What is the ULF format for you?

February 09, 2016  •  3 Comments

ULF Camera by Darren SamuelsonULF Camera handmade by Darren SamuelsonCreative Commons Credit: Darren Samuelson, image cropped

About a year ago I went and took the plunge into Ultra Large Format, otherwise known as using a view camera with an area greater than 8x10. My format choice was driven by (1) shape (square versus panoramic) (2) finished output such as wetplate versus contact printing film (3) film availability and cost, (4) weight/portability, (5) the subject matter and whether you want to shoot wide, normal or long lenses, (6) camera cost and availability and (7) lens cost and availability.

But before you go down the ULF route, consider that any ULF negatives you make will most likely be contact printed and the sad truth is that image quality does not necessarily increase with the size of the negative. Film plane flatness, lens sharpness, and vignetting amongst other things are negatively correlated with size of the format. You may be better off just scanning a 4x5 or 8x10 negative and digitally enlarging it to create a new analog negative on Pictorico in a high end Epson inkjet printer. So you can sort of have your ULF negative cake and eat it without the ULF camera!

But for the brave souls who want to get into the world of ULF, let's take in turn each key characteristic to find your ULF sweet spot:

(1) Square versus Panoramic / Landscape versus Portrait  

People see usually in one shape or the other. While it is possible to use a reducing back to go from Square to Panoramic shape, the weight and cost penalty of carrying around half a camera you aren't using, an extra back, extra film holders, makes it unlikely you will do that. Square cameras can usually, although not always, switch from portrait to landscape orientation. But Panoramic cameras rarely can switch out of landscape orientation (with the exception of Richard Ritter's wonderful creations). A Square camera (e.g. 14x17") which shares the long dimension with a Panoramic camera (e.g. 7x17") is going to be much much heavier. So in a nutshell my advice is to stick with the shape you love. 

Alternatively you can shoot two panoramic images on a single sheet of film using a half dark slide. It's a relatively small weight penalty if less elegant than a reducing back.

(2) Finished Output 

Beside shape (square or panoramic), there is the overall size of the image you want to make. Most people move up from 8x10 because the contact prints are just to small for their liking. What do you want you final prints to be? If you are shooting film, do you have big enough trays and darkroom sink space for giant negatives and even bigger paper? One solution for limited space is to use a Jobo rotary processor - where you can both develop your negative and your prints in a limited space without the need for any trays. The largest Jobo drum can develop 16x20 paper, and combining some of the smaller drums you can easily develop 14x17 film. This approach also uses fewer chemicals.

But perhaps you want to produce a wet plate collodion, dry plate, daguerreotype, or other in-camera original image. In that case, you will need larger lens boards, 6x6 at minimum up to 9x9, and beefier front and back standards to take the heavy faster brass lenses and heavy plate holders. At at ULF sizes, you're also more likely to want a ground glass focusing screen panel that can swing out of the way, instead of requiring you to lift the plate back over your head to slide it in between the ground glass and the rear frame. Finally you need a well thought out plan on how to prepare and develop the plate on site.

While most people are using ULF to stay in the analog world and avoid digital post processing, a few people consider the maximum size they can scan a key criteria. Some fairly modern flatbed scanners go up to 11x14 and drum scanners max out around 14x17.

(3) Film availability and cost

You can see from Table 1: ULF Film by Format (February 2016) that 11x14 wins hands down for film availability. You will likely have film in that format for years to come. Other "Square" formats that have good film options are 14x17, 16x20, and 20x24. For Panoramic formats 7x17, 8x20 and 12x20 are well provided for. However, unless you cut down X-ray film to 7x17, the 11x14, and 14x17 formats are really the only other sizes that offer this cheap but high contrast film option. Film is generally priced on a per square inch basis so the smaller the area of the format the cheaper the film. This factor also favors 7x17 and 11x14, (and 14x17 but only if using X-ray film). If you make your own plates then any size in theory is possible!

Table 1: ULF Film by Format (February 2016)
Format Size Ilford FP4+ Ilford HP5+ Delta 100 Adox CHS 100 II Kodak Portra 160 (C41) Arista Ortho Litho X-Ray (Standard Sizes)  
7x17 Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No  
8x16 No Yes No No No No No  
8x20 Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No  
8.5x15 Yes No No Yes No No No  
9.45x12 No No No Yes No No No  
10x12 Yes Yes No No No No Yes  
10x14 No No No No No No Yes  
11x14 Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes  
12x15 Yes Yes No No No No No  
12x16 No No No Yes No No No  
12x20 Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No  
14x17 Yes Yes No Yes No Yes Yes  
14x20 Yes No No No No No No  
14x36 No No No No No No Yes  
16x20 Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes No  
20x24 Yes Yes Yes Yes No No No  

If you shoot film, it should be your main consideration when buying a ULF camera simply because it will be your main cost of ownership even if you only shoot 20 sheets a year for a couple of years. That is unless you use X-ray film where the price differential is a few dollars versus tens of dollars per sheet. You will probably be able to sell back your second hand lenses and second hand camera for approximately what you bought them for. Not so for new view cameras which often go for a significant price reduction on sale in the secondary market.

Remember to place your order for ULF film between early April and early June if you plan to use Ilford FP4+, HP5, or Delta 100. Make sure to order with a local dealer both to support your local store but also to make it easy to pick-up your film and assure that it doesn't get damaged in delivery.

For more on film choices see: The Search for the Perfect Film Format

(4 ) Weight and Portability & (5) Subject & Field of View

Panoramic cameras tend to be lighter because they have smaller standards and bellows than square formats. In addition, many panoramic cameras are older banquet style cameras - so named because they were used to photograph large groups of people with wide angle lenses at short ditances. As a result they have short bellows. If you like to shoot wide landscape images these might be the camera for you. 

If you are only thinking of doing portraits or still-life with minimal movements in a studio, then you might want to consider the a studio camera made around the turn of the 19th century. E Anthony (later E & HT Anthony / Anthony and Scovill / Ansco) and Burke & James made quite a few versions of 11x14 and 14x17 studio cameras some with bellows as long as 7 feet or 213cm!

Authenticity is important to some ULF shooters. You don't show up to an American Civil War re-enactment with a Carbon Fiber based Ritter camera, but rather an ancient contemporaneous camera complete with huge brass lens.

Its obvious to point out the larger the format the larger and heavier the lenses, film holders and tripod needed. Film holders in particular are amazingly heavy in ULF when compared to 4x5 or even 8x10 and will comprise a significant portion of the equipment weight if you have more than one or two.

(6) Cost of Cameras, Film Holders and Availability

Banquet cameras in 7x17, and to some extent 12x20 are quite common as are 11x14 format cameras. Especially Panoramic format cameras from 100 years ago tend to go for bargains but you may need to spring for new bellows. For other formats you may have to wait a while to find a well priced second hand camera. But also don't underestimate the time and cost to buy a new camera - they are almost always custom made and may take three months to a year and a half to manufacture. Rarely is any new ULF camera in stock, so you may be better off just waiting for a second hand camera.

Also note that film holders are not interchangeable between cameras because there were no standards for ULF, so absolutely buy your holders with the camera if you can. Even in 14x17" where there is an ANSI standard the film holders are still not interchangeable!

Finally, if you are handy in a wood shop you might want to consider building your own view camera. Some people start with acquiring film holders, either new or used, and build the camera around them.

(7) Lens Availability and Cost

The smaller the image circle for the format the more lenses are available and the cheaper they are to find. Plus those smaller IC lenses are more likely to be found multi-coated, and in a shutter. If you don't mind a barrel lenses many old process lenses will work well and can be quite cheap.

For more on lens choices see: 14x17" ULF Lens Recommendations

The Sweet Spot

So in summary I would say there are three clear sweet spots in ULF: 7x17, 11x14, and 14x17. The logic is explained below. If you want a list of possible ULF cameras to buy, both old and new, you can review this spreadsheet: ULF View Camera Specs (2016). Please add any missing information.

7x17 - Cheap available second hand cameras, portable, lots of B&W film choices with the option of cutting 14x17" X-ray film in half, with lots of lenses to choose from. But depending on the camera you may be limited to wide to wide-normal field of view and of course a panoramic landscape format.

Some Options:

Used: Folmer & Schwing (sturdy / short bellows), or Korona (less sturdy / long bellows)

New: Chamonix

11x14 - Moderately priced second hand cameras, somewhat portable, lots of B&W film choices, some X-ray film options, lots of lenses and usually with all fields of view - wide to long. Square with option to use half dark slide for panoramic images. Some studio cameras exist in this format size that are very heavy.

Some Options:

Used: For the Field: Rochester (Empire State), or Seneca (Improved View) but really there are so many choices

Used: For the Studio: Anthony (Climax Portrait), or Burke & James (Ingento Portrait)

New: Chamonix for film, Star Camera for wet-plate.

14x17 - Can be cheap camera if you find an old Rochester but more likely a custom build, B&W film costs are high but very cheap X-ray film is plentiful, quite a few lenses cover the format and fields of view are usually wide to long. Square with option to use half dark slide for panoramic images. Some studio cameras exist in this format size that are very heavy.

Some Options:

Used: For the Field: Rochester (Empire State)

Used: For the Studio: Anthony (Climax Portrait), or Burke & James (Ingento Portrait)

New: Chamonix for film, Star Camera for wet-plate

Some of the other popular formats you might want to consider are summarized below in Table 2: Decision Criteria for ULF

Table 2: Decision Matrix for ULF
Format Portability Camera Availability Camera Price B&W Film Availability X-Ray Film Availability Lens Selection Lens Cost
7x17 High High Low High Medium(2) High (3) Low
8x20 Medium Low-Medium Medium High None  High (3) Low
12x20 Low-Medium Medium Low High None  Medium (3) Medium
11x14 High High Low High Medium High Low
14x17 Low-Medium Low (1) Medium-High High High Medium Medium
16x20 Low  Low-Medium (1) Medium-High High None  Low  Medium-High
20x24 Low  Low-Medium (1) Medium-High High None  Low  Medium-High

Notes: (1) Made to Order, very few old ones (2) Cut 14x17 in half (3) Bellow limit use to shorter focal lengths for "Banquet" cameras


Angus Parker Photography
@Richard: Thanks for the kind words. Yes, HP5 can be got in 11x14. A nice little bonus.
Richard Valentine(non-registered)
Angus, as usual, great article. I just wanted to clarify: 11x14 HP5 is a stock item you can
buy year round from B&H, and other places, and not an ULF special order film.
Fr. Mark(non-registered)
Every time I think about sticking to just 4x5 or 5x7 and enlarging I remember that Ektascan is available in 14x17 and that size cuts to whole plate with little waste. I like the shape of whole plate and the size is just a enough bigger than 5x7 that I might be happy with the contact prints. Some things work at 4x5 and 5x7, but a little bigger without going to 8x10 might be nice. And why not have a dynamic duo of a WP and 14x17?

But then I think about how huge my home built 8x10 (the next one will be very different!) and how hard it was to build and I'm proposing building two new cameras? One that's 8x larger than the 8x10? (based on volume) and which would require enormous trays to develop the film? And for which I might have to use meniscus lenses? Ack. And still the idea remains appealing.

I think part of the appeal of ULF is I like chemicals more than computers. I really hate how quickly computers and ancillary gear go obsolete. And how expensive a new computer, scanner and printer would be. a good macro-lens for the dslr and building a copy stand with trans-illumination and stitching together the resultant files might cost less than the scanner and then I'd have a macro lens to take pictures with.

In comparison, good optics and analog cameras and enlargers last and last, ditto good negatives. And with ULF maybe I'd not miss using an enlarger and all that hassle or the hassle of making enlarged negatives (something I still need to learn to do optically/chemically).

On the other other hand, I have an excellent 35mm enlarger and lens and every single 35mm negative I've ever printed, I've cropped. I try to get the image right when taken, but sometimes (usually) it's better with editing. Its true of my LF images too. I'm unlikely to run out of information for enlarging with medium format negatives. Am I really going to print big enough to max out a 4x5 or 5x7? Unlikely. 8x10? Definitely not.

When I look at my LF negatives with a loupe, I see information there that I can't make visible on the contact print and it bugs me to have information I can't display. This will be a problem no matter how big the negative is if I contact print...
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