ULF 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!
|Format Size||Ilford FP4+||Ilford HP5+||Delta 100||Adox CHS 100 II||Kodak Portra 160 (C41)||Arista Ortho Litho||X-Ray (Standard Sizes)|
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.
Used: Folmer & Schwing (sturdy / short bellows), or Korona (less sturdy / long bellows)
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.
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)
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.
Used: For the Field: Rochester (Empire State)
Used: For the Studio: Anthony (Climax Portrait), or Burke & James (Ingento Portrait)
Some of the other popular formats you might want to consider are summarized below in Table 2: Decision Criteria for ULF
|Format||Portability||Camera Availability||Camera Price||B&W Film Availability||X-Ray Film Availability||Lens Selection||Lens Cost|
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