Saturday, April 6, 2024

Ultra-Large Format Cameras

There’s no real upper limit to how large a camera sensor or film can be. Full frame cameras are smaller than medium format digital, which itself falls behind most medium format film – and so on. At the high end of the scale are Ultra-Large Format (ULF) film cameras.

What is an ultra-large format camera? It’s any camera with an imaging area larger than 8×10 inches. In other words, each individual sheet of film – and it is film rather than digital, unless you’re NASA – is substantially larger than a standard sheet of printer paper. Even a basic 1200 PPI scan of ultra-large format film is going to be hundreds of megapixels… not that most scanners can fit such large sheets of film in the first place.

As the name implies, ultra-large format is massive compared to typical 35mm full-frame sensors or even medium format. Relative to the sensors in a phone, the difference is astronomical.

I chose that term – “astronomical” – because comparisons to astronomy are easy to make with cameras this large. For example, here’s the relative size of the Earth versus the Sun:

And here’s the largest sensor on the iPhone 13 Pro Max versus ultra-large format film (16×20, not even the largest standard ULF size):

Many digital photographers have at least heard of 4×5 or 8×10 film cameras, which are large cameras in their own right. But those aren’t ultra-large format. They’re not big enough. Instead, the usual classification goes like this:

  1. Typical digital cameras through 6×9 cm film: Medium format and smaller
  2. 4×5 through 8×10 inch film: Large format
  3. Anything larger: Ultra-large format (ULF)

These days, the most popular formats of ULF cameras are 11×14, 14×17, 16×20, and 20×24. There are also more panoramic sizes like 7×17, 8×20, and 12×20. (All of those dimensions are the inch measurements of the film for the camera; by comparison, a full-frame sensor is about 1×1.5 inches.)

For many ULF photographers, shooting with this sort of camera is a hobby in and of itself. Think of the differences between off-road Jeepers, vintage car restorationists, and minivan parents. All of them can technically get you from Point A to Point B, but they’re not really after the same things. That said, these cameras all involve photography at the end of the day, and you can get some stunning images from ULF cameras with enough effort.

Here’s what a particularly big ultra-large format camera looks like:

This one, admittedly, is a bit extreme. It’s a 4.5×8 foot camera that was the largest camera in the world in the early 1900s. No surprise, that’s large enough that you’d have to build one from scratch today rather than buying from an established company. But it goes to show that these cameras can be as big as you can build them.

If you’re wondering, there are some working professional photographers who use ultra-large format cameras today (generally not quite 4.5×8 feet) and even a few companies that still make them new. So, I want to push back on the idea that ultra-large format cameras are nothing but antiquated collectibles. Nor are they just “let’s test my woodworking skills” builds. Here and there, a few photographers still put in the extraordinary effort required to use these cameras because the results can be impossible to achieve any other way.

And what results are those? For most photographers, it’s all about contact printing – placing the negative directly on a sheet of light-sensitive paper and getting a one-to-one print. Contact prints are remarkably faithful to the original negative (if you want them to be) and are capable of more detail than just about any other type of print. However, it’s an all-analog process with a lot of hoops to jump through before it turns out right.

Challenges of Ultra-Large Format Cameras

I know that by writing about ultra-large format cameras on a popular site like Photography Life, I may be tempting some photographers who never even knew such cameras existed to get that twinkle of GAS in their eyes. But to most photographers, I urge against buying one. They’re remarkable cameras, but they’re also impractical in almost every way.

If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a better solution: Go for a large format 4×5 or 8×10 camera instead. Those formats are already slow and difficult to use – easily enough to fill your daily quota of tribulation. But at least they’re nearly reasonable. With 4×5 or 8×10 cameras, you have a good selection of lenses, film, spare parts, and accessories, and you should be able to troubleshoot any problems pretty easily. By comparison, the ultra-large format realm is like pulling teeth from a chicken while simultaneously herding cats.

Ansel Adams was smart and used 4×5 or 8×10 for most of his life. 4×5 shown above.

An unavoidable fact of ultra-large format cameras is that they are large and heavy. Take the smaller end of things, for example: 11×14. Typical 11×14 cameras weigh about 20 pounds, not counting at least an additional 3-5 pounds of weight for a lens and a two-shot film holder. Even the lightest 11×14 cameras on the market (aside from rare custom builds) weigh about 13 or 14 pounds, body only.

If you plan to carry such a camera beyond view of your car, good luck finding a backpack that can hold it comfortably – or even fit the camera in the first place. I’ve seen some photographers repurpose cumbersome kayaking backpacks for the job because at least those bags are big enough. Other photographers, even today, carry these cameras on a horse or mule.

Henry Raschen, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. California miner.

What ultra-large format lacks in practicality, it makes up for by being fiendishly expensive. Some “alternative” films aren’t so bad – like repurposing x-ray film from the medical industry – but a single 11×14 sheet of a standard B&W film like Ilford FP4+ is about $12. The cost of developing the negative is another few dollars for the chemicals if you do it at home, or $10 at one of the few remaining labs which still develops 11×14. That’s $15-20 per photo! It better be good. (Color film at this size does exist, but only via special order from Kodak or an intermediary, and the minimum order costs about as much as a new car.)

For crying out loud, the Wikipedia page on ultra-large format photography has a dedicated section called “encumbrances.” Beware, beware, when ULF is in the air.

Why I Got One Anyway

How could I resist something like that? Meet my 12×20:

Chamonix 12×20 camera

I’ve been saving for this camera since I first learned about ultra-large format photography several years ago, and it arrived not long ago. Yes, it’s difficult to use (to put it mildly) and yes, digital cameras have a million advantages over it. But for a number of reasons, I love using this for my landscape photography.

The biggest benefit for me is the experimentation of doing large contact prints in the darkroom, but it’s also true that – if everything goes right – the amount of detail possible per shot with this camera is remarkable. A decent scan would reveal enough detail for wall-sized digital prints, should I feel inclined. (For now, I’m “scanning” the negatives for the web by simply putting them on a light table and photographing them with my digital camera, and I’m only printing analog.)

Cumbersome though the 12×20 format is, I’ve done as much as possible to keep my 12×20 setup backpackable. Because it’s a somewhat panoramic format, the camera just barely slides into my largest 95 liter hiking backpack along with one film holder – two if I stretch things. The camera weighs about 18 pounds on its own, and the whole backpack is about 40 once the tripod, lenses, film holder, and various accessories are added (though before anything like food or shelter). That’s light enough that I don’t mind carrying it a few miles for a photo.

It’s tricky to find lenses that cover such a large format. I have a set of five lenses from 270mm to 762mm, representing about 20mm to 56mm equivalent focal lengths on a full-frame digital camera. (You can see my full lens recommendations for 12×20 here.) Anything longer than 600mm is difficult to use due to camera shake issues. In fact, no matter what lens you use, the whole camera is basically unworkable if there’s more than a light breeze. The bellows act like a sail and make the camera pretty unstable.

The 12×20 isn’t my primary camera, of course. Instead, it acts as a complement to the 4×5 and 8×10 cameras that I’ve switched to for most of my landscape photography needs. You read that right – I’ve moved to large-format film for my dedicated landscape kit, although I’m still using digital for anything other than landscapes. The 12×20 camera is for special occasions when I have time to set everything up and really create the right shot.

I know that Photography Life has an almost exclusively digital audience, which is why I’ve avoided talking about my experiences with large- and ultra-large format film so far. But it’s become such an important part of my photography that I’ll surely write about it some in the future.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some sample photos from the large format film cameras I’ve taken over the past year. These are the sorts of landscapes that I’m planning to capture with my film kits from now on – assuming I spend enough time in the gym that I can carry the 12×20 beyond my car, that is.

Chamonix 45F-2, Nikkor SW 90mm f/8 @ f/30, 1/4 second, Kodak Portra 160; Front standard fall;

Chamonix 12×20; Goerz Red Dot Artar 30″ @ 762mm, f/128, 83 seconds, HP5+ 400; Front rise

Chamonix 4×5; Nikkor 90mm f/8 @ f/20, 1 second, Kodak Portra 160; Slight front shift down

Chamonix 12×20; Computar 270mm f/9 @ f/90, 1 second, HP5+ 400; Rear tilt, front fall; Red filter

Chamonix 4×5; Nikkor M 300mm f/9 @ f/20, 1/15 second, Kodak E100; Front rise

Chamonix 12×20; Nikkor Q 450mm f/9 @ f/128, 45 seconds, HP5+ 400; Front rise; Orange filter, polarizer

Intrepid 8×10; Schneider 150mm f/5.6 XL @ f/45, 20 seconds, Velvia 50; Front tilt and fall; Center filter

The Photograohers
The Photograohers
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