The Barracks (Part 1)

“The entire world could end and we wouldn’t even know.”

Justin Lowery said that once.  Or maybe it was me.  Honestly it’s tough to remember at this point as it happened over two years ago.  What I do know is that he and I once socially distanced at a truly epic level.  That word gets thrown around a lot in reference to photography, but in this case it was true.  So here’s the story about how he and I once went 5 days without seeing another human.  The world really could have ended and we would not have known.  We were socially distancing long before it was mandatory!

Prologue

A little background first though.  I’m a thorough researcher.  When getting into large format, I bought all the books on the subject that I could find.  When I read through those (thanks Ansel Adams for posthumously teaching me the fundamentals!) I went to YouTube.  It was there I discovered some guy named Ben Horne (maybe you’ve heard of him) and learned of his penchant for this collection of canyons called Zion.  All it took was seeing one video of the Virgin River Narrows and I was hooked.  I simply HAD to visit this place!  It sounds strange to say now, but at that point in my life (circa 2011) I had no idea rivers could be next to vertical canyon walls.  Growing up in the rolling hills of Tennessee, this was completely foreign to me.  So, as with all things, before I visited, I had to research Zion.  Following a similar pattern I bought up all the hiking guide books I could find and then, once those were exhausted, I turned to the internet.

Subway, the Narrows, Angels Landing…they were all covered very thoroughly.  I started to mentally map out all of the iconic shots I wanted to take on my first trip.  Once familiar with those, I started to research the more obscure locations: Clear Creek, Northgate Peaks, The Kolob Canyons…I knew it all like the back of my hand.  And then there was the Barracks.  Ever heard of it?  Probably not, because even in my YouTube journals and when discussing it on the Large Format Photography Podcast I never mentioned the name.  That’s by design as I didn’t want it to become overrun.  So I’m letting you into the Large Format Circle of Trust here.  If you go there, don’t ruin it!!

So back to the Barracks.  It was a hike that promised Narrows like scenery, epic (that word again) adventure, and at least a multi-day backpacking trip.  That was a minor issue because at that point I had approximately zero backpacking experience.  So for the time being, I stored the Barracks in the back of my mind and concentrated on exploring Zion through day hikes.  As I progressed in my large format experience, I gradually started to want to branch out further than just day hiking.  I had my fill of the icons; I wanted to explore areas where most people don’t take cameras, and that meant hiking further than I could make it in a single day.  Backpacking was the answer.

Again, books and the internet told me everything I needed to know about backpacking.  Even though the chapters about backpacking with large format gear were strangely missing, I was confident I could adapt; the Barracks were starting to almost, kind of, possibly be doable!!

Until I made my first trip.  In hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have made my first backpacking-with-LF-gear a 3-day experience when rain was predicted for days 2 and 3.  With thunder rumbling through the Smoky Mountains, I did manage to stay dry (and even took one of my favorite images of the Smokies) but my morale was shot.  I returned to my truck with my tail tucked between my legs, exhausted after only one night on a relatively flat trail.  I had a MAJOR problem…weight.  My pack was just too heavy.  How was I supposed to hike nearly 30 miles spanning multiple days in unforgiving terrain when I could barely make it one night on a flat trail.  The Barracks once again faded into the back of my mind.

And it promptly returned to the forefront the day I met Justin Lowery.  As with most in the large format community, Justin and I knew each other through social media.  After finding out our time in Zion one year would overlap, we met up, and as most photographers do, we compared gear!  He was shooting a generation 1 Intrepid 4×5 at the time.  Back then I was only vaguely aware of Intrepid.  I seemed to remember seeing a startup company on GoFundMe.  It was encouraging to see some new developments in LF, but that prototype was UGLY!  Do you guys remember seeing the front standard supports made out of plywood?!  Anyway, I dismissed the camera based on looks alone.  In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t judge a camera based on its prototype, because Justin showed me the Intrepid, and to my surprise, it was a sharp-looking camera.  But even more importantly, it weighed nothing.  I returned from Zion and immediately placed an order.  With my gen 2 camera in hand, the Barracks was now a distinct possibility!

I ran the idea by Justin and he was crazy enough to join me.  We spent the next year trying gear, refining our systems, and planning the hike.  From what little we found in guide books and online, we mapped out potential photography hotspots, places to overnight, and areas we could bail out if we needed to.  We settled on a 5 day, four-night adventure; carrying enough food was the limiting factor.  With packs loaded, and waypoints saved into a handheld GPS, we embarked on the adventure of a lifetime.

Day 1

The Barracks is a through-hike meaning we needed to arrange a shuttle for drop-off and have a car parked for pickup.  I arranged the shuttle through a local outdoor outfitter, and we arrived at Zion Outfitters at 6 a.m. on a brisk October day.  Justin left his truck at the Checkerboard Mesa parking lot with a note about our expected arrival date and time.  We had notified park rangers of our plans and they wished us luck…and told us not to get lost or hurt.  Rescues in the area would be difficult and could potentially take several days.  What a confidence boost!!  With temps hovering in the low 30s, our shuttle made its way to the Barracks trailhead.  I use that term loosely as there is no official beginning to the trail; you just drive as far downriver as possible and then start hiking.

Speaking of a river, I guess now is as good a time as any to paint a picture of exactly what the Barracks hike is.  The Barracks (disappointing named, I discovered, after a family ranch and not an ominous prison) is a canyon system along the East Fork of the Virgin River (as opposed to the North Fork that makes up the more famous Narrows).  Starting in the widely spaced white sandstone cliffs to the east of Zion National Park, the river gradually carves a deep East/West canyon along its course.  Along the way, several slot canyons branch off offering potentially breathtaking photographic opportunities.  These canyons, and the deeper chasm further down the main river, were what we were after, but it was going to take effort to get there.

(Sunlight on the white cliffs and the meandering East Fork of the Virgin River.)

Well before the sun made an appearance, we stepped out of our offroad shuttle to begin our adventure.  Let me tell you, the cold hits differently when you step out of the vehicle and have a river crossing in the first 100 yards of your hike!  At this stage, the East Fork is more of a meandering creek, with heavy emphasis on the word meandering.  With no trail to follow, it was a constant judgment call of when to cross the river, when to hike in the river, and when to stay on dry ground.  This was actually not that easy as getting in and out of the river required quite a bit of effort.  The banks were quite tall and mostly sand or overgrown.  Travel was slow and arduous, but as the sun crested the white cliffs behind us, team morale took a noticeable turn for the better!

(As you can see, getting out of the river was no easy task!)

And then I stepped in quicksand.  Through reading what little I could find on this hike, the word quicksand continuously made an appearance.  Not saying I brushed it off, but it didn’t concern me too much until I stepped in it.  At this point I should mention that the river is quite silty; so silty in fact that you cannot see what you are walking in.  As we were hiking in the river, I took one step that was ankle deep and the next unknowingly went mid-thigh.  If you’ve never hiked in quicksand before, it’s best to imagine walking on jello.  If you walk quickly you can stay on top of it, but if one-foot plants too firmly you’ll sink.  This is the predicament I found myself in.  To be clear, this was in no way dangerous.  However, my options were limited.  The current was too strong for me to step out of the pothole and backtrack.  A quick depth check with my trekking pole told me that another step down river would’ve placed the water at chest level.  This was not an option as I was carrying all my camera gear (and everything I needed to stay warm on this trip) on my back.  In order to save weight we decided to forego any type of dry bag; if I got soaked, the gear got soaked.  Thankfully, Justin was behind me.  He shed his pack to the bank, and then extended a trekking pole.  I grabbed hold and extricated my leg from the predicament.  Disaster averted!

Again, that wasn’t dangerous, but from then on, the seed of doubt was planted.  Was the next step I took going to plunge me even deeper?  We developed a method of tapping our trekking poles in front of us to test depth.  This helped, but I can’t lie…I enjoyed the hike much more for the portions when Justin was leading! :) I brought along the full video kit for this trip as I wanted to document as much as possible.  However, the hiking was so difficult that I was not able to capture much of the hike itself.  We did take occasional breaks whenever we found a freshwater spring; the silty, animal carcass (true story; multiple dead deer) filled East Fork just wasn’t going to cut it as a water source.  During these times I would grab some video to hopefully tell our story.  As an aside, this is some of my all-time favorite drone footage; not being in a National Park has its benefits!

After taking 5 hours to hike 6 miles, we arrived at the confluence of the Barracks and Mineral Gulch.  Mineral Gulch is a series of extremely narrow slot canyons and a source of freshwater.  Thankfully, at the mouth of this canyon was a little peninsula of land that made the perfect spot to set up camp.  There was a flat area relatively close to the river where I could pitch my tent and Justin his tarp.  We had to be a little careful here as we were on sand and not compacted dirt.  Driving a tent stake and then applying too much pressure would’ve caused the sand to separate and fall into the river; picture a glacier cracking and falling into the ocean.  Difficulties aside, we got camp set up and still had enough daylight to explore and photograph Mineral Gulch.

(The best campsite we could’ve hoped for…just as long as the sand didn’t cave in! Notice how silty the East Fork is.)

With camping gear offloaded, my backpack now barely even registered as being on my back.  Also, Mineral Gulch is mostly dry and flat so covering terrain was much easier now.  We traversed the north/south canyon several times searching for the best reflected light.  At one point, I found an intense glow, but by the time I had my camera up and focused, it was too late.  It was becoming apparent that we had missed the best light.  Not a huge worry as we had designated another full day to explore this slice of photography paradise.  One highlight of the day was coming across a brilliant cottonwood in front of a bright reflected light wall.  This was extremely lucky as most trees had unfortunately already shed their leaves; so much for capturing fall color on this trip.  Justin and I both photographed this tree and then returned to our campsite for dinner and some rest.

(Beautiful reflected light in one of the narrows of Mineral Gulch.)

(The only tree on the entire trip that showed any color…and it just happened to be in front on an orange wall!)

It turns out our little peninsula of land was just about the perfect campsite (the risk of the sand caving in and falling in the river notwithstanding of course).  Flash floods had eroded some areas at just the perfect sitting height.  I can’t tell you how great it felt to get in some dry clothes and sit down after a long day!  We even had time to build a campfire.  Once the sunset, I changed out film.  This was a real exercise in organization as I only brought two boxes.  One contained packets of Ektar, Velvia, and Delta 100 and the other was for unloading sheets from my four film holders.  I carefully recorded the order which I unloaded the film, and then reloaded everything for the following day.  With nothing left to down, I got in my tent and went to sleep to the sounds of the Virgin River.

(Forbidden Temple 4×5 Kodak Ektar 100)

(Fading 4×5 Fuji Velvia 50)

(Yin and Yang 4×5 Fuji Velvia 50)

Be sure and come back for Part 2 of this trip as Justin and I explore more of this beautiful canyon system.

 

8×10″ vs. 4×5″ – Which is for you?

When you decide to try large format photography, perhaps the very next question that will arise is which of the large formats to work with. Large format encompasses everything from 2×3″ to 16×20″ and beyond, but for practical purposes, the vast majority of large format photography centers around 8×10″ and 4×5.” For the sake of simplicity, we will be looking at these two formats specifically today.

Each format has its advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll explore in some depth one area at a time,  beginning with physical size.

Size

8×10″ film is 4x the surface area of 4×5.” Therefore, everything must of necessity be four times larger.

Your lenses will each need to cover 8×10″ with enough additional coverage to provide adequate coverage when movements such as front or rear rise, tilt, shift, and swing are applied to the camera’s standards. For this reason, you cannot necessarily use 4×5″ lenses with your 8×10.” If you plan to shoot both formats, however, you can simply purchase lenses that you know will cover 8×10,” and use them with both 8×10″ and 4×5.” This is because all lenses that cover 8×10″ will cover 4×5″ with a lot of room to spare, but many 4×5″ lenses will not provide sufficient coverage for 8×10.”

Dark cloths will also need to be larger to accommodate 8×10.” Many dark cloths have adjustable collars that can be adjusted to fit the rear standards of either format. Fellow Darkslides member Ryan Gillespie makes excellent dark cloths through his Wanderer brand which do just this and are among the best in the industry.

You will also need to invest in a way to change 8×10″ film if you size up to 8×10.” Many changing bags and tents made for 4×5″ and smaller formats will not work with 8×10.” Like the other accessories, a changing tent that works with 8×10″ will be an absolute palace for 4×5,” so if you think you may ever work with 8×10″ in the future, keep this in mind when shopping for a changing tent or bag. Changing tents tend to be easier to work with than bags, but bags offer much more portability when traveling.

Tripods are another area where you may need to make further investments in order to accommodate 8×10.” All 8×10″ cameras are far larger than other cameras out of sheer necessity, regardless of how light or heavy they are, and all of them likewise benefit from a very stable tripod. The cameras are so large (mostly due to the size of the bellows) that they effectively become a sail during windy conditions, and the tripod plays a major role in making photography possible when the winds pick up. If you utilize compositions that require the camera to be tipped forward or backward, having a stable tripod becomes even more important. As with each of the other categories, investing in a stable tripod will benefit your other camera systems and formats as well.

It probably goes without saying, but you will need to invest in a collection of 8×10″ film holders as well. While this is not a “difference” per se, the larger film holders cost a great deal more (disproportionately so) than their 4×5″ counterparts, so the added expense, weight, and bulk of these larger film holders is something you’ll want to consider when evaluating whether to size up or not.

Lens boards are another area of consideration when thinking about upsizing to 8×10.” You will likely want to invest in an adapter board that will allow you to mount your 4×5″ lens boards on your new 8×10.” For example, I use a Sinar to Linhof adapter board that lets me mount standard Linhof boards onto my 8×10,” despite the Linhof standard being designed for 4×5″ cameras. This means I can use all my lenses on both my 4×5″ and 8×10″ view cameras without the hassle of changing lens boards, which requires disassembling the lens with a spanner wrench – not something you want to do every day if you can avoid it.

Weight

As a general rule, 8×10″ cameras tend to weigh at least twice as much as their 4×5 counterparts. This is obviously better than the 4x increase that would seem to be in order considering the increase in surface area, but it is still a major jump in the weight you have to carry to every photo location. Some of the newer 8×10″ field cameras have come down quite a bit in weight, with the Intrepid 8×10″ clocking in at just over 5 pounds and the Chamonix Alpine (landscape orientation only) 8×10″ coming in at just under 6. Most of the other cameras tend to weigh quite a bit more, often in the 11-13 pound range.

Cost

The cost of the cameras, lenses, film holders and other accessories tends to go up quite substantially with 8×10.” This is not only due to the sheer size but also due to the economics of supply and demand. Large format photography of any kind is already a very small niche within photography, and 8×10″ is a much smaller niche than 4×5.” For this reason, cameras and accessories created to serve the 8×10″ market need to cost a lot more because far fewer copies will ever be sold, while the overhead costs of production tend to be higher. This effect compounds in the used market, with far fewer used copies of any given camera or lens being available. This tends to drive values up over time as used cameras and lenses wear out and the available supply of functioning units contracts further.

Image Quality

If we are honest with ourselves, we all know that 4×5″ provides far more than enough detail resolution than any of us will likely ever need, especially with access to drum scanning services like those provided by Alex Burke and Michael Strickland. Even a simple flatbed scan can provide around 186MP of resolution on the Epson V700 & 800 series scanners, for example. (I use megapixels rather than megabytes as a measure of resolution because these are the units used by the digital camera industry and those we all understand.)

However, for those of us who demand only the best or are simply gluttons for punishment, the 8×10″ format can provide over 700MP of file resolution, blowing away everything else available.

Keep in mind, film resolution does not work the same way as digital, as most digital cameras use Bayer array sensors, which consist of separate red, green, blue, and brightness photosites for each pixel, whereas film contains an organic grain blend of color and luminosity values at every spot on the film, with much finer gradations of color and tone throughout. For this reason, even small film formats can often look subjectively better than digital formats of much higher resolutions when scanned.

In summary, almost no one needs the detail provided by 8×10″ film, but it sure is nice to experience! One application where the added detail of 8×10″ does come in handy is that of printing large murals and wall-sized art installations many feet wide or tall. Because 8×10″ provides more resolution, you can print these large sizes at a much higher DPI which looks much better when viewed close up.

Depth of Field

Most of you are probably familiar with the rather silly debates about the decreased depth of field when moving from APS-C to 35mm “full-frame” digital sensors. It should be obvious why I use quotation marks to say that when we consider these tiny sizes in light of all the medium and large format sizes that are far larger and therefore have a far shallower depth of field. With large format, we find that the depth of field plane is so thin that it makes camera movements and very narrow apertures a necessity in order to get anything substantial in focus in a scene. It is for this reason that most large format cameras use a bellows design that allows for extensive camera movements to be applied in order to manipulate that thin depth of field plane in 3-dimensional space. It is also why large format lenses tend to stop down much farther than their small and medium format counterparts. Minimum apertures ranging from f/32 to as small as f/256 are not uncommon with large format lenses.

8×10″ film cameras have a much thinner depth of field plane than their 4×5″ counterparts. This can make getting a scene in focus from front to back and edge to edge very challenging. Because of this, it may take longer to adjust camera movements to just the exact right configuration required to obtain the maximum possible depth of field for any given scene with 8×10.” You may also need to stop down further in some cases.

The good news is, the procedure for setting up camera movements is exactly the same with 8×10″ as with 4×5,” and with a little practice, you can become familiar enough with focusing an 8×10″ camera that you can comfortably switch back and forth between the large formats without much if any difficulty.

Ground Glass and Composition

One tremendous benefit of 8×10″ film cameras is their massive ground glass, which makes composing absolutely delightful and much easier and more pleasant than it is already with 4×5.” While composing with a 4×5″ ground glass feels like a magical experience, 8×10″ is even more so, and even could be described as sublime.

Conclusion

8×10″ film essentially has all of the aspects of 4×5″ photography but multiplied by 4. If you love 4×5″ you will probably love 8×10″ even more. However, you must consider all the tradeoffs involved, such as the increases in size, weight, and cost. Each medium has its strengths and weaknesses. For example, 4×5″ tends to be much easier and lighter to carry on backpacking trips and when traveling by airplane or other public transportation. 8×10″ tends to be nicer for studio work and landscape work that happens close to the car. Only the pure diehards will be willing to take an 8×10″ view camera deep into the backcountry or on a long flight. However, for those of us who are willing to put in the work and accept the compromises involved in 8×10″ photography, the rewards are equally substantial.

Best of 2019

Lightweight Large Format Photography on a Budget

When you think of large format photography, several things probably come to mind: heavy, expensive, bulky, complicated, difficult. While these may be the stereotypes commonly associated with large format photography, they are by no means traits that must be associated with it in practice. In this article, I’d like to address the weight and bulk concerns, while also taking on the cost concern tangentially as well.

As a landscape photographer, I enjoy hiking and backpacking to find and photograph remote locations in the wilderness, often where no other photographers have worked before. This usually means that I need to traverse canyons, forests, and streams, climb mountains and spelunk into caves to reach my scenes. Regardless of the exact nature of the terrain in which you will be photographing, weight and bulk are drags on your ability to create compelling work. This is due to the fact that weight increases the amount of energy required to hike or walk any given distance with your gear. It also creates a strain on your muscles and bones which leads to back, shoulder, and leg pain as well as fatigue. When you are exhausted and fatigued, you will not be in a good position to be creative enough to produce your best work. This is a simple fact of human limitations. Because of this, I have invested a great deal of careful research and thought into the types of gear I use for my hiking and photography.

When thinking about gear, it is often best to divide and conquer by sorting your gear into systems. Each system is responsible for a different aspect of your operations. For example, you might have a gear storage system which includes your backpack, as well as any gear pouches or wraps which protect your individual items within the larger pack. If you are backpacking, you have a sleep system, which includes your sleeping bag, your sleeping pad, and an inflatable pillow. You also have a shelter system, which includes your tent, stakes, poles, guy lines, and any other accessories such as a ground sheet. You have a cooking system, which includes your stove, cook pot, spoon, and any other related items such as fuel canisters or lighters. Finally, you have your photography system, which includes the camera, lenses, film holders, dark cloth, light meter, filters, tripod, and any other items you carry.

Because I don’t wish to make this article overwhelmingly long, we will have to save the discussion of backpacking gear for another day and focus on that last category, camera systems. I’ll also touch on gear storage systems, as they are necessary to carry your camera gear into the field.

Camera Selection

When selecting a camera for landscape photography, one of my primary considerations (arguably above all else after negative or sensor size/specs) is weight. I also consider bulk to be closely related. I look for cameras that are both compact and lightweight. This probably seems a little crazy when you consider that I am a large format photographer, but when you think about it, weight and bulk are more important than ever when working with large format because we are already operating at a strong disadvantage in these areas.

The Intrepid Camera 4×5

If you are looking for a large format camera that is compact and lightweight, you have a few options. The first and foremost option is the Intrepid Camera, which are the cameras that I currently choose to work with. You will certainly be able to find numerous other camera companies who make cameras that are more luxurious to work with, have more features, better fit and finish, and superior materials. However, they are not purpose built with weight and bulk as primary considerations, and as such are frequently heavy, expensive, and complicated.

The Intrepid Camera 4×5 costs £280 GBP or $354 USD and weighs 1.1kg or 2.42lb.

Intrepid 4×5 Mk. 4, viewed from the rear with front rise

Intrepid 4x5, Mk. 4

Intrepid 4×5, Mk. 4 viewed from the front with some front rise, swing, and tilt

The Intrepid Camera 8×10

The Intrepid 8×10″ Mk. 2 is very lightweight and compact for an 8×10.”

My current primary camera which is the workhorse for most of my trips at the moment is the Intrepid 8×10. I had the unique opportunity to help develop this camera from its inception, and it has become my favorite camera to date. It has proved reliable, lightweight, compact, and extremely capable.

The Intrepid 8×10″ Mk. 2 viewed from the rear standard

The Intrepid Camera 8×10 costs £480 GBP or $607 USD.

What I Look For in a Camera

When it comes time to find a camera, I look for one that is affordable, lightweight, and compact, because these are the metrics for success in the use case I need the camera to serve. The Intrepid cameras tick all of these boxes. They are simple, rugged, compact, lightweight, and extremely capable pound for pound. To put this in perspective, I can create virtually all of the images with the Intrepid that I could with an Arca-Swiss, but at roughly 1/15th the cost and about 1/2 to 1/3rd of the weight, depending on the configuration. For me, this is a no-brainer.

Obviously, some of my friends here at the Darkslides take the opposite approach, which is perfectly fine. Photography is all about having memorable experiences while making meaningful images with cameras you enjoy using. Everyone will have different preferences as to what they enjoy and value.

As I mentioned above, it’s all about selecting a camera for your needs and your budget. My needs are that the camera must be compact and lightweight, and it must be affordable to own and replace if necessary. Landscape photography is notoriously rough on camera gear. I could destroy and replace my Intrepid 8×10 camera 15 times over for what it would cost me to purchase even a single Arca-Swiss 8×10 and carry two or three of them on my back for the equivalent weight. So for these reasons, I’m willing to accept some tradeoffs in other areas. Whether you are or not will be up to you to decide.

Some Important Background Notes

In the interest of full disclosure, I will mention that I have been working extensively with Intrepid on the development and field testing of their cameras for several years now. Many of my images have been used to promote their cameras around the world. As a result, I’ve received all but one of my 6 Intrepid cameras for free in exchange. I stand 100% behind the company and recommend their cameras regardless of this arrangement. Their track record for customer service is excellent, and they have been aggressively responding to customer feedback and improving their products constantly. I can think of no other company in the large format industry which has a comparable record. It is important to note that I was only ever given the newer cameras because of the work I’d created using an early (and admittedly much buggier and less featured) version of the camera which I paid for entirely with my own money. I do not receive any commission or other payment from the company in exchange for the numerous cameras I’ve sold for them, and the cameras I’ve received were all for testing, development and review purposes.

For what it’s worth, my digital images were also used in the past to promote both Canon & Fujifilm’s cameras, and I do not currently even shoot, let alone actively recommend, either of those brands. I say this to clarify that these arrangements do not in any way buy my loyalty or recommendation of a camera or brand, and I reserve the right to change brands and recommendations at any time.

Now, let’s look at several competing options in the area of lightweight large format cameras:

Chamonix Alpinist

Chamonix Alpinist 8×10, front view

Chamonix Alpinist 8×10, side view

Chamonix makes an 8×10 camera known as the Alpinist, which only works in the horizontal orientation. To make a vertical composition, you must turn the camera sideways on the tripod, as you would with a 35mm camera. The camera does, however, feature a very nice fit and finish. It weighs almost the same as the Intrepid 8×10, at 5.48lb, or 2.49kg. The camera costs €4,690 EUR or about $5,261 USD.

The price tag alone essentially disqualifies this camera from consideration for the purposes of this article, as it is not affordable at all and is rather heavy. I include it here for reference so you can see what is out there, and how some of the other options compare. I also chose not to include the Ritter camera here, because it is too expensive and too heavy to fit in the affordable lightweight category.

The primary benefits of this camera are the build quality and low weight. The primary downsides are the very high cost and the lack of a way to rotate the back, which can be very limiting in the field. If you like the high quality, can afford the price tag and don’t mind the limitations, it could be a great camera for you. Its bellows supports lens extensions ranging from 60mm to 570mm.

 

Gibellini Proxima

Gibellini Proxima 4×5, showing off some flex

If you are looking for uniquely designed affordable lightweight 4×5 view camera, Gibellini makes their Proxima camera model, which is entirely 3D printed in white. The camera can handle bellows extensions ranging from 50mm to 380mm, or 400mm with their available bag bellows. It ranges from €379-499 EUR ($425-560 USD) in price, depending on the configuration. The Proxima weighs 1.4kg or 3.09lb. I don’t have any personal experience with this camera, but I do enjoy looking at pictures of it on the internet!

The Gibellini Proxima is a very unique and beautiful camera

Standard Camera

The Standard 4×5 is the only current monorail that can truly be considered both lightweight and affordable.

Standard is a new entry into the world of large format photography. Their only camera model right now is a unique 4×5 monorail that is both lightweight and affordable. It is truly unique as most monorails are very heavy by comparison. The Standard Camera 4×5 weighs in at only 2.3lb (1.04kg), or roughly the same as an Intrepid 4×5. It costs just $360 (€321 EUR), which is quite reasonable for a new large format camera. It also has the distinction of being the only camera that is available in pieces for you to assemble at home like a LEGO set. This makes it a fun project for makers and tinkerers. You can also save a bit of money (-$40/€36, making the camera $320/€285) by opting to assemble the camera yourself. I am currently considering adding a Standard Camera to my lineup as it represents the first time a monorail design has been light enough to meet my personal camera weight requirements. Monorail cameras provide a wider range of movements than their folding field camera counterparts, which makes the Standard Camera compelling even for those who already have a field camera.

The Standard 4×5 Monorail collapses down quite small, especially for a monorail!

There are of course a few cameras also available on the used market which may come close to this weight class and affordability level. My goal here was to cover a handful of the currently available newly manufactured affordable lightweight large format camera options as of 2019.

The Standard 4×5 is a beautiful camera with a simple, modern design.

Lens Selection

Next to your camera, selecting your lenses is one of the biggest opportunities to save weight. As a general rule, for wilderness landscape photography on large format film, you will want to buy lenses with narrow maximum apertures. Granted, you will have a brighter image on the ground glass with faster maximum aperture lenses, but you will pay major penalties for that convenience in weight, bulk, and cost.

The Schneider-Kreuznach Angulon 90mm ƒ/6.8 is truly tiny, at about the size of a 35mm lens cap or Micro 4/3 pancake lens! The rear element is nearly flat.

My lightest lenses have maximum apertures ranging from ƒ/6.8 to ƒ/8. They include a diminutive Schneider Angulon 90mm ƒ/6.8 for 4×5 and an also impressively small Fujinon C 300mm ƒ/8 which covers both 4×5 & 8×10.

I mount all my lenses in Linhof boards, which saves weight while also allowing me to use them on both my 4×5 and 8×10 cameras. To fit the lenses to my 8×10, I simply carry a Linhof-Sinar adaptor board, which mounts to the camera and allows it to accept my Linhof lens boards. This saves a lot of weight and cost vs. carrying separate lenses for both cameras or carrying multiple heavy Sinar lens boards for my 8×10.

A Note on Tripods

It is difficult to recommend anyone specific tripod, as the best tripod for you will depend on what type of camera you go with, how tall you want it to extend, and how small you want it to collapse. It will also depend on your budget and on weight, as well as availability considerations in your area (shipping tripods internationally can be quite expensive).

However, as a general set of guidelines, look for a rigid carbon fiber tripod that is fairly compact and can fit easily strapped to the side of your backpack. I tend to go with a tripod that is a little smaller than would ordinarily be recommended for my camera, as the cameras I use are so lightweight that they work well with lightweight tripods. You will find that as you make one thing lighter, you can also make another thing lighter as a result. A heavier tripod will, of course, be more rigid, but you can usually find a good balance of lightweight to rigidity with a medium-sized carbon fiber tripod.

Saving Weight with Accessories

Even after you’ve knocked out a lot of weight with your camera and lens selections, there are still dozens of other areas where you can save weight and cost in your large format photography setup.

Film holders are one of those areas. Wooden film holders are substantially lighter than their plastic counterparts, and in my experience have proven significantly more reliable as well. Furthermore, they can also be cheaper if you are patient and know where to look. My 8×10 film holders are vintage Kodak-Graflex wooden ones made in the 1920s, which I purchased on eBay for just $30 each. They weigh in at 520g each, which is even lighter than the brand new Chamonix wooden film holders with carbon fiber darkslides that cost $300 each, or 10 times as much. Intrepid has also just released some new wooden 8×10 film holders if you would like to purchase some new stock that hasn’t been used for many years and are still quite affordable and light. I’ve purchased all of my film holders on eBay.

Light meters typically weigh about a pound or half a kilogram. A couple of years ago, when Alan Brock and I were one day into a 5-day backpacking trip, both of my light meters decided to permanently stop working. They are rather expensive and heavy, so I was reluctant to replace them. I never did. For the past two years, I’ve done 100% of my large format photography using only a free iPhone app as a light meter, with good success and almost no exposure errors. Of course, this requires some knowledge of how various film stocks will behave in different lighting conditions, but you need that regardless of what type of light meter you use. This has allowed me to save a lot of money and 1-2 pounds of weight in my pack, which in turn cancels out the weight of a lens or two. Your mileage may vary, as they say, but don’t feel compelled to buy a light meter simply because others use them. They are a very nice luxury to have, but not essential.

Wanderer Dark Cloths are the best I’ve seen and used to date.

Dark cloths typically also weigh around a pound or half a kilogram. I do use an excellent dark cloth made by Wanderer Photo Gear for my photography that does not involve backpacking. These are the best dark cloths I’ve seen and used to date. They are available in a wide range of fabrics, including lightweight & waterproof versions, as well as numerous colorful and patterned options.

However, when going on overnight trips I simply use one of my jacket layers as a dark cloth, and that works quite well. Remember, something that is rain or windproof is also light proof. A wind or rain shell, fleece or puffy jacket will make a great dark cloth if you simply slip the collar around the rear standard of your camera (face down) and stick your head in through the torso opening at the bottom. I’ve used this setup numerous times to create many of my favorite images. To put this in perspective, my dark cloth weighs about the same as my R5.7 winter sleeping pad and consumes about the same amount of pack space. This is a substantial saving!

At the time of writing, Wanderer Photo Gear has recently announced a new ultralight version of their dark cloth (I had requested this version be considered after testing their standard design for them when it was first released). There is a possibility this one might be light enough for me to consider taking it backpacking. I will have to test one first to find out, but it looks promising. As another disclaimer, I received my current Wanderer dark cloth for free in exchange for providing field testing and feedback. However, I was blown away by the build quality and design, and recommend it whole-heartedly. They are well worth every penny.

A film changing bag looks like a T-shirt on which the bottom and neck were sewn shut. It is almost as light.

While we are talking about things I skip, I should mention something I don’t: a film changing bag. This is an area where I consider that savings to be “stupid light.” If I run out of film on a multi-day trip and have no ability to reload, my trip is over in terms of photography. For this reason, even on a 5-day trip, I carried two boxes of film containing over 120 sheets, and a small and light field changing bag for 4×5. I also carried 6 film holders (which is almost two full days worth of photography for me, at 12 exposures), because being forced to stop and load film holders in the middle of rapidly changing light is no fun at all. Note that this only applies to multi-day trips. On single day trips, I carry 2-4 film holders for 8×10 and 4-6 for 4×5 (depending on my plan for the day) and do not reload.

Carrying Your Camera Gear

There are a couple of features I look for in a camera backpack, and they tend to be much the same as the criteria for cameras. I want a pack that is rugged, purpose-built, lightweight, and affordable. I also want a pack with conveniently placed zippers that make accessing my gear a breeze. When I say “purpose-built,” I don’t necessarily mean for photography per se. Oftentimes backpacks made for photography are strictly designed to carry cameras, at the expense of all other functionality. This creates a problem because wilderness landscape photography involves far more hiking and backpacking than photography. A bag designed for urban or semi-urban (within easy walking distance of a parking area) use will often not be practical to use on a long hike or multi-day backpacking trip.

Camera Bags for Lightweight Large Format Photography

For this reason, I tend to find that backpacking bags work the best for landscape photography. As a result, I use a backpacking bag and simply pack my camera gear in protective cases or wraps inside it, along with all my hiking and backpacking gear, food, water, clothing, shelter, sleeping gear, etc.

The Mountainsmith Tanucklite 40 holds an insane amount of gear relative to its liter rating. I fit both my entire 8×10 & 4×5 systems, including lenses and film holders, inside with room to spare for additional hiking gear!

Mountainsmith Tanucklite 40, zipped open, showing off its optional cube system

Remember, we are looking for a bag that is also very lightweight, while also meeting the aforementioned requirements. These limitations essentially narrow the field to just panel-zipper loading ultralight backpacking bags, of which there are not many on the market. The pack I currently use is an Ultralight Adventure Equipment (ULA) Camino 2, which is a 75-liter ultralight backpacking and travel bag featuring a panel-loading design. A pack that I have also been considering recently is the Chris Burkard Mountainsmith Tanucklite 40, which features a very similar design with some more photography-centered features. I had the unique opportunity to test my gear out in Chris Burkard’s personal prototype of the bag before it was released to the public. The Tanucklite 40 is officially labeled as a 40-liter bag, but I have personally tested it and found it to easily hold all the same gear that fills my 75-liter bag, so it seems to be quite conservatively rated in terms of capacity.

Back of the ULA Camino

Back of the ULA Camino

ULA Camino 2, zipped open

The panel loading design allows instant access to gear without undoing the top of the bag.

The Camino 2, like many ultralight cottage-industry bags, looks a lot like most heavy, traditional backpacking bags you might find at REI or other outdoor retailers. It just weighs a LOT less, while costing about the same!

The reason I use the bag that I do is primarily due to weight. Many comparable bags weigh around 5-6 pounds completely empty. By comparison, my bag weighs in around 40 ounces or 2.5lb. To put that in perspective, this weight savings in the backpack fabric alone entirely cancels out the weight of my large format 4×5 field camera.

I then continue this approach within the bag itself. I have modified the pack by cutting off many extraneous features that I don’t use, shortening all straps to only the required lengths, and simplifying or removing heavy buckles and closures. To store my camera gear within the pack, I have made a couple of padded inserts using Reflectix insulation, which is sold by the roll at home improvement stores for about $10. This may sound like a rather unorthodox material to use to house camera gear, but consider that it is waterproof, contains two layers of mylar thermal insulation, and a layer of internal bubble wrap material for padding. It has successfully protected my gear against splashes, heat, cold, and impacts.

DIY Camera Inserts

DIY Home Depot Reflectix case housing Intrepid 4×5. This one has been through the ringer. Note compartment at the top for 4 film holders. Side houses 3 lenses and sometimes a meter & filters.

These cases have survived multi-day backpacking trips trekking through chest-deep water, spelunking trips being dragged through caves, and countless day hikes in rugged and remote areas. They cost me about $3 worth of materials and weigh 3 ounces (85 grams) for the 4×5 kit case. Each case houses my camera, 3 lenses, and 6 film holders, as well as a light meter and filters. My 8×10 case weighs around 5 ounces (142 grams) and has worked similarly well.

To put this in perspective, when I went to find a commercially available case to do the same job, the lightest one I could find for 4×5 weighed in at well over a pound (18oz / 510g or so) completely empty and cost around $80-100. Furthermore, the commercially available cases left empty space in my pack because they fit my gear poorly. The custom DIY cases fit exactly around my gear with no room to spare, making for very efficient use of pack space. By saving this much weight and cost on cases to house my camera gear, I have canceled out the weight of one or two of my lenses and saved enough money to help pay for them too.

Using a Lens Wrap as a Camera Insert

A large lens wrap makes a great camera wrap.

If you are not too excited about the idea of building a case out of repurposed insulation, there are some other options. One that I frequently use is a large lens/camera wrap. This one is made by Tenba, but there are many brands available. They have 4 velcro tabs which allow you to securely wrap just about anything securely. Paired with a ground glass protector, they can house a 4×5 easily and do a good job of protecting it.

There’s an Intrepid 4×5 hiding in there.

I also use these to hold lenses and film holders.

Conclusion

Me, shooting 8×10 in the field, super happy and energetic because I didn’t have to carry a ton of weight out there to enjoy some large format photography.

It may seem silly to focus as much as I do on the weight of the year you carry and make the compromises I do. However, I can absolutely vouch for the fact that this stuff matters. Making my gear as light and compact as possible has fundamentally changed the game of my photography. It has increased remoteness and technicality of the locations I’m able to hike to. It has decreased muscle fatigue and back pain, increased energy and comfort, and decreased recovery times after returning home. I am able to camp in comfort and warmth with adequate food and water while still bringing a large supply of film and lenses which allow me to photograph uncompromised for days at a time – all with about 34 pounds (15.4kg) on my back for a 5-day trip. The end result of this is that I am able to capture large format film images while carrying less weight and bulk than most 35mm digital landscape photographers do on comparable trips. To me, that makes it all worthwhile.