Landscape shooter Michael Hall explains why photographers who value an uncompromised image just won’t give up on large-format photography
I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve considered giving up shooting large format. Most of my work is captured on the road, and I’m fed up with having to lug heavy gear around with me. Large-format systems are inherently bulky and heavy. I love shooting on large, and I love the results I get from it, but I’m tired of being a packhorse. This is the only reason that I’ve wanted to give up this system; every other aspect of shooting with it I either can tolerate or actually adore.
As with any camera system, there are pros and cons inherent to using large format. After years of trying to bring closure to this issue, I’ve nailed down one, and only one, reason why I will probably never give up shooting large format — I’ll attempt to explain just why in the following paragraphs.
If you hold a mirror up to the world, the larger the mirror you hold up, the more of the world you’ll see. If you wanted to reflect all you see in a large mirror, and you only had a small mirror, then that small mirror would have to be convex. Apply this same concept to the capture size of a photographic image, and the same applies.
Provided that you’re using a similar lens length, a large-format camera is going to capture more of the world than a medium-format camera, and a medium-format camera is going to capture more than a 35mm camera. And the only way that you’re going to get back what you’ve lost of the foreground, the sky, and either side, is through the use of a wide lens. Unfortunately, wide lenses do to an image what convex mirrors do to a reflection: they throw everything out of whack by making everything at distance look further away. In doing so, they compromise the scale of the image.
It’s this compromise — the loss of scale, loss of integrity of the image — that I have issue with. Given that most landscapes only work through the perspective of a wide view, the wider the lens used, the more scale is lost and the more the image suffers as a result.
In a perfect world, we’d all be shooting 10×8 inches or, even better still, 20×24 inches. Anything smaller would be a compromise. But, considering the size of these camera systems and the cost involved in film and processing, this would be bordering on the insane.
I shoot most of my landscapes 5×4 inches; I’d be pushing my physical and practical limits by shooting anything larger. Ninety-eight per cent of my landscapes are captured on a 90mm lens (equivalent to a 29mm), which is wide, for sure, but as long as I’m careful with my perspectives, I’m comfortable with this. I’m able to get away with it without too much loss. I’ve owned a 72mm lens but gave up using it, as I felt it compromised the image by noticeably altering the perspective.
Of course, there’s one thing that I haven’t yet mentioned in this equation: the ability to stitch a number of images together to construct a larger capture size. There are a number of photographers who are doing this and creating exceptional work as a result. But, if you scrutinize their work, you’ll notice that they are all shooting in unvarying light conditions. Much of my work is shot in low light and incorporates moving skies — stitching doesn’t work in these changeable light conditions.
At present, the largest commercially available digital back is 53.7×40.4mm (2.1×1.6 inches), which is completely outclassed by even the smaller of the large-format camera systems (5×4 inch). Until such time as a digital camera manufacturer produces an equivalent capture size (and I don’t see that happening any time soon), I’m afraid that I’m stuck lugging around my traditional large-format film camera.