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Why I Continue To Use Large & Ultra Large Format in 2023

I have written several articles over the years about why I continue to choose large and ultra large format photography as my secret weapon, and in this article, I share my current and most relevant reasons why I am still enjoying and using large and ultra large format workflows to create my finest prints.

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  • I want full control over my entire creative process, from composition to making the print. No other workflow, digital or analog, allows the degree of control that is available to me via large and ultra large format methods. This is my primary reason for continuing to use large and ultra large format methods and processes today.
  • The ability to experience and explore a scene or subject under the solitude of the dark cloth is magical. No other workflow gives me this opportunity and experience.
  • Large and ultra large format photography is simple, never changes, and can be mastered if you are willing to invest the time and effort. Digital photography is under constant change, and the narrative is driven by marketing and manufacturing companies. (Buy more/newer gear, more software, update what we sold you last year or even just months ago).
  • The ability to work with my hands using physical objects (i.e., film, paper, chemistry) and using light to make prints is an enjoyable and magical experience. The analog tactile workflow makes me feel more connected to my work.
  • My personal large and ultra large format pure analog workflow is future-proof. I make my own negatives and papers, and the chemistry that I use is generally available outside of the photography world. I have enough raw materials on hand to create new work for the rest of my life. I don’t need a single “thing” in terms of gear for the rest of my life.
  • I love that I don’t need to update, upgrade, or learn something new every month/year. I get to focus and master my workflow, and it takes years to do this. I love that I know every small nuance of every part of my workflow. Focus is a great advantage when it comes to creating meaningful work, in my opinion.
  • In technical terms, it is already well understood that bigger negatives produce technically superior prints, so I don’t need to restate what’s already been proven. Contact printing large and ultra large format negatives are the ultimate in terms of technical quality and what everything else is measured against. I don’t need to compare enlargements to contact prints because I have already done it and know that large and ultra large format contact prints are superior.
  • The ability to use lenses dating back to the beginning of photography allows me to choose the exact type of look and feel I want in my work. No other workflow offers the degree of choices of large and ultra large format optics.
  • The way analog film renders light is unique to analog film, and this also is true for calotype paper negatives and collodion glass plate negatives too. For example, if you point your digital camera into a backlit scene and do the same with a sheet of large or ultra large format film and then compare the best prints from each of these workflows, I think this will help illustrate the superior capabilities of analog film versus a digital sensor. But, in reality, it is much more than a simple test like this. The degree of separation and handling of both highlight and shadow values when compared to a digital or even analog-to-digital workflow is very obvious if you compare them. Besides the technical benefits described here, I prefer how analog mediums (e.g., sheet film, calotypes, paper negatives, collodion negatives, etc.) render highlight and shadow values. I believe the underlying reasons are likely related to how the human eye works and renders information.
  • The ability to shape and control my negatives and prints via tweaks in chemistry is not only satisfying but also offers unique opportunities to express myself. By creating my own emulsions and sensitizers and mixing my own processing chemistry, I can pick whatever paper I want for my work versus being forced to pick a paper from a manufacturer. My imagination and experience only limit the variables I have available.
  • Movements available to large and ultra large format photographers (i.e., swing, tilt, shift, rise/fall, etc.) uniquely allow for total control over my scene or subject. I can have everything sharp or a small slice that is sharp and everything else soft.
  • Being forced to work and think about a single image at a time is a tremendous advantage, not a disadvantage like the modern camera manufacturers paint it to be. The time between exposure, development, and printing in the darkroom is a time when I continue to think about my creative vision and reflect on how I want to shape the final image.
  • My sense of accomplishment using large and ultra large format workflows is realized throughout the entire analog workflow. Every step in my workflow is connected and related in some way. The entire series of steps come together into a finished product that results from significant focus, time, and investment on my part. My connection to each print is profound, and when looking at one of the prints that I admire, I replay the entire journey of how I got there. It’s a beautiful experience.
  • Have you ever directly compared an 8×10 or larger contact print to a digitally captured inkjet print using the exact same composition and focal length? If not, you should do this. That “difference” is what gets me excited and why I keep playing the slow game of large and ultra large format photography.
  • I have the option to create unique and expressive handmade fine art prints such as platinum/palladium, kallitype, silver chloride, collodio-chloride, Rawlins oil prints, carbon, gelatin chloride, and many others. These options are not available via modern digital technology. While one can make a “digital negative” to make these types of prints, they don’t produce a print that compares to a pure analog workflow based on my first-hand experience.

How about you? What are your reasons at this point in your journey? Please comment below and share your reasons.

-Tim Layton Sr.