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How To Use A Large Format View Camera

I recently sold a camera on eBay. It was a Linhof large format 4×5 studio camera. In the process, a potential buyer emailed to inquire about how to use the camera because his plans were to learn the process of using a view camera with this Linhof. It occurred to me that as simple as large format cameras might be, they might be daunting to photographers who are only familiar with DSLRs. So if you’ve never used a large format camera, here are the basics of how they work.


At its core, every camera is simply a light tight box with three modifiers. That’s never more true than with a view camera. They’re literally so simple because they don’t have all the bells and whistles of even the most basic digital point-and-shoot. There’s a lens with a shutter and an aperture at the front, and a ground glass back that also accepts a film holder at the back. In between, a flexible bellows can be extended (or contracted) for focusing. And that’s about it.

(True, there are also all those movements that make view cameras particularly special, but that’s got to be phase two of working with a view camera—making those movements. For the moment, suffice it to say that you can tilt, swing, slide, shift, rise and fall the lens- and film-plane standards on a view camera in order to utilize the Scheimpflug principle and change the plane of focus, correct for distortion, and otherwise do some amazing optical trickery with simple camera movements on even the most basic view camera. For now, let’s stick with composing and focusing and making an exposure.)


The first challenge of using a view camera is seeing what the camera sees. To do that, you start by opening up the lens. First, adjust the aperture to its widest opening (the smallest number, often something like f/5.6) and then set the shutter speed to B for bulb, or T for time. (Some lenses have a manual switch that will simply open the lens for exactly this purpose. But if your lens doesn’t, these long exposure methods will work like a charm.) Then cock the shutter lever and you’re ready to open the lens so you can see what the camera sees. A bulb exposure requires you to press the shutter release and keep it pressed; a locking cable release is very helpful for this. On the T setting, a first press of the shutter release opens the shutter, and an eventual second pressing of the shutter button will close it again. This is an ideal way to open up the shutter while you’re focusing and composing.


With the shutter open, you might notice some light coming through to the ground glass on the back of the camera. In order to better see the ground glass, a dark cloth is the perfect accessory. (Which reminds me: this camera has got to be on a tripod!) Cover your head and the back of the camera with the dark cloth as if you were ducking under a jacket in the rain. Suddenly that obscure little bit of light on the ground glass turns into an actual image! An upside down image, but an image nonetheless. It’s time to focus.

The rear standard of the camera may have multiple knobs. One of them will likely make large movements to the standard along the rail. This is how you make major focus adjustments. Once the focus is approximate, it’s time for fine focusing. A loupe will come in handy here; just put the loupe against the ground glass so you can see in great detail. Then find the fine focusing knobs on the back of the camera (which may be the same knobs as you used for major focusing) and turn them to move the rear standard slightly. In general, for close focusing the rear standard will be far from the front standard. And for focusing at a greater distance, the standards will be closer together. Interestingly, the length of a lens (such as a 210mm lens) will approximate the distance between the standards when focused at infinity. (Once the standards get farther apart than the length of the lens, you’ll have to adjust the exposure slightly. This is called bellows compensation, or bellows factor, and it’s beyond the scope of this basic article. For now, to avoid bellows compensation, don’t focus close!) When the image looks sharp through the loupe on the ground glass, the image will be sharp on the film. Time to close the lens, load the film holder, remove the dark slide and make the exposure. If the subject is moving, it’s even more important to work quickly and efficiently now to avoid the focus shifting. Assuming it’s a stationary subject like a landscape or a building, you’ve got a little more time.



Close the shutter and set the exposure as indicated by your handheld light meter. (If you don’t have a handheld meter, you can make your DSLR a stand-in. Simply set the ISO to the same speed as the film you’ll be using, and then use aperture or shutter priority to determine the correct exposure. And then apply those same exposure settings to your view camera.) With the shutter speed and aperture selected, you’ll need to cock the shutter. Now the camera is poised to make the exposure, once you get the film into place.

With 4×5 sheet film, you’ll need to load it into a film holder. These black plastic holders are two-sided to hold two sheets of film. Film holders must be loaded in the dark, without a safe light. With the holder laying on a table in front of you, you’ll need to partially remove the dark slide in order to slide the film—emulsion side up—into the holder below the tabs that keep it in place. This takes a bit of practice, which you can certainly do in the light with a piece of film you don’t mind wasting. Once you’re good at it, you can begin to load the film for real, in the dark. Take note when positioning the dark slide that there’s usually a tab at the top that’s white on one side and black on the other. With the white side out, it’s an indication that the film is unexposed. After pulling the dark slide for the exposure, replace the slide with the black side out, indicating that the film now holds a latent image.


With the film holder in hand and the dark slide in place, use the lever on the ground glass holder to separate the ground glass from the back of the camera, and slide the film holder in place, taking care to ensure it’s correctly seated to avoid light leaks that will spoil the exposure. There are small ribs on the film holder that will help you to determine that it’s firmly seated. There should be no gaps evident on any side of the holder. Remove the dark slide on the side of the holder closest to the camera. With the dark slide removed, the film’s emulsion is ready for exposure. And with the lens cocked, all that’s left is to fire the shutter. Press the release and listen for the telltale (and anti-climactic) little click. With no moving mirror slapping around, a large format exposure is pretty quiet. Having heard the click, replace the dark slide and remove the holder. For a second exposure (which many photographers do in order to make processing changes to the second sheet based on what they see on the first sheet) simply flip the holder around and expose its second side.

There are a million more lessons to learn in order to become expert with a view camera, but these basics will help a beginner learn how to make a basic picture with a 4×5 view camera.


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