I swear, I didn’t intend for this to happen. I didn’t intend to go to Columbus Camera Group (the best camera shop I’ve ever been into – seriously, if you’re anywhere in a 3-4 hour radius of Columbus and are into film cameras, it’s completely worth the drive to visit) and walk out with a large format camera. However, being married to an enabler (“Don’t you want to look at the 4×5 cameras here? Are you sure you don’t want to get one now?”), I wound up walking out the door with Zarl.
Zarl is an old Speed Graphic camera that shoots 4×5 film. For some reason, there are two stickers on him that say “Zarl,” so that’s what I’ve started calling it. Anyway, Zarl is completely functional, and wound up costing me $75, which is the second most expensive old camera I’ve ever bought (the most expensive was the Rolliecord, which I never liked using, and wound up selling a few months after buying it).
I’ve wanted a proper (read: not made out of foamcore) large format camera for a while. The problem was, I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t know how they worked. I didn’t know what I should be looking for in one. I was nervous about buying one off ebay, because although I have no problem buying small lots of film or old crappy cameras on there, I’m not too keen about spending a hundred dollars or more on an old piece of machinery I haven’t been able to handle in person.
And it’s not like I needed a great camera. I’m not a professional photographer, I just think taking and developing photos is neat. I know nothing about quality of lenses or anything like that. So, when I was at CCG, after being prodded by Travis to look at the large format cameras they have there, I explained that what I wanted was something functional that I could learn on. A starter 4×5 camera. And they showed me Zarl.
Zarl is a Speed Graphic camera made by the Graflex corporation, which basically rocked the large-format press cameras for about 4 decades. There’s a ton of information about Graflex cameras here. The model that I have, a Speed Graphic, is a little different from the rest of the cameras in the Graflex stable.
For one thing, it’s considerably heavier than other Graflex models. It weighs in at over five pounds, sans film holder. That’s heavy, especially if you are, like me, someone with pretty much no muscle mass whatsoever. You see footage of old school newspaper men taking handheld pictures with their Graflexes, and let me tell you, those guys were in a lot better shape than I am. I have to use a tripod with this camera. A sturdy tripod.
The main difference, though, is that the Speed Graphic doesn’t just have a shutter on its lens, it also has what is called an internal focal-plane curtain shutter. What the heck is that, you may ask? Well, it’s a big honking shutter in the back of the camera near the film holder that can shoot at speeds of up to 1/1000 of a second. The shutter on the lens, on the other hand, can only shoot at 1/100 of a second. The fast speed of the curtain shutter gives the Speed Graphic its name.
The curtain shutter is what gives the Speed Graphic its extra weight, too. I’ve read a couple of articles talking about the curtain shutter as being an optional feature to the camera, which it is, but I’ve already found it useful – The picture taken below was shot in bright sunlight using a pretty wide open aperture on 100 speed film. Normally, I’d have to close the aperture to something like f16, which would give me wider depth of field, but I wanted the DOF to be pretty shallow. So I used an aperture of f3.5, and a shutter speed of 1/1000.
That picture was shot with the Domo just inches away from the lens. Which is awesome, because that means I can take macro pictures with this big-ass camera. I love shooting macro pics!
Because the Speed Graphic has an internal shutter, this means I can use something called barrel lenses on the camera. Most large format lenses include not only the actual lens, but a shutter element as well. These LF lenses tend to be crazy expensive, costing anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. Which is unfortunate for me, because while I enjoy the macro shooting ability of the 75mm lens Zarl came with, it turns out that a 75mm lens on a 4×5 camera is massively wide angle, and when the camera is shooting focused on infinity, doesn’t come close to covering a sheet of 4×5 film.
It makes a perfect, charming, vignetted circle on the film (my scanner can’t scan in the width of 4×5 sheet film – it cuts off the top and bottom. But trust me, it’s a perfect circle). I actually quite liked it in this shot:
It kind of looks like something from a Beastie Boys video!
So, as good as the 75mm lens is at macro photography, I’m going to need to get another lens for it. Anything in the 135mm to 200mm range should do. I don’t particularly want to spend the money on a new lens, which brings me back to the barrel lenses – barrel lenses are just that: lenses. They don’t feature a shutter element, and some of them don’t even have an adjustable aperture element (I guess those were just mainly for portrait photography). They tend to be less expensive than other large format lenses, apparently because a lot of LF cameras can’t use them, due to the lack of the shutter. However, since the Speed Graphic has an internal shutter, the barrel lenses are an alternate option for me. Now I just need to find one…
Actually shooting a picture with this camera is kind of a crazy process. It’s definitely the most challenging camera I’ve worked with before. When I was reading about the Speed Graphics I read on one of the pages a quote that went something like, “This is a camera that will increase your skill as a photographer every time you use it.” I like that.
So, here’s what I have to do when I want to shoot a picture with Zarl:
1. Haul camera, tripod, and loaded film sheet holder to whatever I’m wanting to take a picture of.
2. Set up tripod, place camera on tripod, try desperately not to knock the whole shebang over.
3. Open up camera. In my particular case, the one massive flaw that Zarl has is that the button that pops open the camera has disappeared. So, I’ve taken to jamming the little metal spoke that controls that mechanism with the metal tip of my shutter release cable. That seems to work out okay.
4. Remember to drop the camera bed. I have to do this with the lens I currently have on Zarl, otherwise, the camera bed shows up in the bottom of the picture. The picture of the van, above? The scanner cropped that out, but the very bottom of it has the camera bed in it.
5. Open up the viewfinder hood and see if there’s any light coming through the ground glass. In order to focus, I have to make sure that both shutters on the Speed Graphic are open. That means that both the curtain shutter and the lens shutter are set to the T setting (Timer) and clicked open. The lens aperture also needs to be set to pretty wide open in order to get enough light to see the image correctly.
6. Compose and focus the image. Upside down. Because here’s what it looks like through the ground glass:
7. Adjust the aperture to where you’re actually going to shoot with.
8a. If shooting with the lens shutter, click the timer button again to close the shutter, and then set the shutter to whatever speed you’re going to shoot with, or…
8b. If shooting with the curtain shutter, click the curtain shutter button to close the curtain shutter, and then set the shutter to whatever speed you’re going to shoot with.
9. Say a quick prayer to whatever deity you choose, and then shove the sheet film holder into the back of the camera. This is seriously the hardest part – the Speed Graphic has a spring back, which means that the possibility of the camera moving when you do this is high, even if the camera is on a tripod. If you jostle the camera, especially on a close-up shot, you have to remove the film holder (because you can’t see an image through the ground glass with the film holder in place) and go back to step 5. The picture of Domo above is slightly out of focus because I jostled the camera a little bit when putting the film holder inside. I’ve gotten a little bit better about trying to hold the spring back open and carefully placing the holder inside, but it’s still pretty tricky.
10. Remember to move the dark slide out of the film holder before taking the picture.
11. Finally, you’re ready to take the picture. Say cheese!
I know that made it seem really complicated, but the truth of the matter is that I’ve shot about 10 pictures with Zarl and it already feels intuitive. It’s just like using an unfamiliar sewing machine – it can seem really scary and intimidating at first, and then after a few minutes it all seems to make sense.
I’m thrilled with this camera. It’s not in the best cosmetic shape, it’s currently outfitted with this wacky periscope lens, and it has ZARL stickers on it, but it works. It’s a heck of a lot easier for me to learn about large format photography when I actually have an LF camera in front of me.
And the image quality! My god! It’s amazing! I guess a lot of LF photographers focus while using a loupe against the ground glass, but I’ve just been winging it. So, when I blow the photos up to their maximum size in Photoshop, I can see that things are slightly out of focus, but no so much it matters. For example, I’ve been scanning in my negatives at 3200 dpi. The picture of the van, above? Here’s a detail from it:
And that’s probably a bad example, since the picture was slightly out of focus, but you get the idea. There’s almost no grain at all.
I’ve just shot with black and white film so far, but the grays are so smooth, and the amount of detail is insane. When I blew this picture up, I could see individual little flecks of dust on the car (and no, it wasn’t because my neg was dirty!).
Most of the film I’ve used in Zarl so far has been expired 4×5 Kodak Tmax 100. However, I had a film holder loaded with some of the Arista Ortho Lith film in it, so I tried shooting a few pictures of the Domo with that as an experiment. Ortho Lith film is something that I’ve just started using, so I’m not totally comfortable with it yet. It’s film that acts like it is photo paper. It’s very slow. So, where I used an aperture of f3.5 and a shutter speed of 1/1000 with the Tmax, I used the same aperture but a shutter speed of 1/25 with the ortho lith film.
Ortho lith film can be developed in black and white paper developing chems. Or, you can develop it in special ortho lith developer (sometimes referred to as A+B developer) and get a solely black and white image, devoid of gray tones. I have some of the A+B developer, but haven’t tried using it yet. I have been developing my ortho lith film in black and white paper developer, but when I tried developing one of the Domo shots the other night, it came out clear, which probably means my paper developer puked on me and I need to mix up a new batch.
Because I’m lazy, instead of doing that, I dropped the other Domo 4×5 ortho lith picture in the HC110b (which is for developing film) to see what would happen. Well, guess what – it developed the ortho lith film just fine.
You can see the tones are slightly different than the picture shot on Tmax. In real life, Domo is brown, and has a bright red mouth. The ortho lith film reads the red as black, making his mouth very dark, and his body darker than the Tmax photo. I actually like the way ortho Domo came out better than the way Tmax Domo did.
The ortho lith experiment has opened up a few doors for me, because a box of 50 sheets of ortho lith film from Freestyle cost $17, as opposed to a box of 50 sheets of 4×5 Tmax 100, which costs $65. I may not be able to sub in ortho lith film for everything I’d shoot using regular black and white (mainly because I think that skies will probably be washed out with the ortho lith film), but I can use it for a lot of other subjects.
Oh, HC110b, is there anything you can’t do?
I still have a ton of stuff to write about with the big C41 developing bonanza of this week, so I’ll try to get to those things in the next few days.