June 26, 2022
…or, forcing myself to take photos on large format film during a pandemic for an entire year.
In 2021, I decided to give myself a photo challenge – to take one shot per week, on large format (4×5), for an entire year using. Though at times it certainly was a struggle, I’m happy to say I succeeded!
Succeeded at what, though? What did I actually learn? Despite admittedly some photos being…mundane, we’ll say, I learned quite a bit I would say — about Fomapan 200 Creative, various developers, the quirks of my lens, large format in general, composition, and a bit about myself.
(All the photos shared here, by the way, are from my photo challenge)
The rules were simple:
- I had to take 1 shot every week — any day within that week but only one shot — no do-overs (this came back to bite me, though fortunately only once).
- Same film (Fomapan 200 Creative), lens (Fujinon 150mm f/5.6 lens), and camera (Chamonix 45F-2).
- Unofficially I was also going to use the same developer (Kodak XTOL) but I ended up having to switch that around (more on that later).
- The shots had to be unique — not simply shooting a composition I have already taken.
- The results should not be cropped – I had to get it right in camera.
- And finally, perhaps the most important rule – don’t overthink it.
I originally gave myself this challenge because, like many I’m sure, going out in a pandemic to take photographs was a struggle. With large format photography, it’s often about being choosey and deliberate about your compositions. Since that was fairly difficult, it meant I wasn’t getting any practice in. So I thought “well why not”, let’s just point the camera at any old thing and at least “get in those reps.”
I didn’t want my skills to atrophy into making critical mistakes when I would get to go out and shoot “important things” again. Ultimately, that’s really how this started — just taking photos for the sake of practice.
Flip-side though, this represented a bit of a challenge then. If I’m really going to take a photo of a dog toy, I should try to make it good.
Part of the challenge then become, “how can I make the mundane creative?” Generally speaking, more often than not, the photos will still be rather mundane but there were a few I really quite like out of the whole exercise. And the fun of the project turned into almost mundane-by-design. Because when I was able to go out and take “serious” photos, I opted to use other films where I could take multiple shots and things (noting one of the rules of this challenge was only one shot).
What did I learn?
My goal was to get used to my 4×5 camera system and the challenge absolutely helped in this regard. Though I hope to not have to do it often, if I need to break out my 4×5 camera in short order and take a photo quickly, now I can. I have enough “muscle memory” to throw things together without any real second-guessing. And in fact, this came in handy one day when I saw a composition I had to take quickly (on IR film at that) where I had to rely on that “muscle memory” fairly heavily.
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I’m happy to say that shot turned out quite well.
I also learned the limits of my Fujinon 150mm f/5.6 lens and, in fact, ran into the image circle quite a bit more often than I expected. I have a good handle on knowing when it’s a good fit for a scene or composition and when it isn’t. I guess in hindsight I should have opted to use my Velostigmat 150mm f/4.5 lens as it has more character (and a much bigger image circle) but I didn’t know the limitations of my Fujinon at the time. So it was really quite a great learning experience as a result.
I also learned a ton about Fomapan 200 Creative. While my favorite 4×5 black and white stock is perhaps a toss-up between ADOX CHS 100 ii and Kodak T-Max, Fomapan 200 has a lovely look unto its own that can work really well and continues to be a film I use regularly. And with all I learned from this experience, I was able to pretty quickly get up to speed with using Fomapan 200 in 8×10 sizes.
Of developers and supply chains…
As a bit of an aside, my original plan was to try to stick to one developer — Kodak XTOL — but 2021 had other plans. Due to the multiple recalls and supply chain issues, I was unable to get my hands on known good fresh bags and ended up having to dump my XTOL replenisher stock. Initially, this really bummed me out but in the end, was actually sort of a good thing – I got to get a feel for Fomapan 200 across several different developers from Microphen, home-mixed Kodak D23, Adox’s XT-3 (which, as an aside, huge miss not to call it Adoxtol), and finally to 510-Pyro. 510 turned out to be my favorite though that was towards the end of last year though XT-3 is a close second (and my choice for pushing films such as HP5 PLUS).
The one time I broke the rules
For the most part, I never broke the rules save for being a bit late a couple of times. There was, however, one time I broke them big time. And I did regret it. Remember that flower photo up above? Here it is again:
Well, it was actually my second attempt. My first attempt ended in defeat (and laughter).
I had been working on that composition for probably at least an hour. I had everything set up just about perfectly. I had attempted this shot at various points in the year but the light would never cooperate. On this day it did! When everything was just about perfect, I cocked the shutter, removed the darkslide, fired the shutter and…
…right as I did, the cable release slipped from my hands, swung down, and completely obliterated the flower I had spent so long setting up just right. It took out almost every single petal leaving just the stem.
I had some friends visiting at the time and they couldn’t help but giggle. And I would have too! It was a comedy for errors for sure. I had worked SOOO hard to get that shot though and, instead of just accepting the results, I pulled the sheet out, loaded a new one, grabbed another flower, and spent another hour setting everything up.
But by the time I took the photo the window light had gone. As I recall, I ended up using continuous lighting and, granted, I do like the results. But they missed the point. Chances are the original photo would have been bad. But there’s a small chance it might’ve been interesting and, at the very least, would have told a story.
This was the only time I severely broke the rules. It mildly bugs me to this day, but it was nonetheless a good lesson.
Will I do it again?
Absolutely! But not this year. For one, I started too late to think about what to do (noting that I finally finished writing this article in late April) and though the experience was a positive one, taking one shot per week wasn’t always logistically easy.
It wasn’t even so much the weeks where the photo was mundane — I actually sort of like the view of life through the lens of the mundane in this case — but more having to always logistically plan for having to take a 4×5 photo was more of a chore and was sometimes just beyond the photographic pursuits.
So next time, I think I may go for One Shot Per Month instead and step for 8×10. Part of the reason I opted not to do that this year was I needed to shore up my 8×10 set up a bit more — until recently I didn’t have a tripod head that could reliably even support my Intrepid 8×10 among other things. So that might be a goal for 2023 perhaps.
However, the experience was a good one and I learned so much. I definitely recommend folks give it a go! The main thing is though, once you start, it’s only worth it if you finish.
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