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Large format photography with paper negatives

Tagged: paper negative film

I get a lot of questions about how this large format photography thing works. Here’s a short explanation of the process.

The Century Universal in Pennsylvania farmland

The photography that I do with these large format cameras is very similar to the way photography was at it’s invention (minus the corsets and top hats.) Cameras that look like mine first appeared about 1850.

Compared to modern cameras, these are quite simple. You only need a light-tight box with a lens in one end and a film holder in the other. Large format cameras don’t have autofocus or automatic metering. It’s manual all the way.

Unlike roll-film cameras or today’s digital cameras that can take many pictures between loading films (or changing cards), large format cameras shoot one piece of film at a time. A new piece of film must be put in the camera for every exposure.

The camera (pictured above) that I used to make Twin Arches, 12 November 2016 is a Century Universal 8x10. It’s a pre-WWII camera, probably manufactured sometime between 1926 and the start of the war. This is the same camera model that Ansel Adams and Edward Weston used in the ’30s. It makes a negative that is 8 inches by 10 inches.

This particular model is considered a “lightweight” camera. It only weighs about 10 pounds. Shooting with it feels like carrying around a delicate piece of antique furniture. I customized a backpack so I can carry it on my back, and once I throw a sturdy tripod over my shoulder I’m ready to go. This is what qualifies as a “mobile” setup for large format photography.

I make my negatives by exposing photographic printing paper in the camera. Once developed in the darkroom, this creates what is called a paper negative. The tones of the original scene are reversed in the negative. Bright things become dark on the paper, and dark things become light. The paper reacts to light in a very similar way to the way films of the turn of the 20th century. It is pretty slow, and doesn’t record reddish colors very well.

Even though I’m using fresh materials that are still currently being manufactured, I am in a sense doing antique photography. The process and materials are very similar to dry plate photography.

My printing process with these images is similarly antique, also dating from photography’s first invention. I make contact prints from my paper negatives instead of enlargements. The process is called contact printing because I squeeze the negative face down in contact with the sheet of silver-gelatin printing paper and shine light through it to print the image into the paper. The print is exactly the same size as the negative. (This is why I use big cameras!)

I make prints in a traditional darkroom, with red lights and the sound of running water. It’s exactly as much of a refuge as you might imagine. The time I spend in the dark waiting to see the image is incredibly useful. During those waiting times, I’m usually pondering my hopes and dreams for the print I’m making, trying to clarify what I want it to say about the world.

A paper negative being developed in the darkroom

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