Varanasi with a large format camera

For the last five years, I have organized each year a street photography workshop in India together with my friend Kaushal Parikh. Since the trip was street photography oriented, I had my Fuji X-Pro 2 with me as my main camera. I also wanted an additional camera for portraiture.

India and Varanasi have been shot to death, and I was looking for a different angle from a subject or technique point of view that could make my images stand out. I have a plethora of gear available to me and I hesitated for a long time between a Hasselblad V, a Hasselblad H3D, a 4×5 and even an 8×10. I settled on the Wista 45D, because it would allow me to work with a bit of tilt. For film I settled on Tmax 400 and Foma 100, which would allow me to shoot in different lighting conditions. I also brought a flash kit, predominantly for a model shoot that I had scheduled before the workshop, but I thought it would come in handy to provide fill light when the sun light would be too hard.

In the end, I used the Wista for one set of the shoot with the model, and for a session in a Kusti ring (traditional Indian wrestling) where I had some of the athletes pose for me, and a couple of shots along the Ganges. I shot about 40 sheets with a mix of Tmax 400 and Foma 100.

The results were very much a mixed bag. The shoot with the model Aadhya came out well. Link.  The rest was mediocre at best. The main issue was framing and focus related to the subjects becoming impatient.

In the end, it was not worth the trouble to take the 4×5 with me. I should have stuck with the H3D and carried an extra lens and an extra film back.


Main learnings;

  • The whole setup is heavy and requires a big backpack. During these trips I am walking around for usually two sessions of 3 to 4 hours each and carrying a big backpack can be a drag. There I always the temptation to leave it in the hotel. The best way for me is to carve out dedicated LF shoot slots during the week.
  • The process is too slow. It takes too much time to set up and focus and shoot. Subjects lose their patience. The best way is probably to have a static setup and invite people to have their portrait taken rather than walk around with the camera and set up and break it down each time.
  • For finding subjects while walking around, a Speed graphic is probably a more desirable solution since it can be shot handheld and has a rangefinder for focusing so the whole process is quicker. Shooting environmental portraits can be done with a slightly wider lens, which gives more latitude on DOF and the shutter speed.


On the gear

  • I made many mistakes with the Grafmatic film holders. I had used them a couple of times, but not often enough so that it became part of my muscle memory. I exposed the film a couple of times. The way it is constructed is that if you pull out the dark slide, you are committed to taking the shot. This is different and confusing vs the regular film holders
  • I did not use the flash kit for the large format shoots, simply because there was enough light and it would have taken a lot longer
  • I used the dark cloth folded up and the duvet in a darkened room to load and unload the film holders
  • The Wista held-up – it has a metal body that folds and covers the more vulnerable parts. It weighs 3kg though. I am tempted to take a Dremel tool too it and cut out sections of the shell to take weight off. These bodies are not so expensive on eBay, so I might get a second body to try this with
  • In retrospect I should have stuck with only one type of film, so that there was not risk of confusion
  • I never used the filters. I was planning to test the yellow and yellow-green filters before the trip to see how they would impact the skin complexion, but never got around to it
  • I used the 150mm and the 210, but I never used the 90mm lens


On the travel

  • The security people were curious as to what the camera was. They never asked me to open it though, answering that it is a camera was enough
  • The films went through four x-ray machines as I was not able to convince the security people at the various airports to do a hand search. I have never had issues with MF film, but a lot of the Tmax 400 sheets fogged, while the Foma 100 sheets were fine. I don’t know whether this is the result of how I packed that film or the sensitivity of the film.
  • The airport accelerator backpack worked nicely and was accepted as hand luggage despite being overweight It was relatively comfortable to wear for longer periods, robust and just the right size


Camera gear pack-list

Below the list including the digital gear I had with me for street photography and the shoot with the model

  • Fuji X-Pro2 + 12mm + 23mm + 50mm + 3 spare batteries and charger + small flash
  • Sony RX100 III + 2 spare batteries and charger
  • Godox AD200 + charger + trigger + Godox Octa + extension cord/head + pole and Manfrotto Nano stand
  • Wista 4×5 w 150mm + 210mm + 90mm + Yellow filter + film holders + 2 Grafmatics + 50 sheets Tmax 400 + 100 sheets Foma 100+ empty film boxes + travel tripod and accessories + Dark cloth + Sekonic light meter
  • Thinktank Airport Accelerator
  • Messenger bag (for street photography)