Initial Thoughts on Ebony

Posted on November 24, 2012


It is just a few weeks since I took the plunge and decided to start shooting portraits with my 4×5 large format camera. I thought it would be useful to set down my thoughts on my early experiences with the camera as a reference point for future reflection.

The Camera

First of all a bit about the camera. It is an Ebony 45SU. As the name suggests it takes 4×5 inch sheet film. It has a range of movements on the front and back standards. These enable the photographer to eliminate perspective distortion and to change the plane of focus. Lenses are mounted on the front standard – they are fixed to mounting boards which clip in. Focusing is done by moving the standards either closer or further apart – the bellows accommodates this movement. The image can be seen on the ground glass on the rear standard – this is back to front and upside down. A magnifying loupe is used for accurate focusing on the ground glass and in bright conditions a dark-cloth is needed to see the image on the ground glass clearly. The lenses are fully manual with aperture and shutter speed controls on the barrel. Shutters are integrated into the lenses. The photographer needs to use a separate light meter to set the exposure. It is not really hand-holdable so a good tripod is necessary as is a cable release. Much more detailed information is available on the Ebony website just click on the photograph below to see the link.

Ebony 45SU

Why Large Format?

Thats a brief introduction to the camera. So why do I want to use it for portraits. The principle reason is that I want to explore how portrait subjects respond to a photographer using a large format camera. The difference is not just that a very large, retro looking camera is being used. It is also about the process. Setting up a large format camera is slow and requires the sitter to be patient. The use of such a camera also connotes ‘seriousness’. It suggests that the photographer is prepared to invest a lot of time (and money) to make the portrait. The sitter will generally be asked to sit very still. A standard lens on a 4×5 camera is 150mm (this would be a telephoto lens on a full frame digital camera).  So in low light conditions a slow shutter speed will be needed so that an aperture of at least F/8 can be used – the depth of field for apertures below this is very thin. Image quality will therefor depend upon the sitter keeping still. Sitters may also associate the use of large format camera with Victorian portraits, which were generally very formal. They may feel they should respond accordingly.

Another reason why I want to try using a large format camera is to create a large negative which could be used to print the portrait large. This of course is only really necessary if one is believes that one might exhibit one’s work in a gallery. I live in hope of this but would not dare to suggest that this is a plan!

The third reason for wanting to get to grips with large format portraiture is that many of the photographer’s I admire use such a camera for their work. In this I include art photographers such as Rineke Dijkstra and  Bettina Von Zwehl, and documentary photographers such as Stephen Shore, Alex Soth, Mark Power and Joel Sternfeld. The latter four all include a substantial amount of portraiture in their personal  documentary work. What is it that I like about their work? I believe it is that their portraits come over as ‘genuine’. I get the sense that what I am seeing is how the person might appear in everyday life. The subjects do not appear to be putting on a theatrical show for the photographer. Their work is quiet and somewhat understated. It is foolhardy to believe that these qualities will automatically occur if one uses a particular piece of equipment. It is clear however that using a large format camera requires a way of working which is more studied and slow.  It seems possible that seeing a photographer operating in this way may cause the subject to respond in a studied and understated manner.

The Process

I have alluded above to the lengthy nature of the process for using the camera. I have spelled out below how I’ve gone about things. I am not going to cover here how to use the movements on the camera – just the basic operations.

  • The first step is to load film into film holders (dark slides). A few years ago it was possible to get ready loaded film but due to the demise of film usage these are no longer produced. So you have to load the film yourself. A dark slide is a rectangular plastic box which is around 20×12 cm and just under a centimetre thick. It has slots on either side into which the film is inserted. Sliders are then inserted into the dark slide to cover up the film and make it light tight. To expose an image the dark slide is inserted into the rear of the camera, the slider removed and the shutter activated. Here is a photograph of a dark slide. I load about 10 of these in advance of a shoot. The loading has to be done in complete darkness. I use a Paterson changing tent. The film by the way is comes in light tight boxes of 25 sheets (black and white). This also has to be opened in the changing tent.

4×5 Dark Slide

  • The next step is to compose the photograph. This is done on ground glass on the rear standard of the camera. The image has to be brought roughly into focus for the scene to be visible. The challenge with composing is that the image is both upside down and back to front. Some say this is an advantage when composing. Cartier Bresson used to look at all his photographs upside down to see the composition better (less interference from the actual content of the image).
  • Once the image is composed the next step is to focus the image. There are knobs on the side of the camera which when turned move the standards closer or further apart. By adjusting the distance between the two the subject can be brought into sharp focus on the ground glass. The ground glass is by nature a grainy surface. Were it not so it would not be possible to see the image. This makes focusing a little trickier. For a subject at close range the depth of field is quite small with the lens fully open so very small movements of the knobs are needed to achieve fine focus. The shutter on the lens has to be open and the lens set to its widest aperture for the focusing stage. This is to allow the maximum amount of light to strike the ground glass.
  • Next thing is to close the shutter and to place a dark slide in the rear of the camera in front of the ground glass. Once this is done it is no longer possible to see the image on the ground glass. This is one of the reasons why the sitter has to stay still, as once the dark slide is in it is no longer possible to check the composition or focus. On a practical level however this restriction does force the photographer to look at the subject rather than play around with the camera. This a good thing. It makes for more attentive observation and better selection of the perfect moment.
  • Metering the subject follows. I use a hand help Sekonic  meter with both ambient and spot focusing capabilities. Once this is done the aperture and shutter speed rings on the lens are adjusted accordingly.
  • Cocking the shutter  is next. This is done by moving a small lever on the lens upwards.
  • The slider on the dark slide is removed now and the shutter activated with the cable release to exposure the film.
  • The slider is inserted back into the dark slide. These have a white marker on the top of one side and a black one on the reverse. For unexposed film I place the white side out and the reverse for exposed film.
  • And that’s it. This process is repeated for each shot. I have developed a process where I expose two images (both sides of a dark slide) before I look again at the composition and focusing. The reason for this will become clear when I discuss what can go wrong.
  • The exposed film now has to be developed. I have been developing my own black and white film. This is both an economic and speedy way to do things. A sheet of black and white film costs around £1.50 and professional developing around £3.20. Developing a sheet myself costs much less, perhaps 50 pence or less. I develop the film in a processing tank. The film has to be removed from the dark slides and placed in a holder which goes into the tank. This is not easy in the dark!. I had to practice a lot beforehand in the light using some old dud sheets of film. Developing the film is the same as for any other the of film . I have been going to a course at the City Lit to learn how to develop and print black and white film. This has been very instructive.
  • The final step is to scan the developed film. I so this with my own Epson V700 scanner. As for developing film this is both speedy and economic, but takes practice to work out how best to set up the scanner to get sharp results.

What can go WRONG?

The short answer is many things!! Here is a list of the problems I have encountered based on loading shooting and processing 35 sheets of film.

  • When loading the film into the dark slides it is very easy to not  get the film into the right slots. In the dark everything is done by feel and one has to be very careful not to touch or scratch the film emulsion. The consequence of this is that the film moves when the slider is removed and not all of the sheet is exposed. Part of the image is lost. This is an example of what can happen. Notice the black band at the bottom of the frame. This has happened on 3 occasions – much too many I need to practice more at loading film.

Example of sheet not fully exposed

  • During the operation of the camera there are many things to remember. It is all too easy to get things in the wrong order with significant adverse consequences. The following are errors which could happen with the result of a ruined sheet of film – forgetting to close the shutter before opening the dark slide (film immediately exposed to light), forgetting to replace the slider on an exposed film back with black side out and then reusing the film creating a double exposure, messing up the exposure settings or forgetting to reset the aperture to the correct setting after composing/focusing with the aperture fully open. I am sure there are more traps. Despite all this I have only messed up one sheet in this way.
  • The biggest challenge so far has been to achieve critical focus in my photographs. To be more precise this has only been a problem when trying to focus on the eyes of a portrait subject at half or full length in the frame. With landscape images and close up portraits I have had no difficulty. It is all too easy to get the focus slightly off and it shows. The only solution is to practice practice practice. Compare these two image. These are crops from larger images at about 100% in Photoshop terms. Both have had no sharpening applied. The image on the left is slightly off focus. This sadly occurred in 40 % of cases where the subject was at about 7ft from the camera with a standard lens. Of course I am judging the focusing accuracy from a very critical standpoint, but after all one of the key benefits of large format is image quality. I clearly have work to do in this area.

Tom focus comparison – Image on left slightly out of focus

  • Dust on the negative is a significant problem. This creates a lot of post processing work and makes the negatives difficult to use for normal darkroom printing. My first images were very dusty. This I believe was down to a number of factors. First I hung the sheets out overnight to dry (in my bathroom). It seems that the longer a sheet is exposed in this way the greater the risk of dust accumulation. Also for the first sheets I developed I used my fingers wipe off the excess water before hanging out the film (one finger either side ran down the film). This is the recommended approach for roll film but does not seem to work too well for sheet film. I now dry the sheets for about 4 hours and do not wipe them down with my fingers and the results are much much cleaner.
  • I have also managed to scratch the emulsion badly on one negative. I am pretty sure this occurred because I rubbed the emulsion on a sharp edge of the film holder for the developing tank. It is very difficult to see what is going on! I was able to correct that particular image by spot removal in Photoshop however on another occasion I may not be so lucky. I am investigating another type of film holder which does not have such sharp edges.

Key Learning Points

So what do I have to do to get to a position where I can photograph confident that the chances of problems arising are very small. These are my key learning points:

  • Practice, practice practice all elements of the process. The two biggest issues are loading dark slides and focusing on smaller elements on the ground glass!!
  • Perfect the process. Here I need to look into a better system for loading film into the developing tanks and to keep searching for ways to dry the film so as to avoid dust.
  • Be systematic in using the camera. This will come with practice but I need to develop a repeatable process which I use in every case..a bit like a preflight check list.
  • Take lots more photographs with the camera. The more I do the better I should get at all aspects of the process from loading film to getting the focus right.