In 2001 I bought my first large format camera, a Sinar F2 4x5 inch (96x120 mm), with a 6x9 cm Horseman roll film holder, and a single lens: a Schneider Super Symmar XL 80mm f/4.5. Why large format over small format (24x36 mm)? I wanted to try perspective control without being limited to a few
shift lenses. Why a roll film holder? It lets me use standard 120 medium format roll film, and it is a lot cheaper to make mistakes with MF roll film than with individual 4x5 inch sheets. Whenever the situation and time permitted, and after exposing a few small format slides with my Nikon F5, I'd try the LF camera, and expose a frame of 6x9 cm.
After a few dozen rolls of 120, each with 8 exposures, I grew confident enough to want to try 4x5 inch sheets; at least occasionally. After all, I'm already doing all the work: carry the extra weight, take extra care setting up and focusing the camera, keeping the camera level and straight lines straight, hence why not make the most out of it? The lenses I had bought by then were up to the task; I made sure they would be, just in case. After a 4 week trip to the desert southwest, using 4x5 LF format exclusively, from sunrise to sunset, I left the F5 at home and never looked back.
Meanwhile, my gear has expanded. Instead of the Sinar F2 I use a P2, which is sturdier, has geared movements, but is also heavier. Along with the P2, I use a 5x7 inch conversion kit and a K.B.Canham 6x17 cm roll film holder. This lets me take professional panoramics at a fraction of the cost of a Linhof or Horseman 6x17 panorama camera. Moreover, I can use virtually all the lenses I already use for 4x5 inch, I get full perspective control, and I get ground glass viewing; the latter avoiding parallax error of viewfinder cameras. The Horseman has optional ground glass viewing but rise/fall only, while the Linhof has neither, and either offer a limited number of compatible (and very expensive) lenses only (for more details, see Using a Canham 6x17 cm Roll Film Holder on a Sinar F2/P2 5x7 inch View Camera).
core gear disassembles into an f.64 BPX extra large backpack. I usually pack the following:
Apart from the camera bag, I carry a Manfrotto (Bogen) 475B tripod and a large water bottle. With very few exceptions, today's large format cameras are not used without tripods. The reason for this is that you can either look through the ground glass to compose and focus, or attach a film holder and expose a sheet of film, but not both at the same time. Not that I wanted to handhold my Sinar P2 for any length of time...
The above set of lenses corresponds to a range of 24-90 mm in small format. I determine the correspondence by comparing the long sides of the film formats (36 mm in small format and 120 mm in large format) and get a conversion factor of 0.3: Take the LF lens, multiply by 3, divide by 10, and that's the corresponding lens in small format. Similarly, for a DX sized Nikon digital camera, the long side of the sensor is 24 mm, which yields a conversion factor of 0.2. This makes it even easier to go back and forth. LF times 2 divided 10 yields DX format, and DX format times 5 yields LF.
For the conversion between formats I am comparing the long sides instead of the image diagonals because the various formats I am using have different aspect ratios. Say, I look at the landscape and want to get everything from here to there. So I zoom in or out as appropriate with the D-SLR, and this gives me a rough idea. Next I decide if I use panoramic or
regular. Is there anything interesting that I could place prominently in the foreground to convey depth? That could make a nice 4x5. With no interesting foreground and
boring blue skies, a panoramic format may convey the view more effectively. But I still want everything from here to there, hence the comparison of the long sides of the frame.
Following is a table that lists approximate correspondences of focal lengths. I started from my collection of LF lenses for 4x5 format and
extrapolated to small and DX format, since there are zoom lenses for small format, but not for large format. On the other side of the table, for formats larger than 4x5, I picked the closest lens I own and that covers the respective format (the Schneider Super Symmar XL 110 mm 105° f/5.6 just about covers 8x10 format when using the hyperfocal distance method—officially it doesn't—hence the parenthesis):
Approximate correspondences of focal lengths (in mm)
yielding the same horizontal angle of view
Depending on how close to the car I am, there are more lenses in large cases in the trunk, ranging from 47 mm to 1000 mm. The 1000 mm is a bit elaborate to setup, because the lens is effectively about 1 m (40 inches) away from the film. This requires several extension rails, an extension bellows with auxiliary standard to attach the bellowses on either side, and of course an auxiliary tripod to support the lens:
Using a Docter Optics (a.k.a. Carl Zeiss Jena) APO Germinar 1000 mm 45° f/19.5 lens on the 5x7 inch Sinar P2 in practice
Sometimes I know upfront that I will need a wider or longer lens, hence I adjust the set of lenses accordingly. By carrying the D-SLR around my neck, I have in the past managed to add two more lenses:
This extends the range to about 17-135 mm in small format —I wish I had a single zoom lens for this particular range. Sometimes I know upfront that I want to take panoramic shots, for which case I manage to pack the 5x7 inch conversion kit, along with the roll film holder, and a pack or two of 120 film (Fujifilm Velvia 50), instead of the 4x5 inch kit. Sometimes I simply do not know upfront and have to take chances, or explore the hike with my D-SLR only, to get an idea what I will need when I get serious.
There are several other reasons why I use a digital SLR in the field:
off-by-one.This sometimes happens with wide-angle lenses, where the perspective in the D-SLR leads to key-stoning, while LF gets the perspective right, but may need a wider lens than predicted by the simple conversion. Also, if the D-SLR predicts a focal length between two existing lenses, I may try both to see which one more effectively conveys the idea.
wash-outthe red rock or pink glacier. Accordingly, I bracket in digital, and then commit the preferred exposure to film.
previewthe effect of a graduated neutral density filter, if I suspect the contrast calls for it. I'll simply try the exposure with one or two different filters, until I'm satisfied with the result.
Granted, it could be done without the D-SLR, using just the pen and notebook approach, take the film to the lab, compare the results with the notes, and return to the shooting location, as appropriate. The D-SLR is simply a rather convenient short-cut, especially when said location is 1000 miles away. Think of it as some kind of digital Polaroid and in all colors, combined with a date and time recorder. I do not yet have a GPS accessory, but will consider one soon.
Occasionally, when I'm within a few hundred meters of my car, I use a Sinar P2 8x10 inch (192x245 mm)—the 8x10 inch weighs about 20 pounds without lens. For me, the special appeal of an 8x10 inch camera is to be looking at an 8x10 inch image on the ground glass while composing. In 8x10 inch format, the standard lens is about 300 mm, and a
long lens is 600 mm. Compared to small format, this is like looking at the world through a 600 mm super telephoto lens but with an 8x10 inch
viewfinder. Compare this to letter-sized paper (8.5x11 inches) or DIN A4 paper (210x297 mm) and you get the idea.
I still recall the first time I was at Yosemite's Glacier point, looking at Half Dome on the big 8x10 inch ground glass. Attached upfront was the 600 mm lens, along with a polarizer and a #25 red filter that cuts through whatever haze there may be left. It was as if I could see individual tree branches on the lower slopes of Half Dome...