Like most large format photographers, I started shooting large format with a 4×5″ monorail camera, but the bulk of my LF work was shot on a wood 8×10″ field camera, and then a 4×10″ panorama camera. The 4×10 is a rather weird format at the best of times — and the subject of this article!
Using a large format camera for portraits on the street has a bunch of challenges, but can produce some interesting work. And the great thing about large format, the thing that you just can’t get with any other film format, is the quality of the darkroom prints. The series of portraits I shot and printed with my 4×10 large format panoramic camera are finished and ready to hang at an upcoming solo show booked for the Berlin Gallery in Kitchener, Canada but it’s on hold until the Covid-19 situation clears up. It’s framed and ready to go, I just need the go-ahead from the gallery.
The panorama format is an old format from the early days of commercially available films when prints were always darkroom contact prints and the final image size was determined by the size of the negative. We’ve all seen those old “banquet” photos of large groups, entire schools or military squads. They were long, horizontal shots, made on a panorama camera. I bought my camera while mostly shooting 8×10 negatives but I wanted something super-wide for a series I wanted to start on rodeo cowboys.
Do you remember in Sergio Leone’s great Spaghetti Western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” the great use of wide-angle lenses in the panorama format? That’s what I was trying to do with the 4×10 and I bought the camera to shoot rodeo cowboys, but — and this was an expensive but — when I took the camera to the rodeo the dust made using large format unworkable. Dust on sheet film makes black marks on final prints and is considered the work of the “Prince of Darkness” by LF shooters. So after taking the 4×10 to a couple of rodeos, I realized what a terrible fit it was, and the camera went into the cupboard for a couple of years until I resurrected it for a series of street portraits.
Let’s start with what’s good about the 4×10 format for street work. Some things are obvious, while others only come from standing out there and shooting. First, the negative is a good size. There are lots of square inches to work with, and you can crop in and still make huge prints. My gallery show of street portraits were printed 8×20″ and hold up wonderfully, with no grain and huge detail. Of course, this large negative is also the bad.
Film of this size is expensive and 4×10 is a custom size that’s not always available, not in stock at any store and overall hard to get. It’s also an ugly amount of work to process. I used an old paper drum to process, two sheets at a time, which meant a day’s shooting might take another 2-3 days to process. Watching the drum rotate for hours on end as you process a shoot is as ugly as it gets, although it was relaxing.
The camera is used with a tripod. This is good because it allows longer exposure times like 1/4 second to 1-second, It also gives you a presence on the sidewalk so people get used to seeing you around, and stop to chat and see what you’re up to. This allows you to start a conversation and convince them to have a portrait made. In fact, having a presence on the sidewalk and using that to start conversations with strangers was one of the great joys of using the camera and tripod combo.
The bad part of using a tripod is it removes most of the spontaneity in the shoot, there are no casual shots of people who didn’t know they were being photographed, no grab shots, the tripod and process of shooting LF tend to make things a bit rigid. There likely are hand-held 4×10 cameras but mine wasn’t and the long shutter speeds meant using the sticks anyway. On the upside, I do have a beautiful wood Berlebach tripod that’s stained a dark brown, looks great, and gets a lot of compliments on its own.
Similar to the idea of using a tripod is the reality that LF slows you down. You compose the shot, focus, meter, likely re-check the focus, set the aperture and shutter, load the film holder, cock the shutter and fire, then move onto a second frame. It’s good because you have to think throughout the process, you really need to pay attention to what you’re doing. The ugly is it’s just so slow.
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People on the street can only stand around for so long. Everything takes so long, and skip one step, or misidentify which side of the film holder you used, or forget to pull the dark slide, or fog the film when you re-insert the dark slide, or shoot on an already used sheet, or… well you get the idea, the ugly can keep going on.
The 4×10 format takes a while to get used to. The camera workings are similar to an 8×10 or even a 4×5 camera but the composition takes time to understand. It’s not just half an 8×10 and it’s not just a 4×5 that’s been stretched on both sides. Creating compositions that compliment the format takes a while to learn, but once you do it’s possible to make very interesting photos. Lens selection confounds the process as well. Often for portraits I would use the 450mm or 300mm focal length on the 8×10 film but the subject to camera distance might be a bit long for working on a crowded sidewalk, so the lens I reached for the most was the Nikon 120mm f/8, a large, hard to find lens that covered the format easily.
This lens often meant keeping the subject in the centre of the frame to keep distortion to a minimum. And, because the lens was so wide you had to look throughout the frame to be sure lighting/exposure were consistent. You wouldn’t want to be shooting in the shadows and have a long exposure then have a bit of direct sun hitting something in the background, something that you wouldn’t be able to burn in later while making the print because it was so blasted out.
The beauty of LF is what you can produce in the darkroom but there were also limitations. I had a Bessler enlarger modified with a cold head 8×10 lightbox. This was basically a fluorescent bulb providing the light but since the negative didn’t heat up, you never got the ‘negative pop’ that is so common with big sheets of film. I used this setup for years but its shortcomings eventually led me to sell it off.
Since the lightbox was a fluorescent bulb that produced a slightly green light, you couldn’t use the enlarger with Multi-grade or Polycontrast papers, you could only use graded papers. I used a lot of Kentmere Bromide in grades, 2, 3, 4, but these papers became hard to find. ILFORD made Gallerie in grades 2, 3, 4 but at the end, you could only get grade 3, in limited sizes. Finding the papers became so frustrating, I sold both the enlarger and camera and dropped down to a smaller size LF film. In the smaller size, you still had all the hassle of using LF but not the big payoff with negative size, so I eventually left the LF world after using it for about 40 years and settled on 120 film.
Let me run through the technical side of things, starting with the film and developers. I mainly used ILFORD Delta 100 Professional in 4×10, which was part of their annual Ultra Large Format run. Earlier I had shot Kodak T-MAX, ILFORD HP5 PLUS and ILFORD FP4 PLUS but wanted to settle on one film for all formats so everything switched to Delta 100. I used ILFORD ID-11 developer and processed the film in an old paper drum with a power agitator. I was able to get my negatives quite consistent using this method.
The camera itself was a Shen-Hao 4×10 that I purchased while I was the Shen-Hao distributor/supplier in Canada. Previous to the Shen-Hao I had an Ebony 8×10, which is the nicest camera I ever used and I regret selling it. The lenses for the 8×10 worked great on the 4×10 and I had a Fuji 450mm f/12.5 Fujinon-C, Fuji 300mm f/8.5 Fujinon-C, Schneider 210mm f/5.6, and a Nikkor 120mm f/8 that covered the big format. I bought the Nikkor lens towards the end of my time shooting with the LF and used it for a lot of my street portraits, but as I mentioned earlier it’s super wide-angle and you had to be careful with subject placement in the frame.
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