Large Format Film Photography: Rediscovering My Love For Photography
Earlier this year, during the middle of winter, I was at Ace photo in Ashburn, Virginia, my local camera store, picking up inkjet paper. I had no intention other than getting what I needed and hitting the road. But as I walked by the used gear counter I couldn't help but see a beautiful Zone VI 4x5 Large Format Film camera on display. I asked to see the camera and began to play around with it; checking out the movements, looking over the bellows and asking what if any lens they had available for it. I knew almost immediately I would be taking it home with me. What I didn't expect was my new found love and infatuation with shooting film again after almost 18 years since I sold all of my film gear and traded it in for the newest digital camera at the time.
So I returned home that day with my Zone VI and a 90mm lens (roughly equivalent to a 28mm focal length in 35mm). I knew I was gonna need more lenses, film holders, a focusing loupe and many other pieces of equipment before I could begin to go out in the field and start using this camera the way I wanted to. So over the next few weeks I began to search out the best deals on lenses, meters film holders and much more slowly putting together a field outfit for my landscape work.
In the end I ended up with four lenses. A 75mm wide-angle, 90mm, 120mm and 210mm. )I'll be adding a 300mm to the kit at some point soon). This election of lenses gives me focal lengths equivalent to 21mm to 70mm in 35mm format. A very good general landscape kit. I also added 20 film holders, a focusing loupe, Sekonik Spot Meter, extra ground glass and fresnel focusing screen, new filter for Black & White film and other random accessories.
I was ready to take the camera in the field and as luck would have it I had a trip coming up to lead two workshops in the Great Smoky Mountains.
I purchased 40 sheets of Provia 100 transparency film to bring with me. I was also shooting digital captures over this trip (I haven't given up shooting digital, yet lol). After spending three weeks in the Smokies and leading a personal workshop and conducting one for the Out of Chicago organization, I was excited to get back home and process my film. Remember with film, unlike digital, you don't get to see the images for days and sometimes weeks after you shoot the images. Well, I got back and had order all the necessary chemistry and equipment I need to begin developing the film. You see it wasn't enough of a challenge to begin shooting film again, I also needed to add in the challenge of developing my own film as opposed to sending it out to a lab.
After developing the film over the course of a few days I was extremely disappointed in my results from the trip. I had in some instances completly messed up the metering and exposure and the images were too dark. You have to know that transparency film has much less dynamic range than modern digital camera's. For example, Fuji Provia has about 5 stops of acceptable dynamic range that you can capture. I clearly needed to brush up on my metering technique! in addition to that, I found out that my wide-angle bellows I used with my 75mm wide angle lens had a light leak and all of those images were simply unsalvageable. So after shooting 40 sheets of film I was left with about 6 good images. I was depressed and frustrated and for a moment I thought to myself why in the hell did I even dive back into film again. Am I crazy? How much money did I just waste?
I was determined to get this right and figure it out. I had another big trip coming up two weeks later to Utah this time. So, I buckled down over the next two weeks and went out to local parks such as Shenandoah, Great Falls, Meadowlark Botanic Gardens and began to try to figure out my mistakes and right them. I did lots of test shots, keeping notes of exposure, metering and the conditions I was shooting under. I also started experimenting with several different film stocks and different developers to try and figure out the best combinations for good results. By the end of the two weeks I was feeling confidant that this next outing would be much more successful than the first. So with high hopes, 100 sheets of film and an adventurous spirit I packed up the truck and drove across country to the great state of Utah.
I was stationed just outside of Capitol reef National Park for this trip and would be conducting a photography workshop in the area as well as shooting personal work over the course of two weeks. Plenty of time to put my skills to the test in one of the most beautiful desert locations in the world. This time however, I had a much better understanding of not only how to meter and expose my film's of choice, but also what lighting situations would be best for each film stock. I travelled this time with three film stocks; Fuji Velvia 100, Fuji Provia 100 and the new Kodak E100.
After two weeks in the desert and all 100 sheets exposed, it was time for long journey back home. Three days later I arrived in. northern Virginia and got straight to work on developing my film. When developing the film I use a dip/dunk method, processing 4 sheets of film at a time. It take around 40 minutes to get those 4 sheets through the development process and a few hours to dry the film. I have to say I was excited and anxious equally as I opened my Steedman press developing tank to see the first of my results. As I pulled the first sheet out I could see that it was absolutely perfect! The other three sheets looked good as well. They're were some mistakes over all, but the vast majority of the images were well exposed, well composed and tact sharp. I was very happy and felt such a great deal of accomplishment with myself. I was falling in love with photography all over again!
Now, truth told, I also shot many of the images on digital on this trip to Utah. After my last mess up I wasn't totally confidant in my skills and I was darn sure positive I didn't want to not come home with some images to include in my portfolio.
Over the course of the next month I did several smaller trips locally to locations on the east coast and continued to shoot film, adding in BW film as well. Over these trips I shot 80% of my images on film and much less digital captures.
The next images down represent examples from that new and ongoing body of work to capture the Appalachian Forests in Black and White.
In June I took a short trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Western North Carolina and shoot a lot of Black and White film, mainly focusing on interesting tree's and unique woodlands. I didn't know this at the time, but this little foray would start a new personal project (continuing to this day) of capturing unique forests of the Appalachians in Black and White with my large format and developing and printing those images in my new basement darkroom.
In late June I had a very long trip scheduled to lead workshops and have several weeks of personal shooting out west. I decided to dedicate this trip entirely to shooting film and would not use digital as back-up. I brought with me a variety of films including Kodak E100, Provia 100, Kodak Ektar, Portra 100, Portra 400 and TMAX 100.
I started the trip in North Dakota, photographing in and around the Badlands. It was a hard start to a long trip with almost everyday being crystal clear, hot and windy. I used my film sparingly and only shoot images under the right light and when the light and weather occasionally cooperated.
After finishing up in South Dakota I headed south into southern Wyoming, spending a couple nights shooting at Vedauwoo and generally relaxing and enjoying the wonderful mountain weather. I found this area to absolutely breathtaking. The giant granite rock formations, rising like castles and monuments from the high prairie were stunning. Here are a few favorites from that short visit.
After a couple nights in Vedauwoo, I headed down onto the plains to look for abandoned homes, old farms and other relics of the prairie. I had a really good time driving backroads and chasing summer storms for two days. The prairie may seem empty, it mostly is, but if you look around and spend time exploring there are so many wonderful images waiting.
One of the reasons I spent those two days out on the prairie was because it was the weekend and I had plans to get up into Rocky Mountain National Park for a few days, but no way was I gonna be there on the weekend. I camped in the park and it was a wonderful trip. It had been about ten years since I had visited the park. I found that the best light usually occurs early in the mornings when the range get first light. In the afternoons in the summer, if you're lucky the monsoon will be going strong and there might be some dramatic clouds and storms passing across the mountains. I was lucky to have one day with nice clouds and some good light in the afternoon. Most mornings were clear at sunrise, but magical none-the-less as the first light painted the peaks.