Large Format Photography – Experiment with Lenses & Llamas

Recently, I purchased a 4X5 camera called a Speed Graphic. This is called a large format camera because the images it produces are large, compared to a standard-size 35mm camera. Large format photography with the 4X5 Speed Graphic is fun because the camera is simply a light-tight box, and with a 4X5 camera, it’s up to the large format photographer to figure out how they want to configure everything. 

For the purposes of fun-having, I set aside some time for experiments with the  4X5 Speed Graphic. The first experiment was  data-collection: I directly compared a traditional 35mm slide to a 4×5 slide. Technically, the film stock itself is identical since both the 35mm slide and the 4×5 slide were both shot on Fuji Provia 100F.


The 4×5 inch slide has at least 6x more surface area than the 35mm slide, which means more pictorial information can be stored on the 4×5 inch slide image. What that means, practically, is that on the 4×5 slide, I can still read the sales information printed on the USPS receipt that is tucked into my father’s pocket, even though the camera was at least 10 feet away from him, and was photographed with a medium-wide angle lens.

4X5 Reversal Film - Detail on the USPS receipt in my father's shirt pocket
4X5 Reversal Film – Detail on the USPS receipt in my father’s shirt pocket. (He purchased 2-inch masking tape)

Next, it’s time to test out some lenses on the 4X5 Speed Graphic. This particular camera has a focal-plane shutter, which is a big deal for photographers who wish to use improvised lenses on their large format cameras. In my particular case, I won’t need the camera’s focal-plane shutter feature, because I’m exposing onto a piece of cyanotype film, and that means the exposure time will be around 24 hours or so.

For the purposes of demonstration, we’re photographing a coffee mug that is shaped like a llama. It’s apparent that the Kodak 127mm f4.7 lens isn’t the strongest light-collector that I can get, but it provides us with a quality baseline for comparison with the next lenses we’ll try adding to our large format camera.

Using a 127mm Kodak f4.7 Lens to Focus an image on a large format camera
Kodak 127mm Lens on a 4X5 Speed Graphic Large Format Camera (with fill light)

A plastic Fresnel lens is the next one to try on the 4×5 Speed Graphic. This one was cut out from an 8×10 magnifying sheet that I purchased at the Dollar Tree, which I like to call China Tree, because most things there are imported from China. The plastic Fresnel lens was capable of creating an image on the ground-glass screen on the rear of the 4×5 camera, but the sharpness was lacking overall.  

Using a Plastic Fresnel Lens to Focus an image on a large format camera
Fresnel Lens Sheet on a 4×5 Speed Graphic Large Format Camera

Finally, it is time to add the big lens to our Speed Graphic 4×5 camera. The BIG lens is from a magnifying rig, and previously, the lens sat in the middle of a white, plastic circle, surrounded with LED lights. When I added the BIG lens to the BIG camera, I got… a reasonably-sized and decently-bright image. 

Using a BIG Magnifying Lens to Focus an image on a large format camera
BIG Magnifying Lens on a 4×5 Speed Graphic Large Format Camera

Finally, the time to take an actual photograph has arrived. For this photograph, I’m using a sheet of translucent Yupo paper that I have sensitized with cyanotype solution. This particular combination of material and chemistry is new to me, so I do not yet know what the outcome will be. If I knew the outcome, there wouldn’t be much reason to experiment, after all. 🙂

Unexposed 4X5 Cyanotype Film loaded into film holder
Unexposed 4X5 Cyanotype Film loaded into film holder

After arranging the Llama mug and the large format camera so that they will be undisturbed, I loaded the cyanotype film into the 4X5 Speed Graphic, and I left the image exposing for 24 hours. When it got too dark outside, I added a small UV light to illuminate the subject.  Cyanotype is sensitive to the Ultra-Violet light spectrum, so using the UV light was a good way to keep the exposure going while also NOT making my living room too bright at night.

So, after 24 hours of exposure, did an image result? 

YES! We got an image!

Finished Cyanotype 4X5 with a Llama
Finished Cyanotype 4X5 with a Llama

Will the image be permanent once I develop it? 

NO! The image was too faint and it washed away when I developed it.

Do I care that the image was impermanent? 

Well, you’re looking at the results right now, so how “impermanent” was the image, after all?

4x5 Cyanotype Negative of a Llama Mug
4×5 Cyanotype Negative of a Llama Mug

My next experiments will involve cyanotype 4×5 images that are recored to traditional, wood-pulp paper, and I think that will help the image-permanence issue. For now, I’m satisfied to have had at least a half-hour’s worth of fun with a nearly 90-year-old camera, and a mug shaped like a llama. 

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