Almost daily, I wake up to an email, comment, or private message saying, "I want to start shooting large format, but I don't know where to start. What should I do and what should I buy?" Awesome! That's great news! After responding to each and every one of you (thank you for being so kind to ask me), I have decided to put together a list of recommended equipment for those of you who want to start shooting large format. Remember, the used market is your friend when trying to find equipment. There's a few good Facebook buy/sell/trade groups for film equipment, the Large Format Photography Forum can be a good source, but generally, I've had good luck on eBay.
*This is by no means a perfect solution and if you don't want to listen to me, by all means - don't. Everyone should has their own opinion and style and this is just what I have learned over the years. If I was starting fresh again, this is my guide.
**This is also guided towards 4x5 equipment, because of three reasons. 1) I guarantee you that you will make mistakes in this journey. A lot of them. You want those mistakes to be as inexpensive as possible. 4x5 is 4 times smaller by area than 8x10, thus making everything generally about 4 times less expensive. 2) Learning movements is a process and depth of field is always a challenge on large format. With 4x5, you have less of a challenge, which will lead to a more productive learning experience. 3) Everything is generally lighter and overall a less punishable experience than larger formats. Learning to compose on a ground glass can be tricky. 8x10 (and larger) is very rewarding, but I suggest you get your feet wet before diving in.
I personally gravitate towards wooden field cameras, with one major exception, which you will see below. The reason is because the majority of the work I create is a good distance from the car and I like to be lightweight when at all possible. Folding wooden field cameras are both light, durable, sturdy, and can withstand some beating. Just don't leave them sitting overnight in the dune fields of Death Valley, because this will happen. (Sorry, Ben.)
On a budget:
Intrepid Gen II 4x5 ($270)
Intrepid is a UK company that started up on Kickstarter with the intent to design an "intro-level" inexpensive, lightweight camera and they succeeded completely. I have yet to get my hands on one of these, but I'd love to. I know several good friends who have purchased and used this camera and absolutely love it. It would be a great backpacking camera or a great first camera. This little guy is a genuine 2 lbs and is uniquely designed to be solid, even for moderately heavy lenses and even has enough bellows extension for decently long telephoto lenses. Win-win-win. Here are a few reviews of this camera from guys that I personally know and trust.
Toyo 45A (I or II) (<$500)
A tank of a camera, but a beast. Two good friends of mine, Alex Burke and Bobby Wheat have used this camera for as long as I have known them and have produced excellent work with it. The 45AII has a rotating back, which is very handy and it is a metal camera, so while it is heavy, it is extremely sturdy.
Not on a budget:
Chamonix H1 ($1100)
Again, this is a camera I have never seen in the field or used, but reading the specs, I like it and would use it. Chamonix makes beautiful equipment (I have a few of their film holders) and while this camera has somewhat limited bellows extension, it compacts very well, is very lightweight, and has fantastic movement ability.
Ebony RW45 ($1200-$1400)
I owned this camera for a short while before jumping up to 8x10, when I (regrettably) sold it. It's light, sturdy, and an overall fantastic camera. The stock ground glass is very bright and comes with a fresnel lens. This version folds, which I do tend to like for a wooden field camera. I never had any problems with it and I wish I hadn't sold it. Ebony cameras were all 100% handmade and some of the most beautiful cameras on the market. Unfortunately, the creator and owner of Ebony decided to throw in the towel and no longer produce cameras. You can occasionally find one on the used market now, but they are few and far between.
Arca Swiss F-Field Metric 4x5 w/ Micrometric Orbix ($6,500)
The grandfather of them all. This is, in my humble opinion, the best 4x5 camera you can buy. I own this camera, and it's essentially the exact same model as my 8x10 camera (just smaller), so muscle memory is exactly the same when switching between the two. It weighs in at just over 5 lbs and has every bell and whistle you can want.
My favorite lens lineup for the 4x5 in the past has been 90mm, 150mm, 210mm, and 300mm. I'm not much of a wide angle lens fan on large format, but in case you are, I will include a few of my favorite picks for wide angles. My favorite focal length on 4x5 is 150mm and will choose that lens over almost any other focal length. So if you're like me, you'll want to spend the bulk of your money on that lens. My criteria for choosing these lenses are 1) image circle, 2) weight, and 3) sharpness / color / contrast. I've never used anything wider than a 75mm and don't really see myself going that wide. If you want to go that wide, buy a digital camera. I don't like seeing my tripod legs in my foreground and the image becomes too distorted and warped for my taste on anything wider than a 75. You might be able to get away with a 65mm, which I would mind trying out someday, but for what it's worth, I would shy away from the 40's and 50's.
On a budget:
90mm f8 Nikkor SW ($300-$400)
I used to use this lens when I first started working with large format. It can be a little dim when trying to focus, especially in low-light conditions, as you often find yourself in when using wide angle lenses. If you can get past the moderately slow aperture, it's a very lightweight lens, and a great performer. It's 235mm image circle gives it ample coverage for 4x5 and it weighs in at 355 grams.
90mm f/8 Fujinon SW ($175-$250)
I'm not a huge fan of Fujinon lenses from this series, as they don't have as great of color or contrast rendition, but this lens is incredibly inexpensive and would be a great starter lens. The coverage is good enough (216mm) to get your head around movements with and it's not very heavy at 407 grams.
Not on a budget:
80mm f/4.5 Schneider Super Symmar XL ($1000+)
I'd like to own this lens. I don't, but I'd like to. As much as I like the 90mm focal length, sometimes around the 75mm is nice as well, and this little lens weighs in at just 271 grams and packs a punch. Has barely enough coverage for 5x7 if you're shooting multiple formats and is very sharp with great contrast from edge to edge. I've never had a bad Super Symmar XL and this is no exception. Donations accepted for this lens here.
90mm f/6.8 Rodenstock Grandagon-N ($600-$800)
Get the one with the green line! Sometimes you can find the rebranded one under Caltar for a bit less money, but they're both the same lens. I do own this one and I've been using it for a while. Some may shy away at losing the light compared to a 5.6 aperture, but on my Arca Swiss ground glass, I've never had an issue. The lens is sharp, and relatively lightweight at just over a pound. Would I like to shave some weight off of it? Sure I would, but it's one sharp lens.
110mm f/5.6 Schneider Super Symmar XL ($1000+)
Same as the 80mm XL, but if you want a slightly longer focal length. If I were to buy either of these lenses, I'd opt for the 80 over the 110, but maybe that's just me.
On a budget:
150mm f/5.6 Nikkor-W ($200-$300)
I've always had very good luck with Nikkor glass. I own several for 8x10 and have owned a few for 4x5 in the past. This is a very good lens, especially for the price. Covers 4x5 with ample movements. Every lens in the 150mm category is lightweight, so it goes without saying - it's light. You can't go wrong with this lens.
240mm f/9 Fujinon-A ($500-$600)
A little on the pricey side for "budget" but this one is a stellar performer and incredibly compact. It weighs in at a stunning 225 grams and has enough coverage for 8x10 with a little room to spare. I do not yet own this lens as of February, 2017, but it is on my radar.
Not on a budget:
150mm f/5.6 Schneider Apo-Symmar ($500-$700)
I used to own this lens before owning the 150 Nikkor-W and it was a great performer. It's Schneider sharp and lightweight (just barely heavier than the Nikkor) with good coverage for movements. The only reason I got rid of it was because it ended up in a trade agreement that worked out for the better. Choosing between this and the Nikkor, I'd pick the Nikkor.
150mm f/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S ($900-$1200)
I now own this lens and will probably never sell it. Again, it's lightweight at 250 grams and has enough coverage for 5x7 (231mm circle) with decent movements. Rumor has it that the Sironar-S line (the lenses with the red line) are the absolute best lenses ever made for an analog system. They're even coated to work with digital cameras if you're so inclined to do so. The Sironar-S lenses come in 135mm, 150mm, and 180mm in the "normal" range, and I opted for the 150mm due to how I like to compose my images. I'm positive the other lenses in the series are just as fantastic. If you can swing it, buy it. As Terry Thalmann says, "you can pry it from my cold, dead hands."
210mm f/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S ($1200-$1500)
The same can be said about the 210mm as was said about the 150mm. This one isn't incredibly lightweight, but it's a downright unbelievable lens, which is why it finds itself in my bag. Plus, it has enough coverage for 8x10, albeit barely.
On a budget:
300mm f/9 Nikkor-M ($350-$500)
Most large format landscape photographers I know have used this lens for their field work, primarily because it's arguably the best you can buy in this focal length. It's in a Copal 1 shutter and weighs in at 290 grams with enough coverage for decent movements on 8x10. This pairs as a backup or backpacking lens for an 8x10, on top of a fantastic telephoto lens for 4x5. I have its sister, the Nikkor-W 300, which sits in a Copal 3 shutter and is a gigantic, but fantastic lens for 8x10. It has a low aperture, but on 4x5 it's not all that bad to focus. Since it's a long lens, it appears quite bright on the ground glass and is very easy to focus. Buy it. Thank me later.
Not on a budget:
450mm f/9 Nikkor-M ($700-$1000)
I originally purchased this lens for 8x10 and have yet to use it on 4x5, although I want to. It sits in a Copal 3 shutter and weighs in at 640 grams, but since it is not a telephoto design, it takes quite a bit of extension to focus at infinity. Bellows extension aside, it's a fantastic piece of glass.
500mm f/11 Nikkor-T ED ($1000-$1200)
I have never used this lens, but I know of people using it with great success. It's a convertible lens, so you can get 360, 500, and 720mm elements for it and cut down on weight of a full telephoto system. It's relatively lightweight for its focal length at 760 grams. This is quite a long lens, but one of the better ones in its class. Since it is a telephoto designed lens, it has significantly less bellows extension, which can come in very handy when shooting outside in the elements.
There are great holders and terrible holders, so watch out when you're buying them. I have 10 Fidelity Elite holders, which I recommend. They're plastic, lightweight, and can take somewhat of a beating. I keep them all in individual plastic ziplock bags to keep as much dirt out as I can and then store 5 each in an F-Stop Micro Tiny ICU. I have heard great things about the new Toyo holders you can buy on B&H, but have never used them personally and I know for a fact that the Chamonix wooden holders are fantastic. Just ensure that when you're buying off the used market that the holders appear to be in good shape and are tested for light leaks. A leaky film holders is as good as trash.
As important as you think your camera, lens, and film may be, ensure that you reconsider your actions when you want to take the easy way out and buy a cheap tripod and head. You can read more about my opinions on support systems if you click here. I suggest you spend at least half as much on your tripod and head combination as you do your camera. You won't regret it.
Don't skimp here. Save for it, and get yourself a set of good, quality graduated neutral density filters and a good polarizer. I rarely use a polarizer, but it helps if you're working with harsh reflections along rivers or waterfalls. Also, you'll want to invest in a quality filter holder. Breakthrough Photography’s new, innovative filter holder is a great, lightweight solution for a quality filter holder that doesn’t break the bank.
Here are the list of filters I carry with me. If you're a B&W guy, go for a good set of resin or glass contrast filters. Red, green, yellow, and orange are the ones I own.
Breakthrough Photography 2-stop hard ND grad
Breakthrough Photography 2-stop soft ND grad
Breakthrough Photography 3 -stop hard ND grad
Breakthrough Photography 3-stop soft ND grad
Lee 81B warming filter
A necessary tool. I use the Sekonic L-558, but any light meter with a 1 degree spot meter is good. I spent about $350 on mine, so I would plan for around that. I've even watched mine tumble down a good 50 feet of sandstone with no more than a small crack in the side of the meter. Try not to do that to yours, but just know that it's a hearty piece of equipment. Scour eBay - they're everywhere.
Carrying it all:
I have been hiking and carrying my camera equipment into the wilderness for years and have yet to find a better solution for carrying my equipment than F-Stop packs. They're designed by outdoor photographers for outdoor photographers. Their system of Internal Camera Units (ICU's) allow for a completely modular, fast setup and the quality and comfort of the packs are unmatched. When I'm carrying my 4x5 kit and want to stay light, I take my F-Stop Ajna with a Large Pro ICU, and if I want to carry it all, I take my F-Stop Shuka with the Master Tele ICU.
I hope this helps you either dive into your first large format kit, or upgrade to gear I know and love. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below. If you're interested in hands on instruction, check out one of my many workshops.
Remember, this is my profession and while this content may be free, any additional contribution helps put food on my table and film in my camera. Thanks for reading!