5 Pieces of Large Format "Fluff"
Large format photography, while simplistic in nature, has quite a lot of moving parts. At first pass, it doesn't look like there's a lot to it. A bellows camera, which is essentially a dark box, a lens, a tripod, a sheet of film in a holder, and you're set, right? Yes, that's all that's necessary for a large format photographer to work. But what about all the small things that can aid a large format shooter along the way? Today, I'm going to be talking about all those handy accessories, that I've affectionately named the "Fluff".
The first piece of fluff I encourage any large format photographer to invest in is a good handheld light meter. No large format film camera I can think of has a light meter built into it, so having an external means of gauging exposure is necessary. For photographers that plan on working out in the field, a basic handheld meter with incident metering is a good budget option; there are even incident meters available for your smartphone or mobile device. For those planning on adding flash to their images, having a meter capable of corded or wireless flash triggering is needed. These meters are typically a little more expensive than the non-flash syncing units, but nothing outrageous. The final type of meter that's very popular with large format shooters is the spot meter. These meters allow exact measurements of reflected light in the scene and helps in calculating an exact exposure with wide dynamic range (see Zone System photography). Seeing as the latter two categories most applied to my needs, I went with the Sekonic L-778 spot meter (with flash sync capability). Price range $$ - $$$
The second piece of fluff I highly recommend is a loupe. For those of you out of the loupe, (sorry, I couldn't help myself) a loupe is a small magnifier that allows for focusing very minute details on the ground glass of a view camera. Being able to see on the ground glass while focusing is dependent on a couple of factors: size of the ground glass, covering power of the lens, widest aperture of the lens, and amount of light hitting the ground glass. One device that can makeup for the shortcomings of several of these variables is a solid viewing loupe. The smaller your ground glass, the more magnification and thus better optics you will need. For 4x5, I recommend anywhere between 6x - 10x. 5x7 and up don't need much more than a 6x to get good up-close focus checking. I personally use a Schneider 4x loupe for 8x10, but there are certainly are more budget options available. Price range $$ - $$$.
As I just touched on, being able to see and compose well on the ground glass is a big deal. Pretty much any tool that makes this process easier is one worth getting, especially if you plan on shooting a lot of large format. Therefore, my third recommended piece of large format fluff is a focusing cloth or dark cloth. This does exactly what you think it would do; it darkens the area around the ground glass to allow for accurate focusing. As with most photographic tools, these can be as simple or as complicated as your wallet will allow. Personally, I'm in love with my BlackJacket Hybrid Focusing Cloth, but an old t-shirt does a fine job too. Price range $-$$.
Dust is a pain that all photographers know, but large format shooters know all too well. Any means to minimize/remove dust from a large format photographer's workflow is the best thing ever, period. Therefore, the fourth, and most inexpensive piece of large format fluff in this list, is the recloseable anti-static bag. Starting in at around $0.60 each, these pink (sometimes metallic) plastic wonders shield film holders from the elements, and don't build a static charge along the way. Why is anti-static so important? If you manage to charge the darkslide of your film holder, once that darkslide is removed prior to exposure, the shower of dust that hits your film is akin to a Head and Shoulders commercial. Still gives me shudders just thinking about it. Pick some of these up, like yesterday. Price Range $.
The final piece of large format "fluff" that I can recommend to large format shooters is modern glass. With digital photographers are pursuing a softer, more film "look" and film shooters are seeking the oldest and fastest glass available, there's never been a better time to buy up modern glass. What do I mean by modern? I mean anything that: was made in the '80's through today, has 3 or more optical coatings, and is produced to maximize sharpness across the entire field of view. Great examples of these lenses include: Schneider Super Angulon, Super Symmar, Calumet Caltar, Rodenstock Sironar, Nikkor-W, Fujinon-W, and more. These lenses that not too long ago ran for thousands of dollars can now be had for a fraction of the price. These lenses are stunning wide open to all the way stopped down, and are sharp as tack. Fair warning, they are addictive for the price, and may add weight to your kit. Price Range $$ - $$$$.
As I stated at the beginning, none of this gear is essential to making an image with large format. Photographers have been getting by with these cameras since the mid 1800's, and they certainly didn't have this technology then! At the end of the day, the "fluff" makes life a little easier, the large format experience slightly more enjoyable, and come on, it just plain looks cool. Until next time, happy shooting and sorry for the case of G.A.S. ;)