Finally... my busy schedule has kept me from one of my favourite photographic diversions: recording a beautiful sunrise on large-format film. On the morning of August 8th I unpacked my 8x10 camera and went to work. This was my second attempt at a scene that I had driven by countless times while passing through the park on my way to work. I've always had an eye on this grove of trees and knew that there was an early morning composition waiting to be found. A few days prior, my first attempt was shaping up well, but as the sun rose a wall of dense cloud drove in and obscured the light, casting the scene in depressed cool and flat tones.
This time the clouds stayed away, giving me plenty of time to shoot the rising sun. I exposed a total of 5 sheets. I have some frames where the sun is fully and partially illuminating the foreground vegetation. Though intense and brilliant, deserving of a good image in itself, I chose this quieter, calmer version. I believe it tells the story better. The peace and tranquility of the early sun, birthing yet another day, reminds us to pause, reflect and enjoy the simple pleasures nature willingly provides, before we become saturated by the chaos of our daily lives.
Now let's get technical. 8x10 photography is a lesson in patience. The camera takes some time to setup. I needed to show up before sunrise. Hunched under a darkcloth in the pre-dawn light makes focusing and composing your image quite difficult on the dim ground-glass. I need to use a loupe and slowly adjust focus and perspective via the front and rear standards of the camera, often in a repeating continuum up until about the picture-taking "moment" arrives . Large format cameras offer more control than their fixed-bodied counterparts (DSLR's, SLR's, rangefinders, point and shoots). These image manipulation properties generally give large format images a distinct look. I find it to be quite appealing.
There is definitely a learning curve to the process. The more I do it, the quicker I can setup, the quicker I can decide what camera movements I need, and the better I am at predicting the outcome. Sometimes it doesn't always turn out, but more often than not, the image I pre-visualized is realized. Being forced to slow down is something you just get used to. Planning ahead, scouting locations and predicting the light you want are all basic requirements of large format landscape photography. Then comes the technique of operating the camera when the light is how you want it. Always surprising to me how simple scenes are transformed during fleeting light and I find myself working feverishly to keep up and shoot before it disappears. Since these cameras are completely manual, in every way possible, it is easy to miss a step and ruin a sheet of film if you don't have your technique down. Each sheet roughly costs $20 each. Only repeated practice will liberate you to capture the scene before you. It can be a real downer when things don't go your way; but when things do go your way, it is one of the best and most rewarding feelings ever (photographically speaking).
Composition is a first priority. I needed to get the camera high so that I can keep the film parallel with the trees. I wanted them to have a stately, distortion-free appearance to lend a more majestic outcome. Once I squared the back to the trees I used a bit of front rise to keep the tops of the trees in the frame. This perspective control is a defining feature of large format cameras. Subtle shifts of the front and rear standards can help you fine tune your composition once the basic camera placement is found. Controlling the angle of the rear standard (where the film goes) allows you to fix or distort the appearance of lines. Most typically it's used to keep trees and buildings from leaning over backwards in that awkward way. Instead of tilting up the camera, you square the back to the trees and raise the front standard to "hold" the top of the trees. To achieve a similar effect on a DSLR you would need a pricey, specialized tilt/shift lens. In large-format every lens is a tilt/shift lens. Of course, if you want to preserve a tilted appearance, that option still exists.
I used a 240mm Fujinon-A f/9 lens. A general go-to lens for me. The focal length is equivalent to about a 35mm in full-frame DSLR format. Remember the focus adjustments I needed to do? Although the field-of-view is 35mm, I still have the shallow focus of a 240mm lens. One of the many joys and frustrations of large format is placing the focus plane where you want it. In this case I did subtle tilts and swings to the front standard to put the focus "mostly" along the three foreground trees. Combine this with a heavy shooting stop of f/45 and I can "mostly" get the whole scene in focus. Upon inspecting the final processed film I still didn't quite get the distant trees in focus but this is only a minor distraction for this image. The background is slightly soft but it lends itself to the dreamy nature of the shot. Normally, focus adjustments with these cameras shine when you have a sweeping foreground of low brush, fields, flowers, rocks or water. You can get everything sharp from a few feet in front of the lens to infinity. Had I tilted the focus along the grass, the tree tops would be abnormally soft (being so close to the camera), even though the grasses would be in focus right towards the sunny horizon. I had to make a compromise here and keep the focus parallel with the tree trunks as they were largely the main subject matter. A 35mm lens on a smaller format would sharply render this scene near to far without question; and even at a bigger stop like f/11. In large-format it becomes a major factor to consider and affects the characteristics of the final image.
F/45? Yup. I needed all the stop I could get to maximize depth-of-field. Large format lenses have smaller stops for this reason. Wide-open there is only a sliver of workable focus and it is unnerving because you can never really tell how much of the scene will be in focus at smaller apertures. The dim ground-glass becomes so dark that it's hard to accurately gauge the depth-of-field you're trying to squeeze out of the lens. Only time and experience help you in this regard.
What does such a small stop do to my exposure? Glad you asked. It makes it very long. I used Fuji Velvia 50 slide film. My exposure turned out to be about 12 seconds. Slow lenses, slow films, slow to setup, slow exposures... see a pattern here? Why would I put up with such inconvenience when a DLSR or equivalent camera can not only give me direct feedback, but shoot the scene so much quicker? Because I enjoy the process. The physical act of photographing with a large format camera is a definitive part of the experience before you even make the exposure. I find it "relaxing" and engaging. To know that I truly had a part in every decision of the camera and my surroundings fills me with absolute joy when I finally see that work paid off on a beautifully exposed sheet of film glowing back at me from the light table. The quality is immense. You can get lost in the details, colours, textures and tones. There's a depth to the image that I can only hope to translate on a monitor screen or a final print. Always an ever-elusive chase. There's nothing quite like the real thing. Plus, such a big piece of film itches to be printed large. For me, a 30x40" or 40x50" print is the best way to see what this format is capable of. No noise, no grain, just detail, everywhere!
I metered the grass then underexposed it a stop so it felt natural looking in the shade. I added an ND9 soft grad filter to hold back the bright sky. Film and digital needs a helping hand as they can't always record the full range of bright and dark in a scene. Sunrise and sunset skies are generally 4-6 stops brighter than the landscape. An ND (neutral density) grad filter helps the film or sensor retain detail where it would otherwise be lost. There was a slight breeze during the exposures. Some of the vegetation shows movement but I like that it gives some life and energy to the scene.
I don't expect you to understand everything in this post, but if large format is something that piques your interest and you have a technical knack for things, or would like to know how cameras worked before automation, I suggest you give this format a try. You might just get hooked!
There's plenty of new and used large format cameras out there. A quick Google search will flood you with options. Perhaps the topic of another post. However, there is a young UK-based company that make new 4x5 and 8x10 cameras at an affordable price. I suggest starting out in 4x5 as it's a little cheaper to run and easier to manage compared to it's big 8x10 brother. Check them out at www.intrepidcamera.co.uk
Click each image above to see detail crops of the image and some behind-the-scenes.