My First Attempts with Large Format Black and White Film Portraiture

My First Attempts with Large Format Black and White Film Portraiture

Large format 4x5 film portraits on black and white film - expired kodak t-max 400, kodak t-max 100 and ilford hp5 with an Intrepid 4x5 mkiii. My second time shooting large format film portraits and my first ever time developing and scanning my own film. All shot in my backyard in Charleston South Carolina.
June 17, 2020, 1:38 p.m.

About the Large Format 4x5 Film Portraits

These images were photographed over a series of 3 portrait shoots - all in my backyard in Charleston South Carolina. It was only my second time shooting large format film and my first time developing and scanning myself. When I purchased my Intrepid Camera Co. 4x5 MKiii camera, I knew that the only way it would be a feasible and affordable camera for me to use would be to develop and scan my own film. The results haven't been 100% perfect, but they've been good and I could not be more in love with the result. 

4x5 large format film portrait on black and white expired kodak t-max 400 film of a girl in black dress and sunglasses

My 4x5 Large Format Film Portrait Gear and Home Developing Setup

I purchased the Intrepid Camera Co 4x5 MKiii because...it was cheap. It was a cheap way to get into large format film photography and figure out if it was something that was for me or not. I purchased the camera second hand with a convertible 210mm F5.6 Symmar-s Convertible Lens and a few film holders. The first 15 frames I put through the camera, both color and black and white, were sent off to a lab for developing, then I scanned them myself using my ipad as a backlight and my phone camera to capture and invert. These images were mostly used as a test to see if the camera worked and I wasn't screwing up the process. 

Here are two images from my first experiments with the camera - one color and one black and white. Each was developed by Photovision Prints and scanned by myself usuing the ipad/iphone...not bad for a quickly rigged setup. I did the initial invert using an app on my phone, but the results weren't ideal, so I switched to doing it in Lightroom by inverting the histogram for bnw and all RGB histograms for the color image. The color one took a good bit of tweaking but I think it came out quite well. 

large format film portrait in studio on white backdrop of girl in hat black and white film intrepid 4x5

And in Color

4x5 color film portrait on kodak portra 160 large format film in hampton park charleston south carolina

Here is how the inverted histogram looks for a black and white scan. The rest of the tweaks are made using sliders one I get the image balanced in tonality using the histogram curve. 

inverting scanned black and white film negatives in lightroom using the histogram

Home Developing 4x5 Large Format Film

After I confirmed that I knew how to use the camera and the results were interesting enough to continue shooting the camera, I ordered all the supplies to start developing my own 4x5 large format black and white film at home. The process is actually pretty easy, as long as you are careful and follow the procedure. I use the Massive Dev Chart app on my ihpone to keep track of my processing steps, timing, temps, and chemical ratios. I load my film in a dark bag into a Patterson System 4 Tank. For film holders in the patterson tank, I use the 4x5 Sheet Film Holder from Film Photography Project. It's super easy to load and fits well in the patterson tank and processes 6 negatives at a time. 

large format film portrait on kodak t-max 100 black and white 4x5 sheet film in charleston sc of girl on backdrop in vintage dress

For Chemicals, I have been using Kodak HC-110, Ilford Ilfostop stop bath, Ilford Rapid Fixer, and Kodak Photo Flo wetting agent. To scan, I have a Nikon 60mm 1:1 macro adapted to my sony mirrorless a7iii. I have the camera facing straight downward. I then place the negative on a piece of clear acryllic that is elevated about 2 inches above an ipad as a backlight. If you don't elevate the focus plane high enough above the ipad you end up with really bad moire noise. A good light table would definitely be a better option, but this setup has actually worked quite well for me. Send me an email if you are more curious about my setup for developing or scanning!

Contact me about my home developing setup

4x5 film portrait on expired kodak film of model in black dress by charleston portrait photographer brian d smith

My Final Thoughts on Shooting Portraits with 4x5 Large Format Film

I have to admit. The process of shooting 4x5 isn't my favorite. I can tell that my subjects check out a little bit because it's so slow. The connection and constant engagement I have with clients is what I think makes me a great portrait photographer, and I feel like I lose a bit of that during the process of shooting large format portraits. The shallow depth of field is great, but if I am being honest, I can get a similar look and feel using my Hasselblad 202FA and 110mm F2 lens. So why have I decided to keep the camera?  

1. The tilt shift affects create the most dreamy and surreal portraits, and that ability is worth keeping the camera alone. I can't do this with any of my other film cameras and surreal portraiture is always something I have been fascinated by. If I want a good, clean portrait I will use the Hasselblad 10/10 times. However, if I am looking for something more surreal, more ethereal, the 4x5 is just the tool for the job. 

2. Presence - I don't know how to describe it or what quality it is exactly that gives the images this feeling, but there is an unmistakable presence to 4x5 film. The images feel so 3-dimensional. I think the ultra-flat focal plane and shallow depth of field contribute to that, but I also think the tonal rendering has a lot to do with it. Shadow and midt tone transitions are just so subtle and the micro-contrast is so present, that It seems to render more like what my eye can see. 

3. Imperfections look better on larger mediums - This has always been my reason for shooting film. Film renders imperfections so beautifully, in a way that digital cannot. The larger the medium, the more those imperfections seem to be a welcomed effect. I shoot a lot of motion blur with medium format film and out of focus shots because of this quality. 4x5 film takes this ability to a whole other level. The image below is out of focus, relatively significantly, but the micro contrast still creates a defined and soulful portrait. When I look at it, I hardly notice the missed focus unless I zoom in or am really looking for it. 

4x5 large format film portrait by brian d smith photography on kodak t-max 100 film and intrepid 4x5 mkiii camera

tilt shift effect on 4x5 large format black and white film portrait in charleston south carolina back yard

So, I have decided to keep the 4x5 camera. Even if it is just a special use camera, I still think it is worth keeping around because nothing else comes close to it's look and 8x10 film is just unnaproachably expensive. If you have any questions at all about my portraiture or my experiences shooting large format and home developing, please send me a message. I love to talk photography, and hope this inspires someone to do the same. 

large format film portrait on kodak t-max 100 black and white film in front of outdoor muslin backdrop in charleston south carolina home developed

Learn more about Brian D Smith Portrait Photography

Brian D Smith Photography Portrait Portfolio and Information

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If you are inspired by what you read, I'd love to invite you to reach out about the photography services I offer. My guarantee is that you won't find a photographer that cares more about you and your story than I. I'm endlessly passionate about telling stories on film and pushing the boundaries of art in editorial and portrait photography. I'd be thrilled to work for you and document your story, wedding or business in Charleston South Carolina, Northern Michigan, or any destination abroad.

If you'd like more info about this post, would just like to chat, or are ready to book, reach out to me by visiting my contact page here!

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2005 chelsea green 4x5 film portraits expired tmax 400 film charleston sc 00001_web

2005 chelsea green 4x5 film portraits expired tmax 400 film charleston sc 00003_web

2005 mya beasenberg large format film ilford hp5 portraits charleston sc 00001_web

2005 mya beasenberg large format film ilford hp5 portraits charleston sc 00003_web

2005 mya beasenberg large format film ilford hp5 portraits charleston sc 00004_web

2005 mya beasenberg large format film ilford hp5 portraits charleston sc 00005_web

2005 mya beasenberg large format film ilford hp5 portraits charleston sc 00006_web

2006 sally mahon 4x5 kodak tmax 100 film portraits intrepid charleston 00002_web

2006 sally mahon 4x5 kodak tmax 100 film portraits intrepid charleston 00004_web

2006 sally mahon 4x5 kodak tmax 100 film portraits intrepid charleston 00005_web

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