working with cut film holders

First, decide what film size you need.

This may sound obvious, but it isn't necessarily so.

This is because there are several 'families' of film holders with the same external dimensions and different internal dimensions for different film sizes. To learn more about these, go to the free module on the large formats. You might also care to look at the free glossary for descriptions of blockform and bookform film holders.

Fidelity Deluxe holders


These both have the same external dimensions but one is 13x18cm and the other is half-plate -- and to make life more interesting, the half-plate holder is marked in inches on one side (4¾ x 6½) and metric on the other (12 x 16.5cm, as seen here). The 5x7 inch version may be marked 5x7 inch or left unmarked.




Toyo Field holder

The way in which the size is marked is by no means consistent. In this 4¾ x 6½ inch Toyo holder the film dimensions are moulded into the plastic itself.

The locating ridge/light trap mentioned in the text below is the line immediately below the logo, about 1/16 inch (1.5mm) wide and about the same high.

For further assistance, we give below the measured external dimensions of a number of blockform film-holders in our possession, in the four most common sizes. Measurements are taken to the face of the locating ridge that is nearest the base of the holder. Inch sizes are given first as these seem to be the original measurements for standardization.

There may also have been roundings to metric sizes which explain why some holders are a tight fit in some cameras but fit well in others, while some are sloppy in some cameras but fit well in others. In general, tolerances of about +/- 1/64 inch (about 0.4mm) seem normal, while about +/- 1/32 inch (just under 1mm) seems to be the limit of ambition for accurate placement of the film in the up/down, left/right planes and +/- 1/16 inch (about 1.5mm) is the usual working standard.

These measurements should not be used for manufacture but are close enough to identify the standards. Note that whereas most holders have a locating ridge that fits into a corresponding groove in the camera body, Graflex holders for reflex cameras have a groove that accepts a corresponding ridge on the camera body.

Nominal format

Base to locating ridge (a)

Width (b)

6.5 x 9cm, 2 1/2 x 3 1/2 inch, 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 inch

3 7/8 inch


3 1/32 inch (fits in 3 1/16)


4x5 inch, 9x12cm

5 1/2 inch


4 23/32 inch (fits in 4 3/4)


5x7 inch, 13x18cm, half plate (4 3/4 x 6 1/2 inch, 12.1 x 16.5 cm)

7 9/16 inch


5 27/32 inch (fits in 5 7/8)


8x10 inch, 18x24cm

10 11/16 inch


9 7/32 inch (fits in 9 1/4)


There are or have been innumerable other sizes over the decades, but the only ones to have had standardized blockform film holders are quarter plate (3 1/4 x 4 1/4 inches), whole plate (6 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches) and 11 x 14 inch. Unfortunately we did not have any of these available for measurement. Some other blockform holders for such sizes as 11x17 inch may be semi-standardized but we have no reliable information on this.

exposed or unexposed?

The sheaths on all modern bookform holders are reversible. Installed one way, they indicate 'unexposed film'. Installed the other, they indicated 'exposed film'. After the sheath has been withdrawn for the exposure, it is re-inserted the other way out.





This difference lies in the grip area at the top, which is normally bright (silver or white) on one side and black on the other. Most photographers use silver/white for unexposed and black for exposed, but a few do it 'backwards'.

On some (far from all) holders, the finger-grips are also textured on one side and smooth on the other so you can tell by touch alone whether the film is exposed or unexposed.

Unexposed and exposed film

The sheath on the upper holder is silver side out, indicating that the film is unexposed. The sheath on the lower holder is black side out, indicating that the film is exposed.


Top of Linhof plate/film holder


Sheaths for Linhof film/plate holders have the number on one side and are blank on the other (you can see the back of the other holder here. 'Number out' is easiest for unexposed, 'number in' for exposed.



Also, because the finger-tabs are offset, you know that a holder with both tabs on the same size contains one exposed film and one unexposed.


film availability

Once you are familiar with the film holder, and have the film size, the next question is ordering the film. This is much easier than it used to be, at least in black and white, and once again there is more information in the free module on the large formats. Ilford regularly cuts batches of special sizes, and Bergger has surprisingly small minimum order quantities for specially cut sizes. Other companies such as Maco, Adox and Webphoto also offer a wide variety of sizes in black and white. Colour is another matter: we never shoot LF colour anything other than 4x5 inch, partly because of availability, and partly because of sheer cost.

cleaning the holders

This is especially important with second-hand holders. We have been known to use some or all of the following techniques when cleaning holders (it depends on how dirty they are). Sometimes we may go back to a technique we have already used once in a multi-stage clean-up.



  1. A stiff brush -- a 1/2 inch to 1 inch (1 to 25mm) paintbrush is ideal -- dislodges the worst external dirt and dust BEFORE pulling the sheath (otherwise you risk getting more dust in the velvet light-trap where the sheath slides in and out).


  2. Vacuum cleaners can be useful too, both full-size (at the early stages) and miniature (at the later stages).


  3. A Swiffer or similar antistatic duster is extremely useful. Use two, one 'dirty', one 'clean', discarding the 'dirty' version when it gets too dirty and replacing it with the 'clean' one which is then replaced with new.


  4. Compressed air or some other form of clean pressure. We actually use a compressor but 'tinned wind' or even an air bulb are good too. Avoid, if you can, the temptation just to blow. Even a small blower like the one illustrated is better than nothing.


  5. Silicone putty, like the 'Blu-Tack' that students traditionally use to put up posters in their rooms, is very good for removing dust from corners.


  6. Wooden toothpicks can be used to dislodge bigger bits of debris but be careful not to exert too much force or you may damage the holder or (more likely) break the toothpick and end up with a larger piece of intractable rubbish than when you started.


  7. Bang the holder smartly on the table to dislodge dust. If you put a sheet of white paper down first you may be surprised to see how much dust comes out.


  8. Antistatic brushes (from Kinetronics) are excellent; wide, soft calligraphy brushes or hake brushes are very good too.


  9. A pencil or even ink eraser may be needed to remove old notes on the white marker tablets found on many holders. Always try this before step 10, below.


  10. Some form of solvent, used on a cotton bud such as a Q-Tip, can remove all kinds of gunge, again including old notes on marker tablets. Plain alcohol is usually sufficient: be careful with aggressive solvents such as trichloroethane (trike) as they can dissolve adhesives and even plastics.











A refinement that many use with their film-holders is notching them with a small file so that any problems with light leaks can be traced back to a specific holder. This is more easily illustrated (left) than explained: as delivered, the notched part in the corner is straight. Devise your own code of notching (shape, size, spacing) to suit your needs.

Because we use Linhof holders wherever possible, we do not always need this: Linhof holders are individually numbered.

keeping film holders clean

We know of no better technique than storing them in Zip-Loc or similar freezer bags. Store these in a dust-free cupboard or drawer.




the film itself

LF film is normally sold in boxes of 10, 25, 50 or 100 sheets. Price is roughly proportional to area, i.e. 8x10 inch is roughly four times the price of 4x5 inch, though there are usually small savings as a result of needing only one box instead of four.

The box is normally in three parts. The inner box has a tight-fitting lid, and then a third lid goes over this, in the opposite direction. When Roger was working in London in the 1970s it was common practice to reverse the middle box so that the box was fully open when the outer lid was taken off, but we cannot recommend this. We mention it only to show that the boxes are very light-tight indeed.

Inside the inner box, the film is usually in a black plastic bag or foil packet which is once again fully light tight.

Inside the bag or packet the film is normally protected by a cardboard folder, closed at the bottom, open on the sides and at the top.


Ilford film packaging

You can see the three-part box in the upper picture, with the bag in between. In the lower picture, you can see the cardboard folder and the complex notch code (see below) for Ilford Delta 100.


The film may or may not be interleaved with sheets of very thin paper. Interleaving is ever less common. On balance, this is probably a good idea. The extra protection afforded by the interleaving must be balanced against the risk of loading the film plus a sheet of interleaving paper into the holder. This is a rare problem but one to guard against.

notching (again)

All LF film that we have ever encountered is notched, that is, there are notches cut out of one short side.

These notches serve two purposes.

First, they enable you to identify the emulsion side quickly and easily, by touch. When you are holding the film 'portrait' (vertical format) with the notched side at the top, the notches are on the right when the emulsion is towards you.

Second, they enable you to identify the emulsion type by 'Braille'. The number, shape and sequence of the notches are used by most (not all) manufacturers to identify the film. The notch code is good only for one manufacturer at a time, i.e. another manufacturer may use the same notch pattern for a different film.


loading the holder

As with so many darkroom operations, this is best practiced with scrap film in daylight: sacrifice a sheet of unexposed film before you try to do it in the dark. You do not need a very large area to load film, but it must be clear of impedimenta and dust free.

The room must be pitch dark as the film will be out for quite some time. Pay particular attention to red warning lights which may be imperceptible for the first few minutes, while your eyes are still accommodating, but can end up like a searchlight once you are used to the dark. Be even more careful with warning lights that go on and off, such as heater warming lights.

Decide on where things are going to go. For example, have the empty holders on the left; the film box in front of you; and loaded holders on the right.


Start out with the holders clean (see above) and the sheath fully inserted, the right way round (indicating unexposed film).


Pick up a holder from the stack on the left.


Pull the sheath back, but not fully out: anything from one-half to three-quarters withdrawn -- Illustration I.


Open the film box. Withdraw a sheet of film, using the notches for orientation. If you are really careful, re-close the film box fully NOW. Otherwise leave it ready for the next sheet.


Slip the corners of the film under the guide rails (Illustration II). This is the most difficult bit. It is still more difficult with Linhof holders where the film pressure plate is spring-loaded and must be pushed down.


Gently push the film into place. (Illustration III)


When it is fully home, try to pull it straight up, using a finger-nail. If it is not properly under the guide rails it will move. If it is, you will feel resistance. (Illustration IV)


Close the flap-door on the bottom and hold it shut as you slide the sheath home (Illustration V). Otherwise, the sheath may go all the way down but the bottom door can still be open.


One side is now loaded. Flip the holder over and load the other side.


Put the loaded holder on the right.


Repeat until you have run out of holders to load.


Don't forget to close the film box when you have finished! No matter how fast you close it after the light is on, you can't move faster than the speed of light.












locks and notes

Many kinds of film holder have simple twist locks to stop the sheaths being withdrawn accidentally. They are no more than L-shapes with a screw on the end. If they are too tight to engage the sheath, unscrew them (you have to do this with the sheath out); if they are too loose, screw them back in.

Use the little white tablets provided (one is missing in this holder) to note the film type and date loaded. Reserve the other for notes at the time of exposure.

linhof holders

As well as being big, heavy and expensive, Linhof plate/film holders differ in a number of ways from all other designs. The sheath layout and the numbering have already been mentioned but here are three more. First, the door at the bottom opens a different way, as seen below left; second, the pressure plate is sprung (to accommodate both film and plates) and must be pushed down with the fingers of one hand when feeding in the film with the other hand; and third, there is a little slider in the side (below right) with which you can check if the holder is loaded. If the slider moves freely, there's no film in the way: the other end is a crank that contacts the film or plate and can be used to help push it out when the bottom door is open.




changing bags and tents

Good luck with these. They are worst in warm weather; we have particularly unfond memories of loading and unloading 4x5 inch film in Greece in a changing bag that wasn't really big enough. A big changing bag or better still) the sort of bag that has a support, making a kind of tent to keep the fabric off your hands, makes changing film much more agreeable.


If you are not going to process the film immediately, carry spare boxes to unload the film into. Ideally carry at least three (for a given format), one for normal processing, one for extended processing (low-contrast subjects, flat lighting), one for reduced processing (contrasty subjects, harsh lighting).

We find that three processing regimes suffice: standard, -15% and +50%. Aficionados of the Zone System use many more, and the best of luck to them, but you might want to take a look at the free module entitled Why We Don't Use The Zone System before you get too heavily involved with that one.

Go back to how do I...?

or go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.


© 2006 Roger W. Hicks