format or even 35mm camera - with far less effort. But if you enjoy it, you should certainly not give it up. In this article you can “look over the shoulder” of a photographer using images. In a photo you can also see the lens adjusted upwards in order to get the entire headframe onto the picture without having to tilt the camera more strongly. Such a construction naturally makes sense here.

High resolution and individually developable motifs

The large format becomes really interesting when you really have one above-average resolution or if you want to take photos with alternative lenses or even film material (see above).

An 8 x 10 inch slide. It no longer fits on a smaller light panel. The resolution that can be achieved here is extremely high.

Not even a few years ago you could even beat any digital camera with the analog medium format in terms of resolution (at the beginning of the 2000s this was even possible with the 35mm format). Today, of course, things look different again. On this page (in English) the technical experiment is dared to find out to what extent an 8 × 10-inch sheet film offers more resolution than a digital back (the sheet film wins, especially against a Nikon D850 and against a Canon 5D Mark 2). However, one naturally wonders here - what for in the end? Something like that is only relevant for photographers who table tennis table size Being able to exhibit prints of landscapes in galleries and which one should still approach with one's nose - a pictorial concept which for the normal Photo friend, for the amateur should be completely irrelevant.

An 8 × 10 inch sheet film cassette is stowed light-tight after recording. Of course, you can't give something like this in the drugstore for development. Please also visit the article → Looking over the shoulder of a large format photographer.

Presumably, a digital back and high-priced digital cameras will also be such a large 8 × 10-inch sheet film at some point in the future beat - as for the resolution. However, even as a student, you can afford a used analog large-format camera along with lenses and sheet films, but of course you cannot afford a modern Phase One digital back.

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It should also be mentioned that taking photos on sheet film gives you the freedom to develop the film (the film sheets) immediately after taking it: you don't have to wait until a whole film (a roll) is full. However, this requires your own small photo laboratory. In fact, for the author, this is the most important advantage of the large format (although its size is actually not relevant here): If one or two portraits are to be made, you don't have to wait another days or even weeks to get the expensive roll film finally (with meaningful motifs) has full. The flat films can of course be wonderfully developed individually and theoretically this can be done immediately after each recording. This is an advantage, especially for photographers who make analogue portraits to order, as the images can be available a short time later.

Finally, another advantage of the large format should be mentioned - this has something to do with the large flat films and with enlarging in your own photo laboratory: flat films are much better than smaller formats, so-called Defocused masks to make. When you enlarge them yourself in the darkroom, these serve to create a little more sharpness on the edges (micro-contrast). The best way to do this is to watch a YouTube video. So in order to make a slightly fuzzy mask from a negative, this has to be copied using a “sandwich” - and the copy (mask) later congruent can be mounted over the original. I don't want to try something like that with a small medium format negative. However, this is much easier to do with large flat films.

This article (published: June 7th, 2017; changed: March 6th, 2021) appears in the blog section and is tagged with cameras. ▲

Hello! This is where Thomas writes. I have been involved in analog photography for 20 years now and I develop my pictures in the darkroom or "with" the computer.

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Klaus | on February 16, 2021

The "need" is one of those things. I think it's an attitude towards life. I've never photographed digitally (except with my cell phone) but only in analogue. The slowness is more of an asset to me. I am out and about with my technika in wind and weather. I have optics between 75mm and 500mm with me. That’s enough. I used to have an MF camera with me to be "flexible". But I don't do that anymore. I only concentrate on one camera when I'm out and about. Over time, you learn the tricks you need to overcome the challenges. Scheimpflug is something that requires practice. It took me a while to understand that you only have to wave the standards minimally. It's a long way to go if you teach yourself all of this. But it's a lot of fun. Film holders are sensitive, but there are excellent F.64 bags in all formats. Inserting the film may take some getting used to at first. But if you do it regularly, it's as challenging as brushing your teeth. And yes, dust is a problem, but only if you don't brush the cassettes regularly with a camel hair brush. Schwarzschild is not a problem. There are good apps for this where you enter the film and exposure time and then have the corrected value.
I also take portraits with the camera. Incidentally, that the times are too long is nonsense. You don't just take a 100 or 50 ASA film but a 400 that you can push a two f-stop if necessary. But I use an angle finder. I find fiddling with the cloth rather exhausting.
On the subject of weight: I think my Technika with the Nikkor T-ED 500mm is certainly lighter than the Mamiya RZ67 with 500mm optics.
A good backpack with good inlays is important. The weight must be able to be distributed well. On the subject of a tripod, go medium-sized from Manfrotto. There is a trick to attach another support leg that offers more stability without the need for a heavy tripod. I am traveling from Africa to Iceland with my Technika. Exposures can go beyond an hour. You have to want and like it. It's almost a meditative process.
Professionally, I have a high number of strokes and can get my time back through the LF camera by consciously getting involved in the moment. Otherwise time will pass unconsciously.
So it is more a question of what you want than what you need.