Since returning from Italy in August I have had three sheets of Portra 400 burning a hole in my pocket. The temptation to get the big rig out, (my Tachihara Hope 4x5″ field camera), has been immense, and I have struggled to resist it.

Whilst I was away this summer I shot quite a lot of Portra 400, I shot it in 35mm, 6x6cm, 6x9cm and of course 4x5″. While reviewing my results I came to realise that I need to use the Tachihara for its unique capabilities.

Large format film has some intrinsic qualities borne of pure physics. Being 37 times larger than 35mm film it captures a massive amount of detail. It also offers a very shallow depth of field at comparatively small apertures. My lens is a 150mm f/5.6, which equates to around a 45mm and capable of a very shallow depth of field, however the 90mm f/3.5 EBC Fujinon on my Texas Leica also resolves a fair amount of detail and is easier to use in the field.

The camera itself has adjustable front and rear standards, enabling the photographer to lift, twist and tilt the the lens in its relationship to the focal plane. This makes the camera particularly suited to photography where control over perspective is of prime importance.

An example of good use of the Hope would the image below, in this photo of a house in Sabbioneta I was able to lift/raise the front standard of the camera, (the bit with the lens on it) so that the unnecessary foreground does not appear in the picture. It does this while maintaining a vertical focal plane, (the bit at the back with the film in). The result is an image in which the subject fills the frame and remains staunchly vertical.

So. I’m back in the UK, I have these three sheets of colour film left which is too expensive to waste and I’m unsure what to do with them. I need a tall vertical thing, something with significant fine detail, and something exuding the kind of colour Portra likes to work with.

Then an idea comes to me – the perfect subject, a few years ago I took myself off to Westonbirt Arboretum with a few bags of cameras and shot some stuff, some stuff I liked.

A pal and I bimbled down early and got there as they opened. The light was flat and a little misty so we headed for the Japanese maples in the hope that the light would improve. With only three sheets to work with I was pretty selective, taking a good four hours to shoot them.

A few new things have been thrown up by this new session with the machine, using the lens wide open to focus is bright and easy, and blanket discipline can be relaxed, but the depth of field is so shallow that one can be surprised by what one finds in the frame in the darkroom. What I should have done is close the aperture down and checked the background for unwanted detail – I have had to crop the image below to remove trunk protection that I had not seen on the focusing screen.


Then there is the intriguing issue of depth of field – when photographing the tree at the top of this post, I had a 12 foot gap between the leaves at the front of the tree and the trunk in the centre, and as I wanted the trunk to be a uniting structure, I chose to focus on it and then close the aperture in order to get the rest of the leaves as sharp as possible. This smaller aperture required a longer shutter speed which then allowed the light breeze to shift a few leaves around during the exposure causing a little motion blur.

As we made our way round the park the Hope aroused a lot of interest from those we met, so much so that it was, on occasion, debilitating, especially when trying to frame up on photos. I shall either have to get better at talking about the camera or stop using it, it is out of the ordinary, and people are interested. An unexpected benefit is that people stay out of your frame.

My first 20 sheets of colour have been a rollercoaster, and having now shot more sheet colour than black and white, it seems like it might be time to get monochrome. I am however, very much hooked on large format photography.