The Influence of Large Format Press Cameras

In my last post I included an except from the Burke & James Press manual where Weegee makes the following claim:

“Don’t worry about a press card. Your B & J Camera will get you through any police or fire line. That’s what the boys on the papers use and you will be one of them.”

Stating that the brand has to be Burke & James is simple marketing. However, if we apply this statement to any model of the giant 4×5 press cameras that news photographer’s used back then, it probably held some weight.

Men admiring a large format press camera

I think it is reasonable safe to assume that back in the 1940’s, every Joe Bystander didn’t have a 4×5 press camera in their trunk, or hung around their neck at all times. If Joe Bystander did have a camera, it was probably a much smaller portable consumer grade camera from the period. Large Format Press Cameras are heavy, bulky, and take a lot of concentrated effort to use on a daily basis. If a police or fireman were to glance over the crowd of bystanders, it was probably safe to assume that the man holding the camera which was larger than his head, was probably the professional journalist of the bunch.

I started to think about Weegee’s statement, and how it would apply in modern times.

Swap out ‘B&J Camera‘ with ‘Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III’ and I think this statement would fall flat on its face. A professional journalist may show up with a top of the line dSLR, but so will the local gearhead who has never shown his work to anybody outside of his Flickr followers. Side by side they’ll probably appear identical to any safety officials. Then add to the crowd any other amateurs who can’t afford the top shelf camera, and any tourists who may be in the area and there is a strong chance that they are using a prosumer camera which will look nearly identical to what the pro and the gearhead are using. I doubt anyone them will be identified as being a journalist without showing some credentials.

But, what if we keep the statement the same as Weegee’s spoke it, and applied it to modern day situations? Could the simple appearance of a large format press camera still influence people, even though they are considered obsolete? I think so.

While out with my own 4×5 press cameras, I would never assume that I could just up and walk past police lines. However, I have noticed that when I do use my press cameras in public, they tend to still have an influence over people which has resulted in me doing things that I’ve never have experienced with my other cameras. I’d like to share with you three short case studies on incidents where I felt something above and beyond happened, thanks to the influence of a large format press camera.

The Burn

Spring 2003. I ‘d only owned my Burke & James Press for about six months at this time, and was still green to using it. I was driving towards the small Wisconsin town where my family lived, and seen a plume of smoke on the horizon. I got close to the smoke and discovered that the town’s old feed mill had been torn down, and the rubble was being burned as a fire control exercise.

I attached my Burke & James to my tripod and started shooting the events. It wasn’t long into the shoot when the man who was funding the burn approached me. It turns out that he wanted some photos of the event, and was taking some snapshots of it himself. He looked at my press camera, figured that it would create much better images than his own, and offered to buy a set of the prints right there on the spot.

So, thanks to my Burke & James 4×5 Press, without even trying, I managed to make prints sales from some free lance work. A sale made before I even had finished shooting the event!

The Carnie

Ride the Bullet

Summer 2004. The carnival was in town. I was planning to go to the carnival once it got dark to shoot some flash photos of the rides with people on them. I ended up running late that night and didn’t actually get to shooting until the carnival rides were starting to get shut down.

I approached the one ride that I really wanted to use in a photo, and nobody was riding it. The operator informed me he was done for the night. With my press camera in hand, I asked if he could give some people one last ride so I could get the images I wanted. The discussion went back and forth a few times, and ended up with him loading up some women for a free ride.

Now, In all the years that I’ve attended small town carnivals, it was a pretty much set in stone rule that getting anything for free from a carnie just did not happen. Thanks to my Burke & James Press Camera, I got two women a free ride from a carnie, and a killer photo to boot. The most I ever got while using my Leica in a small carnival was a questioning by the carnival management to make sure I was taking photos to expose unsafe rides on gossip sites like

The man with no pants

Late Summer 2004: I had just purchased my Anniversary Speed Graphic after breaking my Burke & James, and was heading out to meet some friends at a bar. I thought “What the hell. I’ll bring the Speed Graphic along and show it to them.”

Long story short, thanks to the influential power of my Anniversary Speed Graphic, another patron of the bar was running down main street with no pants on. You know, for the camera.


I hate to say that the gear should ever makes much of a difference, but sometimes, it just does.