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Large & Ultra Large Format Photography Tips

Tim Layton Fine Art - Learn Analog Photography - TimLaytonFineArt.com

I have created this page as a central resource for my latest large format photography tips.  The tips on this list are related to the use of large format cameras and I purposely did not veer off into the weeds on other topics like metering, film development, and printing.  Each of those areas deserves its own list. I mostly enjoy nature, landscape, and close-up photography, so my tips are oriented in that direction. 

The large format photography tips below are in no particular order and if you have a tip that you don’t see on the list, please contact me to share your idea and I will get it added to the list. 

1 – Use a Logbook or Notebook of any type to record each exposure.  I have a free set of large format exposure index cards that you can use if you want.  I tape each index card on the outside of my archival film sleeve. As a bonus, share your thoughts or feelings about this exposure and then include this in your back story with your prints when you share them.  People always love to know what you are thinking when you create.  And don’t forget to put an extra mechanical pencil and some index cards in a ziplock baggie and keep that in your kit.  Nothing worse than not having anything to write with to record important exposure information when in the field.

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Additional insights on Tip # 1 from Peter Dadson: “For a notebook, I use one that has waterproof paper such as “Rite in Rain”, better might be having your large format exposure index cards printed on some waterproof paper.”

2 – Save Your Large Format Film Boxes.  For B&W film, I mark each box with a development time (N, N+1, N+2, N-1, N-2) and when I am in the field and need to reload my holders, I just place each sheet in the proper box and then develop it for the right time later. Since C-41 and E-6 color film is all developed for the same time, I can put all of these films in their respective box and then develop at a later time.

3 – Clean Your Film Holders Before Each Use.  Dust is your enemy with large format film, so you will want to clean your film holders before each use.  I like to use is a cheap 2-inch paintbrush to help keep my holders clean.  Away from my film loading area, I angle the film holder down and with a downward stroke, I brush the exterior of the holder.  Then I remove the dark slide and use the same technique for the interior of the holder.  I only use downward strokes in an effort to get any tiny particles out of the holder. 

4 – Scout Your Location.  If possible, I think it is a very helpful idea to scout your location before you show up to create photographs.  The best large format landscape photographers will tell you that the best compositions often come from being familiar with a location. 

5 – Confirm Shutter Fires Properly.  Before pulling the dark slide, I always cock the shutter and fire it to ensure the speed sounds right for my selected shutter speed. I have actually had a shutter fail me in the field before.  I was in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park working on my platinum print project photographing the pioneer-era cabins, mills, and related builds and I mounted the lens after getting everything set up only to find out that the shutter was not functioning properly. 

6 – Double and Triple Check The Edges of Your Ground Glass.  I can’t tell you the number of times over the years I have made the mistake of not checking the edges of the ground glass before committing to the exposure. This is where a higher magnification loupe comes in handy.  Make sure checking the edges of your ground glass is part of your standard routine.  

7 – Verify Lens Coverage.  Before you take the exposure and after you have made all desired movements, double-check to make sure you have proper coverage.  Most ground glasses are nipped on all four corners and if you look through these corners when your camera is in the neutral position, you will notice the shape of the hole through your lens is circular.  Apply your movements and then check the shape again to make sure you still have coverage.  If your ground glass isn’t the way that I described, then you can look through the lens towards the ground glass as an alternate method.

8 – Use Furniture Polish.  Once a year or so, I take out all of my film holder dark slides and wipe them down with a lint-free cloth and some furniture polish to lubricate them.  This is cheap, easy, and highly effective and keeping your dark slides in great shape. 

9 – Pre-Visualize Your Scene/Subject.  There are a number of things that I do before I get the camera and lens out.  One simple and highly effective technique that I use is that I take a photo either with my iPhone using the Mark II Artist’s Viewfinder application or more recently, I use an inexpensive Micro Four-Thirds Camera because of the aspect ratio is very close to the 4×5 and 8×10 ratio.  I use the M43 camera as a composition and scouting tool for my landscapes and I am increasingly using it as a meter for my C-41 and E-6 color film. My goal is to always eliminate as many things as I can from my backpack. 

10 – Label Your Film Holders.  Every film holder should be labeled and used in your exposure notes.  This helps with everything from development to troubleshooting.  If you notice one of your sheets of film has a light leak, for example, you will know the exact holder and side that is causing the issue. 

11 – Develop a Routine.  You should have a routine for your large format exposures.  Just like a pilot has a pre-flight checklist, large format photographers should have a pre-exposure checklist too.  Print it and take it with you in the field.  I also have Large Format Quick Reference Cards that photographers tell me they really like to put in their bags.  This helps in a number of ways.  After you do your routine long enough, it becomes second nature and you no longer have to think about the technical stuff.  You can remain immersed in your scene or subject. 

12 – Store Your Film Holders in Ziplock Freezer Bags.  I store every film holder in a ziplock freezer bag.  This single practice has effectively eliminated any dust issue with my film, plus there are some added benefits too.  I can’t tell you the number of times I have been caught off guard in the field with a rainstorm and I didn’t have to worry about my film getting wet.  I also load my holders up before a trip and then put them in the freezer.  I use the Jumbo size bags for my 8×10 and the quart size bags for my 4×5 holders.

Additional insights on Tip # 12 from Paul Wainwright: “First, always use new bags every time you load your film holders. This insures you are placing them in a clean environment. The small added expense is worth it.  And second, get the type that have a zipper.  They are much easier to open and close, particularly if it’s cold out and you are wearing gloves.”

13 – Use 2 Different Loupes.  For general focus, I use a lower magnification loupe like a 3X or 4X or even a pair of reading glasses.  But for critical focus, I use a 10X loupe.  

14 – Keep a Flexible Measuring Tape in Your Bag.  I do a lot of closeups and macro work, so I am constantly calculating reproduction ratios and exposure compensation.  You need to know your bellows extension to figure these things out.  Also, I know the minimum focus distance for each of my lenses, so I can setup my camera that is often very close to my subject and then I make final adjustments with my RRS Macro Rail without ever having to move the tripod again.

Additional insights on Tip # 14 from Paul Wainwright: “I use the type used by tailors (I got it in a cloth store), and I had a seamstress sew it onto one of the edges of my dark cloth.  That way I always have it with me and know where it is.”

15 – Try And Use Optimal Apertures.  It varies with each lens, but as a general rule, I try and use an aperture of f/16 to f/22 unless it simply isn’t possible to get the highest quality images from my lenses.  If you use the proper movements, this is frequently very possible, but don’t avoid stopping down to f/32 or f/45 if you need the depth of field.  Not every image has to be technically perfect to be a great image and most of your viewers could care less what aperture you used.  If you can’t apply movements and use an optimal aperture, but stopping down allows you to get the image you want — just do it and make the image.   

16 – Clean Your Lens Before Each Use.  I keep a lens brush and some eyeglass optical cleaning wipes with me at all times and clean the front and rear elements before each use. A lint-free lens cloth is a good idea too. 

17 – Know Your Front & Rear Standard Movements.  Make sure that you understand that in general terms, front standard movements don’t affect image shape and rear standard movements will.  This isn’t always a bad thing by the way.  For example, if I want to exaggerate a wildflower in my foreground, I will apply a back standard movement to get my scene sharp and make the flower appear bigger than it really is.  If I wanted the entire scene sharp but didn’t want that exaggeration in the foreground, I would simply use a front standard forward tilt. 

18 – Get Up Close With Your Wide Angle Lens.  When you use your wide angle lens and get up close, you have much more coverage than you probably think you do.  Clyde Butcher is a master of this technique.  In many of Clyde’s photographs, he is using an extremely wide angle lens and he is literally right on top of his subject.  When I talked to Clyde about this technique he said “when I teach large format photographers this technique they never get close enough.  I let them get set up and then I tell them, now get closer.” 

19 – Keep 2 Shutter Release Cables in Your Bag.  I can’t tell you the number of times over the years I had an issue with a cable release.  If I would not have had a backup in my bag, I may have missed the exposure.

20 – Get Things Level.  Make sure your tripod and then your camera is level to the horizon before you get started.  If you make contact prints, then there is no “Photoshop” to fix this later.  

21 – Meter Near Your Lens.  You want to meter your scene/subject right next to your lens and not from a different location, like from behind your camera which a frequent mistake.   

22 – Make a DIY Dark Focusing Hood/Dark Cloth.  If you don’t want to purchase a fancy dark cloth, then you can make your own.  A couple of my personal favorites include using an old hoodie.  Place the hood part over the back of your camera and then look through the bottom of the shirt towards the hoodie.  Another favorite is to get a cheap black sweatshirt and sew in a white t-shirt.  This method is highly effective and works great. 

Additional insights on Tip # 22 from Paul Wainwright: “As for the dark cloth itself, I’ve gone through several iterations.  The one I use now was custom made from two pieces of microfiber material, one black, and one white.  Both are extremely thin and light-weight so they fold up to almost nothing.  I walked around the cloth store holding pieces of black microfiber cloth up to the ceiling lights and chose the one that blocked essentially all of the light.  I got a lot of strange looks from the other customers.  I had the same seamstress sew them back-to-back, and use the white side out to reflect heat from the sun in the summer.  There is a strip of Velcro along the edge of the dark cloth that rests on the top of my camera that meets up with its “mate” that’s glued to the camera.  That way the dark cloth stays put.  There is also Velcro on the bottom of the camera to hold the undersides of the dark cloth in place, and in several additional places to close up the bottom of the dark cloth so I can’t see the ground.  And, since I use a wooden field camera that has a space between the camera back and the base, I have a strip of black material with Velcro on both ends that closes up that space and makes it nice and dark.  A bit of a lengthy explanation that is easier done than said.”

23 – Test Your Lenses Every 6 Months.  If you don’t get out too often with certain lenses, it is a good idea to fire the shutter at each speed at least once every 6 months or so to keep them properly lubricated.

24 – Don’t Use Tilt Movements With Vertical Subjects.  If you have vertical objects in your scene like trees or buildings, then don’t use the typical front tilt to get things sharp because you will distort your subjects.  In this case, you will have to stop down your lens and ignore all the bad things you think may happen with diffraction.  If you scan your film, there is the possibility if you are brave enough to take 3 exposures and the focus stack them in Photoshop.  I’ve done this with 4×5 film and it works perfectly.  It should also work just fine with 8×10 film too, just much bigger files of course.  If you go down this path, make sure you frame your composition around your nearest exposure.  

25 – When Your Shutter Fails.  If you ever have a shutter fail on your lens when in the field, you can still get the exposure with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Jim Galli shared a technique where he uses two dark slides in a V shape where he covers the lens with the top one and then quickly rotates to the second dark slide.  The size of the V and the speed of your wrist determine your shutter speed.  If you play around with this, you will get better results then you think are possible.  I have used this technique with old barrel lenses and I have gotten very good results. 

26 – Mounting Your Lens.  Be mindful of how you mount your lens on your lensboard in relationship to the practical use of it when on your camera.  It is easy to get excited and mount a new lens on a board and only to find out when you get out in the field without any tools that you can’t reach the aperture or something frustrating like that.  Also, think about orientation as well because you want to be able to see your aperture and shutter settings as well as use them. 

27 – Bring Your Sweat Rag.  I can’t tell you how many times sweat has been pouring down my face and into my eyes in the summertime when working under the dark cloth.  Also, on a side note, make sure you bring plenty of fresh water and a snack to fight off the hunger and stay hydrated because I frequently stay out longer than planned.  When you get hungry or thirsty, you can make bad decisions or possibly miss an opportunity.  Just remove those variables and be prepared. 

28 – Look For Padded Bags/Sleeves.  It is always a good idea to protect your camera, lenses, and film holders.  I have found over the years that it can be very difficult to find a case/bag for bigger cameras like 8×10 or bigger.  For these situations, I found that cases made for the music industry have frequently worked out.  I think the brand I have found was Gator.  Also, for your film holders, inexpensive neoprene notebook/tablet sleeves are made in sizes that will work for 4×5, 5×7, 4×10, and 8×10 holders very easily.  I typically get these from Amazon and put my film holders in them before placing them in my backpack.  These neoprene sleeves can also be a good little bag for small things like your spanner wrench, extra release cable, flexible tape measure, etc.  I use one that is a different color than the rest of my sleeves to easily identify it in the field.

29 – Pack an Extra Heavy Duty Garbage Bag.  I can’t tell you the number of times over the years that I have used a heavy-duty garbage bag to save the day.  Everything from sitting on it in the woods to protecting my gear.  It takes almost no space and it can be a lifesaver.  I like the heavy-duty contractor bags that are available from hardware stores like Home Depot and other places.

30 – Loctite Your Tripod Feet.  For nature and landscape large format photographers, we often change out the standard feet with the type that allows for a heavy-duty pin to dig into the terrain, but also shim out to use indoors too.  I forgot to Loctite these in and have lost more than one tripod foot over the years. 

31 – Go High Tech on Your Research.  Don’t forget to use the power of the Internet to fully research locations before you head out.  Also, it is a good idea to print paper maps and other related info because you never know if you will have a signal or not.  I use everything from Google, Google Maps, Google Earth, Dark Sky, Weather Underground, TPE for sunrise/sunset info, and many others.

32 – Dress The Part.  I love the cargo pants from Duluth for a couple of different reasons.  First, the pockets on the legs are extremely helpful for holding everything from my notes and pencil to my loupe, extra cable release and other things.  I have fallen in the water before with the Duluth pants on and they dry very quickly making them a very safe choice as well.  Another good tip provided by Frank Dries was to seek out gloves with open fingertips that you like and depending on the terrain you are working, a pair of gaiters can come in very handy from shielding your lower legs from snow and even water.  Also, I always try and dress in layers so I can them off and add them back as needed.  

33 – Safety First.  If you are a large format nature and landscape photographer like me, then you already know the importance of safety.  I could write a chapter on this topic, but to keep things short, I will list the things I don’t leave home without.  I like to always have the following in my pack: first aid kit, medical tape that is also used to tape sprained ankles/wrists, dry matches, Garmin InReach GPS tracker, water bottle/bladder, water purifier, extra gloves, and hat, single-use thermal blanket, bear bell, safety whistle, and a multi-tool.  

34 – Measure Twice, Expose Once.  For large format close-up and macro photography, we are managing reproduction ratios and exposure compensation because of the long bellows extension with almost every photography.  I have a small vinyl tape measure with inches on one side and centimeters on the other side that I use to measure the distance between the front of my lens and the subject and then the extension of the bellows.  I have a dedicated Large Format & Macro Photography page where I share all of the various calculations that you need. 

35 – Depth of Field.  Calculating and executing depth of field with large format can be a tricky and sometimes emotional subject.  I find the Linhof Large Format DOF Chart to be a very practical and easy process to use.  Download the PDF and put this simple method and chart to use.  You might be thinking, why do I need to use Hyperfocal distance and DOF when I have a large format camera?  There are scenarios when you simply cannot use large format movements for optimum depth of field.  One example of this is when I want to photograph the wild horses with my handheld 4×5 camera.  Another example could be a scenario where you are in the understory of a forest and you can’t use movements to improve your DOF and you don’t want to resort to stopping all the way down on your lens (diffraction and/or long shutter speeds).  Print the Linhof DOF chart and laminate it and put it in your large format bag. 

36 – Velcro on Light Meter Cap.  Put a piece of Velcro on the outside of your light meter’s lens cap, and a mating piece on the top of the light meter, and stick the lens cap to it while making readings.  That way you’ll be less likely to waste time looking for it.  Tip provided by Paul Wainwright.

37 – Protect Your Ground Glass.  I got an email from Christian Johansson about remembering to protect your ground glass. There are several ways you can go about this, so I will share a couple of my methods and if you have something else, send me a note and I will add it to the list here.  Some cameras, like Ebony and some Chamonix cameras, come with a ground glass protector when you buy the camera new. I have owned both of these types of 4×5 cameras and so I know this from first-hand experience.  With my Linhof cameras (Technikardan, Master Technika), I custom cut pieces of heavy-duty mat board to place over the ground glass when I put them in my backpack or case for transport.  

38 – Get a Padded Case.  If your camera did not come with a case you can find third party padded cases.  I have found that Gator cases that are made for musical and electronic equipment are really good options because they are specifically made for transporting sensitive electronic gear and they make them in a wide variety of sizes and styles.  I’ve purchased Gator cases for everything from my 11×14 down to my 4×5 Linhof cameras.  I typically find my Gator cases on Amazon. 

39 – Mount Filter Holder On Each Lens.  I use the Lee Filters Lens Hood system and so I mount the appropriate size Filter Ring Adapter to each of my lenses along with a replacement filter ring lens cap. This way, when I pull one of my lenses out of my pack, I know I don’t have to fiddle around and look for an adapter ring to mount on the lens.  It is an added expense that I don’t mind.  

40 – Become a Rapper! Now that is pretty funny… A middle-aged white guy giving advice for large format photographers to become a wrapper.  Now that I have your attention, here is the actual tip.  Before you load your film holder into your camera, it is a really good idea to “rap” your film holder against the palm of your hand to try and help the film settle.  Depending on the thickness of your film that can really help.

41 – Stop Down. A simple and effective way to find the highlight areas that need to be spot metered in a scene is to stop the lens down and look at the ground glass under the dark cloth.  The “hot spots” will be very easy to identify.  

42 – Close Your Eyes.  Even if you have a fresnel lens on your view camera, it can be difficult at times to see the image on the ground glass, especially if you are stopping down to check focus and depth of field.  I have a very simple trick that you can do to help.  After you get under the dark cloth, close your eyes and count to 10.  Relax and possibly even take a deep breath and then slow open your eyes.  The image on the ground glass will be much brighter to your eyes.

43 – “T” Mode is Your Friend.  One trick that I do when setting up my camera for composing is to place the shutter in T (time) mode and press the shutter release.  This opens the iris (shutter blades) and allows you to focus.  Then when you are ready to take the exposure, just press the shutter release again to close the shutter blades.  Now all you need to do is cock the shutter and set the aperture and shutter to your desired settings and create the exposure.  I have found working this way keeps me from accidentally leaving the lens open and ruining my exposure. This tip is especially useful if you have a recessed lens board and it is difficult to open and close the shutter blades with a control knob that is typically located on the side of the shutter. If your shutter does not have a “T” mode, it almost certainly has a bulb “B” mode.  If you use a shutter release cable that has a lock on it, place your shutter in bulb mode and then lock it open while focusing and then release it.  

44 – A Ribbon Runs Through It. – I use a ribbon to help me quickly extend my bellows for various magnifications.  For example, I love to use my 120mm and 150mm lenses on my 4×5 view camera to create 1:1 and even 2:1 macro images.  You can make this as simple or complex as you want by marking the ribbon at the respective distances and even note the exposure compensation values so you don’t have to think about it in the field.  This is a very easy and highly effective way to work.  The ribbon is small and weighs almost nothing.  

45 – Exposure Logging Method – I think it is important to be organized and methodical when it comes to documenting and organizing large format sheet film.  I use a simple method to document my large format sheet film.  I write this number on my field exposure sheet as well as on my archival storage sleeve too. Here is an example for you: 010120-03-10A.  This means the exposure was taken on Jan 1, 2020 and it was the 3rd exposure of the day and was on side A of the film holder number 10.  This is also very useful it discovering film holders that have issues like light leaks, etc. 

46 – Use Your Dark Slide As a GND Filter – If you are in need of a graduated neutral density filter (GND) to hold back light in your background or foreground, you can sometimes use your dark slide as a substitute.  I typically shoot 100 speed E-6 film for my color landscapes, so I am frequently using shutter speeds of 1 second or more.  By simply waving the dark slide like you are dodging your print in the darkroom can be a very effective technique when you don’t have a proper GND filer.  

47 – Test Your Film Holders Annually – I have lost a lot of time, money, and effort due to film holders that have developed light leaks.  Of course this happens when you are on a trip to a beautiful location.  You just keep on taking exposures in the faulty film holders and store your exposed film to developer later when you get home.  I strongly encourage you to test your film holders for light leaks at least every year using a very simple method.  I use RC silver gelatin paper as a negative.  I just cut up some 8×10 sheets of RC paper and put them in all of my film holders.  Next, I go outside and rate the negative at EI 10 or EI 12 and then come back inside and quickly develop them under a red safelight in a dilute paper developer (1:20) for 1 minute.  Then I just fix them for about a minute and then turn on the lights to ensure no light leaks exist.  This method is quick, simple, and very effective.