Large Format Photography – Excursion

“Welcome to the new world”, Jack Ryan told Captain Marco Ramius at the end of The Hunt For Red October. What does this have to do with photography? As you probably know by now, I have dipped my toes in the film pool, and it as been interesting. I find this “new world” fascinating and frustrating at the same time. I’m used to 1+1=2. I have found that sometimes 1+1=0 or 1+1=3. Either way, it’s a blast and I love working with the old camera. It was built for me, large knobs, glass in the back, and hearing the shutter working down the time and the click from the leaf shutter. No batteries, no camera cards, no fancy menus, it’s all manual and mechanical, heck I could go to the North Pole and it would still work!

For the past couple of years, when I would go out, I would find that I was taking less and less photos, even though I was using a digital camera. In the beginning, everything was a nail and I was the hammer. “I may need an Egret that is four miles away someday.” Right. Personally, living here in Florida, there are only so many birds, palm trees, sunsets that I can take. However, even with slowing down what I was taking, I was working on tightening up my composition skills. Little did I know why this was going to become so important.

When you have a 35mm camera that is loaded with 24 or 36 exposures, you have some time before you have to load another roll or process the film. With large format photography, your film holder holds two pieces. That means two clicks and that holder is ready to be processed. This is one reason why I really like to take my time and compose a photograph that people will actually take some time to look at.

Spencer Pullen explains how he took these cypress trees in Fort Myers, Florida in black in white with 8x10 film. Six Mile Cypress Slough – Cypress Trees – Spencer Pullen © 2016 All Rights Reserved

I have to say that this was my first real decent photo that I took with the Zone VI 8×10 camera. Six Mile Cypress Slough is a great place to go and see wildlife and nature. It’s located minutes off the highway in Fort Myers, Florida and is very affordable (just a parking fee). I used to teach photography classes there and it’s a great venue. We would have a classroom portion, then spend the second half out on the boardwalk to see what we could find. They have photo and bird blinds available that are covered with nice places to have a rest.

I loaded myself up with the backpack and tripod. This was really a “pack test” to see how I was going to do with all of this weight. It’s a 1.5 mile boardwalk if you go the whole loop (there is a shortcut if that is too long). The pack and tripod is about 40 pounds. I have to say, the f/64 backpack that is made for carrying these types of cameras is comfortable and I wouldn’t hesitate taking it on a longer trip.

I made my way to one of the photo blinds. I saw a bunch of cypress trees across the pond with the reflection in the water. I figured I’d give it a go and see what happens. As I popped up the tripod, a couple was “giving me the eye” as they were intrigued what I was about to do. He had a Nikon with a Sigma 150-500. I asked how they were doing. I found they were from Germany on vacation, great folks. As I was setting up the camera, I was talking to the husband and we eventually started talking about filters for black and white. Ironically, my new  orange and red filter was just delivered the night before from B&H. He asked what brand I had bought, I pulled them out and they said B+W, Made in Germany! The lens I’m using takes 95mm filters. I about had a stroke when a UV, red and orange filter cost about $600! Oh well, what am I going to do? I got the camera set up and got the composition figured out. Before I knew it, I had about 15 people who were “lingering” on the photo blind to see what was going to happen. Some asked if they could look under the dark cloth. I said, “No problem, only $25 a person.” OK, kidding, but I should have sold tickets! Some were in awe of how clear the photo was on the back of the ground glass (think of this as the LCD on a digital camera). Some asked what happened. Since there is no pentaprism, the image is upside down and backwards. This may seem really confusing, but once you have seen what you are going to photograph in real life, your brain does a pretty good job seeing it backwards and flipped. I pulled out my light meter and came up with the exposure. Loaded the film in the back (all while explaining this to who ever is still around) and I was about ready to go. The only issue what that I was standing on a wood/plastic boardwalk. Kids were coming and going (Thanksgiving week holiday) and I could see the camera wobbling up and down a bit. Some talk about the decisive moment, well I was timing it when the vibrations were minimum. Pressed the cable release and in a 1/15 of a second, it was all over. I flipped the film holder around and screwed on the orange filter. Made an adjustment to the exposure and pressed the cable release once again. I packed everything up and was off to a new spot.

I saw a few compositions that may have worked, but the boardwalk is so narrow, the tripod and camera would have taken up entire area. When you decide you are going to take a photo, you are going to invest about 20 minutes from unpacking to pressing the cable release. I can’t hold up folks for 20 minutes. At the end of the day I was glad to get this one. This is the one without the orange filter.

For a print proof, I printed a 16×20 and looked it over. I couldn’t believe you could see the lichen on the trees across the pond, you could even see trees that were six deep in places. I couldn’t see it while I was standing there, but the lens and film did. I was hooked. You’re not supposed to do this, but I did. I pulled out a magnifying glass and went over the print, more detail! Holy crap! Now it was time for phase two. I took out the 24” paper and loaded the big gun, 44” paper. I made a print (just for fun) 40”x50”. When it came out, I laid it on the table. What I had seen with he magnifying glass on the 16×20, I could now clearly see in this massive print. Again, the detail held and even the grain was pretty much nonexistent. I sat back and thought to myself, this is why Ansel Adams and Clyde Butcher use these types of cameras.

Spencer Pullen explains how he took the Boca Grande Lighthouse in Boca Grande, Florida in black in white with 8x10 film.Boca Grande Lighthouse – Spencer Pullen © 2016 All Rights Reserved

There was another iconic photo that I wanted to get, the Boca Grande lighthouse. I know it has been photographed to death, but I still like it. As before I loaded up the gear and now I was off to the beach. I had to go a little slower as I was top heavy (more that usual, ahem) and I could feel that I was not as steady on my feet. No worries, careful steps made it manageable. Since setting this camera up is in investment, one of the best things I bought really has nothing to do with the camera, but everything thing with the iPhone. I use an app, where I have the 8×10 film programmed in and the lens that I’m using. It then shows me what the camera will see. This is a huge time and frustration saver. I look like every other tourist on the beach holding up my phone. Once I got the composition I wanted, I set everything down and started to set up. I got the tripod up and the camera mounted. It was still closed, so it looks like a big wooden box. A young couple came over and asked if it was a camera. I told them I was trying to contact the mothership as I had found large amounts of bauxite to rebuild the flux capacitor on my planet, they promptly left. Kidding! They watched as I opened the camera and assembled it. Then I started hearing more foreign language. Another gentleman came up and he had a FILM Nikon. I was like, OK this should be an interesting conversation. He told me his father had one of these and he was shooting 35mm. We talked about developing and other things. Come to find out, he was visiting from Russia. I guess I’m the international spokesman for large format cameras here in Southwest Florida.

I new the photo that I wanted to get as I have photographed it before. I was out there around 3:30 to make sure that light was going to be on the west side. I really wanted to make sure that I didn’t blow out the highlights since the siding of the lighthouse is all white. I figured out my exposure and clicked. Thinking that this would make a great place for the orange filter, I screwed it on and adjusted my exposure. Then I looked up, this is were the real fun started. People in a steady stream parading on the porch looking out into the Gulf. Really? Ok, I get it, everyone wants to get the birds eye view. Trying to be patient, as more people were going up the steps. I was starting to get frustrated. Realizing that they might see me standing there with a HUGE camera, I had the dark slide out ready to take the photo, so I stood up staring at these people with the dark slide in my hand. They were blind or didn’t care. Then they started taking photos of each other into the sun, I just laughed and said to myself, “Great job, no flash those will never come out”. Hey, I had to entertain myself somehow while waiting for these idiots. Finally, 20 minutes later all of the commotion was over. I rechecked my settings and then the wind picked up. Really? The camera with this big of a bellows is like a sail. I tried to stabilize it the best I could and took the photo.

Came home and developed the negatives. I put them on the light table and with a loupe, I could see the last one I did with the orange filter was a bit blurry due to wind. The first one, thank goodness was tack sharp. When I scanned the negative, I could see the rivets that they used to enclose the glass at the top. Even the nails that are used to hold the bench together that is on the porch were there, amazing.

Once the negative is produced, I scan and clean up the negatives. My average file size for one photo is about 4GB. My loaded Mac and Photoshop don’t seem to have an issue with these, which is great. I know most folks grew up with film and did the darkroom stuff, however since I didn’t do that much of it, I’m glad that I’m trying it now. It’s a blast and I highly recommend it if you want to get a different look to your photos.

That’s about it for now, I’ll keep scouting places to go and hope to create more photos. Once the portfolio has a few in it, I’ll be offering numbered, limited edition prints. This is a very exciting time, I appreciate everyone who reads these and is following along on my journey.

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. How wonderful to read all that you’re doing with your new camera. Happy that you decided to move forward with your dream. The photos you posted are crisp and clear with amazing details.
    Be blessed with your “new world”…..looks like an exciting one and one that’s perfect for you.

  2. Your photos are awesome. Continued success in your new adventures in photography. Always looking forward to see what you’ve created.

  3. Spencer,
    I don’t know if you remember me, I took your lightroom class.
    I’m glad to see you getting into large format photography.
    We’ll have to get together next fall and I’ll bring back my Kodak 8×10 view.
    It’s a lot of fun, but a lot of work.
    Great photos keep it up.

    • Spencer

      Sounds great! It’s amazing the detail and the size that I can now print at. Loving’ it!

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