I have been using large format cameras alongside other smaller formats for many years. Large format cameras have traditionally been associated with the master photographers, or with high end commercial work, so when I began, I worried about getting ‘perfect’ negatives like the experts. It took me many years to understand that they could be used in a much more relaxed way too.
I have 5×4, 5×7, and 10×8 cameras which all produce very detailed negatives. I can get high quality images from any of them if I need to, but sometimes I really enjoy using them purely for the fun of working in a different way. I often put unusual materials in the camera, such as X-Ray film, graphic Arts film, or Photographic Paper. These materials do not produce technically high quality negatives, but they do produce exciting and interesting images.
All of the light sensitive materials mentioned above are rather slow, that is to say, they need much more light to produce an image. This is actually an advantage, as it means that I can do without a shutter to control the light. I simply expose by uncovering the lens for a period of time. This can be as little as a second, or much longer, -sometimes minutes.
Choosing lenses without the need for a shutter opens up all sorts of possibilities. A high quality lens without a shutter is known as a Process Lens. These can be found on Ebay much more cheaply than the type with shutters built in.
I have used process lenses, enlarger lenses, photocopier lenses and also simple optics such as a magnifying glass. All produce something unique and I find this really exciting.
If you are shooting on slow, or unusual materials and not too concerned about having a really sharp, well corrected lens, then you have an enormous range to choose from.
For the uninitiated, a general description of a process lens is; A lens without a shutter which gives a flat field of focus. These lenses have been made for copying and reproduction and are made for a particular application. Using them in a way that they were not designed for gives interesting results.
They were designed to be flat field and were optimised for 1-1 reproduction (which makes them great for close up work). These lenses were used in the graphic arts industry for making printing plates and many of these lenses will give excellent quality if stopped down. Some are fixed at one aperture, so are only any use in low light or with very slow emulsions.
Similar to a process lens, in that they are flat field, but with the advantage of having a variable aperture.
Basically, they are process lenses mounted in reverse. Any enlarger lens can be used on a 5×4 camera, but most will give only a small image on the film unless they are over 150mm focal length (5×4 camera). Some interesting results can be obtained using a lens which is too small, the most obvious being a totally circular image in the centre of the film.
Again, these are process lenses, but they do not have a controllable aperture. They must be used wide open, this limits the situations in which they can be used.
These are amongst my favourites, they are usually very bright lenses and give really lovely out of focus areas. In the picture above you can see an 89mm f1.9 Rosslyte projector lens attached to an Olympus OM10.
An uncorrected (very soft focus), very fast lens with no aperture. The amount of light coming into the camera is often too much even for these slow emulsions. A makeshift aperture could be fashioned out of black card which would reduce the light and also give a clearer, sharper image, though this would still be soft in comparison with proper optics.
Using Process, enlarging and simple lenses on a camera will give your images a different look from those taken using conventional optics. I am grouping these all together because I use all of them at various times to produce some of the work I am interested in. Each type has different characteristics, methods of use and drawbacks. Sometimes those characteristics and drawbacks cause problems out in the field, but they also are capable of beautiful results and that’s why I still think they are worth the effort.
Obtaining these types of lenses is easy. Process lenses appear on Ebay regularly and do not generally cost much, -certainly nowhere near the original cost that they would have been when in proper use. Enlarging lenses usually go for less than £25.00. Camera fairs and antique / junk fairs occasionally have something of interest, -I found a 240mm f4.5 photocopier lens a few months ago which will cover 10×8. It only cost me £4.00.
Anything you can get hold of is going to give you something different than the ‘normal’ optics that are supposed to be used on these cameras. Try it, see what sort of shot suits your unusual lens. Some things will be unsatisfactory, but other shots will be magical.