An introduction to 4×5 large format photography Part: 1


by Bellamy /

13 min read

Benn Murhaaya -
An introduction to 4×5 large format photography Part: 1 by Benn Murhaaya
I have been meaning to have a 4×5 introduction on the site for a long time, so when Benn Murhaaya offered to write one I jumped at the chance. This is fantastically detailed intro, so detailed in fact that I have broken it into 2 parts. This is a complete guide on how to get set up using a 4×5 camera. Please note, some of the photographs contain nudity. Enjoy.

Have you ever seen those beautiful detailed portraits with that dreamy shallow depth of field and insane bokeh? It’s very most likely they were shot on large format camera. Let’s look into the basic techniques of operating a large format camera.

The Camera
Even today, many brand new cameras look like they were made hundred years ago or have a very similar form only made with modern materials. Well since the design is very simple, there is no need to change it. All large format cameras need a place to hold film, place to hold the lens and something light tight to connect these two. The rest is just mechanics. There are two basic types of large format cameras or view cameras as they are often called. Rail cameras. These are usually meant for studio work and can be recognized by a circular or square rail on which the front and the back are positioned. Sinar, Toyo and Cambo are great examples. The other type is a field camera. These are cameras that can close on themselves into rather compact and protect the mechanics by a sturdy body and are more suited for outside work. These are Linhof Technikas or Graflexes. In this category a well known Deardoff cameras could be placed as well.

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field camera closed. Notice the thread for the tripod mount on the door.

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small lenses can fit inside for convenience (pictured Schneider Symmar 135/5.6 protected with green filter)

The front standard as it’s called holds the lens. Large format lenses don’t have a bayonet mount and are basically universal. That is great because you can use any old lens and people do that still using lenses even more than hundred years old. The way how the lens is mounted on the camera is via lens board. The simplest lens boards are really just a board with circular hole cut in the middle; some are bit more complicated with locking notches. The lens is inserted in to this hole and tightened in place by a nut. Different lenses have different diameter depending on their focal length. For lenses with shutter, these holes are usually standardized according to the size of the shutter. Designation like Copal #00, Copal #0, Copal #1, … are the most common. Some lenses (Super Angulon for one) required their rear group of elements to be unscrewed from the shutter to be able to be mounted in the lens board. Don’t be scared but do this in clean environment and take your time. Use blower to blow away any dust particles that might land on the shutter mechanism.

Lenses without shutter are usually screwed in the lens board. Now there are many types of lens boards based on the camera and manufacturer. Makers like Sinar, Linhof, Alpa, Toyo, Deardoff… either have their own type of lens board or they accept other well used type. There are also lens boards that have a holder for other type of lensboard. Like Sinar that can hold Linhof Technika type board. In praxis it’s not in any way limiting. Lens boards are cheap and easy to get on Ebay. One special type of lens board is a recessed lens board that can allow for a wide angle lens to be easily accommodate by a field camera where the mechanics of the camera would otherwise prevent the lens from mounting. Lens boards with helicoids focusing are available as well. Again most suitable for precise focusing with ultra wide angles.

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Linhof Technika type lens board (cca 10×10 cm). Button on the right side of the lens is lever for opening the lens

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rear view of the lens board. Notice a black tightening nut. It might seem that the lens it not centered but it’s in fact in optical center.

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DIY lens board for Super Angulon wide angle. Rear element detached. The hole is cut above the optical axis so the lens is pre-shifted for architectural work.

Rear standard holds the ground glass and film. The ground glass is usually a mounted in a spring loaded frame that shifts away when the film holder is inserted. The ground glass is facing the matte side towards the lens and is used for precise focusing. On modern cameras they are also equipped with Fresnel lens to make the image brighter. Also different patterns are either etched or printed on the ground glass for checking the perpendicularity in architecture photos or for using roll film backs for 6×7 or 6×9. 

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extended ground glass shade

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shade opened, ground glass is easily accesible. Also notice that the back is rotated. Large format backs usually allow rotation of the film holder.

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another ground glass with 9×12 and 6×7 markings

These two are connected with bellows. It’s a time proven solution. When focusing the lens moving relative to the back so the bellows allow this movement. For ultra wide angle lenses there are special types of bellows called wide angle bellows does not have crimps in them and look more like a bag. This bag allows the lens to be really close to the focusing glass and keep the bellows from blocking the light from the lens. It’s also by design one of the most cumbersome part of the camera. The crimps can start leaking light so it’s important to check for any leaks on regular basis. This is done by having some bare bulb or flash light inside the bellows in the completely dark room and checking for any dots of light. These are most likely to appear in the crimps. For small leaks an electrical tape might do the job.


Lens – the most important part of every camera. There are few types of lenses for large format cameras. One the types are barrel lenses. These are usually lenses without the shutter mechanism. Often they are equipped with thread at the end that screw in the lens board. These can be still easily used either with cameras like Graflex that have the focal plane shutter or together with a special shutter boards or even with improvised shutters made from cardboard. People making wet colloidium prints use these as well because the exposure times are in seconds and instead of shutter they just take the lens cap off and on. Also many other lenses without shutter like projection lenses or even lenses for printing or lithography can be used.

Lenses for rail camera systems like Sinar are often made without shutter as well. These were designed to be used together with dedicated shutter board and are usually mounted in the specialized lens board for a particular system. They can be adapted into the shutter version by a specialist. There should still be some manufacturers like Seiko that still produce new Copal shutters.

Most versatile and most easy to work with are classic lenses with the shutter mechanism as they don’t require a cumbersome body with the focal plane shutter. For some specialized or large aperture lenses the focal plane shutter or shutter board can prevent the lens from focusing to infinity where lens is very close to the film plane.

Central shutters in these lenses are usually topping at 1/500 of a second and with 1 second as the slowest speed. The bulb mode is standard as well. Some bit older lenses have a T mode as well. This comes handy if the lens itself does not have a dedicated lever for opening the shutter. A T or B has to be utilized with either cable release that can be aretated. This shutter opening lever allows shutter to be set and cocked in advance and close by this lever right before taking the picture speeding the process of shooting significantly.

Apertures are ranging usually from f/3.5 to f/9 with f/5.6 being probably most common. 5.6 is your 2.8 with view cameras. Some brighter lenses can be obtained but are rather expensive. The smallest apertures are usually from f/64 to f/128 and even more sometimes.

Some lenses like older types of Schneider Symmars are convertible lenses. These lenses are of symmetrical design and one of the elements can be taken of and a lens with longer focal length, higher fstop and slightly but noticeable decrease in optical quality is the result. For example Schneider Symmar 135/5.6 (235/12).


crop – notice the blurred transmitters

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complete image.

Aperture is marked for both focal lengths. The lower corner sharpness of these lenses in converted state are more suitable for portraits.

Most important property of the lens is cover circle or lens coverage. It tells you the diameter of the image that the lens is able to display. It should be at least the same as the diagonal of your film format otherwise there will a severe vignetting or very degraded image in the corners.

In 4×5 / 9×12 terms lenses bellow 90 mm are super wide angles. Between 90 and 120 are wide angles. 120 – 180 normal lenses and over that are long lenses. They are not telephoto per say because there is usually no telephoto design and the camera rail has to be extended to the focal length of the lens. A small chart for orientation in 35 mm equiv:

90 – 28 mm

150 – 50 mm

210 – 85 mm

Large format film comes in sheets in a box in pack of ten, twenty, twenty-five or fifty. Precisely cut for the desired size. Now there are many sizes of films and even though they are close, they are not interchangeable. In English speaking countries most common sizes are 4×5, 5×7 and 8×10 inches. In Europe on the other hand sizes are 9×12, 13×18 and 18×24 cm. (Other less common maybe 10×15 etc…). They are very close in size to the respective counter part and the size is often interchanged in conversations and forums but each has it’s own film holder that is not compatible with other types. Cameras that shoot 9×12 usually shoot also 4×5 as well and so on. When compared in the same units it’s:

9×12 – 10.16×12.7

13×18 – 12.7×17.78

18×24 – 17.78×25.4

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comparison of 9×12 (top) and 4×5 (bottom).

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various wasted films. Notice the notch codes. Films are facing the emulsion away from camera

You can see that these films all have a notch in the corner. This notch is telling you the orientation of the film as you are loading the holders in the complete darkness. The notch is in the top right corner so the film has emulsion facing the lens. Some manufacturers also use so called notch code to identify the type of the film (Fuji and Kodak for example). You can see a set of various notches in some of these films. Fuji Velvia 100 has a different code than Fuji Astia 100F or even Fuji Velvia 100F. Other manufacturers (like Foma) do not use a notch code and only cuts a semicircular hole in the corner regardless of the type. This notch is not in the final picture area.

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standard film holder. Loaded, marked and ready to shoot

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9×12 and 4×5 holders. Marked in different to prevent confusion

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exposed holder. Notice the flap is facing us with the black side and the notes on the tape.

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This is how the film looks like when loaded.

Films are loaded into standard holders. They are called standard because they look pretty much the same; are interchangeable between cameras and most importantly have the same flange distance. So when the image is focused on the ground glass the film inside the holder will be in the very exact same distance as the ground glass was. Some other types of view cameras might not be compatible with the modern holders.

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film being loaded properly. Emulsion side towards the lens. Both sides are slid in properly.

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Improperly loaded film. Rear part of the film is not in the rails.

Loading the films is the tricky part. It must be done in complete darkness and it’s best to practice before you try it for real. If everything goes smoothly, the film should slide in the place, fit firmly with tiny bit of room. The flap should close and the dark slide should slide in easily. That is easier said than done. It can seem trivial but it’s not. Most common error is that the film is not slid in properly. Usually it sits on top of one the rails. Sometimes the dark slide won’t fit it, telling you, that you’ve messed up but it can happen that the film holder will close okay and you will use this holder. When this happened to me, the film fell out of the holder inside the camera when or if it happens to be stuck in the holder it will result in out of focus photo or it will prevent the slide to slide back in. Best way how to check for this is to run your fingers on the inner edge of the holder on top of those aligning rails. Also sometimes it can happen that the film is cut too large by a fraction of the millimeter and it’s hard to slide in. Two other things to keep in mind: First keep the holders clean inside out. Clean them from dust before loading the batch. Second if possible, use gloves for loading the film. You may’ve also noticed that the dark slide has two sides one white and one black. The white signalizes unexposed film and the black one exposed so you won’t accidentally double expose a frame. I

After the film is loaded I use a masking paper tape that I tape on the top of the holder

to mark what film is loaded in and place to scribble down the needed info. Usually a date, lens, lens extension, f stop, shutter speed, filters used, ISO rating for push/pull and the content of the picture. For example :

2014/03/05 135/160 5.6/60 red Jane, woods, tight portrait

Here 135 is the focal length of my lens in mm. 160 is the bellows extension. 5.6 is aperture. 60 means 1/60 shutter speed. Red is filter used (R25, O, YG, S1A…) and short description because after the film is processed you might not now which picture is which if they are really similar.

This track keeping is good for few reasons. You won’t accidentally shoot color film instead of black and white. Or shoot 4×5 instead of 9×12 because from the outside the holder are the same size and some of them are marked 9×12 / 4×5 holder, so you don’t know which is which. You can keep track of N+1 or push processing and most importantly learn from your mistakes. In the begging, I had a super underexposed picture in every batch of films. Usually because of bellows extension that I forgot to account for or I forgot to change the shutter speed. This way, you can learn from your mistakes.

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Polaroid type 54/55 film holder back

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Polaroid type 54/55 film holder front

It’s also very good practice to number the holders. I use dymo labeler. Every holder should have its own number. It can happen that it will start to leak light and this numbering together with some file where you keep track of your pictures can help you identify the faulty ones very quickly. In my case a few dabs of black nail polish helped me to solve the leaks completely. Also make sure that the dark slide is not damaged.

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Light leaks right on the side of the holder. A dab of paint solved it.

Other Equipment

For quality work with the view camera, few things are essential. First and most important for critical focus is a good loupe. It should have at least 5x magnification or more and if possible get the two lens element loupe so it won’t suffer from spherical aberration. Loupe is placed directly on the ground glass. There are no other focusing aids (some field cameras offer coupled range finder but it’s rare to find these cameras in perfect working condition. And anyway, if you wanted to use the rangefinder you’d stick with your Leica.:).

Another important thing especially for outside work is a black cloth. It should be as light tight as possible so it will block as much light to allow you to see the dark image on the focusing screen. A suit jacket will do the trick as well.

As the work with view camera is much slower a handheld light meter is good choice. Reflected or incident depends on what you are shooting (either landscapes or portraits) but it should have a filter factor setting.

Most cameras are by themselves equipped with a water level; either a planar one bubble or few one axis levels. These are very helpful for architecture work so the lines are parallel and the plane of focus is well defined. It can have significance in portraits as well. It happened to me that a face of a standing person was sharp but a ground under his feet was not and grass behind him was. It was not on purpose and it was distracting. Even if the camera is equipped with the bubble level, it’s good to have some hot shoe bubble level with you.

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the head of the sculpture is in focus. but so is the ground behind her and the tree on the right. This was caused by misaligned standards.

A sturdy tripod is without question. I personally prefer ball head but 3D are ok as well. It depends on your preference. When buying a new head, especially ball head, check it’s stability with the fully extended lens that you are planning to use. A 210 mm lens when focused to infinity can be okay but for macro work this length doubles!

Wire release is important thing and should be probably a part of the lens. I have my releases mounted on each lens permanently. They can be found used for almost nothing. To prevent any shake, the shutter is fired via cable release. It has a lever for direct operation but that’s not very convenient.

Also, don’t forget some markers so you can mark down the details of each exposure.
That is it for part 1 of this series. Part 2 will be in a couple of days.
Thanks to Benn Murhaaya for this informative and detailed guide. You can check out his work at his site and his images below.
As usual comments are most welcome.

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7 comments on “An introduction to 4×5 large format photography Part: 1”

    Ben April 18, 2014 at 4:20 pm / Reply

    Hotel Rhea. By god brings back memories. I stayed in that hell hole for 2 weeks back in the day when I moved to Prague.

    nice post though.

    Woodent April 18, 2014 at 10:17 pm / Reply

    Great article, very informative, thanks :) And just coinciding with that Kickstarter effort to revive the 4×5 polaroids (which is struggling to get supporters, but still indicates the degree of interest in large format photograpy) :)

    Steve A. Kleinheider April 19, 2014 at 9:36 pm / Reply

    Very interesting article…thanks for posting! I’m thinking about giving large format photography a go one of these days. Thanks again for the informative article.

    Fo April 24, 2014 at 8:28 am / Reply

    Thanks for this post! I recently received a 4×5 field camera as a gift, and I’ve been rather at a loss. Now I’m really eager to get out there and give it a try.

    Max March 22, 2015 at 9:50 pm / Reply

    Wow, thank you for all the precise information. I am finding myself hunting for higher quality and a workflow of taking photos that is more a project than a mindless click.
    I really like the photo of the person twisting his/her body. Can you tell me a bit about that?

    I would like to know how the focusing screen can be the same focus layer as the filmholder later on. Do you focus on the screen, take the screen off and instead insert the filmholder?

    Dave Lewis November 15, 2017 at 11:23 pm / Reply

    Regarding question requesting how the focussing screen can be the same focus layer as the filmholder.?

    A good question and a simple matter.

    The focussing screen (ground glass ) is spring loaded and sits at the focal plane. of the taking camera. The sheet of film to be exposed is initially loaded into the filmholder in complete darkness, placed in front of the spring loaded ground glass, occupaying the exact position of the prefocussed image,and held there by the spring in the focal plane, the dark slide removed whilst the camera lens is closed, and the exposure made at the chosen speed and aperture., not forgetting to place the dark side of the exposed film sheaf outwardly to indicate it has been exposed

    Hope this helps, regards

    Dave Lewis
    Retired Police Photographer
    UK and Western Australia
    15 Nov.2o17

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