Following my article on recommended lenses for 8×10 cameras, today I’ll cover my favorite lenses on two even bigger formats: 14×17 and 12×20. These two ultra-large formats have similar diagonals as each other – in practice, about 550mm and 580mm respectively. Most lenses that work for one will work for the other.
Unfortunately, there aren’t very many lenses at all which cover such massive formats, especially if you want a modern shutter and newer, multicoated glass. The good news (in a way) is that your sharpness standards can be a bit lower with these formats since you’re most likely contact printing your work.
I shoot with a 12×20 camera and use five lenses that cover the format, ranging from very wide to a slight telephoto. My setup is even backpackable (that’s why I went for the skinnier 12×20 instead of 14×17) and slides into my Gregory Baltoro 95 hiking pack alongside one film holder. I usually hike with just one or two lenses, carrying about 40-50 pounds in total, or 18-23 kilos.
14×17 is a very squarish aspect ratio, whereas 12×20 is a moderate panorama similar to the 16×9 aspect ratio of many computer monitors. To me, lenses “feel” wider when the aspect ratio is close to a square, since they include more of the sky and foreground in a landscape photo. So, I generally think of focal lengths as equivalent on 14×17 and 12×20 even though they technically are about 6% wider on 12×20.
If you’re familiar with focal lengths for full-frame digital (or 35mm film) cameras, you can divide all the numbers in this article by 13.5 to get a rough equivalence. This applies both to focal length and aperture values. For example, a 450mm lens at f/128 on these huge formats is approximately equivalent to a 33mm lens at f/9.5 on a full-frame digital camera. If you took a photo with each camera and printed them at the same size, the prints would have similar compositions, depth of field, and diffraction.
Throughout this article, I’ll share photos I took at 12×20 with the applicable lenses, which I “scanned” by putting the negative on a light table and taking a picture from above with my digital camera. All the images below are uncropped and still include the film holder lines, so you can get a sense of the perspective offered by each focal length.
Best Ultra-Wide Lenses (305mm and Wider)
One of the widest lenses that covers 12×20 is the Schneider 210mm f/5.6 Super-Symmar XL. The “XL” designation refers to the lens’s huge coverage, but it’s also just an extra-large lens. It weighs 2 kg (4.4 lbs) and takes 135mm filters. It sells for at least $6500 most of the time and closer to $8000 with the center filter. In 35mm terms (AKA full-frame digital), it’s equivalent to about a 16mm lens on 14×17 and 12×20. It’s overkill for almost anyone – but then again, so are these cameras in the first place.
I’ve heard that the slightly wider Rodenstock Grandagon 200mm f/6.8 also covers, but only by the barest of margins. 14×17 users may be fine with the Rodenstock whereas 12×20 could be iffy. In any case, it’s academic, because this lens is nearly impossible to find. It’s just as big and expensive as the Schneider SSXL, but the SSXL has more coverage and is more common, so that’s the one I’d get if you need it.
The other huge, modern, and outrageously expensive lens to cover 12×20 is the Rodenstock Sironar-W 300mm f/5.6. It takes 127mm filters and weighs a hefty 1.6 kilos / 3.5 pounds. I don’t know how much it offers in the way of movements, but seemingly not much. Budget $8000 or so, if you can find one.
Moving into the realm of reality, there are a few options from 240mm to 305mm that sell for less and aren’t nearly as huge. Three noteworthy lenses are the Zeiss Goerz Dagor 24cm f/9, Computar 270mm f/9, and Computar 305mm f/9. All three lenses are very rare, but when they do pop up, they’re at least slightly reasonable in price (about $2000 apiece) and surprisingly compact.
Starting with the Zeiss Goerz Dagor 24cm f/9, this small lens screws directly onto a modern Copal #3 shutter. As far as I know, two copies have shown up on eBay in the last several years. One sold for $1000 (incredibly lucky for whoever got that, and no, it wasn’t me). The other copy sold for $2425. This lens covers 14×17 without room to spare, which means 12×20 is really pushing things if you need to focus at infinity. It’s equivalent to roughly 18mm on a full-frame digital or 35mm film camera.
Next is the Computar 270mm f/9. This lens is just as rare as the Zeiss, showing up once every few years on eBay or the largeformatphotography.info buy/sell forum. It’s a small lens in a big Copal #3 shutter and usually sells for $1500-2000. I found a copy somehow, and it’s the lens I use as my ultra-wide (roughly 20mm equivalent) on 12×20. I love how small and light it is at 600 g, not to mention the fact that it has a tiny 58mm filter thread. It covers 12×20 but has no room for movements, aside, of course, from rear base tilt or swing. It also has a huge amount of field curvature, but I find that focusing at a careful spot and stopping all the way down to f/90 is enough to get sharp results. 270mm at f/90 is equivalent to using a 20mm f/6.7 lens on a full-frame digital camera in terms of depth of field and diffraction. (A very small number of 270mm f/9 Kowa Graphic lenses have the same optical design, but you’re really only safe with the original Computar or Kyvytar version of the lens.)
Chamonix 12×20; Computar 270mm f/9 @ f/90, 1 second, HP5+ 400; Rear tilt, front fall; Red filter
Another lens of note in the ultra-wide range is the Computar 305mm f/9, which also screws into a Copal #3. It’s equivalent to about 22mm in full-frame digital terms. This is the best lens of the bunch if you need movements, since it covers 14×17 and 12×20 generously (and from what I’ve heard, even barely covers 16×20). Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find, even more so than the 270mm Computar. If you find a copy – or, as before, have sensational luck with a Kowa Graphic 305mm f/9 – snap it up.
I know of a few other lenses in the sub-305mm range that supposedly cover 14×17 or 12×20, but they’re generally much older lenses and very difficult to find:
- 27cm f/18 Protar: Maybe even covers 16×20 and pops up occasionally for big bucks
- Goerz Rectagon 270mm f/10: You will not find one.
- Goerz Dagor 12” f/6.8: Most copies don’t cover, but some do; older copies more likely to cover
- Three of the R.D. Gray Extreme Wide Angle Periscope lenses: #6, #7, and #8 (180mm, 215mm, and 255mm respectively), all f/10 lenses from the 1800s
- R.D. Gray #6 Wide Angle Periscope lens (305mm f/15): Also from the 1800s, least expensive lens on this list, still hard to find
- Some of the long-lost Hypergons
And lastly, if you have one of the world’s three known copies of the Fujinon SW 300mm f/9 – plus a pack mule to carry it around – that’ll work, too.
Best Wide Lenses (355-360mm)
Unlike the ultra-wides, there are a few easy-to-find choices for 14×17 and 12×20 lenses around 355mm, which is equivalent to about 26mm on a full-frame digital or 35mm film camera. It’s a nice, natural focal length for a lot of subjects, which is why I’m glad to have some options here. There are two main ones I’d consider: the Schneider G-Claron 355mm f/9 and the Schneider Symmar Convertible 360mm f/5.6.
The more popular of the two is the Schneider G-Claron 355mm f/9. It’s a very sharp optic, and my copy covers 12×20 without any added mechanical vignetting starting at f/32, giving a bit of room for movements at the smaller apertures. It’s not too heavy (855 grams / 1.9 pounds in a Copal #3 shutter) and is fairly easy to find. A typical copy sells for at least $1000 on eBay, but you should be able to find a lower price than that if you wait or buy from the Large Format Photography Forum.
Alternatively, if weight and filter thread size aren’t concerns, the Schneider Symmar Convertible 360mm f/5.6 is the way to go. It offers about the same image circle as the G-Claron and is similar in image quality. But there are two other benefits of this lens: First, the f/5.6 aperture is nice for focusing and composing, especially since a lot of 12×20 cameras have a pretty dim ground glass. Second, as the name implies, this lens can be converted to a 620mm f/12 in a pinch by removing the front element.
As with the G-Claron, the 360mm Symmar Convertible is pretty easy to find. A copy or two are usually available at any given time in a shutter for under $750 if you search around. Unfortunately, it has a huge 105mm filter thread and weighs about 1.8 kg / 4.0 pounds, depending on which shutter it’s in. That’s as much as two G-Clarons put together! Not all cameras can handle a lens that heavy without issues, especially if you have an older, rickety 12×20 banquet camera.
Of the two, I’d recommend the G-Claron more often, mainly because it’s light enough for most front standards and takes smaller 77mm filters. But both are great lenses, and the allure of a brighter, 620mm-convertible lens is also hard to deny.
Chamonix 12×20; Schneider G-Claron 355mm f/9 @ f/64, 1/15 second, HP5+ 400; Front tilt and swing; No filters
Two alternatives are the Goerz Dagor 14” f/7.7 (roughly 356mm) and the Docter Germinar-W 360mm f/9. The Goerz Dagor is noteworthy because it’s almost always in stock somewhere and is a classic favorite for ultra-large format shooting, especially for portraiture. Many, but not all copies will cover 12×20 at infinity, so buy from someone with a good return policy. The Goerz Dagor is usually about $1500, so the G-Claron has my vote between the two (and the Schneider’s Plasmat design is supposedly a bit sharper than the Dagor design). However, some copies of the Goerz Dagor have coverage up to 16×20, which beats the other options here. If you need significant movements at 355mm, it could be worth searching for the right copy of the Dagor.
Meanwhile, the Docter Germinar-W 360mm f/9 (not to be confused with APO-Germinar versions) is nearly impossible to find and fiendishly expensive if you do. However, it is the lightest of these lenses at about 550 grams in a Copal 3 shutter, and maybe the sharpest. It has similar coverage as the G-Claron and Symmar Convertible – easily covering the whole frame but offering minimal room for movements.
Best Wide Midrange Lenses (420-480mm)
On 14×17 and 12×20, a 450mm lens is equivalent to about 33mm on full-frame digital and 35mm film. It’s a good, standard focal length for slightly wide lenses on 14×17 and 12×20, and thankfully has some good lens options available on the market.
The best of the options is the Nikkor M 450mm f/9. This lens is small and light (640 grams / 1.41 pounds and a 67mm filter thread), and it has huge coverage. Supposedly it reaches up to 20×24 coverage, albeit with some loss of corner sharpness. 12×20 and smaller formats are no problem at all and offer massive movements.
The Nikkor M 450mm f/9 tends to cost about $1200-1500, but there’s an older version – the Nikkor Q 450mm f/9 – that costs less, about $800-1000. As far as I can tell, the only difference is that the Nikkor Q has single coating instead of multi-coating but is otherwise the same design.
Personally, I use the Nikkor Q 450mm f/9 and find it works flawlessly on my 12×20 camera. Vignetting is gone by f/20, leaving me with several inches of movement at my usual 12×20 apertures of f/90-180. If I could only shoot with one lens on this format, the Nikkor Q would be the one.
Chamonix 12×20; Nikkor Q 450mm f/9 @ f/128, 45 seconds, HP5+ 400; Front rise; Orange filter, polarizer
Other options in the 420-480mm range include the Goerz Dagor 16.5” f/7.7, Goerz Dagor 19” f/7.7, and the Fujinon 450mm f/12.5. The two Goerz Dagors have coverage just as big as the Nikkor M and Q, but they’re not quite as sharp and tend to cost more (about $2000-3000). Their focal lengths correspond to about 420mm (the 16.5”) and 480mm (the 19”).
The Fujinon 450mm f/12.5 is a fascinating lens. It only barely covers 12×20, giving you no room for movements, and it’s a full stop darker than the Nikkor M. But the Fuji lens is in a Copal #1 shutter and weighs a stunning 270 grams. This makes it one of the lightest 12×20 lenses on the market in a shutter. It tends to cost $1500-2000, and because of the light weight, it does a great job on smaller formats, too.
There are other lenses on the market in the 450mm range that cover 12×20, but they wouldn’t be my first recommendation considering how good and inexpensive the Nikkor Q and Nikkor M are. Still, if you already have something else that works, my usual recommendation is to stick with what you’ve got. There are a lot of viable lenses around this focal length for 14×17 and 12×20, especially if you’re shooting something like portraiture and don’t mind (or even prefer) a slightly older, softer lens.
Best Normal Lenses (540-600mm)
At 600mm (about 45mm equivalent), there are a lot of barrel lenses floating around that cover 12×20. You can get almost any barrel lens mounted in a shutter if you send the lens plus the appropriate shutter to a mechanic like SK Grimes. Usually, you’ll need to get a large Ilex #5 shutter (not necessarily cheap or easy to find) to send alongside the lens, although a less expensive, more modern Copal #3 will work on some.
Of the 600mm barrel lenses, the one I see most commonly – and sometimes in a shutter already – is the 24” Goerz Red Dot Artar. Occasionally it even comes in a modern Copal #3 shutter, at which point the maximum aperture is closer to f/13 rather than f/11. It’s about $1500 in a shutter, and because it’s comparatively easy to find, it’s one of my top recommendations in this focal length to most 14×17 and 12×20 photographers. But most of the 600mm barrel lenses are pretty comparable in image quality and coverage, so feel free to get something different if you find one.
One under-the-radar choice is the 21 1/4″ Kodak Copying Ektanon (equal to about 540mm). This sharp lens shows up a few times a year at great prices, usually $200-300. It’s a barrel lens but can be machined to fit in a Copal #3 shutter, and you may be able to find one that’s already been fitted. The downside is that the lens only stops down to f/45 when in a barrel, so landscape photographers will need to find a copy in a shutter.
Another option is the Schneider Symmar Convertible 360/620 I mentioned earlier, this time with the front element removed to give you a 620mm f/12. It’s still a heavy lens, but the price is great, and of course it doubles as a wide lens. Supposedly it’s not as sharp at 620mm as it is at 360mm; I haven’t tried it, but I suspect that stopping down sufficiently would give you sharp results.
Then there’s the Fujinon C 600mm f/11.5. This lens has massive coverage, even projecting an image even on the 20×24 format. For 12×20, it’s excellent in every way other than price. A typical copy sells for about $4000 these days, although you can find it for less if you wait – or buy the identical 600mm f/11.5 from Kang Rinpoche that occasionally appears on the market for about $3000.
Chamonix 12×20; Fujinon C 600mm f/11.5 @ f/90, 4 seconds, HP5+ 400; No movements; Red filter, polarizer
At 600mm, something you really need to think about is depth of field, because you won’t have much of it. My recommendation is to get a lens that can stop down quite a bit. Barrel lenses forced into an Ilex #5 shutter may not be able to stop down to more than f/90 or possibly f/128. Those sound like very narrow apertures, and they usually are – but on such a large format camera, they’re medium apertures at best.
To be specific, with a 600mm lens, f/90 will give you as much depth of field (and diffraction) as a 45mm lens on full-frame digital at f/6.7, given the same print size. That’s not awful, but it’s not as much as I’d like. Ideally, you’d be able to stop down to at least f/180 with lenses this long, which is closer to f/13.3 equivalent. Copal shutters are usually preferable in this regard. My Fujinon C 600mm stops all the way down to f/256 in a Copal #3 (even though the shutter is only marked to f/64). That’s more than enough.
I’ll also mention two excellent but very expensive options that I think are overkill for 14×17 and 12×20: the Fujinon A 600mm f/11 and Schneider 550mm f/11 XXL. Starting with the Fujinon, it’s a rare lens but appears for sale online every once in a while. Even though its younger brother, the “C f/11.5” version I just mentioned already has a ton of coverage, the “A f/11” version has even more. The stated image circle is 840mm, which is even larger than the diagonal of 20×24 film (about 793mm). The best price I’ve seen recently was $6000, but it almost never appears for sale. I wouldn’t recommend getting it unless you shoot larger than 12×20, anyway; the C version is already great for 12×20, and it’s smaller and less expensive.
The other lens is even rarer – the Schneider 550mm f/11 XXL. It has an image circle of 900mm, and Schneider specifically notes that it’s designed for sharp images across the 20×24 format. On the slim chance you find one for sale, budget at least $12,000. As with the Fujinon A 600mm f/11, it’s overkill for 14×17 and 12×20… but a photographer can dream!
Best Moderately Long Lenses (700mm and up)
Normally, a lens beyond 700mm would be a long telephoto on almost any format. But on 14×17 and 12×20, even something like 800mm is only about 60mm equivalent! It really puts into perspective why these are called ultra-large format cameras.
As you start using lenses beyond about 600mm, the length of your bellows will be substantial, making it very hard to avoid losing sharpness due to camera shake. Contact printing is pretty forgiving, but you’ll still need to put in a lot of effort to get sharp shots beyond this point.
This is also the focal length range where it becomes difficult to find any lenses in shutters. As before, you’ll need to send an Ilex #5 or Copal #3 to S.K. Grimes, or potentially just shoot it as a barrel lens with your lens cap as a makeshift shutter (not necessarily a bad idea if you’re at narrow apertures like f/180). Occasionally, you’ll find a 700mm+ lens already in a shutter, but it will probably be selling at a premium.
Any lens you find in these focal lengths is a good choice. Practically all 700mm+ lenses cover 12×20 and 14×17, and usually more than that. They all tend to perform similarly and have plenty of sharpness at narrow apertures. I wouldn’t worry about minor differences between them and recommend focusing more on weight and price.
Personally, I was lucky to find a Goerz 30” Red Dot Artar available for sale already mounted in a Copal #3 shutter. The maximum aperture of this lens is usually f/12.5 but shrinks to f/16 in the Copal #3. Since it’s a long lens, f/16 is still bright enough to focus and compose easily on my 12×20 camera. This is also the longest lens I use on 12×20.
Chamonix 12×20; Goerz Red Dot Artar 30″ @ 762mm, f/128, 83 seconds, HP5+ 400; Front rise
Alongside the 30” Red Dot Artar is a 35” version. Even though these lenses are still pretty difficult to find, they’re among the more common ones you’ll see on the market, especially if you’re looking for a lens already in a shutter. They’re sharp lenses with massive coverage. The 30” has a focal length in millimeters of about 762mm (equivalent to 56mm on full frame digital), while the 35” is about 890mm (equivalent to 66mm). It’s a useful range of focal lengths, albeit still not a very long perspective.
I’d hesitate to use any lens beyond about 900mm on any film format, including 14×17 and 12×20. I already have a tough enough time getting sharp photos with my bellows racked out for the 30″ Artar, let alone something longer. However, there are a few gigantic, expensive process lenses around 1000mm, 1200mm, and even 1800mm to be found if you need them, all of which should cover far more than just 14×17 and 12×20. The best deal I ever saw for one of these lenses was for a Red Dot Artar 47.5” f/15 in the lighter aluminum barrel for $3200 on eBay. I’m just glad my camera doesn’t have 1200mm of bellows, or I might have talked myself into the bad financial decision of buying it.
Large format photographer Angus Parker wrote a great guide to 14×17 lenses that has, among other things, a chart with lots of the 700mm+ barrel lenses. I recommend checking it out here. But in short, if you want a lens that covers 12×20 or 14×17 beyond about 900mm, you’re generally left with lenses that are very heavy, expensive, and difficult to use. I don’t want to dissuade you if your heart is set on such long focal lengths, of course. Just keep in mind that you’re making things very tough on yourself, even by the standards of ultra-large format photography.
Given everything I’ve covered above, I have two general kits to recommend. First is the budget kit:
- Schneider G-Claron 355mm f/9 ($1000)
- Nikkor Q 450mm f/9 ($900)
- Goerz Red Dot Artar 24” / 600mm ($750 in barrel, $1500 in shutter)
The focal lengths of these lenses are equivalent to about 26mm, 33mm, and 45mm on a full-frame digital camera. It sounds pretty slim when I put it that way, but these are all very useful focal lengths and different enough from each other to be worth buying all three. That said, you can easily get away with just one of these lenses – especially the Nikkor Q 450mm f/9 – with excellent results on 12×20 or 14×17.
Of the three lenses above, the Red Dot Artar is the only one that’s difficult to find, and it’s still reasonable if you’re patient. It appears more often in a barrel rather than in a shutter. For ULF photography at narrow apertures, using your lens cap as a shutter is a totally viable option anyway. But you could send the barrel lens plus a spare Copal #3 shutter to a mechanic like SK Grimes to machine the two together for a fee.
There’s also a higher-end kit I’d recommend:
- Computar 270mm or 305mm f/9 ($1500-3000)
- Schneider G-Claron 355mm f/9 ($1000)
- Nikkor M 450mm f/9 ($1300)
- Fujinon C 600mm f/11.5 ($4000)
- Goerz Red Dot Artar 30” or 35″ ($2000-3500 in shutter)
These lenses have a wider spread of focal lengths. The 270mm Computar is equivalent to about 20mm on a full-frame digital camera, and the 305mm Computar is about 22mm equivalent. I also substituted the Nikkor Q for the Nikkor M to get the newer coatings, and the Fujinon C 600mm to get a smaller, more modern lens with bigger coverage.
On the long end, the 35” Red Dot Artar (890mm) is about 66mm full-frame equivalent. Note that not all 12×20 cameras will have enough bellows extension to use such a long lens! Even if yours does, you may want to substitute it for the 30″ Red Dot Artar to get more stability (762mm, which is about 56mm full-frame equivalent). Alternatively, you could go further with the 42” or 47.5” Red Dot Artar lenses if your camera can handle them, but the stability issues at that point would make sharp photography very difficult.
Note that even the higher-end kit above is not comprised of the most expensive and coveted ULF lenses on the market. Feel free to swap in the Docter Germinar-W 360mm f/9 and Schneider 550mm f/11 XXL if you have a spare $20,000 and can somehow find copies of these lenses in the first place. Personally, though, I’ll stick to recommending lenses that show up on the market occasionally and don’t cost more than a car.
Not many lenses cover ultra-large formats. You probably knew that when you signed up for such an unusual hobby. But there are at least a handful of sharp, modern, well-priced lenses that cover 14×17 and 12×20 – and a handful is all we need.
Of course, a lot of older lenses cover these formats, too. They’re not always as sharp as the more recent optics – and often they won’t be cheaper, either – but most of them are still great for contact printing or for portraiture. The article above is geared toward applications like landscape photography where high sharpness and contrast are desired, but maximum sharpness often isn’t needed (or even wanted) by ultra-large format photographers.
Prices fluctuate on ultra-large format lenses. Availability can also change rapidly. You’re dealing with extremely niche lenses and cameras, and more than anything I’ve said above, the key is just to get something that covers 14×17 or 12×20 in the first place. If you find a good deal on a lens not mentioned in this article, go for it. Just do your research ahead of time and buy from someone with a good return policy.
It’s not easy to find lenses for such large cameras, but it sure is worth it when you do.