Large Format Film Quality

Mary and Fred Guy, Mornington Beach, Australia

This photo is one of a very small amount of images I made on a lovely, handmade Japanese 4"x5" flatbed folding camera in, I think, 1989. It's a large format camera into which individual 4" x 5" sheets of film are loaded, one frame at a time, into a (reversible) double dark slide which is attached to the back of the camera prior to exposure. I took a handful of double darks with me and a portable changing bag which provided me with the ability to remove exposed sheets of film and replace them with unexposed sheets without the use of a darkroom. I took along two small film boxes, one containing unexposed film the other, a recycled film box, was used to store the exposed sheets which were then processed, a few sheets at a time, on my return to Australia.

But while it was a lovely camera, all brass and wood, it was a nightmare to use. It leaked light like the proverbial sieve, causing streaks over a number of my images. In the days before Photoshop became a powerful retouching tool repairing such unsightly damage, after the fact, was often impossible. What's more the lens I purchased, secondhand, was rubbish. It was always breaking down. I took the kit over the Himalayas to Ladakh (i.e., land of the passes) on the Tibetan Plateau in Northern India, but only made about 20 frames before it stopped working.

Fortunately, despite this debacle and very little practical experience with large format cameras, I ended up with a couple decent images which I dug up recently. I'II get them scanned and will share them with you over coming weeks. I particularly remember photographing a young, Korean Buddhist nun on top of a rooftop. She was visiting Ladakh, on a kind of pilgrimage, with family members. 

My Mum and Dad

The above photo was made later that year, after I'd return from my travels, and features my dear old mum and dad. I think I made a print of this image long ago but, for whatever reason, didn't keep it. It's a joy to see the image again, particularly as my dad passed 8 years ago and with my mum recently celebrating her eighty-sixth birthday.

The photo was made, I think, on Mornington Beach a coastal retreat south east of Melbourne on one of just a few holidays my folks had together in over 52 years of marriage. It was great that a number of us kids were able to visit for a day or so during their stay. I remember mum playing the piano in the holiday house they rented. She'd had a few lesson when she was very young and, with no practice since, was working things out by ear. It was incredible just how well she was doing.

People often talk about medium and large format cameras, whether film or digital, as delivering sharper images than those from cameras with smaller sensors. Strictly speaking that concept is untrue. Firstly, the term sharpness is a misnomer. The way to enhance sharpness is via an increase in local contrast. Back in the day's of film this was referred to as acutance: the relative sharpness of edges within an image.

Imagine you're photographing a zebra crossing, by which I mean a portion of a sealed bitumen road marked for pedestrians to cross, not a mass wildlife migration over the Zambezi River. So, in this example, your composition is white strips painted on top of dark bitumen. Consider the demarkation between the white strip and the black bitumen directly adjacent to it. By increasing the contrast on the very edge of the white and black areas you'll cause them to visually separate from each other providing the illusion of increased sharpness.

Film Choice

Back in the days you'd choose your film upon a range of criteria, including grain and tonal responsiveness and, in the case of black and white film, your choice of developer on how it interacted with that particular film. Needless to say acutance and fine grain were important considerations for photographers driven by absolute image quality. But, as is more often the case, such improvements may have come at the cost of reduced film speed.

As an example the film in question may have been packaged and marketed as ISO 100 film but, as a consequence of these kinds of quality driven enhancements achieved through the use of a particular film developer, the effective film speed (referred to as the Exposure Index) was now as low as 25. Exposing your film at ISO 100 would, therefore, result in severely underexposed negatives. Your knew starting point was to set your camera or handheld light meter to an ISO of 25 resulting in slower shutter speeds or the use of wider apertures. Movement and/or Depth of Field (DOF) were, therefore, potentially compromised.

Are You Seeking Resolution?

When it comes to comparing different format cameras it's not the case that the larger the format, whether film or digital, the sharper the resulting image. It's more to do with the higher resolving power (i.e., resolution) associated with the larger film or sensor's imaging area. What you get is not so much a sharper image, but a more highly detailed image where fine details and textures are rendered with amazing clarity.

You can see that level of resolving power in my mum's jumper. What's more the greater size of medium and large format images means that it has to be enlarger to a lesser degree to produce a big print which, again, allows for greater retention of fine detail. Far from the most convenient or user friendly cameras, they did produce exception quality and, in that regard, were very much the king of the hill for contemplative landscape and architectural photography back in the day.

I rarely think about issues relating to film-based photography these days. But, whenever I dig up and old negative or slide, memories come flooding back, And that's not an altogether bad thing, now is it?  

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru