Camera moves for dummies like me, Pt.2

Jason Fung is back with what will be a Large Format series on the JCH website! The second installment will be Bring both eyes into focus (forward scan). You can see the first one here. *Note that this is long. Reserve it or grab a coffee and sit down with it.

Scenario 2: Focus on both eyes (forward scan)

In this scenario, we’ll explore a method for shooting portraits with a large format camera. The first problem to solve is to find a subject who is willing to sit still long enough while I determine what movements are needed. Everyone in my family quickly found the exit when they saw me pull out the 8×10 camera. As a result, the only subject not to verbally object or leave the room was this teddy bear. The second problem was that the subject’s eyes were completely obscured by his fur. So I added mine. I hope Hallmark doesn’t mind me adding googly eyes on this bear so we have something to focus on today.


The goal is to bring both eyes into focus. The problem is that when the subject is not completely parallel to the film plane, one of the eyes becomes blurry. You focus on one eye, the other is blurry. You’ll also see this happen when portrait photographers use very fast lenses like the Canon 85mm F/1.2 or Leica 50mm F/0.95. You’ll run into the same problem shooting widescreen at F/9.

Image size, lens focal length, aperture, and subject distance all impact depth of field, which is extremely shallow. I shoot with an Intrepid 8×10 camera with a 4×5 back and a Lomograflox back. I’m using a 300mm lens that Bellamy got me when I walked down that rabbit hole. I will shoot wide aperture at F/8.5. I rated the Fuji Instaxwide at ISO 800 and measured the light at F/8.5 at 1/60th of a second. Understand that the depth of field would be even smaller and more dramatic if shot in 8×10 and I could bring the camera closer. I had enough space on the bellows for that to happen.

Hardest part

The hardest part for me to figure out was how the three planes should be visualized. Back to front… …First is the back standard where the film is, and you’re looking at the frosted glass. The second is the forward standard which is where you place your aim. Finally is the outline of the subject. For most cameras, the rear standard will always be parallel to the front standard. This is how we got strong metal camera bodies and sturdy lens mounts. This makes them simple and reliable. With a large format camera, the rear and front standards can be moved independently. A similar effect can be achieved using a tilt-and-shift lens where the rear standard is fixed and the front standard has some movement.

For the third shot, imagine a shot that intersects both of the bear’s eyes. In an ideal situation, each plane will be parallel and everything will be sharp. This would make things easier and eliminate the need for front swinging. However, we made the creative decision to have the bear sit at an angle, so the eyes couldn’t sit parallel to the back standard. Also, it would be really boring creatively if everyone just sat in front of the camera. At some point, the rear standard and the plane with the bear’s wide eyes will cross paths.

The approach

After understanding how these three planes are visualized, we can begin to discuss how to bring the eyes into focus. The front standard (the one with the lens – the green line) will need to be rotated so that it meets both the rear standard and the plane with the eyes. To do this, we go under the frosted glass. I start by focusing on the closest eye, then move the magnifying glass to the eye that has become blurry. I “tilt” the front standard so that it moves a bit until the eye in the back is in focus. Rinse and repeat. I go back to the nearest eye, focus normally until the nearest eye comes into focus.

After that, I swing the front standard again to bring the back eye into focus. So far I’ve only repeated this once, but it will often take a few tries until both eyes are in focus. Every time I swing the standard forward, I get a little closer to focus. Swinging like this often takes me 3-5 attempts before I’m happily convinced that both eyes are in focus.

Note that in the diagram which I drew with the best of my artistic skills (this is one of the reasons I prefer photography to painting or drawing) is a top view. I don’t fully understand the math behind this, but I imagine the green line intersects the blue line and the purple line somewhere if those lines were to continue past the piece of paper I drew this on.

The top view of the chart is considered the “front swing”. However, as a thought experiment, consider this a side view. The eyes are now two focal points with one further away, like mountains, and the other closer, like boats. Now it starts to look like Scenario 1. It does; except that it is no longer called swing, but front-tilt.

This photo shows how much I ended up rocking the standard before. When everything is in the neutral position, the front pillar is parallel to the rear pillar. The frame holding the front standard would be flush with the wooden plywood – the camera bed. However, because of the front swing I was using to focus the eyes, it created a triangle in the plywood.

That’s why the only volunteer who didn’t object was this teddy bear. Once both eyes are in focus, don’t lose focus. On more than one occasion, I was so excited that everything was finally clear that I forgot to close the preview lever. (It’s happened to every large format photographer I know. It’s practically a right of passage.) Test the shutter several times to make sure everything is working, locked, and the shutter is closed. Then you are free to load the movie and make your image.

Before – F/8.5 – Focused on nearest eye (no swinging movements)

After – F/8.5 – Focused on nearest eye with rocking motions.


In the epilogue, I have two caveats.

The front swing isn’t just for portraits. This can also be applied to the surface of any subject. It’s up to you to set the plane of focus for your subject. This can equally well apply to a building or a piece of furniture. Imagine a photographer taking pictures of cereal boxes. They need to make sure the font on the cereal boxes is clear so everyone knows the cereal they’re photographing is “grrrrrreat!” They can accomplish this with the front swing.

A second note is that this is not the only way to achieve this. Another method is to move the rear pillar so that the rear pillar is completely parallel to the front pillar. It would be a different article. One that I’m not likely to try anytime soon because I haven’t found the need to understand it yet. The image can get a bit wobbly and incomprehensible to me when the rear standard is parallel to the subject but the lens is twisted at an awkward angle.


You can see Jason Twitter here and his website here as it will be a collection of large-format articles on JCH.

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