What Large Format Camera Production Taught Me About Photography

Posted in Equipment by Nathan Lee Bush on May 24, 2012

Ever since that fateful day when I was mindlessly channel surfing while visiting my parents and came across a mesmerizing image of giant vats of liquid pink goo which, I was informed, would soon be candy canes, I’ve been hooked on How It’s Made. Something about the royalty-free smooth jazz, the straightforward voiceover explanation and the images of machines and disembodied hands rhythmically working away is strangely relaxing. And you almost feel like you’ve accomplished something at the end of each episode, even if in fact you’ve just managed to drool on your shirt. Kidding aside (maybe), it does give some insight into the technology we take for granted, and sometimes the knowledge can be put to use in some real life MacGyver scenarios, or just when the party conversation hits a lull (“Do you know how Membrane Switches are made? Let me tell you…”).

Pretty simple, really

Seasons One through Eight are on Netflix, and pretty much everything else is on YouTube. But while I’ve had ample opportunity to discover the flashes of genius and surprising insights behind the making of vacuum tubes (still don’t know what they are), steel wool, resin figurines, trombones and cooked ham (maybe don’t watch that one, actually), I’ve still managed to miss out on the crème de la crème of How It’s Made for photo freaks: Large Format Cameras.

Since schlepping a 4×5 camera around for hours on end through the Hudson Valley during College, I’ve developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome-style love affair with it. The program director at my school was none other than the best living large format master, Stephen Shore, and he mandated that all students use the camera early in the program. And I’m glad he did.

In an age when one can run around snap-happy and then speed-sift, auto-correct and batch export thousands of exposure a few hours later, intentionality and reflection in photography is a lost art. When quite a bit of money and time is at stake with each exposure, your brain tends to kick into high gear, and you think through the technical and artistic possibilities of a potential photo before even taking the camera out of the bag. When I finally got my absurdly expensive negatives processed and used half my semester’s paper budget on that perfect print, bypassing my sociology essay in the process, I was rewarded for my effort and sacrifice with a beautiful object of unsurpassed technical quality (I’ll leave its artistic merit for others to judge). This painstaking process is why the old masters often referred to it as “making,” rather than “taking” a photograph. I’m probably the tail end of the last generation that understands the implications of this nuance in terminology.

What’s interesting about the video is how simple the camera’s design is, which is, of course its genius. You can devote the same amount of time explaining how darts are made as the view camera! For all the technical wizardry and working-speed advantages of the digital era, we still haven’t managed (though the day may not be far off) to match the clarity, dynamic range and overall image quality, not to mention precise control, provided from this humble mid-19th century accordion box and a few large sheets of film. Just check Shorpy to see what I mean. Pixel peep those images!

If you’re interested in large format photography, you can buy your gear from Adorama new or check out used.

One Response

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  1. […] their enormous catalogue tells us about the state of stock photography; I reflect on why seeing how large format cameras are made changed my perspective on the medium; and as always, we cover the week’s photo and video […]

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