Large Format Photography: Is It Worth Getting Into?

It is properly difficult to overstate how much different large format photography is compared with 35mm or 120 film, much less digital. Is it worth it?I am by no means an expert in large format photography — I have been borrowing an old press camera from a buddy and have been working my way through a few boxes of 4×5 sheets after having him show me the ropes with his much nicer field camera. Though I am not an expert, I have been looking to invest in a 4×5 camera and all of the things that are needed along with it after having had enough experience to feel comfortable shooting it and enough to see value in it.

Cost

The actual cost of the camera and lens is actually not that bad compared with medium format. At a shop in Pheonix, AZ I visited the other weekend I saw two of the cleanest press cameras I have ever seen and they, with accompanying lenses, cost a cool $399. (Compared with the cheapest option at B&H costing more than $2,000) That said, if $400 was all it took to be fully vested, I would already be knee deep into it. In fact, the camera is but the first step. Most of the time, the cameras are not sold with a lens so right there you’re adding at least $100 or more. Then there’s the cost of the film holders… Perhaps what makes large format photography most distinct from the other formats is the need for film holders. Indeed, with large format you shoot by sheets rather than rolls. Vintage holders used could be had for around $10 a holder but a new set of 2 Toyo holders is $150.

Then you get to the film… the cost of film is where it starts adding up and fast. For one, if you’re shooting C-41 or E-6 and don’t have a way to develop them at home, you’re looking at at least $4 a sheet to mail it in. The cheapest scans I’ve ever found are still $5 for anything decent — if you want them scanned on a drum scanner, the cost is closer to $50+ a sheet. For now, I’ve found a way to shoot, develop, and digitize my sheets for around $4/sheet. For C-41 or E-6, I don’t know that I’ll be able to get away for less than $15 a sheet.

Lastly, this all assumes that you already have a solid tripod. If not, that is a must. Optional items that can make life easier include an Epson scanner; the v800 and v850 are capable of handing 4×5 sheets and up to 8×10 sheets. Further, if you were receptive to developing your own B&W at home, you can get a Patterson tank with the insert for less than $100.

As a footnote to this entire section, all of my research has been in a 4×5 camera. Trying to get into 8×10 photography presents entirely different costs and challenges. 


Image by Matt Seal

Benefit

Comparing film that looks quite grainy in 35mm format, the grain is so attenuated in large format that while still noticeable, it is far more pleasing. Perhaps more importantly, the resolution is just unreal. With a minimum of 15 times the surface area of a full frame camera, 100% crops still retain enough sharpness that you’ll wonder how you were ever satisfied before. 

Conclusion

I go back and forth on this constantly. I sincerely cannot decide if it’s something I want to get into or something I should let go of. I figure that with the cost of a decent field camera, holders, a better tripod, and a v800, the total cost is in the upwards of $2,000. To further complicate the matter, I honestly don’t know what I would use the camera for in my everyday life or even on trips. Attempting to fly with a 4×5 camera and film holders can take up a lot of space that could and would otherwise be used for other camera gear that allows for more photographs for the same cost. I honestly don’t know what I’ll do. If anyone has any thoughts/suggestions they’re willing to share, please leave a comment.
 

Image by Matt Seal

Images used with permission

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