What is Large Format Photography?

Large format photography is any format that spans 4x5 inches or larger. It's a much more detailed frame than the average 35mm camera, providing an image that's about 16x larger, while still maintaining the same resolution. Large format is one of the earliest photo technologies, and the simplicity allowed photographers to make 1:1 prints from their original negatives. It's the largest possible camera format, with fully manual settings, including focus, film loading and unloading, and exposure. To create a print, you must load and unload the film in total darkness (i.e. a darkroom or dark bag). 

Who uses large format photography?

Many historic archives use large format film for documentation purposes, including the National Park Service, the Historic American Landscapes Survey, and the Library of Congress. Typically, 4x5" and 5x7" film is large enough for most subjects, while 8x10" is used for photo duplication of important documents. Large format's superior resolution allows a historic building or park to be captured without distortion. By shifting the lens element, a photographer can keep their subject perfectly parallel with the film and lens.

Though large format cameras are cumbersome to use, the image quality is far better than any other photography format. If your sheet film and print dimensions match, you won't even need to enlarge the photo, so you can preserve it at full resolution. In addition, the large format style offers a deeper level of control, with parameters like rise, fall, and tilt shift that affect the final image in subtle ways. This makes it the ideal format for fine art and commercial projects, where a photographer can take her time. On the other hand, large format is poorly suited for high-speed photography, such as breaking news or sports, because it takes much longer to shoot one photo.  

Where can I find a large format camera?

Today's digital cameras are always trying to do more in a smaller package. This makes large format cameras less attractive to the average consumer. If you're lucky, you can find a used large format body, a few lenses, and accessories for less than your basic digital model. 

Once you learn how to use your new device, you can produce incredible photos for the cost of a film roll. Yes, large format film is a bit more expensive than 35mm, but with such an elaborate rig, it will probably take longer to go through a roll. As a result, every shot will be more deliberate, and you won't want to rush through your film after taking so much time to set up. 

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