My first film camera was a Mamiya c330 system TLR. I bought it as what is probably the biggest impulse purchase of my life; I fell in love with its aesthetics, its totally mechanical function, its history, its age and after my first roll, its ability to make a photograph.
I knew straight away that film photography was to be my “thing”, and since then have gone on to try a multitude of cameras and enjoyed each ones individuality. That was until one day, I met with my dad’s old friend Andrew Sanderson.
We had a good chat and spent the day photographing the amazing Yorkshire countryside, towards the end of the day we visited his studio, and it was there that I saw it, a beaten up old Graflex Crown graphic. Its leatherette was peeling and its metal had lost its shine but it stood out to me like nothing else before.
I’d been aware of large format cameras but had never seen one in the flesh and to my amazement, Andrew let me borrow it, along with a box of film and some film holders. I spent the drive home playing with it and learning how it worked.
The beginnings of an itch
Fast forward a few months and I ended up buying my own Wista 45, two lenses from Japan and three film holders.
It became apparent to me over time that this fairly simple set up encapsulates what I love about large format photography: a box with a lens on the front and film in the back has the capability to create amazing images in the hands of the right user.
That to me is the essence of large format photography, from simplicity can come beauty.
I really don’t want to diminish other formats or mediums, as I use them all but to me large format photography offers a user the chance to become a more critical photographer very quickly.
Self criticism is one of my favourite by-products of large format photography.
I took my Wista all over, I put my set up in my bag and took off, usually with my dad.
The potential on my shoulders was such an amazing sense of freedom, I think it must be one that all landscape photographers feel, regardless of their chosen medium.
This is especially true when the weather is good too, something not very frequent in the UK.
A brief encounter
Something changed in 2016 though. Through people like Nobuyuki Kobayashi and Alvin Langdon Coburn, I discovered the stunning beauty in platinum palladium printing.
The whole world of platinum palladium prints absolutely consumed me, not just its look but its history; the process itself and it’s almost non existence in today’s world.
I started to read into every aspect about it and naturally, most of what I came across was by photographers from times gone by. This is a little bittersweet to me. On the one hand, the photographs that are being referenced are of things we never see in today’s world, so it appeals to my fascination of history and anthropology.
However, if platinum palladium printing was the latest trend in photography nowadays I’d have an infinite wealth of knowledge to dip into thanks to the Internet.
The “hunt” for knowledge is actually pretty interesting though. At one point I even had to refer to an actual……book! Imagine that. There’s something almost spiritual about studying alternative photography via an old book.
After a few weeks of research I started to understand the basics of platinum palladium printing, the first thing that hit me was the fact that all platinum palladium prints are contact prints. This was a problem for me as I’m a fan of big detailed enlargements.
In my endless (some would say foolish) ability to rationalise anything photography based, I decided that simple, yet appealing 8×10 prints would be a good new direction for me.
That was the moment I realised I now NEEDED a 8×10 camera, and so the search began.
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Finding the right tools
I must admit that the price jump from 4×5 to 8×10 took me by surprise. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing but I can’t work out why the gulf between the two is a wide as it is.
I’d spend each day browsing forums and websites to try find the right camera for me. My Wista is a solid chunk of metal and I love its stability and build quality, but I find wood and brass cameras to be a work of art.
I realised quickly that wooden 8×10 cameras are a bit of a rarity, especially in good condition, so I had to adjust my goals and after a while I settled on a lovely Toyo 810m2 (lightweight at just shy of 7kg!)
The camera came with a fantastic Schneider 300mm F5.6 APO Symmar MC lens, three film holders and a lovely old Gitzo tripod that weighs a ton (I love heavy tripods).
Obviously the cost of all this lovely gear wasn’t exactly cheap. Although I did get it for a good deal, I had to seriously slim down my collection to help foot the bill. Sadly, this included selling my Mamiya Super 23. I really liked the set up I had, the camera itself was in great condition, I even bought a reflex viewfinder for the glass back and an amazing 75mm Mamiya P lens from Japan.
As is often the case with me I only put two rolls of film through it, one roll was on a project I started (and intend to continue) on British Businesses and the second was a roll of landscape shots I did around Yorkshire. The resolving power of a 6×9 negative is nothing to be sniffed at.
My second regretful sale was my beloved Graflex Speed Graphic and stunning brass lens combo. In a story for another, time I’d become infatuated (surprise) with the Speed Graphic after being lucky enough to get a really good example of one for a fair price.
I paired it with a mysterious unbranded brass lens that my friend pulled off an old plate camera. It was a great combination and somewhat cheaper and less radioactive than the usual Graphic/Kodak Aero Ektar combo.
I put the whole kit up for sale and sold it to a chap who used it for fashion shoots.
Taking the leap
After a bit more selling and saving I managed to get enough money together to buy the Toyo, I got it home, gave it a quick clean and just stared at it, in all its gargantuan beauty.
My reason for switching to 8×10 is a fairly simple one, I aim to devote myself to the art of platinum palladium printing and all it entails, for this I feel I need a larger negative.
But if I think a little deeper about the “move up” it symbolises a little more than that, it confirms to me that this is something that I absolutely love. In researching things like alternative printing methods, different cameras and some amazing photographers I’ve accidentally fallen even deeper in love with photography and I can’t wait to see where the journey takes me.
Still, despite all my passion I haven’t been able to splash out the money needed for film. As we’re all no doubt aware, 8×10 film isn’t exactly the thing you find in a bargain bin!
Interestingly enough, the price of film is something that’s been frequently popping up recently, in a rare moment of optimism from myself, I think the popularity of the new 8×10 Intrepid camera is a really great sign of things to come.
Not only was it funded fully on Kickstarter, its target was absolutely smashed. To me this shows that not only is there interest, there is A LOT of interest. Hopefully that will convert into a percentage of lifetime users of the format, and gradually decrease the price of film.
There is light at the end of the bellows though. (for me at least).
I was browsing through my photography books the other day and I picked up my copy of “David Bailey’s Rock and Roll Heroes”. I had a flick through it and as it’s a copy that Bailey signed himself, I had a look at its value out of curiosity. Needless to say it was worth a bit more than what I paid for it, so I sold it to a book dealer in London
That money is now going to buy me my first pack of 8×10 film!
I can not wait to get started with it and see where it takes me. Perhaps you could consider this a “part one”.
~ James Horrobin
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Great read. Cant wait to see what comes next from this 8×10.
Forgot to mention that you can get x-ray film in 8×10 cheaply. I have not used it, but some photographers have had good luck with it. Requires special care, scratches easily. Green or blue sensitive and tends to be contrasty. You might want to look into it.
Try shooting paper negatives. They’re a nice cheap way to find your way around your new camera.
Fantastic story! Can’t wait to see the results!
quite the cliff hanger ending. Like it’s said at the end, there will surely be a part two?
Evolution. So refreshing it does not involve megapixels.
I love your article. Finding the right camera and techniques that speaks to your soul is important.
It is a process. I have only seen a few platinum prints but they were very beautiful. And I use a 4×5 at times and there is a tonal quality you do not get with digital cameras. 8×10 is even better. Good luck in pursuing your creative goals. Allan Cadtle
Hey James… great post. I recently took a wet plate colloidon workshop here in LA, and I have to admit, I was bitten by the bug. As far as the price of 8×10 film, have you looked into X-ray film? It can be as cheap as $1 per sheet, and offers a unique look, as detailed in the following podcast:
And don’t neglect the expired stock that regularly shows up on online auction sites. I’m only shooting 4×5 so far, but I’ve had some amazing results using heavily expired 4×5 film… sometimes as old as the 1940’s.
Thanks again for an inspiring post.