How to Get Started with View Camera Photography

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Photo of a vintage view camera

Editor’s Note: This is the second story in a two-part series by Michael Chiusano on vintage view camera photography. You can read his first story with five reasons to use a vintage view camera today here. Images included in this story were shot by Chiusano with a view camera as part of his “Meditations on house fans” photo series.

Shooting with 4×5 sheet film and a vintage view camera does not need to be an expensive affair. YouTube is filled with videos explaining how to get started with 4×5 photography, but here is my brief advice.

My first 4×5 camera was a rather beat up Graflex Crown Graphic with a 135mm lens. This was the standard camera for photojournalists of the 1930’s and 1940’s and yielded to roll-film cameras in the 1950’s.

You can find these types of Graflex cameras easily on eBay and can expect to pay around $250-300 for a decent version, and it’s really all you need. The Graflex view camera folds up on itself and takes up barely more space than the larger DSLRs on the market. You can shoot hand-held with a vintage view camera but more likely you will want to mount it on a tripod.

Another possibility to try out is a monorail view camera such as a Calumet or Toyo. These sell for about the same price as the Graflex mentioned above. This variety of camera has the advantage of allowing for more extreme adjustments, which is useful in architectural and product work, but at the disadvantage of greater bulk for location work.

View cameras are not complex devices and there isn’t much that can go wrong with them, however, apply common sense in purchasing. A camera that has been stored away for years, or decades, may require nothing more than a good cleaning.

Photo of a fan and shadow
This photograph I shot with a view camera was almost a complete accident. I had moved the fan from another location and noticed the shadow of the blades on the wall behind. Lighting is from a 1000-watt quartz Fresnel spotlight. As with all the photos in the series, the fan was not plugged in. © Michael Chiusano

But if the focus gearing is stripped, look elsewhere. Most disappointing would be a damaged bellows, often tiny pinholes that admit light. I would not purchase a camera without a guarantee of a light-tight bellows; replacing the bellows would likely cost more than the camera itself.

Don’t worry too much about the lens. The normal lens for a 4×5 sheet film camera is in the range of 135-150mm focal length.

The Graflex press camera I purchased at a university surplus auction came equipped with a Wollensak Optar f/4.5 lens. By today’s standards, it would not be considered a premium optic, but it did just fine.

I have seen these lenses selling on eBay for $50-75. Keep in mind that with sheet film, the image is so large to begin with that it requires very little magnification to print out respectable print sizes.

Photo of a fan and legs
I intended this view camera shot to be a reprise of the picture of Marilyn Monroe’s dress getting tossed about over a subway grate. Lighting is from a diffuse source to the right and a spotlight from the left. © Michael Chiusano

Later you can expand your lens inventory for your view camera and picking up used lenses both ancient and ultra-modern can be a fun pursuit in itself—it’s really hard to go wrong. For instance, I recently purchased a Fujinon 180mm Soft focus lens and it makes lovely portrait images.

One other thing: you will need perhaps half a dozen film holders, good for 12 sheets of film at a time. Add a light meter and you’re ready to start enjoying the pleasures of 4×5 view camera photography.

The fun thing about using these classic cameras is they can unlock your creativity in unexpected ways. For example, for reasons I can’t explain, a retro house fan I had lying around became the subject of a series of photographs I shot with a view camera called “Meditation on house fans.” Three are included in this story.

All the photographs in this series were shot on Kodak T-max 100 4×5 inch sheet film with a view camera, using either natural light or constant artificial light. By avoiding instantaneous flash lighting, I was able to create the look of spinning blades by using exposures of about 1/4 second, and then giving the blades a spin with my fingers and snapping the pictures when the blades had almost come to a stop.

Photo of a fan
This was the first photograph in the “Fan” series. Lighting is from the skylights in my studio. I tried exposures of 1/2-, 1/4-, and 1/8-second as I was not sure which would be blurry enough without overdoing it; in other words, a bit of trial and error. © Michael Chiusano

Is this a trick, or just a smart way of avoiding the hassle of plugging the fan into the wall and dealing with a potentially injurious situation? If you enjoyed this article, you should also check out my earlier story with five reasons to shoot with a vintage view camera today here.

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