large formats

Bigger negatives (and transparencies, for that matter) mean better quality, because you can simply get more information onto a bigger plate (or piece of film) and issues such as film grain and sharpness and lens sharpness are ever less important as enlargement ratios fall. At the extreme, a contact print makes very few demands on either film or lens.

A further advantage of large format (hereafter LF) is that it is, or at least can be, technically undemanding. The photographer can afford to be downright sloppy and is still likely to get excellent results. This is why LF, in the form of 4x5 inch and 9x12cm, survived for so long in newspaper photography. Slapdash exposure and hasty development, sometimes printing from a plate that was still wet from a perfunctory wash after fixing, were by no means the invariable rule but they were not unknown either.

 

 

 

Yet another attraction of large format is that contact printing, especially on printing-out paper (POP) is the easiest of all approaches to printing, and delivers the highest quality.

Work Bench

This is Roger's favourite among his 8x10 inch still lifes. It was taken with an 8x10 inch Gandolfi Precision using a 300/9 Nikkor and shooting on Ilford Ortho Plus, which was generously exposed and then contact printed on printing-out paper (POP) from the Chicago Albumen Company.

Web images can never convey the sheer depth of tone and detail that can be captured in a contact print: you can use a magnifying glass and the detail just goes on and on.

True, LF cameras are big and bulky, but that is not the same as saying they are hard to use, and while a single sheet of 8x10 inch film can cost as much as a whole roll of 35mm, you don't shoot anything like as many pictures in a day, and you normally spend rather more time in processing and printing so it can actually work out surprisingly cheap.

Today, the real charm of LF lies partly in the control that is available using individual processing of negatives together with camera movements (see the glossary; there will be a separate module in due course), and partly in the sheer quality of the results.

Then again, you often need camera movements, because depth of field at a given aperture depends on the size of the image on the film, and while a 'large head' portrait may be only an inch/25mm high on a 35mm negative, it is more than life size (i.e. a true macro shot) on 12x15 inch. The bigger the format, the smaller the maximum aperture (or the lens would soon grow vast) and the smaller the working aperture unless you want wafer-thin depth of field.

Some people find that LF photography is a relaxing, contemplative sort of activity, much as certain anglers are said not to care whether they catch a fish or not.

There are large format snobs, and there are those who try to invest LF photography with a mystique that seems designed to scare off newcomers, but then, such people exist in every other kind of photography as well. The truth is that LF isn't (or at least, need not be) either difficult or expensive, and it can be a lot of fun.

This is a module about choosing a format; other modules cover (or will cover) camera types (field, monorail, press, rigid-bodied), the use of camera movements, loading sheet film, and choosing and using lenses for LF. There will also be a module about panoramic cameras in all formats, including large-format panoramics.

Roger

This was one of Frances's first attempts at 8x10 inch portraiture, using our 8x10 De Vere monorail and Ilford FP4 Plus film; the lens was our 21 inch (533mm) f/7.7 Ross, used wide open, and the shutter was a Thornton-Pickard roller-blind.

The strange texture is the result of interposing an original Mortensen 'Craquelure' screen between the negative and the paper. The exposure on ISO 125 film was around one tenth of a second at f/7.7.

 

 

 

a bit of history

In the days when printing papers were too slow to allow enlarging, the only way to make a big print was with a big negative. The standard professional sizes were 8 x 10 inch (203 x 254mm), whole plate (6½ x 8½ inches, 165 x 216mm) and half plate (4¾ x 6½ inches, 121 x 165mm).

And you're right: half plate is slightly bigger than half a whole plate. There were larger cameras, too: the largest in common use was probably 12 x 15 inch (305 x 381mm) but even 12 x 20 inch (305 x 508mm) found reasonably widespread employment.

Amateurs used mostly quarter plate (3¼ x 4¼ inches, 83 x 108mm) plates or film or 2¼ x 3¼ inch (6 x 9 cm nominal) roll film -- though there were plenty of other roll-film sizes, both bigger and smaller, and a huge range of plate sizes down to 60 x 45mm.

Half-plate Gandolfi Universal

This handsome tailboard camera, kindly loaned by Gandolfi, probably dates from the 1920s. The back takes non-standardized book-form holders but it would be perfectly easy to install a fully interchangeable, modern 4x5 inch block-form back.

the rise of enlargements

After World War I, enlarging grew increasingly popular, especially among amateurs, but enlargement ratios were often very small: as little as 2x. This was the origin of the 'enprint', which is said to come from ENlarged contact PRINT. It was only with the rise of the Leica in the 1920s that greater enlargement ratios became normal. After all, 5x allowed a Leica owner to make a 5 x 7½ inch enlargement on whole-plate paper, though many were content with 4x or less (in effect, postcard, 3½ x 5½ inches, or 4x6 inches/10x15cm, the same as a big enprint from 6x9cm).

As films and lenses improved, enlargement ratios climbed steadily. By the 1950s there were those who claimed successful 16 x 20 inch (40x50cm) enlargements from 35mm, though these normally looked a bit sad next to enlargements to the same size from roll-film and these in turn did not look too clever next to enlargements from large format. Well into the 1970s, when Roger first started to work professionally in a London advertising studio, 4x5 inch and even 8x10 inch were still widely used in colour for maximum quality.

amateur lf

Despite the growing popularity of enlargements, there were always a few amateurs who preferred larger formats. Many were in the United States, influenced by the work of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, though the two took very different approaches to their photography. In the last couple of decades of the 20th century, increasing affluence meant that more and more hobbyists could afford to try LF. At the very end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, the meteoric rise of digital photography -- the subordination of quality to speed -- meant a fast-growing market in second-hand LF.

Phoenician apiary, Malta

We shoot very little colour LF any more, not least because of cost and the difficulty of processing it, but sometimes we do and the results really are rather gratifying. This was shot with our favourite 4x5 inch for travel, a Toho FC45X, on 4x5 inch Ektachrome using our 110/5.6 Super-Symmar XL Aspheric.

 

 

camera backs and film holders

Camera backs and film holders need to be standardized in two ways: the external fitting, so the holder will go into the camera, and register, so that the film (or plate) is held in the same place as the ground-glass for focusing. A camera which does not take standardized holders may still be worth considering if it comes with an adequate supply of suitable holders. Alternatively, you may be able to remove the back completely without damaging the camera -- reversing backs, by definition, come off this way -- and replace it with a modern, standardized back. You may be able to make up one of these yourself, using a back from Cambo, or Gandolfi will make one up for you, even for non-Gandolfi cameras. You can even, if you are handyman enough, make up your own standardized ground-glass spring back.

'International' 4x5 inch back on MPP Mk VII

This standardized blockform film holder slips under the spring-loaded ground glass, but the ground glass can itself be removed in order to allow the fitting of roll-film holders which would not fit under the ground glass: the chrome sliders visible above and below the ground glass move in and outwards to lock the backs in place. This glass is marked for 6x9cm and (barely visibly) for 6x6cm as well. Unlike an International back, a plain spring back is not removable: the ground glass is captive. Plain spring backs are normal on other formats but undesirable on 4x5 inch/9x12cm because they greatly limit your options with roll-film holders.

film holders

There are essentially three kinds of film holders: blockform, bookform and single metal holders.

Blockform is the modern, standardized version, holding two sheets of film that are slid in from one end, usually the bottom. Blockform holders have been all but universal since World War Two, and can also be used many cameras much older than that. They may be made of wood (most usual until the 1950s), plastic (most common since the 1950s) and metal (rare). Register seems to be standardized at 3/16 inch, 4.76mm, though there are differences of opinion among camera manufacturers about this: some allow for the bowing outward of the film, and set the ground glass a little closer.

Note that there is another kind of holder that looks standardized, but isn't. Standard Graphic holders have a locating ridge on the film holder, near the film-sheath end, that engages with a groove in the camera back and does double duty as a light trap. Graflex holders, on the other and, for reflex cameras, have the groove in the holder and the ridge in the camera body -- very confusing!

Block-form 8x10 inch holder

Left, film partially inserted. You can see how it slips under guide-rails that start part way up the interior of the holder. Right, the film in place. You can see the film notches that help you locate the emulsion side of the film (notches on top right or bottom left, film towards you) and to the right of that you can see the cut-out to allow you to slip a fingernail under the film to pull it out (lighter grey area). Other formats are similar.

Bookform was preferred in the days of plates. Again they held two plates or sheets of film. As the name suggests, the holder opens like a book. Bookform holders were never standardized: the best you can hope for is interchangeability between cameras of the same size from the same manufacturer. The most recent cameras to use bookform holders, as far as we are aware, came from the former Soviet Union -- though Gandolfi offered the option of bookform instead of blockform into the 1960s and perhaps beyond, and will still make bookform holders for their older cameras.

Book-form holder

Left, closed: the two brass clips hold it closed. The dark-slide (here partly open) is captive (see also right), unlike a block-form where it can be removed and reversed.

Right: open. the holder opens like a book with a single page. You insert a plate in one side (the springs in the middle of the septum show that it is a plate holder, not a film holder), close the septum and secure it; then insert the other plate and close the holder. The dark slide would normally be closed during this procedure.

Single metal holders were semi-standardized, and indeed in 9x12cm they were all but fully standardized. As their name suggests, they are made of metal and take a single plate or sheet of film.

reducing backs

A common trick in large format is to offer reducing backs for smaller formats. Thus, for example, our 8 x 10 inch De Vere monorail also has reducing backs for 5 x 7 inch (and its siblings) and 4 x 5 inch/9 x 12 cm, while our 12x15 inch Gandolfi has reducing holders (accepting smaller plates in the same bookform backs) for 10x12 inch, 8x10 inch and whole-plate.

5x7 inch reducing back for 8x10 inch De Vere monorail

Like the back on the Imperial 11x14, below, this is a 'bail' back: the 3/4 frame that surrounds the far side of the back acts as a lever to open the 'gape' between the camera back and the ground glass to that the film holder can be slid in with minimal risk of moving the camera.

Reducing backs are a much more worth-while option in a studio camera than in one you are likely to take out into the field: lugging an 8x10 when you want to shoot 4x5 is not much fun. Besides, you may find uncomfortably little scope for movements because the bellows bind when used with shorter lenses. The one great exception is the Gandolfi 'big chassis' 5x7 inch Traditional, built on the same body as the old whole-plate, as it allows much more movement than the standard 5x7 inch but is only a little bigger.

Gandolfi Variant

The Variant adopts an unusual approach (especially for a field camera) of providing interchangeable backs and bellows on a single chassis, allowing 4x5 inch (not shown), 5x7 inch (left) and 8x10 inch (right), though bellows draw is proportionately less on the bigger formats. Movements in all formats are however phenomenal, comparable with most monorails and better than many.

plate/film holders and cut-film adapters

Fairly obviously, holders are normally designed to take either plates or film, though Linhof made a series of (large, heavy) holders to be used with either, thanks to their spring-loaded pressure plate. As recently as the 1970s or possibly even 1980s it was possible to buy metal sheaths to allow the use of thin, flexible cut film in holders designed for thick, rigid plates. We have not seen any new ones for years but they may be worth considering if you find them second-hand at a camera fair. Plain plate-holders can be recognized by the plate-locating spring(s) in the middle.

MPP 4x5 inch plate holder and 4x5 inch cut-film adapter loaded with film

the large formats

Overwhelmingly, LF today is dominated by 4x5 inch -- the more so as second-hand 4x5 cameras are now a drug on the market. The next stage that most people consider is 8x10 inch. After that, it is the very large formats, usually 11x14 inch but sometimes as much as 20x24 inch. Each has its advantages and disadvantages, and they are worth looking at in groups:

the baby sizes

There are effectively three of these, 2¼ x 3¼ inches, 2½ x 3½ inches and 6.5 x 9 cm, though as 2½ x 3½ inch is 64 x 89mm these two formats are effectively identical and can be interchanged in the same holder. The smaller 2¼ x 3¼ inch format (57 x 83mm) fits in standardized holders with the same external dimensions as the others, but with different internal dimensions: obviously it will fall out of the larger holders, while the larger sizes will not fit into the smaller holders. But because the holders have the same external dimensions they can be interchanged in the same cameras. Many such cameras exist: the best known are probably the 'baby' Linhofs, with 'baby' Graphics a close second.

Linhof Technika backs in 6x9cm (left) and 4x5 inch/9x12cm (right)

The differences in size are clear; the 6x9 back is a reducing back from a 4x5 inch camera. Most Linhof backs have a removable, hinged ground-glass protector of this type, which opens up into a focusing hood. Older cameras may have slide-in or clip-on folding hoods or may leave the ground glass bare. The 4x5 back is marked for 9x12cm (barely visible just inside the edge) and also, with corners, for Polaroid pack film. Contrary to appearances, it is an international back, not a plain spring type. You press down on the springs and slide the ground-glass slightly to the right to remove it; the small sliders at the far end of the back operate the sliding locks to hold other backs in place. The 6x9cm back, on the other hand, is a plain spring type.

There is not much reason to use these 'baby' cut film formats, unless you particularly want to develop individual sheets of film. Probably the easiest way to do this is in an HP Combi-Plan tank. Usually, though, roll-film will be more convenient. Most (though far from all) 'baby' cameras can be used with either cut film or roll film, though (for example) the whole back of a 'baby' Linhof is removed to fit a roll-film holder.

Linhof Technika IV, late 1950s/early 60s

Complete with Polaroid back, two roll-film backs, two Linhof film/plate holders, 65mm, 105mm and 180mm lenses, all with appropriate viewfinder masks, Linhof hood (fitted) and filters, left-hand anatomical grip (fitted). What we didn't say above, of course, is that 'baby' Linhofs are terminally cute and hard to resist -- and they also offer front and rear movements just like the larger models.

Film availability in the cut sizes is modest: a few black and white emulsions in one size or another. The 'standard' lens is 100mm to 105mm, or 4 inch, the same as the negative diagonal; the usual wide-angle is 65mm, equating roughly to 28mm in 35mm terms, though modern lenses down to 35mm will cover (35mm equates to about 14mm in 35mm terms); and the most common long lens is 180mm (call it 80mm in 35mm terms).

quarter plate/3 x 4 inch

The 3¼ x 4¼ inch size, which really is one-quarter of a whole plate (6½ x 8½ inches) is often known in the United States as 3 x 4 inch. As we have never seen a camera that takes 3 x 4 inch (76 x 101mm) film we can only assume that this refers to the actual image size on quarter plate, which after allowing for the rebate is indeed about 3 x 4 inches. Confusingly, 9x12cm (see below) was sometimes known in the UK as 'continental quarter plate'.

Although quarter-plate blockform holders were fully standardized, and countless cameras were made in this format, film availability today is very poor: a few black and white emulsions. The only reason to go for quarter-plate is if you fall in love with (or are given) a particular camera.

The usual 'standard' lens is 127mm/5 inch (equating to the negative diagonal), but anything from 100mm (moderately wide, roughly 35mm on 35mm) to 150mm (equating roughly to 50mm on 35mm) may also be regarded as standard. Modern wide-angles down to about 47mm will cover quarter-plate (rough equivalent 16mm on 35mm); and among older wide-angles, 65mm lenses will often cover the format too (21mm rough equivalent).

Quarter-plate reflexes used to be popular for 'extreme telephoto' photography with lenses up to 1000mm, but this equates only to about 350mm on 35mm. Also, as noted above, some (though not all) took Graflex holders with the locating groove on the holder, not Graphic holders with the locating ridge. This is doubly vexing when you get the wrong kind of roll-film holder, as happened once to us.

The Graflex Super D was the last in a long line of quarter-plate reflexes from Graflex; it was introduced in about 1948. It takes Graflex holders, not Graphic. The 8x10 inch negative, near right, was shot on ordinary photographic paper, processed normally, then scanned and reversed (far right): an interestingly cheap and easy way into large format photography.

Quarter Plate Graflex Super D

 

4x5 inch and 9x12cm

Again these two formats share standardized holders with the same external dimensions and different internal dimensions: 4x5 inch is 102 x 127mm, about 25 per cent bigger in area than 9 x 12cm, which is approximately 3½ x 4¾ inches. Even in the metric world, 4x5 inch is much more popular. As noted above, you may also find semi-standardized 9x12cm single metal holders.

4x5 inch ground glass with 9x12cm frame

The full area of the ground glass is 4x5 inch; the heavy inner line is 9x12cm. This is an MPP ground-glass from a similar set-up to the one pictured earlier in the module. The chrome clips at either end retain a removable folding focusing hood.

As already noted, 4x5 inch cameras are a drug on the market, especially monorails: the only growth area is field cameras. Standard advice to those considering the jump into LF for the first time was often to buy an old press camera, such as a Speed Graphic, but we believe that this is not the best approach as such cameras offer very few movements (see the glossary) and many cameras that are a lot more versatile are now readily affordable. For studio use, monorails remain unbeatable, while in the field a wood or metal field camera is usually a better bet unless you buy an ultra-light monorail from Toho.

MPP Micro-Technical Mk. VII

This looks like an (unusually handsome) 4x5 inch press camera, and indeed could be used as one, complete with coupled rangefinder; but it also has front movements including rise, cross, swing and (backwards only) tilt, plus limited back swing and tilt, and a triple-extension bellows. In other words, it is a metal field camera, not a press camera. Only a very few were made in this red finish: most were in a pedestrian black. The ground-glass above is from an MPP Micro-Technical.

  Although 4x5 inch delivers superb quality enlargements, most people find it too small for contact printing. Because we love contact prints, our 4x5 inch cameras are used mostly with roll-film backs, up to 6x12cm. Also, we find the 4:5 aspect ratio rather stubby and unattractive. Film availability in 4x5 inch is still excellent, in colour (negative or reversal) or black and white.

Standard lenses are 150mm for 4x5 inch and 150mm or 135mm for 9x12cm, though 127mm/5 inch was popular for press cameras and in the studio 180mm or even 210mm was often preferred for better perspective and a greater working distance. Rough equivalents to 35mm focal lengths (for 4x5/9x12) are 127mm: 35mm/40mm, 180mm: 50mm/55mm, 210mm: 60mm/65mm.

The widest modern lenses that will cover (and barely, at that) are 47mm, equating roughly to 14mm/15mm, but pre-XL Super Angulons barely cover at 65mm (19mm/21mm) and ordinary non-Super Angulons are at the limit at 90mm (around 28mm). The longest lenses normally used are 300mm or 12 inch (85/95mm) but much longer lenses can be used if you have the bellows extension (or with telephoto designs).

Linhof Kardan Color

Despite bearing the august Linhof name, these cameras can often be found at remarkably low prices, not least because they are very limited as monorails go and have no more movements than the Technika field cameras. Look at the back and you can see the same kind of swing/tilt as fitted on the MPP above, which owed a lot to the Linhof Technika.

5x7 inch, 13x18cm and half plate

These three formats have a small but devoted following, amongst whom we number ourselves. Again all three fit in standardized blockform holders with the same external dimensions: the equivalents are that 5x7 inch is 127 x 178mm, 13x18cm is fractionally bigger at approximately 51/8 x 71/8 inches, and half plate is the smallest at 4¾ x 6½ inches or 165 x 216mm.

The great charms of these three formats are that the cameras are obviously smaller and lighter than 8x10 inch, and film costs are about half as high, but contact prints are still a decent size and can have a jewel-like quality. On the down side, film availability is not as good as for 4x5 inch and enlargers (if you want to enlarge) are obviously bigger and rarer, though not necessarily more expensive. Some people love these sizes for enlarging but we'd rather use 4x5 inch and take more care. These are the biggest sizes for which enlargers are commonly available.

The standard lens is 210mm or 8 inch (203mm) but 300mm or 12 inch is sometimes favoured in the studio, equating to about 60mm in 35mm terms. Wide-angles are not a great problem -- we habitually use a 110mm Super-Symmar XL, equating to about 21mm -- but anything much longer than 300mm or maybe 360mm tends to be rare and expensive.

With these formats and bigger, where contact printing is the norm, it is often feasible to use all kinds of elderly and even uncoated lenses: one of our favourite lenses for this size is a 184mm Goertz Dagor which probably dates from just after World War One.

St. Leger de Montbrun

Frances shot this with our Linhof Technika V on Ilford FP4 Plus using our 184/6.8 Dagor. She was standing on top of our Land Rover at the time. Many large format aficionados actively seek out old lenses, seeing in them special qualities (such as the excellence of the 'bokeh' or quality of the out-of-focus image) that they do not see in more modern lenses.

whole plate

Although this was for decades a very popular professional format, and although the cameras are normally found with standardized backs for block-form holders, whole-plate has almost completely disappeared today. No new cameras are made, as far as we know (though Gandolfi and others will make them to order). Film availability is very limited, just a few black and white emulsions, and it is not a format to choose unless you particularly like the size and shape -- or, of course, unless you can get the camera very cheaply. It may however be a good candidate for a 5x7 inch reducing back. A standard lens is about 280mm/11 inch but most people would probably favour something in the 210mm to 360mm range, 8 to 12 inches, equating to 35mm to 58mm in 35mm terms.

8x10 inch and 18x24cm

Like 4x5 inch, this is a very popular size, but once again we believe that this is principally historical accident. It was the largest size in common professional use for most of the 20th century, and amateurs rode on the coat-tails of the professionals. If you want big contact prints, our view is that you might do better to go to 11x14 inch or one of the other ultra-large formats, even though the cameras are rarer and more expensive and running costs are higher. On the other hand, 8 x 10 inch and 18x24 cm film is much easier to handle than the huge, floppy sheets of 11x14 inch and above, both to load into the camera and (especially) to process. Lens availability (see below) is also much better. Also, 8x10 inch is a wonderful portrait format, especially if you want to try Hollywood-style portraiture.

We generally find the 3:4 shape of 18 x 24 cm to be more attractive than the 4:5 shape of 8x10 inch (except perhaps for portraiture), but 8x10 inch is much more common and widespread, even in the metric world, and film availability continues to be pretty good, second only to 4x5 inch. Once again, the vast majority of cameras take standardized blockform film holders with the same external dimensions but different internal dimensions for the two formats. Holders for 8x10 inch in particular are easy to find and not terribly expensive.

Enlargers are surprisingly often available, and not necessarily very expensive: indeed, we were once offered one for nothing by a second-hand dealer who wanted the space more than the money. On the other hand they are vast and heavy, taking up a lot of floor space and costing a fortune to move. To be realistic, contact printing is the only option for most people with these formats.

Holly

Almost any flat-bed scanner with a transparency hood gives enough optical resolution for enormous prints from 8x10 inch negatives. Even a 1200 dpi scan allows a poster-sized 24x40 inches (60x100cm) at 300 dpi or 48x60 inches (120x150cm) at the 200 dpi often used in inkjet printers. Move up to scanning at 2400 dpi and the figures are 48x80 inches (120x200cm) at 300 dpi and 96x120 inches -- 8x10 feet or 2.4 x 3 metres -- at 200 dpi.

De Vere 8x10 inch monorail

Roger shot the picture on the left with our usual portrait set-up, the 21 inch f/7.7 Ross on the De Vere 8x10 inch monorail as pictured on the right; film was Ilford FP4 Plus. The bellows was custom-made by Camera Bellows Ltd. and the rail is a metre of one-inch square-section alloy tube that cost a fiver (7 euros, 8 dollars)

The standard lens is 300mm or 12 inches, and few people use anything longer than 360mm or maybe 450mm (50mm and 65mm equivalents), simply because the lenses are so huge, heavy and expensive and require such enormous bellows extension. We use a 21 inch (533mm) Ross on our De Vere monorail but this calls for around a metre (40 inches) of bellows extension for portraits. Again, the Ross is very old -- maybe 100 years -- but delivers entirely reasonable definition for contact prints. Another option for (reasonably) cheap lenses is old lenses from process cameras, commonly available up to about 450mm and sometimes to 600mm and beyond.

11x14 inch

This is the biggest size for which standardized block-form holders are available, but they are alarmingly expensive new and almost impossible to find second-hand. The vast ground-glass of an 11x14 inch camera is enormously seductive, but this is not the same as saying that the pictures are any better than with smaller formats. A really big contact print can however be absolutely fascinating, especially for landscapes and cityscapes. Film availability is a lot better than it was in the 1980s but is still pretty modest.

The biggest drawbacks of 11x14 cameras are the sheer bulk and weight; the size and weight of the associated tripods and film-holders; the cost of film holders (to say nothing of the cost of the camera) and the difficulty of handling very large sheets of film. If you can come to terms with all this, they can be wonderful, but we sold ours because we couldn't and we know at least one other photographer who owns an 11x14 inch but has never used it.

The negative diagonal is around 450mm, so 450mm is a 'standard' lens; 210mm may or may not cover, and is a wide-angle. A 165mm Super Angulon should cover, and equates to maybe 16mm in 35mm terms. The longest convenient lens available is the 1100mm Schneider XXL, around 90mm in 35mm terms.

Imperial 11x14 inch

These were among the lightest 11x14 inch cameras ever made, but this necessitated the bracing arrangement (using rods) seen on top of the camera. Two were overkill: one would have been sufficient. Roger designed these cameras (in 4x5, 8x10 and 11x14) and had them made in the early 1980s.

Note the 'bail' back, a common fitting with formats larger than 4x5 inch. The 'bail' (clearly visible at the top, less clear at the bottom) is lifted until it is at right angles to the back. This raises the ground-glass clear and allows the film-holder to be slipped in without having to fight spring pressure and run the risk of moving the camera.

other very large formats

The same pros and cons as mentioned above for 11x14 inch apply a fortiori to the other very large formats. Historically these were 10x12 inch (254 x 305mm) and 12x15 inch (305 x 381mm), but both are very rare nowadays and indeed 12x15 inch film has to be specially cut: we get ours from Bergger. Rather more common today are 12x16 inch/30x40cm, 16x20 inch/40x50cm and even 20x24 inch/50x60cm, all corresponding to standard paper sizes. There are also various 'banquet' formats, so called because they were once used for photographing large parties of people with every face recognizable. These include 12x20 inch/30x50cm, 8x20 inch/20x50cm and 14x17 inch, 381 x 432 mm.

Again, very few emulsions are available (in black and white only) and film cost is very high -- which is no surprise when you consider that 20x24 inch is six times the area of 8x10 inch.

Nevertheless, the resurgence of interest in these giant formats led Schneider to launch their XXL series of very large format lenses at photokina 2004, beginning with a 550mm ('standard' on 16x20 inch) and an 1100mm (long even on 20x24 inch, where a 'standard' lens would be around 700mm). Schneider themselves were surprised by the demand. Visit Mike Walker's web site for more information about availability of these and other Schneider lenses.

the bottom line

The point we would like to make most strongly is that although 4x5 inch and 8x10 inch are overwhelmingly the most popular formats, this is not the same as saying that they will necessarily be the best for you. Our firm belief is that 5x7 inch and its siblings are the perfect compromise between 4x5 inch and 8x10 inch, while if you hanker after really big contact prints you may do better with 11x14 inch.

You need to think hard, too, about what sort of photography you want to do. As we have already said, we are very fond of 8x10 inch for portraits, where we use a De Vere monorail with a one-metre (40 inch) bellows. But much as we like the idea of taking our Gandolfi 12x15 inch out to shoot landscapes, the simple truth is that the camera plus three film-holders and its carrying case weigh an impressive 30 Kg (66 lb) and the only tripod we have that will support it is a big Linhof that weighs another 10 or 11 Kg (a bit under 25 lb). And we can only shoot 6 pictures because we have only three double bookform film holders!

Finally, a 3x enlargement off Linhof's 56x72mm '6x7cm' is 168x216mm, almost identical with the old 'whole plate' size. With this small a degree of enlargement it can be very hard to tell the print from a contact print: most people can't, and even experienced LF users may have difficulty.

Bud vase and pewter charger

Roger shot this on Ilford Delta 100 at 56x72mm (Linhof's version of 6x7cm 'ideal format') and enlarged it only to whole-plate size, as described in the text. Yet another option if you are considering a move to large format...

 

 

Go to the list of modules

or go to the home page

or support the site with a small donation.

© 2005 Roger W. Hicks