Assignment Brief

The first formative assignment of 2019 sees us having to use the 5×4 large format film cameras to produce a still life image based on “tools and utensils”.

The assignment is a formative one and requires us to work towards the submission of a single 12×16″ (A3) black and white print with clean white borders.

Initial Idea

As soon as the assignment was given to us, I had an idea (which is unusual for me). Seeing as I spent eighteen years working as a panelbeater (fixing cars after people had smashed them up), I thought I could use some of my old kit as the items I’d use in my studio session(s).

The evening of the day we’d been given the task was spent digging out some hammers and dollies (lumps of shaped metal you place behind the panel you’re repairing as you hit it with a hammer) from my toolbox in the garage that hadn’t seen the light of day in a while. I then spent some considerable time trying to arrange these items into something that would make for a nice image. I wasn’t happy with them and so decided to do some research.

The image below shows what I was thinking of for the hammers and dollies.

This looked ok and was exactly what I took to be required from this assignment but, I just thought I’d have a look at other hammer related images out there.

A considered just throwing several hammers onto the infinity curve table and taking a shot of them as they ended up on it, but thought it might be better with something else in the shot as well.

For me, when I think of a hammer I also think of nails. An image I liked from my searches was:

I think this is a great shot as it says everything that needs to be said about this type of hammer. It’s a picture of a hammer laid on wooden floorboards with some nails…say no more. It’s actually a nice looking shot as well, although I’d probably have laid it out the other way around so that the hammerhead was in the lighter area of the composition rather than on top of the darker floorboards.

Even though I really like the rustic look with wood and shavings etc, I also like the brilliant, clean white backgrounds of product photography we see online these days. Because of this, and because we’d been shown how to get this effect on the tables in the studio, I decided to go with the brilliant white image.

Above is the scanned image of one of my two negatives from my quick shoot (the person I was working with took up most of the session farting around with their shoot). I ended up taking a couple of very similar shots with the only difference being the amount of light in each. The first was set up with more ambient light, whereas the second had the blinds closed over the two large windows right next to the area of the studio I was using. At this stage, I’m not sure which one of the two is better, but I imagine all will become clear when I get into the darkroom to develop a contact sheet which will put the two side by side for critique.

The Studio Process

Right, now it’s time for me to try and remember, and then explain, the procedure I went through with the 5″x4″ camera shoot to get my two images of the hammer and nails. I suppose I should start by adding the handouts we were given, including the assignment sheet.

As always, click on an image for larger version.

Once I’d decided on the shot I wanted, as per the negative above, it was time to get it all set up and shot. The first thing I needed was a nice, dent-free infinity table. This was found and brought over to the part of the studio I was using. The hammer and nails were put on the table and positioned in a few different ways until I was happy with one. I tried to get different nails to show as some were shiny and others were rusty. I thought this might add a bit of contrast and texture to the image.

Once the hammer and nails were in place, it was time to get the positioning of the camera and the composition of the shot set up. I tried to fill the frame as much as possible whilst trying to retain as much depth of field as I could in order to get as much of the hammer in focus as was possible. With the 5″x 4″ camera, the depth of field is relative to the distance it is from the subject. The further away it is, the deeper the depth of field but, also, the further away it is, the smaller the subject will be. I tried standing the hammer up in a more vertical way so that I didn’t need quite the deep depth of field, but I just didn’t like that look as much as the one I finally went for.

To get the composition correct, it’s necessary to open the shutter with the aperture at it’s widest (f5.6 in our case) to allow you to see your subject. This also allows you to get the shot in focus by adjusting the rollers to extend or shorten the bellows via the roller movement along the monorail.

So, the table’s in place, hammer and nails are in place, as is the camera.

As can be seen from the image above, there were two lights used in the taking of my product shot (the light with the standard reflector dish above the table isn’t involved, as it may appear). I simply went with a large softbox from above at a roughly 45-degree angle downwards, and an under-table light with standard reflector dish pointing upwards in order to illuminate the table surface making a bright white effect.

This is where things get a little confusing for me, as it’s time to start metering for the light that’ll be needed to get the correct exposure. I was needing a large depth of field due to the positioning of the hammer so decided on the smallest possible, which was f64. This was calculated using the Cambridge Calculator for depth of field. To use the calculator, I had to make a note of the focal length of the lens I was using as well as measuring how far I’d set the camera up from my subject. Inputting this data into the Cambridge Calculator tells you how deep of a depth of field you will have. This then allows you to make an informed decision about where to focus on your subject, depending on what you want in focus and what you don’t mind having out of focus.

From my set up and calculations, I was able to get the hammerhead, and most of the hammer’s shaft in focus with only the hammer’s handle starting to drop out of focus. This was perfectly fine with me as it was the head and nails that I mainly wanted in focus.

Now, I’ve kind of got my head around that depth of field process with regards to the 5×4 camera, but now comes another bit I’m still struggling to get clear in my mind; the light metering.

Right, so I want an aperture of f64 to give me a deep depth of field…sorted. I then use a light meter on my subject to see what the studio lights are actually giving me on the settings I dialled in as a preliminary guess. I need to get the light meter to say f64 after I’ve set the iso to 400 (this is the speed of the film I would use). My initial metering was on the subject of my composition with just the softboxed light flashing. The under table light would be done separately, once this first light was set. That initial metering showed an aperture reading of just f11 due to the small actual aperture of f64 on the camera (not much light getting in). In order to get the light meter to show the f64 I needed, the power of the light was increased on every subsequent meter taking until it was achieved.

Having said all that, I forgot a very important part of this process; exposure factor! Right, this is a calculation that has to be worked out to give you a more accurate aperture setting for your shot that will take into account the length of the bellows on the camera which you have had to shorten or lengthen in order to get your subject in focus. The longer the bellows, the further the light has to travel from the lens to the piece of film that will capture the image. The further the light has to travel, the less bright it will be (where’s that mind-blown emoji when you need it?). To work this out you measure the length of the bellows and take a note of the focal length of the lens you are using. You square the bellows length and square the focal length number of the lens. You then divide the bellows result by the length result, which gives you a number. This number is your exposure factor.

For example:

I had a bellows length of 250mm, which I multiplied by itself to get 62,500

I then did the same with my lens focal length of 210mm, which gave me 44,100

I then divide 62,500 by 44,100 to get an exposure factor of 1.4

A general rule with this exposure factor is to half it and add that number to your aperture setting. Because I had a factor of 1.4, I could round it down to 1 which would mean I don’t have to adjust my aperture setting at all as 1 is natural exposure aperture setting. (I’ve since found this to be true, but not true. An easier way to go about this is to use 0 as the starting point. So, because I had an exposure factor of 1.4, which I rounded down to 1, I could have added half a stop to my light settings).

Now that the softboxed light that would illuminate the subject of the shot was set, it was time to turn it off and set the under table light. From what I’ve been taught, this light would have to be a stop brighter than the upper light in order to give me the nice clean white surface that my subject sits on. To set this, I laid the flash meter on the table, pointing downwards towards the light and fired the flash. This gave me the reading at iso400 (the speed of the film I was using) and the flash power was adjusted until I got a reading of one stop over the f64 of the upper light on the subject. According to my understanding of the aperture chart, this was f88. I ended up settling for a flash meter reading on the table of somewhere in the 70’s as I believed this would also work ok (I guess I’ll find out if I was correct when I get time to develop the image).

Once the shot was composed and set up, it was off into the developing room to put the two sheets of film into the holder (nipples out and make sure the film is under the slide rails correctly with the cut-out notches at the top-right!) ready to put back in the camera and get the shots.

To get the shots, check the shutter is shut, the aperture and shutter speed is correct (1/125 for this), cock the shutter button and make sure the flash cable is connected. You can fire off a test shot or two as you haven’t removed the panel from the film holder that is keeping it dark in there meaning the film isn’t yet exposed. Once ready to take the shot, remove the front panel (the one nearest the lens), press the shutter button, replace the panel with nipples facing in, take the film holder out and flip it around before replacing back in the camera, adjust anything you might want to, check everything is set, remove the panel protecting this second piece of film, press the shutter button (after you’ve re-cocked it), replace the protective panel with nipples facing inwards and you’re done with the actual shooting of the shot…PHEW!!!

Developing the Film

To develop the 5×4 film is to do exactly the same as you would with the 35mm film we discussed in earlier posts. To get the piece(s) of film to a stage where they are ‘light-safe’, the developing stage starts in the darkroom in complete darkness.

The film(s) are removed from the panel which held them whilst in the camera, before being clamped into place on the frame they will sit in the stand in which will, in turn, be placed in the developing chemicals. The length of time the film needs to be in the developer chemical depends on its speed rating. We were using Ilford 400 for this assignment which requires a developing time of 7.5 minutes. This was followed by the usual 1 minute in the Stop and 10-15 minutes in the Fix, before another 10-15 minutes in the Wash. After this is done, the frame is placed in the dryer for about 20-minutes to dry. If there are water marks on the film (luckily there wasn’t on mine), simply place it back in the wash for a minute or two and re-dry.

Developing the Negatives

The above image shows one of the two negatives I produced from my shoot, which I would now take into the darkroom to develop and see what I had at the requested A3 (12″x16″) size.

The initial step I took was to have a look at both negatives, side by side, on the lightbox to compare them and get an initial idea as to which one I’d like to use. They were pretty similar but the one I’d shot with more ambient light in the studio was definitely lighter and looked the better option. This was the negative I decided to work with first (once I’d done my contact sheet of them both).

To get that contact sheet, I simply placed the negatives straight on top of a piece of photographic paper which was laid in position on the enlarger’s baseboard. I used grade 3 and did a test strip of 5-second increments to get a good enough exposure time. I found that 10-seconds was about right and so went with that on my version of a full contact sheet. This wasn’t a great exposure as the background, above the hammer, had gone a little dark. Not to worry though, it’s just a contact sheet to see the differences between the two slightly different shots and it was good enough for that.

The brief wanted a 12″x 16″ final image with a neat border. I decided to go with a half inch border and so set my frame up to 11″x 15″ as this would get me that size border. I then made sure I had the correct negative (the lighter of the two) and put it into the negative carrier, making sure it was in there with the emulsion side facing downwards.

It was now a case of getting the light from the enlarger and the image from the negative into the correct position within the baseboard frame. At the same time as doing this, I adjusted the focus until I was happy with both the composition within the frame and the focus of the image.

Once this was set, it was time to crack on with the fun part of getting the best exposure and seeing what I’ve got for assignment submission.

First thing to do was do a few test strips to get the exposure correct. The image below shows the progressive steps I went through to get to my final image settings.

Starting from the left, it can clearly be seen that I wasn’t going to need much time on the enlarger light clock as everything was looking dark. I’m not quite sure what happened to the first two attempts at getting the exposure right as everything was really dark, even at 5-seconds under the light. Things started to go as I’d expect from the third test strip as 15-seconds and a tweak of the contrast, via the grade setting on the enlarger, looked to be the order of the day.

It was a process of trying different exposure times and upping of the grade setting on the next few test strips until I got to the settings I was happy with. These settings turned out to be:

  • Exposure time: 9-seconds
  • Grade: 5
  • Aperture: f11▼16

The aperture ended up being on the notch between f11 and f16, which I believe would be said as, “f11 v 16”? I thought I’d try and get a symbol that represents that in text and believe the one I used shows that well. If I were using my DSLR, that f-stop would be either f13 or f14.

Once I’d reached the exposure I liked using the negative I thought would be the best (the lighter one), I thought I use the same settings on the other negative (the one with less ambient light at the time of shooting) just to make sure I was going to be submitting the better of the two.

The image below shows the two shots together. The top one is the lighter and the bottom one is the darker. I decided I had indeed gone with the better of the two as it was the brighter white background I was after.


Even though I’d decided on the shot I was going to use, it wasn’t really going to be a good idea to do so. This wasn’t because of anything I’d done wrong but rather that the dryer decided it was time for lunch and tried to eat my images as I fed them through it. Luckily, it was an earlier shot that I hadn’t lined up brilliantly in the frame that got completely eaten and had to go in the bin. Out of these two, though, it was the one I was going to use that had the corner flicked over and stuck to itself which meant I’d have to do yet another print. This was done on the following day as I ran out of time on this first day of printing.

The following day was easy enough as it was a case of getting the same setup as I had the previous day and make sure I got to the dryer whilst it was still in a useable state and hadn’t got itself too hot. The lesson I took from this is that the dryer starts to curl paper up around its roller inside when it’s been on for a while and got hot.


Final Image and Contact Sheet

Good Points

I really like the fact that I’ve now had the chance to shoot an assignment on a super cool 5×4 camera and also had the opportunity to use an infinity curve table to shoot a product shot with blown out background as per the images I see on the internet every day. As boring as it may be to most people, I’ve always wanted to do product photography of this sort. Next, I want to use a mirror to sit the product on to get only a bit of reflection of the lower portion of the product. At this stage, I don’t know exactly how that is done but I’m guessing it’s done with the help of Photoshop and, probably, a mask to rub through.

I’m also happy with the overall look of the image as I feel I’ve got it nice and sharp in both the focus and the contrast. The writing on the side of the hammerhead is readable as well as the detail in it from its machining. I’m liking the bright white portion of the head as this shows that it’s a nice bright, shiny metal hammerhead, even though the image is black and white.

I deliberately chose some shiny new and some old rusty nails to scatter around as I thought this would help to add depth to the image with the contrast between the two sorts. I think this has worked and does as I wanted. The nails to the righthand-side of the image are darker than those on the left, but this is because of the fill light coming in onto the side of the hammer from the left. This is fine but maybe something I’d consider trying to even out with the use of another light with a snoot, maybe, now that I’m a little more familiar with the 5×4 system and can, hopefully, relax a bit more and spend more time on my composition.

Bad Points

Right, there’s a mark on the negative that shows up like a sore thumb of the hammer’s handle. There isn’t anything I could do with this apart from trying to scratch it out. I didn’t really fancy trying that after the time it had taken to get to my final print.

There appears to be a mark on the shaft of the hammer, just above the handle grip. It looks like some kind of water mark which didn’t appear on my previous images of the day before. This leads me to believe it isn’t on the negative but has, instead, come about at some stage of my developing on the second day…gutted.

The final two faults I can see with my final print are the black specks on the white background parts and the hairline mark up at the top of the frame. The hairline mark is probably just that, a hair or scratch on the negative. If it’s a scratch, it could have occurred in my attempt to clean the negative. The black specks came from inside that goddam dryer that is quickly starting to get on my nerves! I didn’t get to some of them quick enough and, as a result, I can’t get them off. I assume they’ve dried in place.



Due to the slight technical issues and blandness of my final image, I genuinely thought I’d be getting my usual grade of somewhere within the 2:1 region. As it turns out, though, I got a very satisfactory 72%, which has me just squeezing into the first of the ‘Distinction’ FDA Grade range. This is also an ‘A’ grade which is a ‘First’. That’ll do for me!

I’ve come away from the last few ‘Photo Tech 1’ assignments with grades that are all around this area so I now need to push on and try to cement this level of work up until the end of the first year of my degree by scoring deeper into the Firsts, or at least maintaining where I’ve managed to get to already.

The feedback I received from this assignment was helpful as I now know that I should be filling the frame in the correct orientation right from the point of composing and taking the shot, as well as having it brought to my attention that I could, maybe, have spent a little time burning in the bottom edge and corners to add a vignette around the whole image instead of just across the top.

All-in-all, a good result from this formative assignment. Now to push it for the following summative assignment with more creativity in my composition.