What’s in my bag ? (large format kit)

I’m still a relative newcomer to large format photography so I can remember the complicated business of trying to understand all the different bits of kit that are needed. So I thought it might help some readers to see what I carry around in my reasonably minimalist large format bag.

The bag shown here is a Lowepro Nova 180 AW, which seem to sell for around £60 on Amazon but I brought mine for just £1.50 in a charity shop!

Like most photographers I have several camera bags and there isn’t one camera bag which is really good for all situations. This type of bag – with a shoulder strap and a flat base – is good for two types of outing:

a) Not too far from the car – not necessarily because it is difficult to carry but because if I’m going for a long country walk I need something that can also carry waterproofs, food, and drink.

b) Either a nice flat surface where you can put the bag down whilst you select what you need, or at the other extreme a muddy river bank or a beach with incoming tide, when I think it’s actually preferable to keep the bag over your shoulder instead of putting it down.

I won’t talk too much about tripods here except to say this is from the Manfrotto 055 range. I use an Optech strap which is highly recommended for reducing the apparent weight. The blue bag contains the tripod plate shown below:

I try to keep this with the tripod rather than the camera bag, to reduce the number of times I find myself on location with a tripod and a camera bag and realise that the tripod plate is in a different bag with a different camera….

So onto the bag contents.

Above, I’ve taken out the dark cloth (on the left) and a filter pouch (right) so that the other contents can be seen. You can see that the main compartment contains an Intrepid 4×5, two lenses, and two double dark slides.

The dark cloth could better be called a “dark plastic” because it’s not actually cloth. On the positive side, it’s light, packs small, is waterproof, and wasn’t too expensive. However, it’s not breathable so it’s rather like having a cheap waterproof coat over your head. Lots of people choose to make do with a tee-shirt or coat instead. But then you either have to pack that extra item or get cold whilst you take it off.

The Intrepid is a Mk III, which I purchased just after last Christmas to replace the Mk II that I broke when I fell on top of it. The Intrepid web site quotes an order lead time of 6 weeks, and it did arrive bang on 6 weeks after ordering.

I have two large format lenses:

  • Nikkor-W 150mm f5.6 – equivalent to about 50mm in 35mm/full frame terms
  • Fujinon SW 90mm f8 – equivalent to about 28mm in 35mm/full frame terms

So far I have found that these two lenses are sufficient for my needs; my subjects are mainly landscapes and flowers. With other camera systems I have often bought longer lenses but rarely used them, and I don’t have much use for extreme wide-angles.

The last items inside the bag are two double dark slides:

These two DDs hold 4 sheets of 4*5 film and you can see from the label that they are currently loaded with Ilford FP4+ black and white film.

I am sure that many photographers will be concerned at the idea of limiting themselves to four shots in a day. Well, large format has a very different method of working from digital, 35mm, and to a lesser extent, medium format film. Each sheet of film is expensive and it takes some time to get the camera set up, compose, meter, load the dark slide, etc, etc. So it makes sense to try to make each one count, to think of each shot as a potential “portfolio” image, and to only trigger the shutter when you are sure it’s worthwhile.

To be honest, if I consistently got four good quality images from each outing with large format, I’d be delighted.

Admittedly, there is an argument in favour of taking more DDS’s, which is that we all make some mistakes which result in blank, double-exposed, or wrongly exposed film. Sometimes you realise the problem straight away and you can take another shot – unless it’s already the last sheet.

The remaining items are tucked away in various pockets of the bag.

The Sekonic L-758D light meter is the most expensive single item in the bag – more expensive than the camera – and is something of an indulgence for my needs. It can do incident and reflected spot readings, and a lot of things connected with flash that I really don’t need. Some LF photographers start with using a smartphone app as their light meter, or a digital camera, or a much cheaper meter. But I had this one before I started LF and once the initial pain of the purchase price wore off, I have no regrets. It sparks joy.

The only thing I don’t like about it is that it eats batteries. I keep a spare battery in the bag and I also remove the battery when it’s not in use.

Above is a Silvestri 4x loupe. A loupe of some kind is pretty much essential to enable a good enough view of the ground glass to enable focussing. Until recently I used an item which was I think intended for holding and viewing 35mm film strips. I got it for free with a massive bundle of darkroom kit years ago. It did an OK job, the main problem being that it wasn’t easy to attach it to a strap, so one day I dropped it in a Scottish river. I fished it out but some water had got inside resulting in a cloudy view, so it was time to buy a replacement.

A cheap alternative is to use any camera lens, for example a 50mm lens from a 35mm camera, held to the ground glass. You might need to be careful about scratching your ground glass or spectacles, if you wear them.

Next up comes some miscellanous items in another pouch purchased from a charity shop. On the right is the pinhole which fits in place of a lens on the Intrepid – so I have a pinhole capability just by carrying this small and light piece of wood instead of a separate camera. I previously blogged about it here. On the left side is a lens wrench, for tightening the lens to the lensboard if it works loose. I didn’t get one of these when I first started out as I figured that, because I had purchased both of my lenses with lensboards already attached, I wouldn’t need one. However once I found a lens loose on an outing I changed my mind and bought one.

There’s also an Allen key there, which is intended for use tightening tripod locks if they work loose. Having said that I’m not sure it’s the right tool for my tripod so I need to check that out.

Last of all is this assortment of bits and pieces:

  • Two cable releases. Always at least two. I lose them regularly and sometimes they snap or fray. This is an essential item, the rest in this category are less essential.
  • A filter holder for a square filter system, together with adaptor rings for the two lenses, and green, yellow, and orange filters for black and white film. If I was shooting colour, I’d try to remember a polarising filter. I rarely use neutral density graduated filters with either B&W or colour negative film, but I would pack them if I was shooting colour slide film.
  • A cut-down grey card for metering, with a spare.
  • A lens cloth, with a spare.
  • The black item towards the back is a sort of telescopic lens hood which fits to a filter holder. To be honest, I rarely use it, but I probably should more often

All in all, the bag and it’s contents weigh about 4.5kilos, or just under ten pounds. That’s not insignificant but not a massive problem either, and it’s a lot lighter than the Mamiya RZ67 kit I used to carry. I still have the RZ67 but I’m waiting to see if gets any use over the next year before thinking about selling it.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is something that goes in my pocket rather than my bag – a smartphone. In another blog post I will explain what apps I use to help with large format photography.

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