My New Large Format World – The Graflex Speed Graphic 5×4

When researching my scanner I read some good advice about buying one that is capable of scanning one size bigger than you think you’ll need. The reasoning being that you will eventually shoot it and need to scan it. At that point I was only shooting 35mm and I was considering shooting 120. I really didn’t think I’d be shooting 5×4 sheet film.

But the more I saw Flickr buddies shooting it, such as Simon and his great 5×4 work, the more tempted I became. The big attraction to shooting 5×4 to me is not just the large negatives (although that’s a nice bonus) but the technique, methodology, discipline and overall ethos enforced onto the photographer when shooting with large format equipment. Every shot has to count due to the vastly reduced number of frames available to expose, limited by the number of film holders loaded, which is my case is eight sheets. Going from 36 exposures (with 135 film) down to eight seems drastic but I’ve yet to shoot more than four frames on one outing. This is partly down to the next part of the attraction of shooting large format – the time required to set up a shot. I find that it can take me 20-30 minutes for just one frame and that’s without taking into account the wait for the light and the moment to be right. It’s a completely different approach to photography and so far removed from the ease of automatic point and shoot cameras – it’s hands on, tactile and you’re in complete control.

The Crown/Speed Graphic cameras made by Graflex are well documented on the internet and are a popular choice. There are plenty of large format makes and models out there, all suitable for different circumstances. No doubt there may be a better choice out there, but I doubted I would know for sure what I really wanted (or needed) before actually trying large format. After much research, my search focussed on the Speed Graphic as it includes a focal plane shutter that would allow me to use lenses without shutters (e.g. older barrel lenses) with modern, fast film. I planned to take my time before buying everything, but then the opportunity arose when Simon pointed out a Speed Graphic available at mwclassic.com – the price was good; a bit less than most of the completed eBay auctions, without the hassle of bidding and with the reassurance that it has been checked out properly and is working. So I bought it!

Large Format - This is Getting Serious!

I then had to gather the other required items: I won an auction for four double-sided film holders listed as “light tight”. I bought the ingenious MOD 54 that allows you to process six 5×4 sheets in a daylight developing tank. Also the required three reel Paterson tank (I only had the 2 reel tank).

Large Format Kit including the MOD54

I also bought some larger storage bottles (2.5L) for the developing chemicals as the ones I already had are only 1L and the tank requires exactly 1L of chemicals. Given that there is a little wastage each time film is developed I wanted to ensure I had plenty of stored chemicals. Loading and unloading the sheets of film could prove difficult in a dark bag so I decided to buy the Calumet dark tent that provides more room and doesn’t impede you with the material sitting on your hands and, more importantly, film. I wish I’d known about dark tents before buying the dark bag! But the dark bag is more portable and therefore useful to have in an emergency when out shooting.

A crucial element in shooting 5×4 was, of course, the sheet film. I saw some great results from Foma Film – a relatively cheap film manufactured in the Czech Republic. The cost is about half of the Ilford and Kodak equivalents and yet I doubt the quality is really that far behind. Silverprint stock it at a good price, but I actually found it cheaper to source it from Norway of all places – Fomafoto.

I took a couple of quick test pictures to ensure everything was working as expected and to allow me to practice the loading, unloading and developing of 5×4 film. Below are my first two sheets. The first one was taken very quickly from our bedroom window. The light looked nice and I was eager to break the ice and expose a sheet. The second picture was taken shortly afterwards of the Yashica-Mat on our dining room table using the (fading) natural light from the window.

I cropped this one into a panoramic ratio in an attempt to make it slightly less boring!
First ever sheet of 5x4 exposed

Yashica-Mat

My shooting experiences so far have been really rewarding and have surpassed my expectations. When shooting Hume castle, which is just under two miles up the road from our house, I experienced intense concentration as I studied the scene I was photographing, knowing that I had to commit time and energy to each individual exposure. The precise set up of the camera to capture it to the best of my ability requires a lot of time and thought. This intense period of concentration is followed by a period of what I can only describe as enlightenment! Once everything has been set up; the lens selected, scene composed, focussed, movements adjusted, exposure reading taken, aperture and shutter speeds set on the lens, shutter closed & cocked, film holder loaded, dark slide removed…

…that’s the moment of pure peace of mind and a feeling of bliss I have rarely experienced before – holding the cable release, watching the scene and waiting for the moment to trigger the shutter. All the hard work has been done, all the variables have been locked down and the composition is fixed. It’s a wonderful sensation. In the few pictures I have made so far I have waited for sheep to be in the right place or a bird to fly into the scene and the experience has been serene and massively rewarding!

I think it goes without saying, I am enjoying my new large format world!

Here are some more results…

Castle vs Sheep
With the above picture I used some forward tilt. To achieve this with the Speed Graphic I had to drop the bed, add some rise to correct for the loss in height and then perform a ‘focus and check’ procedure to modify my plane of focus to maximise the perceived depth of field. I learned about the ‘focus and check’ technique from a great YouTube video. It’s impressively effective – here is a close-up crop of the skeleton in the foreground (only about 2 metres away from the camera) and the castle. The aperture was set to only f/16.

Castle Close-up

Sheep Skeleton Close-up

Hume Castle
I learned a lesson with the sheet above – I didn’t have it loaded into the holder properly. The exposure was squint and the top portion of the frame (the top of the tree) is very soft because it wasn’t sitting flat in the holder.

Hume Castle and Sheep

Hume Castle and Tree
The above sheet was taken as it was rapidly getting dark so it was quite a rush to get set up. My back was against a fence and so I couldn’t compose it the way I wanted (I had to cut off a bit of the tree). I have since been back and made a couple of pictures from a different position that worked out better. One of the pictures was made with Harman Direct Positive Paper – more on that soon!

14 Responses

  1. Gordon

    I am really enjoying what you did with the geometry of the castle walls.

  2. I really love these pics! The castle walls look really neat. I also like the theme that you chose for your blog. Have you ever submitted to photography contests – I have some listed on my site:
    Amateur Photography News

    • Thanks on all counts! I’ll check out your website too. 🙂

  3. Very interesting read, glad you are enjoying, love seeing your film stuff. Don’t think I’d have the patience, for large format, medium would be nice though……..

    • Thanks Jennifer, I’m glad you found it interesting! Large format seems daunting at first but it’s really OK once you get into it. It’s definitely not for everyone though. Medium format on the other hand – go for it!! 🙂

  4. Great article. It very much mirrors my own situation. I’ve just retired from my professional photography and taken to film starting with a 35mm Zorki4 and moving up in neg size to MF. I had a day out with another photographer with a 5 x 4 recently and am now bowled over by the detail and tonality of the results. I’m still trying to decide though whether I have the patience to cope.

    Good luck with yours and I hope we can see more results soon

    • Thanks David! I love the 35mm rangefinders and the Zorki 4 is great. I’m going to be shooting more 35mm now as I learn darkroom printing (I’ve only got a 35mm enlarger at the moment!) Good luck with your decision about whether to go large or not!

  5. Very cool. I am excited to see more of your LG format stuff. next thing you know you will be getting a new scanner to do 8×10. 🙂

    I am starting to step into this world also, but with paper negatives in a pinhole camera.

    Tell me, the little red thingy (not sure what its called, but I assume it is what helps you develop your film in the tank) can you point me in the direction of where you found it. curious to know if it will fit paper.

    • Thanks Simon! Fortunately my scanner does do 10×8, but that’s not the only thing stopping me!! That’s great that you’re getting into large format too. I’ve seen some great results from large format pinholes with film, paper and direct positive paper.

      The MOD 54 is the red thingy – it’s brilliant! I have developed 5×4 film and also direct positive paper with it so I’m sure it will do the trick for you too. It does indeed let you develop film/paper in a daylight tank. There is great information (including videos) on their website: http://www.mod54.com/ and it’s available from the usual suppliers.

  6. Hi James.

    A great read! I sort of get a similar feeling with ‘the big camera’ so I’m looking forward to getting that existential fix later this week (if the weather holds up).

    • Thanks Si! Yeah, my 5×4 world is your medium format world pretty much! 🙂 I really want to see that camera some time. Hope the weather is good for you, I’d love to see how it performs out in the wild!

  7. […] Buying a scanner I made sure to heed the warnings of others and buy one that can scan a bigger negative than I expect to need; I’m glad I did, I’m now shooting 5×4 on a Speed Graphic! […]

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