Large Format Techniques

By PhotoVideoEDU staff
Published by PhotoVideoEDU

Learn how to use visualization techniques and view camera movements to control the focus, perspective, and composition of your images.

Exploring Large-Format Camera Techniques

4x5 view camera techniques foster the creation of exceptionally expressive and well-thought-out individual images. In part, this is due to the photographer’s desire to be more involved with the entire photographic process. Experimenting with a 4x5 field camera is easy, fun, and inspiring. In fact, many photographers find that working in the 4x5 format improves their creative concentration and technical understanding of photography in general. The principles involved are timeless and straightforward, and can be universally applied.


Before setting your camera on the tripod, stop to think about the image you are going to create. This part of the process is called previsualization. It sounds simple, but many photographers are automatically tuned into the speed of picking up a 35mm camera and just shooting away, only to find a few good images later. Because you are carefully considering the composition in your mind, you will also find that two lenses—a normal and wide-angle—will meet most of your needs.

Framing the Subject

Practice framing the subject before you set up the camera. Buy a 4x5 cut-out black presentation mat to use as a "viewing frame," and a small ruler. Hold the frame about 6 inches from your eye, and you will see the approximate area that a 150mm lens "sees." Bring it about 3-1/2 inches from your eye, and you have now simulated the area viewed by a 90mm lens. In seconds, you can use this simple device to visualize any scene and select the best angle before you take the camera out of its case.

Study the Scene

Once you set up the camera, you will see that viewing, focusing, and composing on a 4x5 ground glass reveals exactly what you record on film. The image is projected directly through the lens onto the focusing screen. It appears upside down, and reversed from right to left. While at first this may seem awkward, it can actually be an aid to composition. With experience, your eye will train itself to notice light, shade, form, shape, and tonality more carefully. You will be less distracted by the world outside of your composition. You will learn to focus your mind’s eye on the large 4x5 area and to observe the direct results of changing focus, depth-of-field, and camera movements. All of this leads you to greater attention to detail, and a more refined sense of composition.

Shoot a Polaroid

Polaroid instant materials are superb teaching and creative tools, used by beginners and pros alike. The resulting prints can be a valuable learning tool that allows you to instantly judge composition, lighting, focus, and many filter effects. You can also use them to keep a log book of your experimentation with different camera movements.


Getting Started with Image Control and Camera Movements: Creative Challenges and Simple Solutions

Controlling Perspective and Parallel Lines

Challenge:  You want to photograph a building, or a stand of trees, yet keep all lines parallel even though you must angle the camera upwards to capture the scene.

Solution: Rise. First, align the camera back parallel to the subject. Then, by using the rise movement, the point of view of the lens is moved above eye level, thereby keeping vertical lines parallel. Rise, fall, and shift are all parallel movements that move the lens up, down, and sideways relative to the center of the camera back.


Increased Control of Perspective and Parallel Lines




Challenge: You need more control of perspective than you can achieve with front rise, fall, and shift.


Drop Bed.
Front and rear are tilted backward at the same degree and thereby kept parallel, giving the effect of increased front fall.


Incline Bed. Front and rear are tilted forward at the same degree and kept parallel, giving the effect of increased front rise.


Shift Bed. Front and rear are swung in the same direction to the same degree, giving the same effect as shift, but with dramatically increased control.

Increasing Depth-of-Field

Challenge: You see a vast landscape with a field of flowers and distant mountains. You want to have both the flowers near the camera and the distant mountains in focus at the same time. Even if you use the smallest aperture on your lens, you might still need greater depth-of-field.

Solution: Front Tilt. Tilting the lens forward will extend the plane of focus far beyond the effect of using a small lens aperture and allow you to get near and far objects in focus at the same time. Front tilt is usually combined with using a small aperture such as f/16 or f/22. It does not replace using a small aperture, but rather enhances the effect over a greater subject plane.

Challenge: Imagine focusing on a white picket fence, running from near to far, diagonally through your composition. With ordinary cameras you can focus on the beginning, middle, or end of the fence, use a small aperture, and hope to get most of it in focus.

Solution: Front Swing. With a field camera, you can swing your lens to position it roughly parallel to the fence. This will allow you to get the fence in sharp focus from beginning to end, even with a wide-open aperture.


Selective Focus

Challenge: You want to focus on just one leaf or flower and leave everything else in the scene a soft blur. Or, you want to recreate an effect you have seen in a fashion magazine where only the model’s eyes are sharp, and all the clothes are softly blurred.

Solution: Front Tilt—Backward. This can be used to accomplish selective focus effects with ease. Front swing can be used for a similar effect with objects to the left or right of your composition center. Swinging in either direction will bring objects in or out of focus.

Correct or Distort the Shape or Size of an Object

Challenge: You want to emphasize a large rock or other visual element in the foreground of a landscape.

Solution: Rear Tilt. When tilting the back away from the lens, you will notice that the size and shape of objects in the foreground become exaggerated.


Rear Swing. Similarly, this will pivot the back from side to side, manipulating the shape of objects to the right or left in your composition.


Camera Techniques