The short answer is quality.
The long answer also starts with quality, but there is much more to it than that.
Bigger Film Area
Large format cameras are those that use film with dimensions of 5x4 inches (125x100 mm) or greater. Often included in the category are the medium format panoramic cameras, since the long side of these images is often 17 cm. The area of the captured image from these cameras is already large, so less enlargement from the film is required to make a print, or inversely, bigger prints can be produced from the film.
A larger film area representing any one element of the scene also produces a smoother transition of tone for that element, since there are more “pieces of silver” (or blobs of dye) to make up that element.
So the bigger negative or transparency produces a better quality print, all other things being equal.
The camera that I use for most of my landscape work is a Tachihara 5x4 field camera. Made with Japanese cherry wood and brass, the camera is not only light and functional, it’s also a work of art in itself! When coupled with lenses of high quality, it is possible to produce very high resolution images (but not necessarily good photos).
Although 5x4 inch film is considered large format (LF), it is the baby of the large format world. Others with stronger backs than me cart around 5x7, 10x8, 11x14 and 10x20 inch monsters. There are other cameras bigger than these ones, but I shudder when I think of them.
Better Strike Rate
My success rate from my LF camera is higher than from my 35mm camera. Using an LF camera forces me to slow down and contemplate the scene more fully before I make an image. By necessity, these cameras must be mounted on a tripod during use. There is no view finder as such, but a ground glass screen on which the image is focused and composed. To see the image on the screen, I put my head under a dark cloth and assess the image. At this stage the magic begins: once under the cloth, I am isolated from the scene – there are no peripheral distractions. The image I’m looking at is inverted and reversed, forcing me to deal with the graphic content of the image rather than the “emotional” content that drew me into capturing the scene. The compositional elements of the scene should work, even when the picture is upside down: subject placement, juxtapositions, leading lines, colours and blank space all work in the same way when the image is inverted. The difference is that they can be assessed without reference to the scene outside the cloth, just as the viewer of my finished print has no reference to the scene. If the inverted image does not “work”, there is a good chance that the final image also won’t work and I don’t make the mistake of exposing a film on a weak scene.
Incidentally, my working methods and thinking carried over into my small format photography, and I’m now getting a better strike rate there too.
More Control Over The Sharpness Of The Image
My Tachihara looks like some sort of reproduction of an old camera, and many people mistake it for something from the early 1900s. They say “It’s in great condition for something so old”, and ask “Can you still get film for it?” (pretty funny really – what would I be doing there if I couldn’t?). The reason they still make these cameras with an “old” style is that the design was perfected in the 1920s, and with only a few minor improvements, remains in use today.
Using a large film area means using longer lenses to get coverage of the scene. For instance, in 35 mm photography, a 28 mm lens is considered a wide angle lens. To match the coverage of a 28 mm lens on a 5”x4” camera requires a lens of 90 mm focal length, or 180 mm on a 10”x8” camera. A long lens is still a long lens, and these focal lengths present problems for depth of field, whether on 35 mm or 10x8 film (the laws of physics don’t to change as easily as we can swap lenses). To work around the depth of field problems, a bright spark called Her Scheimpflug devised a set of rules that allows the flexible geometry of the camera to alter the plane of the focus for the lens (see here for more a in depth explanation). By bending the camera, I can make everything from directly below the camera to infinity (and Beyond! sorry) sharply focused, even at apertures which would normally not be so. Using a view camera (another name for these cameras) allows me to capture more (focused) detail from a scene on film.
Control Over The Shape Of The Subject
One feature of the design of LF cameras is the ability to alter the shape of the image captured by altering the geometry of the camera. The most commonly used example of this is the correction of converging vertical lines in a scene. Today, we see so many images with converging vertical lines that we don’t even think about it, but many architectural images require the walls of the building to be parallel. By keeping the plane of the film vertical and sliding the lens upwards (lift) to capture to top of the building, the walls won’t “fall in”.
Another use of view camera properties is to emphasise parts of a scene by making them relatively larger. Tilting the film plane away from the scene (towards the photographer) makes the foreground of an image loom relatively larger than the rest of the scene, adding another tool to the image makers’ repertoire for graphic design on the film. I have used the reverse geometry in this image, where I have made the sky loom over the viewer.
Control Over The Development Of Each Picture
Because each film used is separate from the others, it is possible to develop each sheet individually for very fine control of contrast (B&W) and exposure. Using the zone system (or the derivation of it that I use) allows contrast to be controlled, so that an optimal negative can be produced.
Additionally, three consecutive shots of one scene can be made on three different film types, if one so desires. Provided that different film types are carried in their holders, it is easy to choose from B&W, colour negative, polaroid or transparency film on the spot. There is even a film back that allows medium format roll film to be used!
When I was trying to decide how I would improve the quality of the images I was taking (not the aesthetics, but the reproduction properties), I tossed over medium format versus large format. Both have the advantage of a larger film area than 35 mm film, both would give me the size of print I was chasing and both have a huge selection of hardware to choose from.
Medium format offered the convenience and cost savings of shooting roll film and a bigger choice of films.
Large format offered bigger film area, the capability to allow for individual development of each image, the ease of changing from colour to B&W between images and the selection from the best lenses from the last 100 years, regardless of the maker.
In the end, it came down to the cost of the camera and lenses. I bought a new camera and a second hand lens for AUD$1,400. The lens was a 90 mm Schneider Super Angulon, which gave a similar view to my favourite 24 mm lens in 35 mm photography. If I’d bought second hand gear throughout, I could have had everything I needed to start in LF for less than $500. Compare that to more than $5,000 for an equivalent MF kit (new body, old lens), and the difference is an awful lot of film to shoot. And I’d be stuck with the lenses from only one maker!
At the consumable level of the process, each film is expensive. Each finished sheet of 5x4 transparency costs about the same as half a roll of 35 mm transparency film. The silver lining is that I only shoot a few sheets on any one outing, and they are usually “keepers”. Before I started in LF, I would usually shoot a whole roll per outing, and only consider 2 or 3 images on a roll of 35 mm film to be “keepers”. So I’m square on cost, but with a better final image in the archives.
For the type of images that I enjoy making, large format cameras are the ideal tool. Landscapes and other “static” subjects allow for the contemplative approach to photography. These are well suited to LF cameras, and images of great detail can be produced. (For dynamic images, where moving subjects or time constraints restrict the shooting opportunities, roll film cameras are still the best option for me.)
The act of using the dark cloth and studying an inverted image helps me avoid poor compositions. This is not the case for everyone, and many use reflex viewers to bring the image back into their usual frame of reference.
But the real clincher for me is the quality of the final product. Nothing
else comes close (yet).