Friday, April 26, 2013

The LF Madness

I really didn't need it . . honest I didn't, but you know when your mind starts thinking about something . . .
Well, I was already well-stocked with LF film (100 sheets TMX 100, 50 sheets TXP 320 and some odds and sods [18 sheets of TMX 400, 9 sheets of Delta 100 and about 5 sheets of Adox]) however when I saw a member of FADU offering to sell some of his film, I jumped.
Crazy? yes definitely, but for the princely sum of £105 including postage what else could I do?
I bought 50 more sheets of TXP, 50 sheets of Adox 100 and 25 sheets each of HP5 and FP4. After a word with my wife explaining that it doesn't get any cheaper and we really do have room in the fridge, I am, officially, STUFFED TO THE GUNNELS. 
300-odd sheets. 
I think probably enough film to outlast me, given that I often only expose 4 at a time usually, or maybe 8  or 12 on a good hillwalk.
And what was the reasoning behind this madness . . well, given that last year a box of 50 sheets of Kodak film increased by roughly £25 a box (to £75!), and given that when I started making 5x4 photographs, a box of 25 sheets of Ilford film was around £16 and is now approaching the heady heights of £37, the answer is simple . . economics. 
I really do question the motives of film manufacturers in this day and age. On one hand you want to keep your business going, HAVE to keep your business going, and on the other hand you risk alienating your prime users, the few enthusiasts who are left, who won't go the digital route and find themselves through no fault of their own having to question why (for instance) a roll of 36 exposure Ilford HP5+ now costs around £5!
Yes, I can appreciate that it is expensive to make, and yes the wholesale price of silver rose dramatically last year, due to China and India's demand for it, however this year it is quite different. You only have to look at the share prices of commodity miners to realise that the demand has gone belly-up almost overnight. Just look at the recent drop in gold prices. The world's economic markets are up and down more often than a bride's nightie. This still doesn't make silver cheap, but I would love to see the profit margins on film. Maybe they're not as great as I would expect . . .  
However I do know one thing, film, once the cheapest part of our hobby, is now, pound for pound the most expensive (apart from Leica accessories - my FISON hood, incredibly costing more gram for gram than Gold). And to the big 3 I will say this: all that is happening is that people like myself (your enthusiastic amateur customers) are seeking out cheaper alternatives, which is stupid really, because where the big three have the beans is in the area of quality control. I can safely say that I have had no problems ever from Ilford or Kodak or Fuji, but I have from Foma (not the roll film though, just the sheet film).
Anyway, I suppose this all explains why I went mad and stocked up . . .
So where does this lead me . . well, the crazy impulsiveness of my purchase has made me think that I had better learn to use the 'man's camera' (5x4) more, and use it properly.
I do actually love the whole involved and laborious process of making a Large Format photograph - it is therapeutic and you really feel at the end of a session that you have done something.
Thinking back to when I started I cannot be entirely sure why I did in the first place . . 
I think I was maybe driven by the thought that I could achieve better, sharper, images than the combination of things I was using at the time (Rolleiflex T and Pentax 6x7), but actually, let this be a sage warning to you, unless you are printing to a massive size on a regular basis, then you are going to notice very little difference, and in fact if you are only printing 8x10" then there is almost little point. 
I say almost, but there is one area in which a 5x4" negative excels and that is in rendition of tones of grey. 
I seem to get a broader breadth of grey tones with a larger negative, and you can argue with me on this, but I am just basing it on my experience.
Up to and including 6x6, my greys often seem a little compressed - maybe this is because I am using a 'lowly' Rolleiflex T; maybe it is down to single-coating.
I even found this sort of tonal compression to be the case with the legendary long tonal scale film/developer combo of Ilford's HP5+ and 1:3 Perceptol. In 6x6, it was good (not great), but in 6x7 negatives (one whole cm bigger!) the greys breathed big time. A whole night/day difference.
My problems seemed to vary depending on developer/film combination, but on the whole, it seemed to be pretty much the case (to my eyes). Moving beyond 6x6, to 6x7cm, 6x9cm or 5x4" then it was like a corset being loosed and there was this enormous intake of breath and the image could breath!
My grey tones seemed to expand massively, and I am not sure entirely why. Effectively, the film and developer were the same, so what was the difference? I don't actually know. Chemical conversion per square inch? Rendition of fine detail? Micro-contrast? Film/Dev combo? Lens/Film combo?
Maybe that is part of the mystery, but it looks to be the case to me.
Obviously being able to tweak each and every exposure and develop each sheet individually helps a negative to reach its optimum, rather than just averaging out the whole roll of film, but it also seems to be more than that. 
Anyway, as usual another aside, however if you have any thoughts, please,  leave some comments!

Sorrow 3
Not a great picture, but were it not for the fact it is obviously sculpted,
you could almost believe that those were eyelashes instead of cobwebs
and there was skin underneath the lichen.
Sinar F, Schneider 150mm f5.6 Symmar-S, Ilford FP4+, Barry Thornton 2-Bath

Sorrow 2
Same subject, different angle, different camera.
Rolleiflex T with Rolleinar ~1
Kodak TMX 100, Barry Thornton 2-bath.

See what I mean about tonal compression?
They're not great examples, and obviously there are enormous variables, but that is just my experience. I think, were I to invest in a Hasselblad or 'proper' Rollei, then I would have to say I might well notice a difference. Certainly looking at some of the great old 'proper' Rollei and Hasselblad photos out there, there seems to be a good breadth of greys and a tonal smoothness which is very acceptable, so maybe I am talking bollocks . . . .
Anyway, we've been sidetracked . . . onwards troops . . this way . . .
So the LF Madness and a hunger for something other, led me to purchase a Sinar F and a Schneider 150mm Symmar-S (the cheapest modern lens I could buy secondhand). I then obviously needed a tripod - and this is where bottom feeding came in . . a Linhof Twin Shank Pro tripod (see photo below) - £35, closely followed by a Gitzo Series 5 low profile head that once belonged to the British Museum - £25. Together I can guarantee you that that combo can hold the heaviest camera you can throw at it. I was once able to make an exposure with the column fully raised (nearly 8 feet high) in the wind with the Sinar atop, fully extended with the 6" extension rail and angled. Not exactly the lightest or least unweildly combination, but it did the job beautifully.
The tripod must be about 30 years old, same with the head, and they both operate beautifully.
You can still buy parts for Linhof tripods too if anyone has one that they need to sort - quality engineering from a golden age.

You call that a tripod?
Linhof Twin Shank Pro Tripod in action.
The ladder is optional.
Oh, and that is me in our (oh so difficult to wallpaper) hall btw.

However, having nearly killed myself by doing a 7 mile hillwalk carrying the above (you can imagine can't you . . I didn't take the ladder though .  .that would have been a bit mental and besides I have never seen a hillwalker carrying a ladder!) I realised that something less weighty was required. Beavering away and saving my pennies, I came up with a (relatively) lightweight kit: Wista DX, Gitzo Series 2 with Series 2 head, Kodak Ektar 203mm, Schneider 90mm Angulon. Cost, respectively: £300. £120, £45, £90. Less than the price of a Leitz 50mm Summicron . . .
And that is where I am today. Good to go and itching to get out now the Winter is moving on.
There are other factors where LF tops everything else, namely in being able to control pretty much everything that you see within the image. Converging verticals, depth of field, weird out of focus areas, pin-point sharpness, you name it, you can do it, it just takes time, and rather a lot of it. You can even make something more Pictorial rather than just a straight renditioning of 'fact'.

The Garden
The Garden
You could probably have made this with a 35mm camera,
but I quite like the olde-worldy look the Angulon has given it.
Adox CHS 100, Schneider 90mm Angulon

Sometimes under the dark cloth (nuthin' fancy . . two T-Shirts inside each other!) I think to myself, why the hell am I bothering when I could have done it with a Rollei, or even a 35mm camera? 
And then the madness overtakes me again and I feel the weight of Adams and Weston, Bullock and Evans and White and Strand upon my back, and I make my exposure and take down the camera, head off, spy something that takes my interest and go through the whole process of setting up the camera again, inserting the film holder, removing the dark slide, timing my exposure, packing up everything again and moving on. 
And I feel that all is right with the world actually. 
It is a significantly different feeling to normal photography (whatever that is) but it is a feeling I enjoy. 
I remember once being in a beautiful place with the Sinar. It was mid-March so the permafrost was still in the ground. Everywhere I looked there were icicles. I set up the camera, moved down the hillside to retrieve my hat which had blown away, and making my way back, looked up as sunshine dowsed my camera and tripod and the T-shirts flapped away in the wind, and I thought to myself, that this could be a scene from the making of any of the great photographs that I love looking at, and I think from that point I was hooked.

The scan hasn't done the print any favours.
Ilford Delta 100 (EI 64), Kodak Xtol (200ml stock+200ml Water).
Sinar F, Schneider 150mm f5.6 Symmar-S

So, there y'go. I will maybe be detailing my trips on a semi-regular basis, just because I can.
Over and oot playmates - be good, and if you can't be good be careful . . .
Keep your fingers crossed for me for this weekend - it's supposed to be Sun, Shite and Showers . . .
As usual, thanks for reading and God Bless.


  1. Don't take this the wrong way, Phil, but I think people who have more than one format love photography but struggle for subject matter. I should know because I'm one of them! If you're not jetting around the world or working on specific projects you end up photographing the same sort of things over and over again and you can only photograph your environment so many times.

    One way out of this is to re-photograph familiar subjects with a different camera or format. A different camera is normally the easier thing to try. Once you've done that then the next step is a new format. If you've been through the whole new camera/format cycle then sometimes the least convenient format is forgotten about for a while only to be brought out again in the hope that it will fire up the creative juices.

    I don't know if you're at this stage but I certainly am. I built my DIY 5x4 a while back and now want to give it a whirl. Will I find new subject matter? Possibly but I'll probably start off re-photographing successful scenes as this will feel like something different. Am I just fooling myself? Obviously but as the great thinker George W. Bush said, "Fool me once...shame on you. Fool won't fool me again!"

  2. Why would I take that in the wrong way Bruce? I fully agree with you!
    It is incredibly enjoyable approaching the same things with different formats - the major challenge being (in my mind) getting your mind into the right mindset for the proportions of the format you have chosen. Very rectangular (35mm) being (again to my mind) the easiest, because it is the dominant shape in our visual world. Square is the hardest, but 5x4 isn't far behind, being neither square nor 'properly' rectangular.
    Anyway, it is all fun and keeps us off the streets.
    Good luck with trying out the DIY!

  3. Howdy Phil
    Another enjoyable read - are those floors newly sanded and retreated?
    I think an FB on what goes into choosing a subject might be in order here. It IS difficult at times to decide what to take, and more importantly perhaps, how to frame it and what angle, depending on the background, should you use. When reviewing your photos, there is that something that makes you say wow and then others look flat - even with the same exposures. What is that thing?
    I hope by the time you read this you have returned from a glorious hill walk and have some wonderful photos to prove it.
    Bob Hobbit

    1. Hi Bon - if I knew what made a good photograph, I would bottle it and sell it.
      I tend to think rather than saying this will make a good subject and this won't you have to be curious about the world, and then, hopefully, a good subject will jump out at you.
      Very nice walk thanks - will be detailed in a soon-coming FB!

  4. I was a bit worried you'd think I was suggesting that your interest in camera gear was a substitute for a lack of creativity, which is another thing entirely. I'm off now to try to persuade Cath to have a drive with me up to Tullymurdoch tomorrow so I can have that much-needed change of scenery.

    1. Not at all Bruce, as you say sometimes a change of format can be the empetus to new creativity . . at the end of the day anything which makes you act creatively, is, I think a positive thing.
      Hope you got that change of scenery.