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The dance .....and my schoolboy errors

Strap in! Get yourself a coffee/tea or a recommended stiff drink, this is going to take a while !

I have been making images using a variety of large format cameras for a while now ......maybe 15+ years now I think. During that time I have developed my own "foolproof"/regular practice for the way the camera is handled in the field, and other ways of attempting to eradicate mistakes that can and have ruined images or left me with no images at all.

I recently watched a YouTube video that referred to the process of setting up a large format camera as "the dance" and this seems to me to be a very good way of naming the complex series of actions and checks that go into the setting up of the camera. My dance has been amended many times in order to eliminate mistakes and this post will explain the how ..... and the why.

Three Sisters, Glencoe, 2008. Made with the Horseman 45FA and a 150mm lens. I shot this on Fuji Velvia 50 during one of my "I might try colour phases" and immediately converted to greyscale - an expensive way to do black and white photography.

The Dance - My simple foolproof method of perfect large format exposures every time........guaranteed!*

(* Not in any way shape or form a guarantee and any inference that that was the case is hereby redacted )

The steps that go into my set-up are as follows:

  1. Level the tripod.

  2. Attach Camera. (See Schoolboy error 1)

  3. Level the camera.

  4. Check camera movements are all locked in neutral positions and check tripod leg. section locks (See Schoolboy error 2)

  5. Frame up and loose focus. (See schoolboy error 3)

  6. Un-level the camera if it looks better than level

  7. Focus wide open near and far for intrusions.(Added due to error 3)

  8. Focus the camera on the most important element that needs be sharp

  9. Decide what else needs to be sharp

  10. Use swing/tilt/rise/fall/or shift to manipulate the focal plane

  11. In the event that the use of swing/tilt/rise/fall/or shift actually make things increasingly worse, go back to step 4 (many many times)

  12. Make sure every movement that has been used is locked (See schoolboy error 4)

  13. (prelim) Ensure the meter is set to the correct ISO

  14. Determine the exposure using your favoured method (See schoolboy error 5)

  15. Set the shutter speed and aperture on the lens

  16. Check the set shutter speed / aperture on lens (see schoolboy error 6)

  17. Write down the set shutter speed / aperture on the lens on a card allocated to the sheet of film you are intending to use

  18. Close the lens and visually check it is now closed

  19. Cock the shutter , fire it .....does that sound about right for 1/4 sec* (*other shutter speeds are available on request)(Nothing happens? ....go to step 18)

  20. Repeat step 19

  21. Check all tripod controls and all camera movements are locked (see schoolboy error 4)

  22. Check that shutter speed and aperture are right by repeating the light readings carried out in step 14, if there is disagreement with oneself ....go back to step 13.

  23. Finally lol, place the film holder of choice into the camera , ensure the side you want to expose is facing into the camera and then do nothing until the next steps have been completed (see schoolboy errors 7 and 8)

  24. Ensure the shutter speed and aperture , written on the card allocated to that sheet of film are set on the camera. If not, remove the film holder and go to step 13 and/or check the lens is closed.(see schoolboy error 6)

  25. Wow step 25 ! not sure I got this far too many times so here goes.....

  26. . Ok the film holder is in (see step 23) , the exposure is correct ( see steps 13-17 and 22-24 one more time) , the camera is locked ( see steps 12 and 21 ) , the tripod is locked? ( step 4 ), the exposure is correct ? (steps 13/14 and 22 and 24 ), the shutter is ready to fire (see steps 18-20)

  27. Oh My God you got this far ? Go to step 25 ....still ok .....sure? ....... remove the darkslide and expose the image !!!

  28. (See schoolboy errors 9 10 11 and 12)




Schoolboy error 1 - I once tried to attach the camera to the head to find I had the wrong plate attached to the bottom of the camera. No Problem I thought I can attach the camera direct to the tripod instead of the head and still be able to make an image.....but no screwdriver with me to release the little retaining screws that hold the tripod head on......end of shoot !

I now carry a small set of screwdrivers and a multi tool in my bag and have spare plates for the 2 heads I have in the bag as well (I have for my tripod a long centre column with a heavy geared head, and when I want to travel light a short centre column with a magnesium 3 way head which is significant in its weight saving and easily swapped into the tripod pre-departure)

Schoolboy error 2 - I have lost count (between 3 and 10 then) of the number of times I have not reset movements* on the camera from the previous shot and wondered why finding focus has been so difficult. I now have a habit of resetting to zero all movements at the end of a shot and rechecking them at the set-up point as well.....more than once. In addition on a recent shoot I noticed that the composition had "slipped downwards" after i removed the film holder and initially blamed an untightened lens rise as the probable culprit. On reflection though, I do remember closing the tripod up and thinking "don't remember loosening that section", so it is probable I had the front leg untightened causing the tripod to collapse on itself a little .......

* An explanation of movements will be provided at the bottom of this post**

Schoolboy error 3 - I changed the way I do things and added step 7 because I have on a couple of occasions framed up with loose focus and refined the composition. When complete stopping down to the taking aperture causes the ground glass to go darker as the aperture is now a lot smaller.....meaning that that intruding stalk of grass or branch that is close to the lens relatively speaking is now more difficult to spot ...and is in better focus !

Schoolboy error 4 - When using more than one movement on the same standard, ensure it is locked when complete otherwise when you start to use the next movement it will pull the first one out of position and you will wonder what you did wrong, go back to step 11 ...and then step 4!

Schoolboy error 5 - Ensure the meter you are using is set to the ISO you intend to expose the film at ! In fact, I am adding step "13 (prelim)" now ! I have exposed rolls of film in a Bronica system at the wrong ISO (400 instead of 50 ouch !, these days I would notice as you gain a feeling for what it is going to be and would notice a 3 stop error ....I think) and countless sheets of 5x4 film although these are easier to correct now I develop them myself.

Schoolboy error 6 - I have on rare occasions not completed step 15, closed the lens, carried on and then exposed film with the lens wide open and the shutter set to an arbitrary (probably Bulb) setting. I check the aperture and speed setting many times during the set up now.

Schoolboy error 7 - I have twice now been out with a large format camera with no film in my pack. I generally keep loaded holders in the fridge and have 3 bags ready to go (lightweight with Intrepid and a couple of lenses, middleweight with Horseman and 3 lenses and now heavy weight with the beast in it and 1 lens) A lot of the stuff I need is applicable to all 3 kits and is in a shoulder bag which is useful as everything I regularly need is in one place during a shoot.....I have yet to forget to take this bag ! There is nothing worse than having the camera set up correctly and then realising you have forgotten to bring film with you, which is how it transpired the first time....................... after a 3 mile hike.

The patent pending "Clip-it" reminder system

I use the above depicted freezer bag clips and clip them onto my bag when removing film. Yep 3 bags and only 2 clips dangerously.

I have recently adopted an unusual nomenclature for film holders.

I could never decide between A1/A2 etc. or 1A/1B etc.

So went rogue by naming them after photographers.

Schoolboy error 8 - Yep , I have removed the darkslide while the lens is still open! Most recently with my first ever sheet of 7 x 5 inch film but with the lens at the taking aperture. I realised when I had pulled the slide halfway out and quickly closed it again. This will mean for this sheet of film, the bottom of the image (in shade) had 14 seconds of exposure and the top half (lit) had 13 seconds of you never know !

Schoolboy error 9 - No film in the holder (only once)

Schoolboy error 10 - Film loaded emulsion side in! I realised when taking it out for developing....the notch on the wrong side of the holder. I developed it and it was a very thin negative so I guess maybe 2 or 3 stops underexposed (only once)

Schoolboy error 11 - Exposing a sheet of film that had already been exposed! For me now the darkslide with white side out means " ready to use " and the darkslide with the black side out means " exposed already " .......... or is it the other way round ?

Schoolboy error 12 - Removing the film holder before re-inserting the darkslide ! (only once)


I hope you have enjoyed this slightly whimsical look at the process and the dance. If you use a large format system I am sure you will recognise at least some of the process ......and some of the errors. If you are just starting out or thinking of trying large format photography ....then use this guide with a massive pinch of salt and maybe drop me a message before you use it! I have been known to have a sheet of film correctly exposed within a minute or 2 of getting the camera out of the bag !


What's Happening

I have found it difficult of late to spend lots of time on photography but am quietly working in the background on a number of things. I recently acquired a Super Ikonta 6 x 9 camera and am learning how to make this (non-working when I bought it ) camera useful and have got to that point now and awaiting the first roll of 120 to be developed me. I Have 3 35mm cameras now in use to have some fun with, and a few sheets of 7x5 to develop. And have resurrected a 15 year old project ......"The Road to Uiskevagh", as I will be off to the Outer Hebrides at the end of the month.

** There is no way I can add more to this post to explain camera movements but will link to a page by the photographer Alex Bond that does it with great clarity here. Thanks Alex !


The Road to Uiskevagh, Number 3. Balivanich. 2007

Thanks For reading !

166 views4 comments


Sep 12, 2021

So happy to discover this blog! I've often told people about the checklist that one must employ when shooting large format, but the truth is the checklist is kept in the worst place possible... my head.

Sep 12, 2021
Replying to

One thing that is worth doing in all seriousness is writing down what your perfect process would be with no mistakes or omissions and then practice it when you cant get out. It becomes kind of automatic then and that little nag in the back of your mind when you think you may have forgotten something then becomes something to listen to ! Glad you have found it useful and hopefully entertaining ! John


Sep 12, 2021

Enjoyable read John. I chose an orange juice as my tipple … in a pint glass!

Sep 12, 2021
Replying to

A good choice Dave , something stronger afterwards ? Glad you enjoyed it Dave. John

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