Photographing Wildlife with a Large Format Camera and Expired Film

Photographer Markus Hofstätter discovered a family of swans and, over time, gained their trust enough to approach and photograph them. Eventually, he decided to do so with his large-format camera and an expired Kodak Readyload film. Hofstätter, based in Austria, is primarily a collodion wet plate artist and teacher who focuses on portraiture. During the […]

Photographing Wildlife with a Large Format Camera and Expired Film

Photographer Markus Hofstätter discovered a family of swans and, over time, gained their trust enough to approach and photograph them. Eventually, he decided to do so with his large-format camera and an expired Kodak Readyload film.

Hofstätter, based in Austria, is primarily a collodion wet plate artist and teacher who focuses on portraiture. During the quiet periods of the pandemic lockdown, Hofstätter began taking long walks to Donauauen, a mixture of forest, swamp, and side streams of the river Danube.

During one of these walks, he discovered a family of swans with five babies, also called cygnets, and began bringing his DSLR with him thereafter. As time went on, the swans allowed Hofstätter to come closer, which led to him finding their hidden nest and also solidified his interest in wildlife photography.

As someone who has been shooting analog photography and has used medium and large format for quite some time, Hofstätter’s first thought was to photograph the swans’ nest on a collodion wet plate.

“I enjoy the haptics, deceleration, and limitation when shooting film,” says Hofstätter. However, the lockdown restrictions at the time wouldn’t have permitted that nor did they allow having a shoot assistant, which took collodion wet-plate out of the equation.

Instead, Hofstätter opted for the large format 4×5 Linhof Technika camera and a borrowed 400mm Tele Xenar lens. He also selected an expired Kodak Ektachrome E100S double-sided Readyload film and the rare Fuji FP100C peel-apart film. Due to the expiry date of the film, Hofstätter slightly overexposed the negatives.

Although medium and large format might not be the first natural choice for wildlife photographers — even though it can create beautiful results — Hofstätter explained to PetaPixel that it can be a “perfect combination” if you don’t shoot fast-moving animals.

Hofstätter has also tried to shoot wildlife with the medium format Mamiya 645 before, but the combination of manual focus while shooting wide open and handheld — seeing as he doesn’t like to use tripods with this particular camera — made it cumbersome. For that reason, Hofstätter got himself Mamiya AFD II, an autofocus medium format camera. Although he didn’t photograph the swan family with this camera on this occasion, it’s a camera he has successfully used for wildlife.

Shot using manual focus camera Mamiya 645E with Fuji Superia (2014)
Getting focus right with the manual focus Mamiya 645E can be difficult at times

This time, shooting with Linhof Technika, he set up the frame on his ground glass, put the film holder in, and sat beside the camera to wait for the right moment to release the shutter with the cable release.

“It was mostly sitting and waiting and enjoying nature,” he recalls.

“On the first day I realized how sensitive these birds are about sounds. They know my voice and all my ‘sounds’ from a DSLR shutter to zipper and so on,” Hofstätter says. “I didn’t think that this silent shutter from the large format lens would surprise them in any way. But after the second picture, it was no longer interesting for them. Just dad came over to me and inspected my big Linhof tripod.”

Photographing birds like swans, who can be protective and even aggressive at times, might seem a difficult and intimidating task. Hofstätter recommends approaching them — and any other animals photographed in nature — with respect and empathy but at the same time without any fear.

For example, Hofstätter noticed a different swan family and kept a good distance away while taking some photographs with his DSLR. When the time was right, he went to sit down by the water, whilst making himself as small as possible, with the swans approximately 30 meters (98 feet) away. The male noticed him and excitedly approached, while Hofstätter remained calm and softly spoke to him.

The male let out a short hissing sound in front of Hofstätter, proceeded to make a high-pitched sound directed to the female, which she repeated back, and then returned back to his family. A few minutes later, the whole swan family, including cygnets, approached Hofstätter, allowing him to enjoy a moment of closeness. Hofstätter didn’t reach for a camera this time, nor did he allow any fear to wash over, which likely could have agitated the birds.

“I never feed them, because they have enough food there from nature. It would be bad for the environment, for them, and also can cause stress if birds are fighting for food,” he says. “As a photographer, I don’t want them to swim in my direction when I arrive, because they think I bring food. I want them to ignore me, like I am a tree. That’s when I can take authentic images.”

When it comes to the technical aspects of using the large format for wildlife photography, Hofstätter makes sure to write a checklist for things to bring — so he never forgets his dark cloth or other essentials, including drinking water — and ensures he’s wearing appropriate clothing and has plenty of bags to protect his equipment. Photographing wildlife near bodies of water means often partially standing in water or rain, with the tripod also placed in dirt and water.

For photographers who haven’t shot a special kind of film for some time, Hofstätter recommends doing a practice run at home to avoid mistakes which can be costly. Although, sometimes errors happen even for the experienced photographers, just like Hofstätter accidentally inserted the film the wrong which can be seen at the end of his YouTube video.

More of Hofstätter’s work, including wet plate portraits, can be found on his website, blog, and Instagram page, while his prints can be purchased here.


Image credits: All images by Markus Hofstätter and used with permission.

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When is Photography No Longer Photography?

With the increasing power of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence available on both phones and PCs, we have reached a point where it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between photography and composites. I’m not here to tell you that there is anything wrong with composites and I must make clear that this piece is […]

When is Photography No Longer Photography?

With the increasing power of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence available on both phones and PCs, we have reached a point where it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between photography and composites.

I’m not here to tell you that there is anything wrong with composites and I must make clear that this piece is not about using filters or editing to edit the appearance of an exposure. In my mind, these are akin to choosing film stock and utilizing techniques such as dodging, burning, and under or overexposing film and enlargements to get to your desired result. These were staples of any professional film photographer.

This piece is about exploring the ethics of using the word “photography” to describe exposures that bear little relation to reality.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a purist. I try not to digitally enhance my images much, but there are times where I must bend to the will of clients and provide them with what they want. I will admit that when I got married last summer, I hired a photographer who specialized in film and asked her not to bring a digital camera.

Although this was simply my preference, clients often look to social platforms like Instagram to see what is possible. Whether that be a client looking for a specific landscape photograph, or a couple wanting an engagement shoot, clients who have only been exposed to modern sharing platforms are more frequently seeing images that have been complemented with automated editing tools that change a photograph into a photorealistic composite.

It is very rare that professional photographers will label images as composites. If you search #composite on Instagram, you’ll find about 700,000 results, the majority of which are of teeth. When you put that into the context of the 50 billion images that have been uploaded to Instagram, the depth of the issue appears.

The old adage of editing was that you could take a good photograph and make it great, but a bad photograph could never be made good. This is no longer true.

By omitting the reality of a published exposure, we have put ourselves in a position in which society never really knows when a photograph is actually a photograph — a representation of the light hitting film or a sensor.

Clients are becoming less attracted to a photographer’s talent used to capture attractive images in-camera, rather how good we are at creating fantasy. Although I have not focused on the prevalence of body editing tools, these are an integral part of that fantasy in portraiture.

Below are some examples of 30-second composites. I’ve done with JPEGs using a popular, commercially available application, and the original images are straight out of the camera.

The results are utterly astounding.

A beautiful daylight shot in Seychelles has been transformed into a dramatic sunset and casual viewers won’t notice some of the imperfections that give away the composite. A photograph of a model I relit and added birds to looks realistic at first glance or the untrained eye. Imagine if I spent more than half a minute on these, then imagine what will be possible in the next five years.

So, are we under any obligation to declare the reality of what we post? On social platforms, a new requirement has emerged that requires influencers to tag posts that are advertisements. So important was it to ensure that viewers understood the nature of sponsored content that posts are now being actively removed when these guidelines are broken.

But there is no such requirement in place for composite photography.

Is it fair to landscape photographers who wake up at 2 AM to hike up a mountain in order to capture a dramatic sunrise on the fifth attempt compete with digital versions of nearly equal visual splendor? Is it fair to portrait artists to compete against computers in creating an image that clients are willing to accept as a flattering reproduction of themselves?

Photojournalists are obligated to provide unedited photographs to news outlets. The rest of us are free to create what we want under the guise of photography.

Is it now the case that what is real is no longer beautiful? And if so, what does that say about us as a society?


The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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