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The Pros and Cons of Large Format Portraiture


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This thread emerged from an earlier thread I posted on MF forum.This is an interesting topic and

I feel it would be facinating to get insight from other LF shooters. What motivates and inspires

us to shoot portraits in LF and so on.


Essentially, does anyone feel that the view camera is as effective in capturing expression and

generally being a well suited tool for portraiture as compared to a MF SLR, for example? I ask

this despite the fact that I have an ongoing love hate relationship with LF portraiture. Recent

example of 4x5 portrait....<div>009Twq-19617184.jpg.fc4bb137792d0ab694ac4160d95d8b16.jpg</div>

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After years of fashion work, I have learned that the model (or in this case, the portrait sitter) is not the star of the show.


The photographer (if he is any good) is the performer, and the model is his audience. For example, if you want a smiling picture, don?t say ?smile?, tell a funny joke. And then quickly try to capture the result in the model?s reaction.


A small format motor drive is best for this. But because of the spontaneity, the quality of the final pictures will often be by chance. A common technique is to give the model some wine, crank the stereo up loud, then turn her loose to flop around the studio set like a freshly-caught fish on a boat deck. Very exciting. But you will never know what you have on film until it is processed and on the light table.


Large format work is entirely different. You must carefully pre-plan the angle and position of every body part, every light and camera angle, every fold of clothing. It involves careful pre-planning. Not chance. If you do it right, the results will be predictable and more perfect, down to the last detail. How many frantic motor-driven head shots have you done where everything was absolutely, stunningly wonderful except that the model?s necklace was turned backwards?


An interesting variation which would guarantee that the model/sitter gets exactly what was desired, would be to put a plexiglass mirror in front of the camera with a hole cut out for the lens to look through. Let the model make faces and capture them on film. No surprises for either person.


Not only will the resulting picture be exactly what was desired, but the LF quality will be breath-taking. No amateur fuzziness.

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I think we must acknowledge that a portrait is not a portrait is not a portrait. A slick fashion or

commercial shot is not the same as a fine art portrait or a commisioned "vanity" portrait, for

example. Not to mention that each photographer has his own personal vision and treatment of

the subject even within the context of a given assignment.


Yes, I absolutey agree that the photographer is the star and the model/subject the audience.


John, your comment about "amatuer fuzziness"... could you clarify that, please. I often aim for

that fuzziness. The attached portrait of the boy is case in point. What is your opinion of this

image. Please be totally frank; you needn't walk on egg shells. I made a portrait that was exactly

what my minds eye envisioned. That said, I'm keen to hear your reaction. Fire away.

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Portraits are just about all that I do, with all of my equipment from 35mm through 8x10. The smaller cameras allow a lot more flexibility and spontaneity, but the large format reveals more presence, I thnk. My large format portraits tend to be more still, and quiet than the work I do with smaller cameras, which I use handheld. I can't say that one format is better than another, or even that I prefer one to the other, except in the darkroom, where large format rules unequivocably. It's not the size that matters, but what you do with it.<div>009U0z-19617884.jpg.e76760dc7c05cc1ca1da40a42fe4e9e0.jpg</div>
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This is a very interesting topic, for me at least :) I very much like the shot you

have included. However, I bet I'm not the only person looking at that shot

thinking I've done something mightily similar in the past. I hope you don't take

offence at that comment because none was intended I promise.


One way of answering it is to think about the response of people when they

are presented with prints of portraits, that you have taken, but they don't know

anything technical about the shot. In other words, they don't care what camera

the shot was taken on.


You,or I, might feel terribly pleased about the shallow DOF we have achieved

by using LF but this aspect might be totally ignored by other folks who are just

viewing the shot on its own artistic merits. It's a bit like some people who think

that taking a photo with an M3 and a Summicron somehow makes the shot

intrisically more worthy than mere mortals using humble Japanese camera



I am guilty of all of the above charges but if I had to plump for one format, for

portraiture, it would be MF (Mamiya RZ). However, like you, I still try to use LF

for portraiture whenever I can. Confusing, isn't it ? :)

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Karsh had adult subjects. Kids wiggle and squirm as do amateur adult models. Try to provide a hand rest like a posing table to keep the subject still.


A view is hard to focus under modeling lights. I use Lowell DP`s bounced into heat resistant Lowell umbrellas. This light produces a pleasing soft light that does not blind subjects as a photoflood does.


Nothing beats LF portrait if you get it all right, it`s just hard to get it right

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Andrew, thank you for you candor and interesting thoughts. I assure that I take no offence to

your comments. In fact, I encourage anyone to express whatever they wish.


However, although, your comment about it being "mightily similar...." I must ask, is being new

and unique really the criterion for quality in portrait photography? How "original" must one be to

make a moving portrait? Also, to my way of thinking, taste is ultimately what governs a

photographer's style. I like classicism. I am a traditionalist. I can only measure the success of my

work relative to what I sought out to achieve in the first place.


Some folks think a new Chevrolet Corvette embodies automotive beauty, I prefer an old

Aston Martin. The analogy could be made for furniture or clothing or architecture and art. For me,

taste is paramount.

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i think its also a case of getting used to your equipment. how many times have you picked up a camera that youve never touched and you think its all good but then after shooting with it for 3 weeks or so you already realise that you have become better 'friends'..?


When I had begun shooting portraiture with LF I was excited but at the same time very static. I absolutely love the static nature of a view camera, the sense of formality is what kept me shooting with LF. The simplicity of LF also helps dictate my result. I try to treat my subject matter in the same way. With time you find that you become more controlled, and less controlling...

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I've been shooting 35mm for about 50 years and MF for about 10 years, including portraits in both formats. I've been shooting LF for about 2.5 years, but only two weeks ago got the courage to try a portrait (of my wife) in LF. The world didn't come to an end, though it did feel like time raced ahead for a bit as I was moving from focus/compose to Polaroid to film-holder for the first and second exposures. By the third frame it seemed to take on a rhythm, and I found it possible to get my wife (not a very sedentary type) to warm up with conversation so she no longer looked so stiff. I'll do this again, on occasions when she's in a very indulgent mood.
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Looking at <a href="http://www.gregmiller.com/">this man's work</a> made me

purchase a 4x5 (still on its way). The <a href="http://www.digitaljournalist.org/

issue0408/miller_intro.html">interviews</a> with him are also very good. And what

about the portraits by Thomas Struth?? It is just impossible to generalise. I am excited and

nervous as "portraits", or rather photographs of people, is all I am interested in. Greg

Miller has shown that this it is possible to do street photography even with an 8x10. Let's

see how it goes...<p>


Anyway, rules that certain cameras or even certain focal lengths are to be used for

"portraits" are just waiting to be disproved by some great people that come along once in

a while.

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35 mm and MF portrait is like cooking a hamburger at a picnic. You can make many and they can be damn good when done well ( not well done..yuk). LF is like cooking a gourmet French meal course, a lot of planning and preparation is in order if one is going to be successful.


Both have their uses. Me, I love my hassy for portraits, but then I have not done them in years.

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B: by amateur fuzziness, I was referring to the generally low technical quality of cheap point-and-shoot small-format cameras. Most prints larger than 3x5 completely fall apart. I have shown 16x20 tack-sharp LF prints to dinner guests who were absolutely stunned. They did not realize that photographs came that large, and had never seen a grainless, sharp print of any size.


Large format in natural light always involves limited depth of field. We like to think of it as an artistic tool, calling it ?selective focus?. Not a problem as long as the eyes are sharp.


One thing I would do to your portrait is get some light gray (not white) tempera on a damp spotting brush and strengthen the catchlight in the child?s left eye. Then make a matching one in his right eye. His I.Q. will instantly increase by twenty points. (Dick Blick has it online.)


Had you photographed this boy with a 35mm motor drive, you might have caught him in the middle of some boisterous mischief at a birthday party. But this soft, gentle, sensitive picture seems to quietly reach into his soul. In years to come, it will become increasingly valuable to all concerned.

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Let me make just one more point. People have been spoiled by chain department-store portrait giveaways. Only a small segment of the public is willing to pay sufficient money to have a portrait done well. Today?s quick-and-dirty portraitists keep their costs low by shooting through a strong soft-focus filter to hide blemishes rather than laboriously retouching them. Thus, some of these 98-cent mall portraits are so fuzzy, they could be pictures of almost anyone.


The day will come, much sooner than you realize, when the portrait sitter is no longer around. All you will have left is his picture.


I remember 58 years ago sitting on the lap of my late father when he came home from work. I was just at the right height and angle to see him up close and personal. He had a heavy beard which had frayed his white starched shirt collars and the top edge of his silk bow-ties. I remember the scar on his chin from a childhood accident. I can still see the fancy little gold Masonic pin he wore in his lapel.


A LF portrait (if I had one) would have captured all of these cherished details. It would be almost as if I had him back, for a few too brief moments. I would not get that feeling from a cheapy fuzzball Sears quicky shot. Leave the flaws in...

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Yes, thank you John for sharing those thoughts. How true, indeed. It's a real pity, although far

from a surprise, that the public doesn't appreciate and isn't willing to pay for a fine LF portrait. But

the taste of the masses has always touched on the lowest common denominator...fast, cheap,

easy. Quality has never been -- and sadly, will most likely never be -- valued to the point

people are willing to pay for it. The only proviso is when status is attached. People say they

buy a Mercedes because of the quality but of course the emotional desire for status is really the

compelling reason.


But it's not only a matter of not valueing the quality of a finely made LF portrait, it's also a matter

of taste. To the average Eddy-six-pack or Sally-house-coat, black and white is takes a back

seat to color photos. Not to mention the subtleties of LF's "artistic" and historical aspects.

Sadly, all of these things are lost on the public.


For the most part, only other photographers -- sometimes -- have the interest and appreciation

we photographers have in our own work.


Just the other day, I photographed a child for my own personal work and when the parents saw

the image they ooed and ahhed but when I told them the price, they said.... "We'll just stick with

her school pictures".


So, now where does that leave us? How do we get the public to attach enough status and

value to commision a LF portrait. Can we presume to ever be as important as Cable TV?

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Andre Kertez didn't make hamburgers with his 35mm, he made magic, since it will always be the brushstroke that counts and not the brush, and while many shoot 35mm and MF 'shotgun' style hoping something will luckily come out right, that's not true of everybody and has everything to do with a comment on them and not the format they choose to shoot with. Some of the most famous images of all time were taken w/35mm and MF, and in contrast, many photojournalists used LF cameras on instinct and split second timing to come up with some incredibly timeless imagery. The folks ringside of some of the most famous fights of long ago, getting that perfectly framed, perfectly timed punch, because that's the only way they could get the shot.


Sure you can categorize the gear, but not the way any particular format is used, the answer for me is quite clear, before the question was even asked, despite some obvious obsticles you can use any format for anything you want to do, with enough resourcefullness.


Some of the shots I was able to get in Rio and Bahia during carnival, shot sometimes in a moving, shoving, jostling crowd of countless thousands was only possible because I was on the move, particularly one night when a couple of folks tried to relieve me of the camera. If I could go back in time, would I replace each 35mm image I took during carnaval with the increased fidelity and tonality and lack of grain of a 4x5 or 8x10 image, yes, in a heartbeat, but this isn't the point, I used what I used because it was the only way I could get what I got.


I would agree with John Cook, along with the additional aside that not every client that inquires about my services for a portrait cares about photography the way we do, on the way to Rio one year, I ran into a guy who was real interested in getting his son into acting, upon telling him I was a portrait photographer, he asked me if we could talk about it, when I got back from Carnaval.


When I got back, we sat down, and I ran down what I would do for his boy in terms coordinating his wardrobe, make-up, and so forth, for an upscale image that would put his boy in the best light, on a head shot, and composite, conversation went great until I mentioned my price, he responded with, 'I can go down to the Mall and get the shot down for next to nothing', and I responded, 'then that's what you need to do'.


This gentleman is concerned about his boy making it in acting, casting directors/their asst. take a grand total of about 5/10th of a second on each particular head shot of anybody in the stacks of thousands of head shots they look at daily, I was ready to use every resource I could to make his boy stand out, but the bottom line for him is price.


I would not encourage my son or daughter to get into Portrait photography as it is now undercut by outfits like Sears et al, although I would teach them anything they want to know, with the encouragement to get into something like Commercial work if they were interested and could get the work.


Bottom line regardless is that a well done portrait done on LF is hard to beat, I've gone to some Weston exhibits, 'Summer Sunshine' made the hairs on the back of my head stand up, that shot could've been taken with any format, it was so spontaneous looking, all this being true, I don't think this demeans or diminish those who work with the other formats.

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You will never sell quality portraiture to the general public. Pearls before the swine, and all that. Mark Twain had it right when he said, "God must really love the common people, He made so many of them".

You need to seek work from those very few educated, successful people who appreciate it. To do that, you must be able to move among them without embarrassing yourself. A Master of Photography medal around your neck from the P.P. of A. won't cut the mustard.


I'm talking about the women in white pleated shorts, hair tied back with a wide pink ribbon, driving a new Volvo with a ski rack on top, case of Scotch in back and a decal for each of the kid's prep schools on the window.


Put some money into a navy blue blazer, crisply-pressed slacks, well-shined loafers. Dress like Dominick Dunne. Subscribe to the Weekly Standard, memorize some Shakespeare, Keats or Shelley. Read the latest best-seller. I once had an assignment in art school to stand in front of the class and talk intelligently for a half-hour on any subject other than photography. Can you? How's your grammar? Do you know the difference between "bring" and "take", "less" and "fewer", "lie" and "lay"? Find out, or sound like a jerk.


Every few years, A&E runs a dandy biography on Karsh, which he narrates. Watch for it. He was a class act, able to smoothly work with (and handle) heads of state. Copy his moves.

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I'll say this............I've had folks who I knew didn't have a lot of money, who paid up front and paid quickly, because they did happen to have an abundance of class. I've unfortunately run into a couple of folks who 'stiffed' me after a job, for the balance after paying the initial deposit, who I knew had a lot of money, bottom line, their attitude was that they decided they just werem't going to pay me.


I haven't the slightest idea of whether you can still sell quality portraiture to the general public, whoever that is, but I try to do the best job I can on the clients I get, which is what we're talking about here in terms of the original question or else why would anybody consider the time and sweat involved in pulling out his LF camera?


One issue discussed here is the amount of exposure or the lack of it, to just how impressive a well done presentation of good work can be, unless I make a point of going to see an exhibition, most of the presentations I see up close, are when I go into Samys Camera, I get the feeling that many folks undergo an epiphany once they get up close and personal with good work.


I don't need to go see Karsh, because Hurrel and Karsh were two of the artists I greatly admired when I got into this, but many of the images of my ancestors shot with LF, exhitibed technical virtuousity, from the days when doing portraits with LF was the norm/normal, which is why this discussion is ironic. My point is that our society today is fast food, Junk food, indeed everthing is cheap and quick, and incredibly as it's already been mentioned there are generations that've grown up not knowing that it was any other way.


I've recently had a client who was special in that she's a very close friend of my wifes/her college roomate, who expected/insisted on paying for her portrait even though we are friends, her preconceptions about what was involved changed after we sat down and talked, she was so happy with the 8x10 that I presented to her, she ordered a 20x24, she was blown away by the 20x24 moreso than the 8x10, kept saying 'she had no idea', in terms of how it held together.


I'll never be 'hobnobbing' with the elite, even if I could, I just think it's a matter of exposure, exposure to the full potential of what photography can do,...........what it's already done in the past.

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No, Jonathan, exposure will do nothing to impress upon those who don't get it that fine Portrait

is desirable. One can only recognize what what already knows. The general public have no

frame of reference for a fine photographic portrait. If anything, it may just seem "old fashioned" to

them; possessing a certain nostalgic or sentimental component. You were on the right track

when you commented on the fact that we are living in a fast food, junk food world. I stated this

earlier that the masses sink to the lowest common denominator and nowadays that means fast,

cheap and easy. People don't have noble aspirations and cultivated taste anymore. At one

time, peasants looked up to the aristocrats. Today, it's all about what's cool. Unfortunately, this

is in crass contrast to everything that I value.


Do you remember the gentleman's retailer "Abacrombie & Fitch"? Not so long ago they were a

mainstay of conservativism and gentlemanly style. Hemingway had his Safari Jacket made

there. Today, it caters to the cool kids on the block. Sulka, Triplers and many other Classic

establishments have also gone the way of the Dodo. In a "give 'em what they want" world,

TASTE and quality is most certainly what they don't want. Exposure? To whom?

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A few days ago, I shot some portraits of my 99 year old grandmother on 9x12 cm with a 1927 Zeiss Ikon Ideal 250/7. I used the common technique for a non-reflex camera; I prefocused and composed, set the shutter and aperture, then stood beside the camera with cable release in hand waiting for the right moment to trip the shutter. I haven't had a chance to scan or enlarge the negatives yet, and the cyanotypes I made suffered from my inexperience with that medium -- I added contrast enhancer, when it seems it wasn't needed -- but the negatives look wonderful, focus right where I wanted it.


IMO, large format is the best for portraiture. OTOH, I did shoot a number of conventional 35 mm SLR shots, on modern color film, the previous day -- they aren't processed yet, but they're my insurance; I know for certain that they're focused and composed correctly.


Since I'll probably never see my grandmother again (I'm now 2500 miles away, and likely won't be able to afford to travel back there while she lives), these were important shots -- and I wouldn't have missed the opportunity to make the large format portraits for anything.

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Hi Donald, always good to have you join a thread. I would love to see the shots you took of

your grandmother if that's not asking too much. So, with a 250mm lens how far were you from

her. Head and shoulders... more or less? I agree that LF portraits are very satisfying when

done right and the traditional approach of focusing and waiting for the right moment to realease

the shutter is not a problem IF you're subject is not framed to tight, IF you have sufficient depth

of field and IF the subject doesn't move too much. Try taking a close up of a person's face with

the GG filed and then you get a bit more nervous when you put that film holder in and wait for

the right moment. There's just not very much margin for error. I really think it all boils down to first

deciding what you want the final image to look like and then choosing the right tool for the right



It's been pointed out in this thread and elsewhere that good images can be made with all

formats. True enough. But it must be remembered that AA wouldn't have been AA without his

Deardorff. Likewise it's hard to imagine HC-B with anything other than his Leica.

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