The Darkslides is a collective of large format film landscape photographers from various parts of the United States. They are Alex Burke, Alan Brock, Ryan Gillespie, Justin Lowery, Ben Horne and Martin Quinn. The goal of this site is to not only show beautiful images taken with large format cameras but to share knowledge and experience in using them with you.
What is Large Format Photography?
Large format photography as we practice it, is created using large cut sheets of traditional analog film, typically measuring either 4×5 inches or 8×10 inches in size. These sheets are carefully loaded into film holders, each of which holds two sheets of film, one on each side, protected by a removable “dark slide.” (The dark slide is the oblong object with tiny handles on it depicted in our logo at the top of the screen.) This process must be done in total darkness, because the film will be destroyed if exposed to stray light.
Our cameras are “view cameras,” which come in two varieties, the “field camera” and the “monorail.” Field cameras are typically the more compact and lightweight of the two, while monorails are the more fully featured and flexible. Each type of camera features two “standards.” A standard is the upright portion of the camera, shaped like a frame. The “front standard” contains a square opening, into which the lens board is clipped. The lens is in turn installed into the lens board using a spanner wrench. The “rear standard” contains the “ground glass,” literally a rectangular pane of glass which has been sanded down, thus allowing an image to be resolved on it from the lens, upside down and backwards, due to the lack of mirrors to “correct” the image that are usually found in other types of cameras. In front of the ground glass, is an opening which can be pried open using a lever, spring, or strap. Into this opening, we insert the film holder, to capture the image that is being projected onto the ground glass. Now, having two standards with nothing between them wouldn’t work, so we also need a perfectly dark tunnel to connect them. This flexible tunnel is called “the bellows.” It must be flexible, because each of the standards can be moved around in space to achieve various effects. Moving the front standard maneuvers the plane of focus around, allowing us to “swing” or “tilt” the plane of sharp focus to follow the subject we are photographing. The rear standard can be swung or tilted to change the perspective of the image, in order to emphasize the foreground, background, or one side over the other. Further, the standards can be shifted up and down, which allows the compositional framing to be adjusted without moving the camera. This allows the photographer to make pinpoint precise adjustments to the composition, while leaving the camera in place, thus not changing the perspective from the chosen vantage point. These “movements” as they are called, allow large format photographers to have unparalleled control over the image making process.
To expose a sheet of film, the film holder is loaded into a slot in the rear standard of the view camera, and then the shutter on the lens is manually closed by hand to achieve total darkness. Once this has been done, the photographer manually turns levers and knobs on the lens to set the aperture and the shutter speed. Typically, the shutter speeds used with large format are too long to be done mechanically, and so must be timed by hand using a stopwatch and a syringe-style cable release. In order to calculate the correct exposure, a separate hand-held light meter is used. The meters we use are usually “spot” meters, which measure only a tiny 1-degree circle of light within the scene at a time. We take readings off of the brightest, middle, and darkest areas of the scene, and then use those readings to compute an exposure time for our chosen aperture. Once this exposure is calculated, we must then factor in “reciprocity failure,” which is the characteristic of film wherein the film becomes less sensitive to both color tonal differences and light, the longer the exposure becomes. This often results in an exposure needing to be twice as long as originally calculated, frequently extending into minutes. Finally, because the lens is focused using the “bellows,” an accordion-like tunnel between the lens and the film, we must sometimes add more time to compensate for light lost in travel between the lens and the film. With all of this accounted for, the exposure is made, and the dark slide replaced, the film holder removed and placed back into the bag. An image has been born.
Why Large Format Film?
You may now be wondering, in this modern day and age of extreme technological advancement and convenience, why would anyone deliberately choose to work with such antiquated tools, which require so much work and expense to operate? (The film sheets often cost $25 or more per exposure, and the cameras are extremely bulky and often weigh several pounds.) Well, there are many reasons.
The first reason is the process. While tools do not determine the outcome of an artist’s work, they do often influence the creative process. In today’s hustle of digital photography, images are created by the thousands, with little, if any thought given to each exposure. Computers are responsible for many of the little decisions involved in the creative process, from focus to exposure, there is an algorithm or a sensor to do it all. By removing all automation from the process, we are forced to think through each and every step of the creative process, which creates numerous little windows through which our creativity can be expressed, and a human touch returned to the creative process. By creating images individually, and at great cost, each image gains a perceived intrinsic value that would not otherwise be present. Every exposure counts, and because of that, more thought and attention to detail are invested in each one.
Also, as we are all wilderness landscape photographers, working with a purely mechanical analog camera in the field seems fitting to the environment in which we create our work. There is something peaceful, mindful, meditative about working with these large and slow tools that we all enjoy profoundly.
Another reason we like to use large format film is the sheer image quality and detail. Even today’s most expensive and complex digital camera systems can only achieve resolutions of about 100 megapixels, and even then only with very small sensors, which due to their small size have limited ability to capture the subtlest nuances of light and tone. Each 4×5″ or 8×10″ piece of film can be scanned on either flatbed or drum scanners to produce digital files of astronomical detail and quality that stand head and shoulders above and beyond anything even the best digital cameras of today can produce. This allows us to create massive prints which contain more detail than most small prints created using digital tools. For instance, a 40×50 inch print from even a 4×5″ camera would contain more detail per square inch than an 8×10″ print from most professional DSLR cameras available today.
We also enjoy the “organic” aesthetic of film. Unlike digital sensors, which capture tone and color differences in grids of square electronic pixels, film contains a random layers of particles which lack the “uniformity” of digital sensors. The way that analog film captures light and tone is visibly different and more subtle and nuanced than the way that digital captures these things. While admittedly a subjective matter of personal preference, each of us prefers the aesthetic appeal of the different film stocks available to us, and has chosen to incorporate this aesthetic as a vital part of our artistic process.