Part 1: What Is A Large Format View Camera And Why Do People Still Use Them

Very often while setting up my view camera I will have one or two people approach me and ask about the camera. When was it made? How does it work? Can I still purchase film for it? Why do I use a view camera? Or my favorite, does it have electronics built in? 

One of these curious folks found the operation so fascinating that he suggested I put this information on my website. What a great idea!

Large-format view cameras have been integral to high-quality landscape and architectural photography for over a century. Photographers like Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Brett Weston and many others have used large-format view cameras, not only for the incredible image quality the large-format films delivered, but for the camera adjustments or movements, which could correct converging lines or increase depth of field and add emphasis to a foreground by adjusting the rear standard.  

Yes, as the name implies, the large format view camera is large, especially when compared to current medium and 35mm SLR and DSLR cameras, and especially our iPhones.  It is heavier and awkward to carry on long hikes, has no automatic features, no electronic features, requires a bag full of lenses, do-dads and other attachments, and is time consuming to set up.

So with all these disadvantages, why would a seemingly sane person want to go through all the trouble?

First of all the large negative is the basis for making extremely large (mural size) prints with incredible clarity and detail.

Second, since each image exists on its own piece of film, the photographer can treat each exposure differently in the darkroom, compared to a roll of film where all images are processed in the same way.  Greater contrast control can be exerted on each negative depending on how the photographer chooses to develop it.

Third: what percentage of cameraphone snapshots do you think you’ll look at 100 years from now?  Most are quick snaps meant to remind us of a particular moment.  Yet this big clunky box of a camera forces one to slow down and concentrate on what is being created. Only by slowing down the process can one visualize what the final print will look like, ultimately improving the creative process.

So what makes up a view camera?

The front standard is the where you’ll find the lens.  View camera lenses come in two parts; the part you see on the outside, and then another lens hidden inside the camera.  Both parts are screwed in to a board, and that board is mounted into the camera.  I may bring several lenses, all mounted to their own boards making it easy to swap out say, a 105mm for a 450mm lens (although not quite as easy as rotating a zoom lens on a DSLR).

The second component is the rear standard. It is primarily a piece of glass framed by wood or metal, depending on the camera.  The lens in the front standard projects a scene onto the rear standard glass,allowing the photographer to compose the image and focus the camera.  This can be tricky because the image appears on the glass upside-down and backwards.  All lenses work this way, although DSLRs use mirrors and prisms to make the image look “normal” in the viewfinder.


Also, the size of the rear standard determines what type of film you’ll use.  Most common is 4”x5”, where the piece of film is actually 4” by 5” (quite a bit larger than 35mm!).  Other sizes are 5”x7” or 8”x10”.  At one point Polaroid made a huge 20”x24” view camera (and the film for it) allowing for incredible one-of-a-kind prints.

The third component is the bellows. It connects the front and rear standards, allowing them to move independently of each other.  It also blocks light from getting into the camera body and interfering with the exposure.

The fourth component is the base board. The front and rear standards are mounted to it and it usually contains some kind of gearing to move the standards and lock them in place when the photographer is ready to make an exposure.


Thanks for reading!  This was part one of a three part series on the large format view camera.  Part two of the series can be found here.

This entry was posted in Black and White Photography, Landscape Photography, Photography Tips.

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