Photos & Projects

Shooting 5×4 with Connie / Reminding myself how easy Large Format Photography is

June 1, 2020

The other weekend I decided it might be fun to attempt to entertain Connie my 8 year old daughter with some photography. I’ve given her a little point & shoot digital which she had been having some fun snapping with, so I thought I might show her the joys of the opposite end of the photography spectrum: shooting, developing and digitising large format film.

In fact, in the end, the whole process mostly highlighted to me a different way I could increase Connie’s interest in photography. But I shall come back to that at the end…

I quite regularly talk about how much I can’t be bothered to develop my own film. I really can’t, it’s a faff. But, I also quite enjoy shooting large format photography, and having someone else develop it is, I’d argue, even more of a faff. The result of this is that I rarely shoot it – and that’s despite owning no less than 4 large format cameras (longer story than is worth telling here).

In reality, every time I shoot some large format film – usually 4-6 frames of the stuff – I’m still in the realms of increasing the total amount I have shot by a fairly large proportion. But, as I say, despite my lack of experience – or perhaps because of it – I still find it an enjoyable process to dip into, so once in a while I find a way to make it work for me.

Engineering

A shot from one of my first outings with my old (now sold) MPP – HP5 at ei 3200 and pushed accordingly.

On this particular occasion, lockdown has been the inspiration. There’s only so many activities I can amuse myself and the kids with around the house, so I figured why not spend a day attempting some large format? The funny thing is, when I reflected on the previous images I’ve taken, I realised I had only ever undertaken the process entirely by myself once before – and that was when I decided it would be a good idea to invent pixl-latr. In fact, you can read about a little bit about the very first time I shot my Harman/Walker Titan pinhole camera here.

That was a little over 7 years ago now, and in the intervening years, I’m pretty certain that all of the times I’ve used a large format camera, it has been working with someone else who developed the film for me. Of course, it’s not that hard – not when you have the right kit and and basic knowhow…

So yeah, a few Sundays ago – in the midst of the strict lockdown, and after a little bit of a lockdown lie-in – I set about getting together all the stuff I needed. The week before I had been to the office to check the post (some people are still paying us by cheque…!), and collected the last few bits and bobs I needed. I’d also ordered some Ilford HP5+ and some Cinestill DF96 from Analogue Wonderland.

The Kit

Now, I’m not normally the type to make lists of kit as part of my blog posts. But in the end it did surprise me a little bit the amount of stuff I needed.

Film – HP5+
Chemicals – Cinestill DF96 Monobath
Large format camera – Chroma
Film holders – 2xDDS
Lens – Schneider Symar-S 150mm f/5.6
Loupe – plastic clear sided one with black tape wrapped around it
Dark Cloth – Hoodie (H&M)
Shutter release – generic
Light meter – Sunny 16/Lumu App
Tripod – 3 legged thing ‘Tony’
Changing bag – generic
Measuring jugs – generic / part of my blender
Dev tank – Paterson
Film holder – Mod54
Thermometer – My wife’s fish tank one (cleaned)
Copy stand – Kaiser
Mask – pixl-latr
Digital camera – Sony A7Riii
Lens – Nikon 90mm AF-D Macro (+adapter)

Should this be any surprise to a film photographer? No not really, but seeing just a portion of it all laid out on the dining room table through the eyes of a bewildered 8 year old really brought it all home. What a palaver just to take a couple of photos in the back garden!

Loading

I only have two DDS for some reason. I had 3 (to match the 6 slots in the MOD54) at one point, but I’ve misplaced the other. I had to look up on the internet which way round the film goes into them too. In fact, I did know, but my memory decided to play funny buggers with me and convince me that I didn’t. Loading it in a small changing bag was as little fun as I remembered, but it went fairly smoothly in the end… though, it took a little bit too long to keep Connie amused. She was playing on her Nintendo Switch by the time I’d finished, despite my best efforts to educate her about what I was doing…

Before wondering off to play on her switch, she managed to capture my concentration face quite well

Shooting

With the film loaded, we went out into the garden, mounted the camera on the tripod and proceeded to frame a shot of the trees just as a trial run. This was probably bit that I felt the most need to be able to concentrate – unfortunately, the kids were doing their level best to distract me. Despite this, I did feel as though I had a pretty good handle on what I was doing with the camera, and quickly found myself comfortable focusing the camera with my little bodged loupe.

I gave Connie a quick tour of the camera, but her mostly blank expression reminded just how far away she was from even understanding the very basics. Still, she was quite intrigued by the idea of having to climb under my hoodie to see the big picture on the back of the camera.

I took the first shot and everything felt like it had gone fine, so then decided to attempt to cajole the kids into having their photo taken. After a bit of a fight me and Connie managed to get Norah to pose for a shot, but right at the last second she moved. I took another.

With just one frame left, I wanted Connie to to have the experience of actually pressing the shutter button. So we got the camera set up ready for her to take a photo of me and Norah. She inspected the focus herself and confirmed that we were in focus. I then loaded the camera for her and she did the honours. She managed to pull the camera down a bit at the back a bit which meant the framing wasn’t quite as it was before – but still, the shot of me and Norah below remains Connie’s first large format photo!

Developing

Next was the developing stage. I actually expected this to be a lot more difficult than it was. It took me a little while to get the film into the MOD54 – but half way through I realised this was actually the first time I’d used this version of it. Last time I used one, it was a bright pink laser cut acrylic version I bought at Focus on Imaging – it’s been a while since he moved on from that design!

As for the actual developing, I’ve not developed my own film in ages, and have never used a monobath – so I did enter the process with a little trepidation. I’m actually not all that short of home developing experience, and never found the process particularly difficult to get some sort of result, but found myself quite uneasy – especially as I was trying to entertain the kids at the same time. In the end, it went very smoothly indeed. Warm some water, mix in chemicals until dissolved, pour into dev tank, agitate appropriately based on water temperature for given period of time, then rinse. It’s almost too simple.

Getting the water temperature right – I could only find one measuring jug, so i had to do this in my blender

Puzzling over the instructions – it just seemed to easy

Norah helping mix the chemicals

The waiting game

Tension building…

It’s always exciting seeing the film come out with a picture on it, but seeing Connie’s little face light up when she saw that something had come out was very satisfying.

… success!

Drying in the bathroom

Digitising

I used my pixl-latr, copy stand, and Sony with the Nikon 90mm to digitise the film. After all these years of trying to bring this thing to market, it was satisfying to use the final version to solve the problem I originally set out to solve. I just did a very quick manual curves inversion and a couple of tiny tweaks to get the results I wanted. Again, I was most interested to see Connie’s face when they converted. Part of my reason for using curves was to explain that I was making the dark bits light and the light bits dark – this did make her eyes glaze over a little bit, but I think got the gist and was very excited to see the positive image appear on the screen.

Focusing

The Results

Garden Portraits with a Chroma

Garden Portraits with a Chroma

Garden Portraits with a Chroma

Garden Portraits with a Chroma

Connie’s first large format photo

Of course, you’ve probably noticed the whacking great big light leaks on all the images by now…? I was a little disappointed initially, as I really did want to prove to myself how easy this could be without something going wrong. But, actually given the fact that I haven’t shot large format for ages, I’d not used this camera before, haven’t used a monobath before, and was trying to entertain two kids at the same time, I feel I can probably let myself off. Steve also said that I have a very old version of his rear standard, and if I misstepped slightly I could have quite easily caused this to happen. I haven’t checked to see if that was likely yet, but I feel like blaming the tools gives me an easy get out…

So that was that – a good chunk of one Sunday taken up faffing around with a huge amount of photography equipment just to take a few fairly crap photos in my back garden. As I said at the beginning though, whilst the experience in and of itself didn’t inspire that much in Connie, it did give me a fairly big clue as to how I could engage her in the idea of taking photos.

The thing she seemed like she enjoyed the most wasn’t anything with the film gear, instead it was using my Fuji X100v to take all of the other shots you can see within this post. Whilst she was playing with the camera, she discovered shallow depth of field and was trying to use it creatively to make interesting pictures. At every stage in the process when she took a photo she liked, she was trying to wave it under my nose. She was actually getting distracted from whatever the film photography task at hand was by other other much more simple digital photography task I’d given her of documenting the day.

“Look at this Dad!”

It was this moment that I realised I really should put a different camera in her hand – the Nikon point & shoot digital just isn’t that different from the toy camera she has, neither have a big enough sensor for her to play with depth of field to any real extent. The next time we went out taking photos/walking the dog, I gave her an old Pentax DSLR to play with. This isn’t the first time I’ve given her this camera, but the first time she didn’t discover shallow depth of field. As she talked about in the little post we put together as part of her Covid home-schooling, she really liked taking close-ups with a strongly out of focus background. Of course, I’m not sure shallow depth of field photography is the ideal starting point for her, but for now, if it’s engaging her brain creatively – which it very much seems to be – then I’m happy. It also gave me an in to start encouraging her to place her subject off centre, and ever start thinking more about subject and what subject isolation is, which has to be a good thing…

So in a roundabout way our day experimenting with large format did get her more interested in photography – just not quite how I thought it might. Regardless, I enjoyed the large format photography bit, even if she didn’t, and it has reminded me how much I enjoy it when I put my mind to it. Even the developing bit wasn’t too painful.

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19 Comments

  • Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    June 1, 2020 at 2:29 pm

    Hmmm, the light leak is always along the left side. Regardless, you have 3 superb family portraits. When you print, just crop the central part of your frame. Well done, nice kids, nice garden. Next: the slippery slope of more large format lenses…..

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 2, 2020 at 8:25 am

      Yeah, the sun was above me and to the right a bit, so makes sense.
      I do want a nice 90mm, actually – I have one of the older tiny Schneider ones, but it’s a bit crap in the corners…..

  • Reply
    Dave Walker
    June 1, 2020 at 2:42 pm

    This is lovely, Hamish, and inspirational! If I could find a moment’s head-space to get myself organised, I could do a similar thing here :o)

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 2, 2020 at 8:23 am

      Do it Dave, it was a good fun day for sure!

  • Reply
    Kate Johnson
    June 1, 2020 at 9:16 pm

    Wonderful! I read you previous father-daughter photography article. We’ll see if 4X5 is really so easy. My neighbor gave me his Burke and James 4X5 Press Camera. We have used it a bit, but lately I’ve been experimenting with older cameras. And I’ve decided to add his late 1940’s camera to my active list.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 2, 2020 at 8:22 am

      My oldest is a Leica standard from 1932 – though I think it might be cheating slightly as it takes modern lenses and 135 film just slots in 🤣

  • Reply
    James Cleaveland
    June 2, 2020 at 1:13 pm

    Lovely read! Inspiration for us father-tographers out there.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 3, 2020 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks 🙂

  • Reply
    James
    June 2, 2020 at 3:22 pm

    I like that first shot… says to me that the enormous faff of shooting (in my opinion!) this format really makes sense when the complexity of the environment can make the most of the stupendous negative.

    Re. the developing, this is the best bit, I reckon! Once you’ve taken your pic, there’s no waiting to finish the roll, you can immediately get developing and have your neg ready and drying within minutes… the only thing more spontaneous is a Polaroid! The ‘taco’ method of developing is perfectly adequate for the occasional shooting I do, for anyone considering taking the plunge and wanting to keep costs down (and/or limit even more bits of kit hanging about).

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 3, 2020 at 1:52 pm

      What’s the taco method??

      • Reply
        James
        June 3, 2020 at 6:15 pm

        Gently bend the negative (on the long side) betwixt thumb and middle fingers, and slip a hairband over it (elastic bands are not as friendly, I’ve found!). This holds the negative in a slack, kind of ‘u’ shape (or ‘taco’, so they say) position – and you can then fit up to four negatives in a standard 2 x 35mm Paterson tank. This sounds totally heathen but I assure you the negatives develop and survive perfectly well, and there’s no bend to the film once you take the band off (I’m guessing once you get to a negative this size and thickness, it’s simply not affected by the epic curl you can get with 35mm). Obviously, I’d love a Stearman Press SP-445… but £100 goes a long way on old compacts, SLRs, and expired film!

        • Reply
          Hamish Gill
          June 8, 2020 at 9:08 pm

          Are you aware of the Mod54 – I feel like it might be born from this idea

  • Reply
    Anton Yakovlev
    June 2, 2020 at 3:49 pm

    Fairly crap photos? You being serious? They are amazing! Light leaks just add some charm 🙂 Don’t be such a nerd! 🙂
    And I find Connie’s composition better than yours 😛 Pity she cut some of your foot off. But it’s not easy to control the frame edges all the time. Even for us, more experienced guys.

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 3, 2020 at 1:52 pm

      She probably will end up better than me at it… but I like to think, if she does, it will be my doing 😉

  • Reply
    Sroyon
    June 5, 2020 at 7:28 am

    As someone who loves film, it pains me to admit this, but kids often seem to enjoy using digital cameras more than film (teenagers are a different story; they are sufficiently mature – or sufficiently jaded by instant gratification – to appreciate the slower pace and inherent uncertainty of film). I discovered this when I tried to get my girlfriend’s niece, who is 7, interested in photography; she responded to digital a lot more enthusiastically. And for all the hot air we spout film being the Real Way To Learn, when it comes to learning the absolute basics of timing and composition – and you could make a case that these are actually more important than aperture, shutter-speed and all the technical stuff – digital is arguably better because of the instant feedback and the possibility of taking umpteen shots with no marginal cost. So whatever “engages her brain” (as you put it) – the main thing, as always, is to have fun!

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 8, 2020 at 9:04 pm

      “…the main thing, as always, is to have fun!” Absolutely – that’s really the key, and what I have been trying to make it for her

  • Reply
    James Evidon
    June 19, 2020 at 8:49 pm

    As someone who just bought his first large format camera and is awaiting arrival of three film holders and a box of 4×5 T Max,
    I loved reading your article. I first used D96 earlier this year for Medium format and 35mm and found the product absolutely dummy proof. I expect that the more experienced push-pull developers may sneer, but for one who has no problem using digital post processing after scanning, I’m very happy with D96 monobath. I found the reviews of the Mod54 rather off-putting and was looking into the Stearman system. While expensive, it looks like a good system. Perhaps I may experiment with the “taco” method first. I assume without thinking about it that the emulsion side goes on the inside of the ‘taco’.

    Your articles continue to entertain as well as edify. Keep it up Hamish!

    • Reply
      Hamish Gill
      June 21, 2020 at 9:03 am

      Thanks James. I shouldn’t be too put off by the reviews of the mod 54 – it can be a little fiddly, but it’s cheap and does the job I think

  • Reply
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