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My first steps in large format photography

For years I have been saying that I will either buy or build my own large format camera, but the total cost of a 4×5 system consisting of camera and enlarger always put me off. Until now. A few weeks ago, I acquired a Toyo 45A in very good condition which came with a Rodenstock Sironar-N 150 mm lens and a few sheet film holders. About a week later, I picked up a complete Durst Laborator L1200 in Amsterdam and two weeks after that I made the first prints of my first ever 4×5 sheets. In this post, I will walk you through my new setup and why I chose for these items.

The camera

If you are looking to get into large format photography, it seems there are as many camera models available as there are photographers to use them. Luckily, they can be grouped in roughly two branches: monorails and field cameras. The former offers superior camera movements both in number as well as in amplitudes, while the latter sacrifices a bit of movements to allow for a more compact and lightweight design which offers superior mobility. Not too long ago, I decided to sell most of my ‘studio’ equipment, and spend more time in the outdoors. A rail camera is simply too large and heavy to regularly disassemble, pack and unpack and assemble on location. That leaves the field camera as the only realistic option for me.

Field cameras, too, can be divided in two groups (roughly) based on the used materials: the ones mainly made of metal on one hand and those made of wood. on the other. Wooden cameras definitely have the eye-candy factor in their favour and can be slightly lighter than a metal camera. The metal cameras tend to be sturdier. These are only true in a general sense, and there are definitely are examples in which this is not true. I read up on many models, especially in the < 1000 euro budget. In the end, I ran into a nicely priced Toyo 45A kit with a Rodenstock Sironar-N MC 150 mm lens in Copal #0 shutter, a few sheet holders, pelican case and reflex finder. This was a deal I could not pass up on.

Figure 1: The Toyo 45A kit I acquired. For the price and condition simply too good to pass up on.

If I had unlimited budget, my choice would have been a Ebony RW45 or Ebony SV45Ti, but at 2000 – 3000 EUR for the body only, this was simply way out of my league.

Developing

Once you are shooting film, you are going to have to develop it somehow. As for many choices in the world of large format photography, there are many ways that lead to Rome. Following in the steps of the granddaddies of photography, tray development comes to mind first, in which sheet film is developed in trays not unlike those used for prints. This requires total darkness and regular physical contact with the sheets. I think this is too impractical for my darkroom to do on a regular basis. Then there are the systems of the dip-and-dunk type, where the film is vertically immersed in open tanks. This also requires complete darkness during processing and is more suited to the professional lab due to the required amount of chemicals.

For home processing, there are three relevant options: 1) a rotary processor like the JOBO systems, 2) the BTZS tubes and 3) the MOD54 in a Patterson daylight tank. Option 1) obviously requires a rotary processer. Although a JOBO processor without a lift can be had for less than 300 euro including tanks and would be great if I want to start doing C-41, E6 or RA-4 processing, I do not own one, nor do I have the space to leave it when it is not used. Option 2) seems very cumbersome to me, although there are plenty of people that swear by the system. The last option, the MOD54 system, uses conventional Patterson tanks that are also common for smaller film formats and pairs it with a custom insert for processing sheet film. This insert holds up to 6 sheets of 4×5 film and the design has gone through many iterations over the years.

I ended up buying a new Patterson tank and the MOD54 insert. My first experiences with this system are very positive, indeed, and the current design at least is easy to use. So far I chose to not invert the tank, but rather use the agitation stick that comes with the tank to achieve proper agitation of the chemistry. I will have to find out which works best for me.

The enlarger

Shooting sheet film is one thing; making prints is another. Not having the space or money for a 4×5 enlarger was always the main deal breaker for me. I want to be able to print from the film in the darkroom and this requires an enlarger that is compatible with 4×5 sheet film, which are not easy to come by for what I consider a reasonable price. A user of the AnaloogFotoForum (Dutch Analog Photography Message board) had two Durst Laborator L138 enlargers on offer which could be picked up for free. Unfortunately there was no way that I could make that fit in my tiny makeshift darkroom. A few days later I ran into a Durst Laborator L1200 with a full series of topnotch Schneider-Kreuznach Componon and Componon-S enlarger lenses and a few moving boxes full of additional darkroom equipment. Most of the extra items that I don’t need I have already sold again, but the Photon Beard easel that came with it is very nice to use.

Figure 2: The L1200 as installed in my makeshift darkroom.

The L1200 I now own came with a CLS450 colour head and a clean set of Ilford under-the-lens filters. So far, I have not used the colour mixing head for black-and-white printing yet, as I first want to master split grade printing. Compared to dialing in the correct filter values on the colour head, using the under-the-lens filters is just a lot quicker.

The enlarger is installed on a custom table that sits over the laundry machine and is mechanically not coupled. Ofcourse, the laundry machine is not in use when the space serves as a darkroom, but I did not want the vibrations to strain the lamps of the enlarger. The table is a bit wobly, and will have to be fixed to the wall in the future.

The first sheets

Not having any experience with the movements whatsoever I packed my camera bag on the 24th of December and left for the dunes between Scheveningen beach and Wassenaar. As autumn had come and past, there was little scenery left that interested me at that moment, until I ran into a bush of rotten and dead leaves that had lost all their colour and turned white. On the green moss underneath the bush, I found this little scene (Figure 3) which I considered perfect for some first experiments. A few passersby turned their heads and looked at me confused why I was still using such ‘an old camera’.

Figure 3: White leaf on green moss.

After quite a bit of trial and error, I finally managed to get the plane of focus aligned with the leaf (Figure 4) and after metering, closing the shutter, cocking it and removing the dark slide, I still managed to forget to adjust for the bellows extension factor.

Figure 4: Camera set up for first images.

With this bellows draw, I required a corrected exposure time of slightly over 1 second. The second sheet was correctly exposed and left me with the following image (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Scan of negative.

So, what’s next?

In the coming months I will be taking the camera out on several hikes in the area and hopefully also different parts of the Netherlands to develop my skills and hopefully expose some great photos. Lately, I have spent some more time exploring the dunes close to our place and I think there are some pictures there waiting to be made. In addition to this, I’d like to visit some of our national parks and the Wadden islands again.

On the hardware front, I am investigating options for a 90 mm  lens and a 240 – 300 mm-ish lens. This is more in the reading-up phase, however, as I first want to find out, which I would prefer having.

Published in Miscellaneous