Why I Shoot Large Format

Over the course of my life, there have only been a handful of hobbies that have persisted for more than four years. Why four years? For some reason, it's a personal milestone, akin to four years of private study at an institution perhaps. Either way, four years is just around the corner for shooting large format, and I've been spending a considerable amount of time trying to understand why. Why would someone want to spend so much money, time, effort, heartache, and even more money on such a hobby?

One theory for my hopeless addiction is the technical aspect. The images have sharpness, tonality, resolution, contrast, and all those other buzzwords. It's easy to like an image for any combination of those, especially at the ease a large format negative can achieve them. The large format camera also has a a host of its own challenges. Rise, fall, shift, tilt, swing, Scheimpflug, bellows factor, light leaks, dust, the list goes on. Even the film and its processing have intense technical requirements. Reciprocity, EI vs ASA, metering for shadows, processing for highlights, pushing, pulling, dilution, washing, drying, storing, does this madness ever end? Maybe these do contribute to the allure of large format, but I don't think they're the main reason.

 "Cavern at Cantwell Cliffs" - Shot at the beautiful Hocking Hills State Park, Logan, OH.

"Cavern at Cantwell Cliffs" - Shot at the beautiful Hocking Hills State Park, Logan, OH.

Another possibility for my love of large format is the hands-on feel of the process. From loading film in the dark, to playing around with the camera gear in the field, and back into the dark, there's a lot of personal involvement with the creation of each image. With each manual step also lies the chance to completely ruin an image. But when you do finally pull that final print from the developer under the deep red glow of the darkroom, there's nothing quite like it. The tactile feel of a photograph start to finish does have a nice ring to it, but I don't think that's what I'm in it for either.

In my opinion, the real reason I shoot large format because it slows me down. Combining all of the parts described above, large format forces me to really stop and think about what it is I'm doing, and more importantly what it is I'm shooting. Taking all of those extra steps on top of pressing the shutter makes me constantly question the singular choice that is the image before me. Bottom line, the slower overall process helps me to "see".

Let's take for example my trip last month to Hocking Hills shooting at the Cantwell Cliffs. I had no idea what to expect, how the light was going to be, or even if the weather was going to cooperate. One thing I did know, however, was that once I had the camera out on the tripod, all I would have to do is start looking around, finding a focal length that suited the subject, and keep looking some more. While the 2+ minute exposure of the cavern (see above) was happening, I was about 20m behind the camera watching the light filter in near the falls (see below). By the time it was time to reinsert the darkslide, I knew what I wanted out of the next image, switched the wide lens from the last shot to the longest lens in my bag, and went to work. At the end of a brief 3 hour morning shoot, I came away with 6 exposed sheets of film (two were taken twice) and four final images; one image, of which, I know I'll be printing for years to come. That is why I love and will continue to shoot large format.

 "Filtering Light at Cantwell Cliffs" - An image I definitely would have missed by moving faster and not "seeing".

"Filtering Light at Cantwell Cliffs" - An image I definitely would have missed by moving faster and not "seeing".

For those of you reading, why do you use the camera(s) you do? Or the processes you print? Does this stuff even matter? I'd love to hear your stories and your reasoning in the comments.

 Thanks for stopping by, and here's to many more years of shooting large format!