My Camera and Me: Alys Tomlinson

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“With large format cameras, your equipment becomes your teacher”

Words by Alys Tomlinson, as told by Isaac Huxtable.

In lots of ways, it’s kind of just a secure black box. Large format cameras are unbelievably simple, just light hitting a sheet of glass; all mechanical, no batteries, and not too much that can go wrong. I got my first large format camera second hand 15 years ago. I shot Ex Voto with that, but that model wasn’t meant for field use. It was on a monorail, and didn’t fold up, a lot harder to cart around. One day I decided it was a bit ridiculous that I traverse marshlands while carrying a studio camera on a monorail. That’s when I decided to get the Chamonix, my go-to camera. 

The Chamonix looks old fashioned, but it’s actually made to order. Mine is made in a lovely teak wood, it’s quite elegant. My work involves exploring, and I walk miles and miles sometimes. It’s a lot easier to travel with. I did a lot of research before buying it, you can get quite geeky online when it comes to large format. They’re very loved. 

From the series 'Ex Voto', © Alys Tomlinson.

Chamonix cameras project light directly onto a plate of sheet film, meaning you only get one shot before you have to load again. I love the tonal quality that you get from such a large negative. The sheet is five by four inches, so you get this really beautiful and fine detail.

Personally, I don’t think that there’s that much point in spending thousands and thousands of pounds on a camera. A lot of large format cameras do the same thing, it’s just about familiarising yourself with its controls. I got into large format cameras when I started to research my favorite images, which were all shot in large format. I was shooting commercial work digitally, taking thousands of shots a day, but I really wanted to move up a format, to really slow down, and to really think very, very carefully about what I was doing. 

“Compared to digital, It’s a different kind of discipline.”

Aside from the camera itself, there are a few accessories that are absolutely necessary when you’re working with large format. You need a loop, so that you could look through onto the ground glass and focus. You need a cloth to put over your head to focus, as well as a light meter, and the plate to put the film in. You have to pre-load all the film in total darkness, I use a pop-up loading tent. I always have to guess in advance how many shots I might need, and I’ll never have more than five film holders loaded up, which each take two sheets of film. 

From the series 'Lost Summer', © Alys Tomlinson.

You really have to concentrate, because there’s quite a lot of things that can go wrong. It’s really easy to expose a sheet of film twice. You could accidentally have the shutter open, and then you’ve wasted that film. It makes me very disciplined. If I move the camera even half a metre, I would have to recompose the shot, refocus, start again. Compared to digital, It’s a different kind of discipline.

“I find it quite meditative – you get into a real rhythm with how the camera works, it’s flow.”

Large format cameras can last forever, as long as you store them somewhere secure and safe. There’s still people using cameras that are over 100 years old. They never get dated, as the technology never changes. You might upgrade because you want a more beautiful looking camera, or maybe one that folds down a bit better, but ultimately they are all built on the same model. They’re timeless.

Some days I might not shoot a single plate, if I’m not sure it’s a good image. I’m so much more precise with what I’m photographing and how I’m photographing, because each shot takes so much time. I have to set it up on a tripod, check the composition, the lighting, the weather. I can easily spend over an hour taking one shot. I find it quite meditative – you get into a real rhythm with how the camera works, it’s flow.

From the series 'Ex Voto', © Alys Tomlinson.

When making portraits, you have to have a very patient sitter. It’s never a quick snapshot, it can sometimes take half an hour just to focus. Sometimes the sitter also gets into the zone. It’s a different way of being photographed.

I don’t think one camera type is superior over the others at all. The projects I’m working on are all about reflection, they’re contemplative, quiet, and very still. I don’t think I would achieve that without my camera.

With large format cameras, your equipment becomes your teacher. It forces you to slow down. They don’t have to expensive, and I think it’s a wonderful way to learn photography, because you’re thinking so carefully all the time, and you eventually  see in a different way. My camera is quite formal in sense, but there’s also an intimacy there.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.