Large Format FAQ (Draft)

The unofficial FAQ

Compiled by J A Ollinger (
Last updated November 12, 1995

I'm not an expert in this subject, but I figured I knew enough to
write up a short FAQ for the group.  If you would like to contribute,
correct, or comment on the faq, feel free to email me or post.  Flames
will be ignored.

The most recent version of this file is located in my ftp directory.
Directory:  pub/ja/jaollnge
Filename:  viewcam.txt

Here is the question list:

Q1.  What is large format? 
Q2.  What is a large format camera?
Q3.  What are the different kinds of view cameras?  What's a technical 
     camera, a press camera, etc?
Q4.  What are the various sizes of film?
Q5.  What are the different movements?
Q6.  I'm thinking of getting into large format.  What do I need to start out
Q7.  What is a good starter camera for a large format novice?
Q8.  There are so many view cameras lenses available.  What should a novice 
     look for?  What is a barrel lens?
Q9.  What are some good books on the subject?

Questions & Answers:

Q1.  What is large format? 

Cameras are often divided into groups by the general size of the film that
they accept.  Large format cameras usually use sheet film that is 4" x 5" or
larger (though the cameras can be modified to take smaller films). Medium
format cameras generally take large roll films, like 120.  Minature cameras
(you don't hear that term much anymore) take 35mm or 828 or thereabouts. 
Subminis (like old Minoxes) take even smaller film.  

Q2.  What is a large format camera?

Large format cameras tend to be view cameras, which is itself a
generic term.  View cameras are generally configured to have a rail or
a flat bed running horizontally.  There is a front standard where the
lens is attached.  There is a rear standard that holds the ground
glass (for focusing) and the film.  In between the standards is a
light-tight bellows or bag.  The image is focused by changing the
distance between the two standards.  The standards may also have
"movements" that allow them to tilt or swing relative to each other.
These movements allow the image to manipulated in camera for various

Q3.  What are the different kinds of view cameras?  What's a technical 
     camera, a press camera, etc?

As mentioned in Question 2, "view camera" is a very generic term.
View cameras are subdivided into various kinds of cameras.  The class
describes the general configuration of the camera; but it is important
to realize that there is a lot of blurring of categories.  Large
format cameras often resist pidgeon-holeing.

A.  Field Cameras are the typical and classical view camera.  A field
camera is generally intended to be used outdoors.  They are often
designed to be rugged, lightweight, and compact.  They usually have
flat beds on the bottom that are hinged to the back (rear standard),
which gives a very sturdy platform.  They usually have limited or
moderate movements and the flat bed folds up to protect the
front. Typical field cameras include offerings by Zone VI, the
Toyo-field 45AII, and the Horseman 45FA.

B.  Technical cameras, often also known as "studio cameras," tend to
be designed to look like an optical bench.  They usually have one or
two rails that run horizontally, and the rail is mounted on a tripod
or equivalent support.  The front standard, rear standards, and the
bellows tend to be detachable and modular, allowing interchangeability
with other standards or accessories (such as extra-long bellows, bags,
larger or smaller backs, etc).  They also often have their movements
marked and graduated so that the camera's position can be recorded and
duplicated.  Popular studio cameras include the Sinar P and F series,
various Cambo's, Toyo's, and Horsemans.

C.  Press cameras are fairly rare today--the name derives from large
format cameras used by press (newspaper) photographers.  They tend to
have limited or no movements.  They tend to be compact, lightweight,
and rugged.  The big differences between press cameras and traditional
field cameras are that press cameras 1) are meant be handholdable, 2)
are meant to be focussed with a viewfinder instead of a ground glass
back, and 3) have limited or no movements.  Press cameras tended to be
replaced by 35mm and medium format cameras.  Famous press cameras
include those made by Linhof and Graflex.

Q4.  What are the various sizes of film?

Sheet film is typically measured in inches.  The most common (and
smallest) size is 4x5.  The two other common sizes are 5x7 and 8x10.
Q5.  What are the different movements?

Movements allow the front (lens) and rear (film) standards to be
adjusted relative to each other, which allow for special optical
effects.  For the purposes of this discussion, I'll define "neutral"
or normal position as when the lens axis (an imaginary line that runs
through the optical center of the lens) is perpendicular to the film
plane.  This is the configuration almost all cameras normally have.
Most cameras are fixed in this position.  View cameras, however, can
change this.

A.  Rise and fall.  This is the vertical travel of the standard.  Rise means
    that the standard can go above neutral position; fall means the standard
    can drop below neutral position.

B.  Shift.  This is the horizontal travel of the standard--shift left and 
    shift right.

C.  Tilt.  This is when the plane of the standard is moved off vertical.  The 
    front standard tilt makes the lens point upward or downward.  The rear
    standard tilt makes the film plane point upward or downward.

D.  Swing.  This is when the plane of the standard is turned.  A lens or film 
    plane can be swung to the right or the left.

Q6.  I'm thinking of getting into large format.  What do I need to start out 
     with, and how much will it cost?

Here's my beginner's list.  

A.  Camera.  This is obvious.  Prices run the gamut, depending on what you
    want.  They vary by how many features they offer and how pretty they are.
    New cameras start around $500 and average around $1,200-1,500.  Used
    camera prices depend on how good the camera was to start with and how                 
    pretty it was.  Expect the prices to start around $50 for an ugly clunk
    and go up from there.

B.  Lens.  Large format lenses are lens/shutter combinations that are mounted 
    onto a lensboard and placed on the front standard.  The lenses are longer 
    than those used on 35mm--a "normal" lens for 35mm film is 50mm--but a
    "normal" lens for a 4x5 is around 150mm.   Also, they have to be able to 
    create a image that's wider than the negative to allow for the movements.   
    Prices for new lenses start around $250 and average around $800-1,200.
    Used lenses (unless they were ground from Coke bottles) start around
    $150 or and go up rapidly from there.  See Question 8 for more about
    used lenses.

C.  Film holders.  Sheet film has to be held in place by a film holder. 
    Typically these are little light-tight boxes with removable dark slides.
    You load the film into the holders in the dark and put the dark slide in 
    place.  This makes them light-tight.  You then put the holder into the 
    camera back, remove the darkslide, and expose the film.  New film holders
    are around $12 to $15 each.  Used depends on their condition (check them
    before you buy) and how desperate the seller is to offload them.

D.  Heavy-duy Tripod.  View cameras tend to be large and heavy, and they
    require large and sturdy tripods. Typical 35mm camera tripods won't be
    good enough--the center of gravity will be so high that it will be easy 
    to tip the camera over.  New is a couple hundred dollars.  Used depends
    on the condition and the seller's interest in getting rid of it.

E.  Exposure meter.  Since almost all small cameras come with meters, more
    and more photographers manage to get through life without a hand meter.   
    Large format cameras usually don't come with meters, so you'll either
    have to get a hand-held meter or use another camera's onboard meter.
    Meter prices very widely depending on what you want--like anything from
    $25 to $1000.

F.  Focussing Cloth.   Most view cameras are focused by looking at the image 
    on a ground glass on the film plane.   It's too difficult to view the
    image with a lot of ambient light, so you'll need a dark cloth to drape 
    over the back of the camera in order to focus the image. Some cameras 
    allow for an optional viewing hood.  They tend to start around $15. 

G.  Carrying Case.  You'll probably need a box to store and carry all
    this stuff.  Cases are like tool boxes.  Prices vary too widely
    for even a ballpark figure.  But here's a tip--resourcefulness may
    save you some substantial money.

Q7.  What is a good starter camera for a large format novice?

A lot of people learned large format photography using old press
cameras-- like Graflex Speed or Crown Graphics.  The nice thing about
these cameras is that they're rugged, hand-holdable, and may have
coupled rangefinders-- features which may ease the transition from
smaller, familiar cameras.  The downside is that they may have very
limited or no movements on them, which removes one of the big
advantages of large format photography.  If you do decide to get a
press camera, try and find one that allows at least some front
standard movements.
I recommend looking at used view cameras.  Good used view cameras can
often be found at comparable prices to press cameras, and may offer
full movements.  They may not be as handsome, nor offer system
accessories like the more expensive cameras, but may still be good as
student cameras, and can be sold later when you are ready for
something better.

Q8.  There are so many view cameras lenses available.  What should a
     novice look for?  What is a barrel lens?

Last question first: view camera lenses are typically mounted in
shutters.  When they are not, they are said to be "in barrels."  Thus
a barrel lens has no shutter.  Barrel lenses are generally used for
cameras that have an alternate shutter (perhaps a focal plane
shutter), or when the film is so slow that a shutter isn't necessary
(like in alternative, historical photo processes where an exposure may
take many seconds or minutes, and all one has to do is remove and
replace the lens cap).  Novices will probably not want barrel lenses.

View camera lenses, because they can be used on so many different
cameras, tend to hang around for a long time.  The result is that
there are a large and confusing number to chose from.

Many people (myself included) subscribe to the theory that novices
should get a servicable camera, but get the best lens they can afford.
The lens is the eye of the camera--the camera is just a light tight,
sturdy platform.  A mediocre camera and a fine lens can made a fine
image, but a fine camera and a mediocre lens will likely yield a
mediocre image.  A good lens is an investment that can be used on
future cameras.

Modern lenses--those made in the last twenty years or so--tend to be
better than older lenses because of lens coatings.  Coatings tend to
reduce flare, raise contrast, and contribute to overall performance.
They may also be lighter and faster than comparable lenses of the
past.  Most new lenses are made by Nikon, Fuji, Schneider, and

Older lenses tend to be single coated or uncoated, and their quality
will vary depending on how good they were to start with and how well
they've been treated since.  Always try to inspect used lenses--check
the shutter speeds, the diaphram, and look at the optics for
scratches, dust, murkiness, bad coating, etc.

One of the most important things to note in any lens is the "angle of
coverage."  The AOC is the diameter of the image projected by the
lens.  A lens has to have a large enough AOC to cover the
film--otherwise vignetting will occur.  Ideally, a lens has enough AOC
to cover the film and then some-- which allows for camera movements
like swings and tilts.  If the AOC just barely covers the film, then
any movement away from neutral will cause vignetting.

This is extremely important for lenses used with films larger than
4x5--since many lenses will cover 4x5 with some movements, but won't
cover 5x7 or larger.  Modern lenses have documented AOCs.  Older
lenses, however, may be more difficult to determine.

Q9.  What are some good books on the subject?

My favorite is Leslie Strobel's VIEW CAMERA TECHNIQUES.  It's
expensive and it's dry, but it's an excellent reference book.

Steve Simmons, who edits and publishes View Camera Magazine, wrote
USING THE VIEW CAMERA: A Creative Guide to Large Format Photography.

The above-mentioned View Camera Magazine is well worth a look.  Their
address is 800-894-VIEW, and the address is View Camera, 1400 S St
#200, Sacramento CA 95814.

End of FAQ