View Full Version : Slaying the deamons of format choice

Bruce E. Rathbun
11-Aug-2005, 18:32
What can I say? I MUST be mental. A few years ago I went through what most experience when "upgrading" my format choice. The 8x10 was getting rather small so bagan my journey into the world of ULF. Of course my first choice was a rather beefy 16x20. After talking to a shooter who was and still is using a 16x20 that choice was put into the closet...for awhile.

My next thought was an 11x14. After some postings the descion was made to buy an 11x14. Fate jumped in and I found a great deal on a used Winser. All this while I was waiting on an 8x20 conversion back for my 8x10. But wait.....I had JUST taken delivery of a 7x17 conversion back for my 7x17. Before the film holders for the 7x17 arrived I made the brilliant (?) decision to sell the 7x17 back and order the 8x20 back. I ended up selling the 5x7/7x17 kit (not the plan).This would make more sense. I could shoot both 8x10/8x20 and then the "occasional" 11x14. Sometime I crack myself up! That 11x14 became the replacement for the 8x10. After all....why bother removing the 8x20 back to shoot 8x10 when there is a perfectly good 11x14?

I finally decided that the 8x20 was 99% of my vision. Until I would see a shot that just screamed for the 11x4. In my effort to simplify, my approach was to leave the 11x14 at home when traveling with the 8x20. Now the rub.....A few weeks ago I noticed a post for an e-bay auction for some Weston 11x14 contact prints. They were amazing. Then I started seeing more 11x14 shots...not even looking for 8x20 images. The bug for 11x14 has peaked like a raging fever. I honestly thought that my road trips could be based on the 8x10/8x20 combo. Not the case. When I pack the 8x20 I now get the STRONG urge to pack the 11x4.

Just like you would expect if the 11x14 is left home there WILL be a shot that is perfect for that format. What to do? Do others have the same problem or am I just plain INSANE? Maybe a support group is in the works?


11-Aug-2005, 19:31
Stick to one format. Block out the others. Work on your vision. That's what I'd do.

11-Aug-2005, 19:33
It sounds like you might have a case of the Magic Bullet Syndrome.

Purging it from your system might could some soulr searching. It can come down to thinking about why you photograph,

You talk about seeing a "perfect shot" for a format that you don't have with you, but it might be worth questioning what was so perfect about it. What it meant to you. What about it was intrinsically yours vs. being a nice looking picture (like ones you'd seen before) that happens to fit the shape of the camera you left at home.

There are always an infinite number of great shots that got away. All that needs to concern you are the ones that matter most to you, that you are prepared to bring into the world at that moment.

It might be an interesting exercise to pick one format at random, and stick to it for a few weeks. Ignore the things you see that don't fit its format. Learn to see through that camera, and learn the nuances of its shape, what that shape filters from the world, how it connects to you. Don't pick up another camera until you've gotten very comfortable with that one. You'll probably find that in the end one of them speaks to you more clearly than the others. But you can't know until you study the language of all of them.

I think it's telling that most of the great artists of the medium did very little switching around from format to format over their careers. When they did, it usually represented a change of vision, not just a change of mood.

Oren Grad
11-Aug-2005, 19:49
If, given the weight of ULF equipment, you're already working out of a vehicle and sticking to subjects within close lugging range, then take them both. Follow your own muse - if it doesn't work, you'll figure it out.

Sidney Cammeresi
11-Aug-2005, 20:07
For me, it is not very important which camera I take into the field. When I was first getting into photography and would go out with my 35mm camera and 50mm lens, I only thought about how to use what I had, not what I didn't have. Sure, I'd occasionally see something where I said, gee, it's too bad I don't have a wide angle, but that didn't happen too often. I still need to get a 600mm lens for my 11x14 system, but it doesn't bother me when I go out without one, even though I have long lenses for my other formats.

Brian C. Miller
11-Aug-2005, 20:28
You need a Minox. Stick with that format, and see how your vision changes! Just watch out for the contact prints.... :-)

Contact prints seem to be your problem. You want larger sizes, but you don't want to lug around several different cameras. Why don't you get a 8x20 back for the 11x14 camera? Or an 11x14 back for the 8x10? Then one camera could handle two or three different formats.

Steve Clark
11-Aug-2005, 22:02
Have you tried golf? :-))

Donald Qualls
11-Aug-2005, 22:28
Learn to crop?

Michael Kadillak
11-Aug-2005, 22:30
When I decide to take to the field with 8x10 (or any format), I look for images in my viewfinder that fit that particular objective. Occasionally an alternative composition will present itself at which time I make note the particular angle of the sun and when during the day the lighting be at its optimum for a return visit. GPS devices are perfect for this application. I then continue on with my objective unimpeded with the urge to go back to the truck for the "other" camera because I purposefully LEFT IT AT HOME.

Having struggled with "format" decisions myself, I have come to the conclusion that it is best to keep it simple and work on the discipline aspect of photography. Pick one format and work with it singularly for at least a month and learn to see with it. At the end of the day it is really not about size or proportions or for that matter even the process. It is about the image. I have seen 5x7 contacts that knocked my socks off and 12x20 work that made me wonder what the photographer was trying to say.

When you start jumping around I feel that your visual efficiency goes into the toilet in the same manner that your gas mileage goes to hell in a hand basket when you are stomping on the gas pedal followed by jumping on the brakes. Over time it will all sort itself out and the word "dilema" will no longer be an issue.

Good Luck!

12-Aug-2005, 01:07
I have found that while I am stuck indoors with work etc I feel I need to upgrade to all sorts of different formats, lenses etc.
When I am out photographing I dont give alternative gear a single thought, I just get on with making pictures.
It's good therapy to watch things finish on ebay that you think you need....

12-Aug-2005, 01:35
Check your pics - all this confusion you carry in you and with you must be visible there too. As it is visible in your thread. After all you know it already - your thread starts and ends with that knowledge. Choose and take just one wife.

jonathan smith
12-Aug-2005, 02:38
I shoot 8x10, but cut all my mats for 9.5 x 7.125 inches, which is a 3:4 proportion. 8x10 is 4:5 proportion, and 35mm is 2:3. Before deciding on this I cut out several gray pieces of paper in different sizes to see what I liked best. The "look" of the 3:4 is what I liked best, which was a surprise because I used to love the long 2:3 of 35mm.

Which may make me almost as mental as you. I say almost because I have stuck to this one proportion and I think it looks great and works great.

I would suggest you cut out some paper in the proportions you are considering, and stare at them a while and see what sits well with you. The easy part is to make your compositions fit the chosen shape. Pick one and don't look back.

Eirik Berger
12-Aug-2005, 03:54
Just give the 8x20 camera to me...?

Michael Veit
12-Aug-2005, 04:56
Isn't there some reference in the daybooks about Weston being exhausted after a day of making enlarged negatives? Those gorgeous 11x14 contacts may not necessarily mean he was working with an 11x14 camera.

Jeff Morfit
12-Aug-2005, 06:19
That's it, embrace the Dark Slide, resistance is futile. Once you pick up your first large format camera, LF photography will take over your life. I should know, it all started so innocently with a Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 camera. Since that day my life has never been the same. LF photography is a very dangerous addiction, you can never get enough of it.

Matt Miller
12-Aug-2005, 06:47
There is no shame in cropping. A 5.5"x14" crop from an 11x14 neg has the same ratio as 8x20 & is still a great size for contact prints. With a split darkslide or in camera mask, you could get 2 shots per sheet of film without wasting any. 1 camera, 1 back, 2 formats.

Mark Sampson
12-Aug-2005, 06:53
Well, I'd say, find one subject and stick to photographing *that* for awhile. Be sure you can do the work with gear you already have. Make a goal to produce a small (12-24 print) body of work around that subject. The requirements of that subject will dictate your camera/format size for awhile. When you've photographed- and finished- that small body of work, re-assess your camera requirements. A change may, or may not be required by then; but you'll know why or why not.

Ben Crane
12-Aug-2005, 07:29
Large format photographers I have met tend to fall into 2 categories - 1) those who are primarily interested in photographs, and 2) those who are interested in equipment. I don't think there is any shame in being interested in large format photography just because you are primarily interested in collecting, or restoring equipment - but you should realize which road you are going down.

12-Aug-2005, 08:02
"Well, I'd say, find one subject and stick to photographing *that* for awhile."

This is a good idea, but I wouldn't interpret "subject" literally, as in photographing nothing but barn doors or pine cones. Make it a project that's about something that matters to you. The subject can be a theme or a feeling you get in certain places, or a way of looking at space ... or whatever turns you on. Just as long as it's about more than pitures that happen to look pretty.

Oren Grad
12-Aug-2005, 09:03
Forget about whether you're maximizing the odds of producing a Serious Body of Work. Just do whatever is the most fun when you're out in the field.

Paddy Quinn
12-Aug-2005, 10:04
"Large format photographers I have met tend to fall into 2 categories - 1) those who are primarily interested in photographs, and 2) those who are interested in equipment. I don't think there is any shame in being interested in large format photography just because you are primarily interested in collecting, or restoring equipment - but you should realize which road you are going down."

Photography's technicalities are the eternal refuge of the unimaginative camera buff and a perpetual annoyance to almost everyone else... (Galassi in Friedlander)

Find a topic or subject and get passionate about that and not about the cameras. Limit yourself to one format and a usable, limited set on lenses (sell the rest and buy film and paper, or at least lock them away).

As long as you prefer fondling the wood of your cameras to taking photographs you'll never be happy! ;-)

Eric Leppanen
12-Aug-2005, 11:36
I shoot 8x10 whenever possible, 4x5 when 8x10 won't work. Same aspect ratio in either case. If I want to do a panoramic I just crop. Keeps my photographic life simple, otherwise I'd be carrying around a room full of gear.

Ed Richards
12-Aug-2005, 13:00
> Photography's technicalities are the eternal refuge of the unimaginative camera buff and a perpetual annoyance to almost everyone else... (Galassi in Friedlander)

What a great quote!!

12-Aug-2005, 13:02
"Photography's technicalities are the eternal refuge of the unimaginative camera buff and a perpetual annoyance to almost everyone else... (Galassi in Friedlander)"

That's great. Echoed by my college fiction writing professor: "you're a photographer?!? God, the only thing worse than a room full of bridge players is a room full of photographers."

I think he meant camera buffs.

12-Aug-2005, 14:54
Need some 11x14 holders? I have 3 unused brand new holders that I bought before the arrival of my 11x14, which I ordered in a fit of Acquisition Fever. The fever subsided, temporarily, so I quickly cancelled the order, losing my deposit. Now I have holders and don't expect ever to have the camera.

Since then I've had a recurrence, finding that now I desperately need a Noblex 150. But those you can get used off the 'Bay for less than $1.5K! I'm not sure that even qualifies as a serious purchase...

P.S. I actually believe that the 11x14 is the perfect camera. Buy one.

12-Aug-2005, 15:50
Ok ....One camera and one lens. I've done that and continued to do that for a few years. And I agree with all the posts that say photography is not about equipment.... it's about vision. Now all those that have given such good advice just answer me one question. How many of you own more than one camera? Could this be a case of the pot calling the kettle black? Sure I could suggest the one lens one camera discipline to improve his composition. But how can I tell him to just own one camera when I own three? In no way am I a collector, this is obvious by looking at all the gaffers tape on the bellows and a few cigarette burns on the camera bed from a blury-eyed, half-hung-over photographer, struggling at 6:30 am to get a focus that has taken way to long anyway. My point is I treat my cameras like tools that I use to achieve my vision. If I feel my vision is better suited for a different format I'll change and sometimes I'll shoot it in two different formats if I feel that I envision it two different ways. Sure One camera will improve your composition and I would recommend it to any beginner. But try telling that guy who has been under the darkcloth for thirty years that if he owns more than one camera and works in more than one format that he is a collector and not a photographer and I think you may get an argument. The trick is to spend substantial time working in the formats that you choose. Bruce I think it would be safe to wager that 99% of the posters here own more than one camera and one lens. I for one own three cameras and four lenses. Now if I'm labeled a collector or a camera buff then so be it. Labels never bothered me and they will not make me run and put one or two of my cameras on ebay so I'll be considered a photographer or will it change the way I work. My best advice would be to do what ever your heart desires. Resale of UlF equipment is pretty good and if you do buy and find it doesn't fit your vision you can always recover most of your investment. Good luck and just keep shootin'.

Jonathan Brewer
12-Aug-2005, 20:18
"How many of you own more than one camera? Could this be a case of the pot calling the kettle black?"................................................................................How many really serious amateur/professionals AREN'T perfectionists/obsessive-compulsives, with bigtime trouble w/impulse control,...........................................................................................I surf e-bay, and have had to hold down my right hand when it totally goes insane w/my left hand to keep it from hitting the 'buy it now' button.

I was enjoying a six pack of Ichiban one night while sitting at the computer, I woke up the next morning and checked my e-mails, and saw 'contratulations on your purchase.............................', after that I have a standing rule, no more than 2 beers while at the computer.

I had the 'purity of vision' when I was young and dead broke, my first pro camera was a Nikon FTN, w/Vivitar 35mm-85mm ser. 1 which I eat and slept with, after awhile the camera seemed like the real end of my arm, I wouldn't wish being broke on anybody, but I miss the days when I thought about the shot, period, with what I had, no ifs, ands, or buts, I imagine having several cameras is kind of like having a harem, not as trouble free as you'd daydream it is..............................................there is no truly obsessed lover of the silver image that isn't seduced my the angles and curves of a sleek and sexy new camera/'oldie but goodie' classic.

After enough of being totally submersed in this sub-culture for long enough, the idea of a camera/s becomes part of who you are.

Diane Maher
12-Aug-2005, 20:42
I too shoot with multiple formats. I did make an excel table this week of the sheets of film used for each format over the time I've owned each camera and which lens I used for the pictures (where noted). It made for an interesting exercise. In the end, you are the one who must make the choice of what format to use and when. Good luck!

Brian C. Miller
13-Aug-2005, 11:00
Hey, Bruce, how about leaving a comment or two here? After reading everyone else's opinion and seeing what you've been selling on eBay, I'd love read your thoughts on this! :-)

Bruce E. Rathbun
13-Aug-2005, 18:04
Yes Brian it is time to chime in. The past few days have been spent shooting. After reading all of the comments there seems to be some confusion. Many make me out to be a casual shooter who only cares about the size of the camera. This is nonsense. There is no obsession with a particular camera or size. The end result of a large contact print is the only concern.

Too think that photography revolves around camera brand/size X with film C, developed by solution A and printed on paper Z is ludicrous. There is no search for the "magical bullet" of sorts. The combination of Efke/Azo/Amidol has been my standard for the past 3 years and I intend to keep that going until Azo is no longer available. My original point was asking if I am the only one who has this type of conflict. Believe me when I say I have sold more large format cameras then most have even owned. This is due to finding the particular format that works. With the 8x20 I have found that in 90% of the images that I find. If I did 100% landscapes the 8x20 would be the only camera that I use. This is not the case as my subject matter varies. What happens when I see a waterfall that will not pan out on 8x20? Having enjoyed shooting waterfalls for the past 18 years I could not even imagine dropping waterfalls as subject matter. The only solid method for me is the contact print. Contact printing is the only way that I will ever print. Strong statement yet I know the alternative for does not work.

The use of two camera sizes in the field that give two different aspect ratios does not seem unreasonable. Nor does the use of two cameras on the same day for two radically different compositions. Even an 11x14 side by side with an 8x10 is a wider ratio. When tighter compositions come into play, the extra ground gained on the 11x4 can make an enormous difference.

Today I found an old grain mill that had undergone some radical decay. The original wall facing the south had been removed as it was unsafe. Behind the removed wall was a wooden wall that remined me of the old building in Western ghost towns. I set up the 8x20 and found a composisiton that was perfect. After that shot out came the 11x14. A vertical composition of the same wall produced a image not found in the 8x20. The 11x14 may even be a better image over the 8x20. I will find out after I process and print. For those who are interested I will send the link to the web after the images are posted.

Bottom line.....I am perfectly happy shooting both formats. Unless there is no reason to believe that the 11x14 would be used or there are logistical limitations I will continue this way. Maybe in time I will find that the 8x20 will be the only camera that I use. As long as I have the physical and mental capacity to use the the 11x14, my walls will have 11x14 Azo prints. And that I my toughest customer...me.


Brian C. Miller
13-Aug-2005, 19:24
OK, so back to the basic problem.

You have an 8x10 with an 8x20 back, right? Could you buy, or have made, an 11x14 back for it?

You have an 11x14 camera. I know there are 8x10 reducing backs. How about an 8x20 back for it?

Bruce E. Rathbun
13-Aug-2005, 20:04
Not really a problem. After the past few days and all of the advice on this post the problem has been solved. Yes the 8x20 is fitted with an 8x20 back. While I can easily remove the 8x20 and slide the 8x10 on I prefer to use the 11x14. There is no real way to fit an 11x14 back on the 8x20. So I will continue on and use both the 8x20 and the 11x14. If I need to cart the 11x14 I use a Roleeze cart that will cary both the 11x14 and the 8x20.

Oren Grad
13-Aug-2005, 20:08
Bruce - Which specific model cart do you use?

Bruce E. Rathbun
13-Aug-2005, 20:53
I use the SPORS CADDY R21-SPC. During my last trip out West I stopped in Bryce Canyon. The weather was great yet there was still about three feet of snow to hike in. Out came the Roleeze for a nasty butt kicking 1/2 mile up hill hike in the snow. Wihout the cart there is no way I would have taken any camera up there as the conditions were too slipery for a backpack. The Roleeze has been the difference between a shot or going home minus one.


Oren Grad
13-Aug-2005, 21:28
Bruce - Thanks... My 7x17 and 11x14 kits are more than I can backpack, so it's helpful to hear about different options that might enable me to work beyond a few steps' radius from the car. I did pick up a little folding utility cart, but it doesn't have those fat wheels, and I don't think it's going to be very robust for longer distances outdoors.

John Kasaian
13-Aug-2005, 23:09
IMHO---Use what you have, and use it to the best of your ability. Lusting after yet another format (or lens) is like lusting after your nieghbor's wife---no matter how attractive the package, any improvement over what you've already got at home is a crap shoot at best and the only sure thing is that it will cost you---a lot.