Large Format Photography – Zone VI 8×10 Camera

It has begun…

Almost sounds like a beginning to a Stars Wars movie. As many of you know, I have been on the quest of going back to film for some time. I thought I would take a moment and answer some questions and show some of the equipment. I have successfully taken and developed four sheets of film thus far. This may not sound like a lot and it probably isn’t to most. However, I’m thrilled that I’m able to even get a photograph out of this old wooden box and be like Mr. Wizard to actually get the chemistry somewhat correct to get something to show up on the film. I did shoot some 35mm back in the 90’s and when I worked at the local newspaper, part of my job as a Photoshop tech was to process the photographers film. It would seem logical that I would know how to do all of this already, right? Well, what I did is when the film came in, we had a little “thingy” on a wooden block that had some sticky tape on the end of it. I would put it in this jig and the sticky tape would go in the fuzzy part where the film would come out and pull out the leader. Once that was done, I would tape the leader to a plastic card that has sprocket holes in it. The roll of 35mm that has the leader taped to the plastic card is now fed into a slot on the Fuji mini processing lab machine. I closed the door and pressed “Start”. After 15 minutes, the film came out processed and dried. As you can gather, this was an automated process and I had no idea about processing times or temperatures.

My grandfather and father both had darkrooms in their homes and developed their own film until it was cheap enough to use the one hour service. I guess it seems natural that I should follow this path. However, neither my father or grandfather photographed with any of this equipment. I’m learning many parts at once as I go along. It’s been a great experience thus far and look forward to when I have a body of work that I’m proud enough to have a showing.

I’ll do this a little different this time as a question and answer format:

Q: Why in the world would you want to shoot film again?

A: Here is what started me down this path, I want to make very large prints. I guess it’s the printing person in me from having worked in commercial print shops for 20 years. I still prefer to see a printed piece on paper vs a computer screen. I looked at many different kinds of digital cameras and spent months trying their various RAW formats to see how much I could squeeze out of their files to make a print, say 60”x90”. Everything I tried came up short. Then I took a trip to Clyde Butcher’s gallery in Venice, Florida one day and his prints are measured in feet. I asked how he was able to get that kind of detail in his prints at that size, the answer was simple, I was told, “It’s the film”. It was then I realized I was going to have to change my thinking process.

Q: Do they still sell film? Where do you get it?

A: They don’t sell film anymore, I’m using a special kind of fairy dust to make it all happen. Kidding, of course! Yes, film is being made. It’s not getting the lime light as it once was, but there is a variety to choose from. Currently, I’m using Ilford Delta 100 which is a black and white film with an ISO of 100. B&H stocks this as well as other Ilford films in different sizes and speeds (even up to 3200 ISO!). B&H also sells the chemistry to process the film. It has been a one stop shop to get everything I need. There are other sources out there, however since B&H has a great track record with me, I try to stick with them as much as possible.

Spencer Pullen's Zone VI 8x10 large format film camera.Zone VI 8×10 Camera – Spencer Pullen © 2016 All Rights Reserved

Q: Why an 8×10 camera?

A: This really has two answers. First, it goes back to the print size. To get to the print size that I want, I needed a big source to start with. If you can imagine what a 35mm piece of film looks like, I would have to really blow it up many times to get to my target print size. However, if you can imagine a negative the size of a sheet of copy paper, the negative is already quite large and I won’t have to blow it up as big to get to my target size.

The other part of this may sound self centered, but here it is. The only income that I have is from classes or prints that I sell. If I pop this open in a public place either to sell prints or to take a photo, I would imagine that there may be some folks interested in it. I like talking about cameras to people and this may attract some people that other wise I may not meet. I could give them a business card and tell them to go to my site to keep in touch. To boil this down, what does all of this mean? Marketing.

Spencer Pullen's Harrison extra large film changing tent.Harrison Extra Large Film Tent – Spencer Pullen © 2016 All Rights Reserved

Q: Do you need a darkroom? If you don’t have one, how are you dealing with the film?

A: Having a dedicated space would be great. However, with my current living conditions, this is not possible. So, what is the solution? I can’t change the film out in the light, meet the film tent. When I first looked into this, there is a film changing bag that looks like a black t-shirt that you stick your hands in the sleeves and you can do what you need to do. These are economical and easy to transport. As many of you know, for some reason I gravitate to the more expensive options and bulkier counterparts. What I bought was a Harrison changing tent. As you can see, it looks like a tent you might sleep in. I figure my wife may send me there someday, so I got the biggest one they make! Ok, here’s the real reason, the top is suspended off the surface you are working on. Since I have to have a few 8×10 holders with the slides partially out with the 8×10 film box open, you can see how a large working space is needed. I liked the idea that the top of the tent would not come into contact with the film and possible scratch it. This does collapse down into a very small package and I could travel with it. After having used this a few times, I’m already glad that I spent the extra money for this over the changing bag. Also, I use this to get the film out of the holders and into the processing drum to develop the film. It does take up the whole kitchen table when I use it, but who cares, it’s not like I’m trying to eat a hot dog while dealing with film!

Q: Are there any automatic settings on the camera?

A: Yes, it’s called me! This is basically a dark box that has a lens on one end and film on the other, it’s all manual. The lens itself is really grouped into a couple of parts. You have the “front element” that is the front of the lens (ahem!) then there is the shutter. The shutter is where you set your aperture and shutter speed. These two parts are mounted on a “lens board”. This board is what allows the lens to attach to the camera. On the back side of the lens board, you have the “rear element”. This is what projects the image to the ground glass (think of a really big LCD screen) and eventually the film. Focusing is accomplished by moving some knobs that move the front part of the camera, this is called the “front standard” closer or further away from the film plane. How does one know what the settings will be? Simple, a handheld light meter. I bought one 10 years ago when I got into photography, so I was glad that I’m still able to use it today.

I hope this answers some of the questions that are out there. I’m sure there are a ton more, but I’ll keep documenting and blogging here as we go.

For my first exposure, I wanted it to be special. Kind of like your first kiss I guess. I finally had all of the parts, the film was loaded into the holders and the backpack was ready, where to go? Since it was Veterans Day I wanted to go to the Sarasota National Cemetery in Sarasota, Florida. They have an amazing facility and offer programs throughout the year. I made the trip up to the cemetery and I was greeted by a veteran. He explained that they were going to have a program and a mass at certain times. Granted, I’m nervous as it is, feeling like I have some kind of nuclear material in the back seat since this is all new to me. There was a stream of cars in front of me and behind me. I’m all for veterans and how their bravery keeps our country safe. However, I realized this was not going to be the place to start large format photography. Concentration was going to be an issue. I made a U-turn and headed back towards the highway. Lucky, five minutes down the road is one of Florida’s gems, Myakka River State Park.

I was surprised to see as many folks as I did, but it was a holiday after all. I know of a couple of places that are out of the way, and the risk of running into curious people on this virgin quest would be limited.

Well, here I am. No more procrastinating, it’s time to you know what or get off the pot as they say. Since I did my homework, they make an app to help you visualize what your camera will see. Before I lug the 30 pound backpack and the 10 pound tripod out of the car, I wanted to see if there was going to be a viable photo. This place is kind of special to me, it’s easy to get to, secluded, quiet and most of all, the cell reception is terrible, just what I’m looking for! I have come to this particular place for many years to unplug, great place for “the first kiss”.

Spencer Pullen at work with the Zone VI 8x10 camera at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida.Spencer At Work – Greg Pullen © 2016 All Rights Reserved

I set the tripod up and mounted the camera. I opened up the camera and mounted the lens and cable release. I opened the lens up to allow the light to pass though so I could compose and focus. I put the black cloth over my head and it was amazing. There is something about being under the cloth and putting the world away for a bit. People ask me what am I looking for under there. I tell them I really just looking for donuts! Some times they laugh, others just walk away and call the local mental hospital. At this point the image is upside down and backwards. This may seem strange, but once you have seen the scene in real life, it’s not that hard to work with. I use a loupe for critical focusing.

I pulled out my hand held meter and took some readings. I then put the settings on the shutter. One of the benefits this particular camera has is a handle on the back that you swing over and opens where the film goes. I opened the back, took a film holder out of my very high end black Glad yard trash bag and inserted it into the back of the camera. I cocked the shutter and tested it a few times and made sure the shutter was now closed. I then pulled out the dark slide, this allows the film to be exposed by the lens. I took the cable release and waited for the “definitive moment”. When I was satisfied, I pressed the shutter release and it was all over in a matter of a fraction of a second. I put the dark slide back in the film holder to protect the film and pull the holder out. I broke everything down and put it all back in the backpack. The first shot only took 30 minutes from start to finish. This type of photography isn’t about speed, and I love that about this. It makes me think more about the composition and what i’m doing verses just shooting a bunch of frames and hoping for the best.

Spencer Pullen's first black and white 8x10 film test at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota, Florida.Myakka River – Spencer Pullen © 2016 All Rights Reserved

This the very first large format frame I took and processed. I think it’s great. Some of you may be thinking, what is so great about this? I could do this with my cell phone. That is correct, however having never done this before, I was thrilled how this turned out. This is right out of the camera, it’s a little blurry due to the photo I took on the light table. When I looked at the negative on the light table through the loupe it’s razor sharp.

Spencer Pullen's first black and white 8x10 film test at Myakka River State Park with a picnic bench in Sarasota, Florida.Myakka Picnic Table – Spencer Pullen © 2016 All Rights Reserved

I went up the road to the other end of the park to Clay Gully for those of you who are familiar with the park. I was in luck there were only three folks in the area and they were not concerned about me. I like the picnic table that was under the oak tree and wanted to see what I could do with the composition. Again, I used the app to find where I wanted the camera to go. Then I set the camera up and did all of the procedures as before. The above photo is lighter on the edges and this is because of the unevenness of the light in the light table, another thing to tweak. I was at the park for about four hours and took two photos.

The next day I used the film tent to load the film into the processing drum. Then I mixed up the developer, stop bath, fixer and wetting agent. My kitchen looked like Bill Nye the Science Guy lived there. In a matter of 20 minutes, I had developed my first negative and hung it on the shower rod to dry.

There you have it, my start into large format photography. Nothing is perfect, but everything else I have done whether it was flash photography or HDR photography, I have spent about a year on just doing that one thing to really get a grasp on it. I don’t watch too much TV, I’m usually studying what I’m working on and finding resources to get answers. There are not many folks shooting film these days, let alone large format. This isn’t so much about the end result, of course I would like a nice looking photograph at the end, but the journey has been a blast and I’m looking forward to doing more. If you have a film camera, dust it off and call B&H and get some film! Maybe over the next few months, we can get enough folks together to start a film club!

Until next time…

Keep Your Glass Clean


  1. I have nothing but admiration for your adventure, anxiously waiting to hear more of your journey! Have fun~

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