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NOT a list of 10 things I’ve learnt from shooting 4×5

*Warning: sanctimonious rant ahead*

I don’t know what the heck is the deal with people on the Internet these days, but there seems to be an overabundance of ‘wisdom lists’ propagating amongst photography blogs in particular. ’10 things I’ve learnt from street photography’, ‘9 things I’ve learnt from developing film’, ’26 life lessons I’ve learnt from greasing my shutter button’ etc. ad infinitum ad nauseam. People like this kind of thing I guess. Numbers, metrics, concrete results – if you’re shooting photos and spending the nest egg on gear and workshops then I guess being able to quantify your progress into discrete bullet points makes the whole game of photography a little more palatable for the average weekend warrior/aspiring photographer. Also, I hear the list thing is good for search engines, so if increasing that statistic is your focus as a photographer, good luck to you.

So, lists. I dislike them for no rational reason and thusly have taken my first good step into crotchety old man territory. Frankly though, if we’re talking about things we learn from photography, then really, the idea of making lists of things you’ve learnt seems ludicrous. Every time you go out and shoot you should be learning dozens of little things about the way you work, the way you interact with people and how you can manipulate light and your images in post-production. If you’re not learning anything then you’re not challenging yourself, and you’re only standing still as others move forward. If you are learning, then great, keep at it, and enjoy yourself. There’s no need to make an onanistic list every single time congratulating yourself on coming to terms with rudimentary truths about photography. “Shooting film makes me slow down”. Well, no shit!  Here’s another one: pictures are generally better in focus, didja think to include that in your list of epiphanies??


I wonder if anyone is still reading?

Anyway guys, guess what? I’ve been heavily shooting 4×5 recently. For those unfamiliar, 4×5 is a size of film even bigger than medium format, which brings its own set of challenges completely different to largely automatic cameras these days. So yes, I’ve gone back to film, and a particularly fiddly version of it as well. And guess what? I’ve been learning things about photography. A crapload of things about photography that if I were to make a list of them there would be at least 100 bullet points long (think of the search engine rankings!), and as much as everyone likes lists, I don’t think the lolcat generation has the patience to sit through one. So screw it, I’m doing it the old fashioned way – big, motherlovin’ chunks of text straight from my stream of consciousness (although some would argue it’s a different type of stream). Also, here’s some camera pr0n to congratulate you for reading this far.


4×5 photography, for those unfamiliar, has been around since pretty much the beginning of photography. It involves those quaint cameras with the adjustable bellows and the guy hiding under a sheet of cloth trying to focus through the dim ground glass in the back. You might think that the camera size is prohibitively large, but to be honest they’re no bigger than the digital kit that I carry around to most of my jobs. It’s portable enough that you shouldn’t whining about it if you own a DSLR with more than one lens. Anyway, that’s not really the problem. The problem is that they’re fiddly, and expensive to keep putting film through. And the film, while it is breathtaking and beautiful as all large format films are, isn’t beautiful enough on its own to make the average superbowl fan gasp and exclaim “now I see why photography is amazing!” This is not a slight against the image quality of 4×5 film, which is beyond fantastic – the truth is that 9 times out of 10 the medium that the image is captured on is not going to affect its critical reception.

So basically there is no incredible return for switching to a far more expensive and work-intensive format of photography. Your photography peers may appreciate it and distinguish the difference, but realistically my Nikon D4 is no image slouch either, and equally capable of beautiful photos. So why am I bothering with the extra trouble and expense of 4×5? I’ll tell you why: it changes the way I shoot, and that means it changes the way I think about making photos. Ok, it sounds a little esoteric (read: wanky) when I say it like that so why don’t I just explain the process of shooting 4×5 to you so you get what I mean.

Ok – so first thing you gotta do is go out to one of your local photography shops and buy some sheet film. Then you gotta load them into these holders. No big woop, but  here’s thing about these holders – each of them only holds two exposures of film; one sheet in the back and one in the front. 36 shot canister of 35mm film? Hilarious. 12 shot roll of 120 film? Don’t make me laugh. You only get two shots with each holder, so you’d better stock up on them if you plan on doing a lot of photographing.

Then assuming you’ve got a willing subject and some lights, you put your smexy 4×5 camera up on a tripod, set up your lighting and do your composing – all regular things that I assume you do with every camera. 4×5 is a little fiddly though and there are quite a few things that you need make sure to remember lest you forget and ruin a sheet of expensive film. Let me explain:

Firstly, the viewfinder isn’t really a viewfinder – it’s more like a piece of frosted glass that the lens is projecting the image on. You can see the image pretty clearly, but it’s a little dim, and it’s also upside down. Forget being able to focus it on a sunny day without a hood or a cloth to cover your head. Also, forget about focusing it with the aperture stopped down – the lenses are obviously manual so the blades close whenever you stop it down, making the image on the back dimmer. You have to focus wide open and then remember to reset to your desired aperture before you release the shutter, or you’re going to have some very overexposed, expensive failures.

Focusing with the 4×5 isn’t too difficult unless you don’t know what the word ‘focusing’ means. The larger format means you get thinner depth of field compared to smaller cameras at equivalent f-stops, but it doesn’t matter – focusing is focusing, it just takes a little longer in this case. Plus you get the added benefit of the camera movements to help refine your plane of focus. It’s incredibly liberating to have these options of tilting, shifting or swinging the front or the back of the camera – it’s a little like cheating and gives you numerous options for maintaining critical focus on things you may not otherwise have the depth of field for. Either way though it’s simply another factor, another problem for solving, and yes it takes time, no matter how fast you are.

So you’re doing all of this focusing, checking the glass with a loupe, fiddling with all sorts of stoppers and knobs to tilt your lens forwards and then refocus because it put your subject’s eyes out of focus again. All the while your face is completely obscured behind this big camera, if not hidden under a blanket, and your subject – sitting or standing – is under strict instructions not to move because any slight movement throws everything out of focus and you have to twist some more knobs and fiddle around a bit more. You’re not even half way towards making an exposure and yet the camera has grown into this huge obstacle between you and your subject. It’s in the way. You change one thing and it messes up another. So much attention needs to be lavished upon this machine to make sure you’re even ready to click the shutter (noticed how I haven’t even bothered mentioning taking light readings and setting up your exposure?) that suddenly what your subject is doing or feeling seems like a very far away thing. Some portrait photographer you are – hopefully you’ve had the presence of mind to keep up at least a senseless babble so your subject doesn’t feel abandoned in front of the lens while you fiddle about behind it. If not, then well, then you have a few more valuable opportunities to get them back, because here is where the fun starts 😀

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (4)

Eventually you’re going to get to the point where further fiddling is useless and you’re more or less ready to shoot your photo. Time to load your film. Yup. Slide in that big film holder right in front of your ground glass. Wait what? You heard me. The film holder goes between the ground glass and the lens. Blocking the light, and hence your view through the lens. You can’t see through the viewfinder anymore. Hear that? You can’t. see. through. the motherflippin’ viewfinder. And you can’t touch anything either, lest you ruin your painstaking work of focusing. Suddenly the camera, which up until a couple of moments ago was such a dominating, needy presence, has virtually vanished. At this point, with no viewfinder to hide behind, you are put right in front of your subject. You are forced to be present, in the moment with the person in front of your lens and if you don’t have some kind of gameplan for getting some kind of reaction worthy of clicking the shutter and exposing a pricey sheet of film, then things are gonna get awkward real easy, real fast. Timing becomes paramount, as you can’t just snap off another shot straightaway. Only one exposure at a time. As Alec Baldwin put it in one of my favorite film monologues of all time; “it’s f*ck or walk.”

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (14)

Do you see why I love this particular method of portraiture? The entire process is so different, so far removed from gunning it with a DSLR that it can’t help but put you in a different frame of mind. It’s more deliberate, and you have to think ahead a little more. It gives you another perspective to help you break down your current portraiture method and reconstruct your habits. Never a bad thing.

But wait, we’re not finished! Assuming you’ve got some kind of rapport with your subject and are confident enough to expose a sheet (are you sure your focus is still dead on?), it’s time to click the shutter! Hold on just a moment though, don’t forget to close the shutter before you take out the darkslide, lest you expose your film accidentally. Oh, and make sure you prime your shutter, otherwise it won’t release when you finally do get that elusive, decisive moment. Oh, and almost forgot – your aperture was wide open for focusing, better remember to reset it otherwise you’ll end up with overexposed shots. NOW you’re ready to press the shutter. Everything has been leading up to this moment.

Click. The quiet whisper of the copal shutter snapping open and closed, flashes triggering in sync.

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (20)3

And that’s it. For better or worse, one image exposed. One more photo created. And it’s at that moment you realize that for all the fiddly bits it’s the same as all other photography. Same as using a DSLR, same as shooting a photo with an iPhone, same as using one of those Samsung abominations. Press a button, immortalize a moment. The only difference being the amount of care you put into it, or, how you approach it. In a way, 4×5 format or larger doesn’t give you the option of not caring (unless you like burning expensive film). It’s refreshing that a camera forces you through the motions so thoroughly, before taking away your ability to hide behind the camera, forcing you to be face to face with your subject. I love it. And it’s teaching me heaps. Not that I’m saying that I switched to this camera and now all my photos are amazing. Far from it – no camera will turn you into a genius straight away. But it’s teaching me a few things that might help me be a better portrait photographer, and I’ll take it.

So, despite my professed hatred of lists I’m going to end with one, because hey, we’re allowed to change our opinions and I think of myself as an open-minded person. Here’s my definitive list of life lessons I’ve learnt from shooting 4×5:

1. It helps if you give a sh*t about what you are photographing.

That’s all I can think of, without including points that overlap each other. But aren’t you glad I tried?

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (6)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (10)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (22)

Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (24)Tokyo Photographer Irwin Wong (13)



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