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ULTRA LARGE FORMAT PHOTOGRAPHY

Tim Layton Fine Art - Learn Analog Photography

RESOURCES FOR ULTRA LARGE FORMAT PHOTOGRAPHERS

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WHY ULTRA LARGE FORMAT PHOTOGRAPHY?

Each photographer would have to answer why they choose to work with ultra large format for themselves; however, I will share some of my thoughts with you.

My reasons for continuing to use ultra large format photography can be summed up in the following points:

  • If I had to pinpoint a single reason why I continue to use ultra large format, it is because of the exquisite quality of my contact prints.
  • I want full control over my entire creative process, from composition to making the print. No other workflow, digital or analog, allows the degree of control that is available to me via large and ultra large format methods. This is my primary reason for continuing to use large and ultra large format methods and processes today.
  • The ability to experience and explore a scene or subject under the solitude of the dark cloth is magical. No other workflow gives me this opportunity and experience.
  • Large and ultra large format photography is simple, never changes, and can be mastered if you are willing to invest the time and effort. Digital photography is under constant change, and the narrative is driven by marketing and manufacturing companies. (Buy more/newer gear, more software, update what we sold you last year or even just months ago).
  • The ability to work with my hands using physical objects (i.e., film, paper, chemistry) and using light to make prints is an enjoyable and magical experience. The analog tactile workflow makes me feel more connected to my work.
  • My personal large and ultra large format pure analog workflow is future-proof. I make my own negatives and papers, and the chemistry that I use is generally available outside of the photography world. I have enough raw materials on hand to create new work for the rest of my life. I don’t need a single “thing” in terms of gear for the rest of my life.
  • I love that I don’t need to update, upgrade, or learn something new every month/year. I get to focus and master my workflow, and it takes years to do this. I love that I know every small nuance of every part of my workflow. Focus is a great advantage when it comes to creating meaningful work, in my opinion.
  • In technical terms, it is already well understood that bigger negatives produce technically superior prints, so I don’t need to restate what’s already been proven. Contact printing large and ultra large format negatives are the ultimate in terms of technical quality and what everything else is measured against. I don’t need to compare enlargements to contact prints because I have already done it and know that large and ultra large format contact prints are superior.
  • The ability to use lenses dating back to the beginning of photography allows me to choose the exact type of look and feel I want in my work. No other workflow offers the degree of choices of large and ultra large format optics.
  • The way analog film renders light is unique to analog film, and this also is true for calotype paper negatives and collodion glass plate negatives too. For example, if you point your digital camera into a backlit scene and do the same with a sheet of large or ultra large format film and then compare the best prints from each of these workflows, I think this will help illustrate the superior capabilities of analog film versus a digital sensor. But, in reality, it is much more than a simple test like this. The degree of separation and handling of both highlight and shadow values when compared to a digital or even analog-to-digital workflow is very obvious if you compare them. Besides the technical benefits described here, I prefer how analog mediums (e.g., sheet film, calotypes, paper negatives, collodion negatives, etc.) render highlight and shadow values. I believe the underlying reasons are likely related to how the human eye works and renders information.
  • The ability to shape and control my negatives and prints via tweaks in chemistry is not only satisfying but also offers unique opportunities to express myself. By creating my own emulsions and sensitizers and mixing my own processing chemistry, I can pick whatever paper I want for my work versus being forced to pick a paper from a manufacturer. My imagination and experience only limit the variables I have available.
  • Movements available to large and ultra large format photographers (i.e., swing, tilt, shift, rise/fall, etc.) uniquely allow for total control over my scene or subject. I can have everything sharp or a small slice that is sharp and everything else soft.
  • Being forced to work and think about a single image at a time is a tremendous advantage, not a disadvantage like the modern camera manufacturers paint it to be. The time between exposure, development, and printing in the darkroom is a time when I continue to think about my creative vision and reflect on how I want to shape the final image.
  • My sense of accomplishment using large and ultra large format workflows is realized throughout the entire analog workflow. Every step in my workflow is connected and related in some way. The entire series of steps come together into a finished product that results from significant focus, time, and investment on my part. My connection to each print is profound, and when looking at one of the prints that I admire, I replay the entire journey of how I got there. It’s a beautiful experience.
  • Have you ever directly compared an 8×10 or larger contact print to a digitally captured inkjet print using the exact same composition and focal length? If not, you should do this. That “difference” is what gets me excited and why I keep playing the slow game of large and ultra large format photography.
  • I have the option to create unique and expressive handmade fine art prints such as platinum/palladium, kallitype, silver chloride, collodio-chloride, Rawlins oil prints, carbon, gelatin chloride, and many others. These options are not available via modern digital technology. While one can make a “digital negative” to make these types of prints, they don’t produce a print that compares to a pure analog workflow based on my first-hand experience.

NORMAL LENS/FILM DIAGONAL BY FORMAT

7×17 – 18 inch (450mm)

8×20 – 21 inch (500mm)

12×20 – 23 in (550mm)

11×14 – 18 inch (450mm)

14×17 – 22 inch (550mm)

16×20 – 24 inch (600mm)

20×24 – 30 inch (800mm)

THE BACK STORY

First, I should mention that I didn’t start out using ultra large format gear. It was a progression that happened over decades. If I had to pinpoint the core reason I leaped into ultra large format photography from large format, it would be because of the exquisite quality of my contact prints.

I loved the quality and experience of making 8×10 large format contact prints for decades, and after comparing my 16×20 and 20×24 enlargements from large format negatives to my current 8×10 contact prints, I wondered if the bigger ultra large format contact prints would captivate me like the 8×10 contact prints.

Spoiler alert, size matters…

I started with a beat-up 11×14 Burke & James camera, and after performing minor surgery on Frankenstein, I made some 11×14 silver chloride contact prints. I was blown away by the quality and hooked from that moment forward. I still have Frankenstein to this day.

In theory, an 11×14 print doesn’t seem that much bigger than an 8×10, but I was wrong. Once I mounted a set of 8×10 and 11×14 contact prints and hung them on the wall side by side, I was blown away at the differences. Ultimately over the course of 10 years, this leads me to my 16×20 and 8×20 Chamonix ultra large format cameras that I use today.

The 8×20 format has helped me see in new ways. It is my favorite format that I am working with at this time. I am finally starting to see in 8×20, so I will continue enjoying the fun and challenges as I explore this new format.

I think the difficulty factor of ultra large format really helped me improve my overall skills and I highly recommend any 8×10 large format photographers take the step up to 11×14 if it makes sense and if the opportunity is available.  Going beyond 11×14 without having 8×10 experience is a tough road for most people and I don’t recommend it.  Make sure you have a good reason for going bigger and if your “why” is important enough to you, it will help you push through the difficult and irritating times that are sure to happen.

There are also plenty of ULF formats, such as 7×17, 8×20, and 12×20, if you prefer more of a pano look, and more traditional formats would include 11×14, 14×17, 16×20, and 20×24.

ULTRA LARGE FORMAT CONSIDERATIONS

Depending on your personal situation, you may find that you may actually spend less money overall on your hobby/passion when using ultra large format. 

It seems expensive initially, but you can use the same exact gear for your entire life and never need to replace it.  Modern digital photographers have no idea of this concept.

The shock factor comes from the price of ultra large format cameras and film holders. Once you eliminate the need for high-end computers, software licenses, and enlargers, it will become apparent the total cost of ownership is typically much lower for most people.

For example, if you use smaller formats and make enlargements, then you have all of that expense associated with that workflow.  Large format enlargers and the full range of tools and supplies are typically not a cheap endeavor.  But, if you only make ultra large format contact prints, you can eliminate many other gear and expenses and enjoy a very simple and beautiful workflow.  Edward Weston’s contact printing was simple, and I think it turned out just fine for him. 

Everyone comes to ultra large format with various needs and desires, so your mileage may vary on some of the considerations I share with you.

Depending on your physical ability to lug, transport, and haul your big camera around, this may be an issue for some people.  Make sure you understand your future kit’s total size and weight before making a purchase.  Some of the smaller lenses are relatively lightweight, but others are the size and weight of a small child! If you only plan to do studio work, then the bigger size and weight are probably not an issue.

Please ensure you have a dark tent or other suitable means of loading your big film holders. If you only use silver gelatin darkroom paper as your negative, then you can load your holders under a red safelight.

If you are on the fence about getting an ultra large format camera, do everything you can to see if the new gear is what you are genuinely seeking.  For example, if you think your 11×14 contact prints will be better than your 8×10 prints, buy an 11×14 contact print from an accomplished photographer like me, or maybe try and work out a print swap deal or something similar if money is tight for you.  If that doesn’t work for you, then consider visiting your local museum and ask to see some big contact prints. 

If you have the ability to make enlargements, make different sized enlargements, mount them, and pretend they are contact prints.  What size do you like the best?

Make sure you have a plan for development in trays because this is most likely how you will be developing your negatives and contact prints.

If you don’t have a proven process for developing in trays, start with a smaller format and master that first because everything is much more complex at full scale.  You could use a large Jobo drum to develop your film and even your prints if you don’t have a proper darkroom. 

If you tend to fly by the seat of your pants, then ULF might not be for you.  You will need to plan just about everything from ordering your film once a year to doing extensive research if you plan to go out in the field with your kit.  Working with larger formats requires a lot of patience, planning, and willingness to work through a series of inevitable problems. 

I personally think the challenges are worth the end results and when you get to the point of making high-quality contact prints that bring a tear to your eyes, I think you will feel the same way.


NEGATIVE CHOICES FOR ULTRA LARGE FORMAT

Buying ULF B&W film is a once-per-year event that will make you cry if you miss the annual Ilford ULF film order.  Sheet film is wonderful, but you don’t have to exclusively use film.  You have many other choices.

One good option is to use silver gelatin RC glossy paper as a negative medium.  In fact, it is one of my favorite negatives for ULF.

To get you started in the right direction, I highly recommend using RC glossy paper if you want to explore using silver gelatin darkroom paper as a negative.  The RC glossy paper produces an incredibly sharp negative and allows you to make very high-quality contact prints that are unlike film, wet plate, or dry plates.  Try ISO 3 as a place to start and adjust based on your results. 

An inexpensive way to get started with is to use Arista EDU Ultra Glossy VC RC Glossy paper as your negative and then use the same paper to make your contact prints. It is only $85 for 25 sheets making the cost per negative relatively cheap when compared to any other negative type. Check out my “Why Paper Negatives” video on my YouTube channel which should dispel any myths about silver gelatin paper negatives as being a learning tool or compromise.

Also, some ULF photographers like X-Ray film and have good success with it. Most X-Ray film is two-sided, making it sort of a nightmare from a handling perspective (nasty scratches). I am not a big fan of X-Ray film for my style of work, but it is something you should consider and at least try in a smaller format to explore if it is an option for you.


LENSES FOR 16×20 ULTRA LARGE FORMAT

The vast majority of ultra large format photographers will be using 16×20 or smaller, so that is why I prioritized this section first.

The dimensions of the Chamonix 16×20 camera are 24″ x 25.25″ x 6.75″ (610mm x 640mm x 170mm), and the dimensions of this case are 24″ x 30″ x 13″.  This allows me to store the camera and 4 film holders in the case together, along with the lenses too. 

A standard lens for 16×20 is considered to be about 600mm (24 in.) because the film diagonal measurement is 610mm.

My personal lenses for 16×20, 14×17, 7×17, 12×20, and 8×20 formats include the following:

  • Schneider Super-Symmar XL 210mm F5.6 in Copal 3 Shutter (500), filter 135mm.  This lens is crazy wide on 16×20 and is also one of the sharpest lenses I own. It weighs 2002g/4.41 lb. I like this lens on my 8×20 too.
  • Rodenstock APO Sironar W 300 F5.6 in Copal 3 Shutter (490).  This is the sharpest lens I have ever owned, and I really like this focal length on 16×20 or even 8×20 too. 
  • Nikkor M 450mm F9 in Copal 3 Shutter (440).  This lens is about the smallest lens you will find in shutter for 16×20 and smaller formats.  It is not uncommon to find them on eBay, but the prices have really started to increase over the last few years.  This focal length is slightly wide and a good choice when you need something small and lightweight in shutter.
  • Derogy Petzval 450mm F4.5 lens is a brass-plated internal aperture control handmade lens from the 1850s. This lens is HUGE and very heavy (4000g/8.8 lbs). I had to mount it on a 10-inch lens board that I had custom-made by Chamonix, and it requires a lens support system like the one in the photo above. This lens is magical.
  • Schneider 35″ (889mm) F12.5 APO Red Dot Artar (in Aluminum Barrel). The 47 1/2″ lens below is “Big Bertha,” and this one is its little sister “Little Bertha”.  Massive coverage: 1:10 (20″24″), 1:5 (22″x28″), 1:2 (28″x36″), 1:1 (36″x45″). Artar lenses cover approximately 46 degrees.  It is reasonable to find the Goerz version on eBay if you watch for it, but the Schneider version is very rare and much lighter because it is in an aluminum barrel at about 3 pounds. This focal length is also a good choice for a long lens on 16×20. 
  • Schneider 47 1/2″ (1206mm) F15 APO Red Dot Artar (in Aluminum Barrel), aka “Big Bertha”. Big Bertha has massive coverage: 1:10 28″x36″, 1:5 30″x35″, 1:2 36″x45″, 1:1 48″x64″.  The Schneider version of this lens is very rare to find, and mine is in the lightweight aluminum barrel, making it extremely rare.  The regular Goerz version of this lens weighs over 8 pounds, and mine is half the weight at 4 pounds. The Goerz brand is still difficult to find, but if you are patient, one will occasionally come up on eBay. I have to install my extension board to use this on my 16×20 camera but it natively works on 20×24. Mounting hole = 105mm.  Width of Mounting flange = 137mm. My Sinar size standard lens boards are 139mm wide. This lens is mounted on my current config by 2mm! 
  • Soft Focus/Pictorialist lenses include the TT Signature Pictorial Barrel Lens 18 inches (457mm) F7.5 and 24 inches (609mm) F10, (DIY Meniscus 335mm F4.6 (510), DIY Meniscus 500mm F6.9 (810).  I have all of these and love them.  
  • Special Use Lenses: I use a 150mm Nikkor SW F8 lens designed for 8×10 mounted in a Copal 1 shutter as a crazy wide closeup lens.  With 1050mm (~40 inches) of bellows draw on my 16×20 Chamonix camera, I can do some incredible 3:1, 4:1, and even 5:1 macro work. A lot of my other 8×10 lenses can also be used as closeup/macro lenses too like the Heliar 300mm F4.5, Cooke Series II 12 inch, B&L 20 inch Triplet, and many others.

Most Common Lenses For 16×20

The most common lenses for 16×20 are the Schneider G Claron 355mm F9 IC 444mm 855g (~$600), Nikkor M 450mm F9 IC 440 640g (~$800), and Fujinon C 600mm F11.5 IC 620 575g ($2600-$4500).

Schneider G Claron 355mm F9 Barrel Mounted (444).  Same thoughts about this focal length as the Rodenstock APO Sironar and this lens is very affordable compared to the Rodenstock and often available via eBay and other places. 

All three of these lenses are typically found mounted in a Copal 3 shutter, but not always and they can typically be found on eBay. Depending on your goals, these lenses are a good place to start your 16×20 journey.

For example, my Schneider G Claron 355mm F9 lens is in a barrel, and I am okay with that because I shoot a lot of very slow emulsions and don’t need a shutter. It is relatively cheap compared to other lenses. and it is a fantastic lens.

My Nikkor M 450mm F9 lens is in mounted on a Copal 3 shutter and this is great when I want a sharp lens and need faster shutter speeds.  When I shoot faster films like HP5, having a shutter is always a good option.   

I sold my Fujinon C 600mm lens last year, but that was also mounted in a Copal 3 shutter as well and the price of this lens has risen to cult status.  

The prices listed above were confirmed via eBay in December 2020.  Note: IC indicates image circle at F22.

The rare and difficult to find Rodenstock APO Sironar W 300 F5.6 lens works on 16×20 as a wide angle lens with an image circle of 490mm.

Nikkor 480mm F9 APO Process Lens (Nikkor APO PDF) can be a suitable choice depending on your goals.  It is typically one of the cheaper lenses that will have no problem covering 16×20 and it is small and light compared to most other lenses.  

I am fortunate enough to have bought this lens brand new which seemed expensive at the time, but now it is very expensive often going for $6,000 or more if you can even find one.

I personally use a slightly wide to normal lens on my camera and never had a personal need or desire for a longer lens.

The G Claron 355mm is the easiest and cheapest to find and considered to be a mid-range wide lens, and the Nikkor M 450mm is still considered to be little bit wide on 16×20 and it is the second easiest to find. 

The Fujinon C 600mm  is the most difficult to find and the most expensive. 

The price continues to change on these lenses over time.  Remember, they don’t make this stuff any more…

If you are into the 7×17 and 12×20 ULF formats, most of these and similar lenses will work as well.

The advantage of the three lenses listed above is their small size and weight.  With the camera already being huge and very heavy, toting around a small canon makes things even more difficult.

Goerz 30″ (762mm) F12.5 APO Red Dot Artar. 30 inches is a normal lens on the 20×24.  This lens will have limited movements on the 20×24.  This focal length is also a good choice for 16×20 when you want something longer than the 24″ normal lens, but not as long as the 35″.  Plenty of room for movements on the 16×20 with this lens.

In the section below, I listed some additional lenses that you can consider over time depending on your style of photography. 

I believe the Gundlach Turner Reich 11×14 Triple Convertible F7.5 Series II No 6 lens will provide coverage at the 36″ length if you have enough bellows and the shorter 15 in and 21 in will be fine for closeup work.

The sequence for conversion is: both elements 15 in, rear only 24 in, move front to rear 36 in.

Don’t forget to use the proper f scale, there should be three, one for each focal length. It is recommended you use a filter behind the lens when converted, I use a yellow. It is also recommended you focus at the f/stop you will take the picture at with the filter in place (this can be tricky, my arms are not 48 in long) so stopping down as you watch the ground glass may necessitate a helper. In the non converted state it performs like any 5 pound lens would.  In general, the Turner Reich lenses are not regarded very highly but they were used extensively on all large formats. If you are contact printing I don’t think you will find a better performer for the money.

Vintage Soft Focus Lenses (Coverage Up To 16×20)

Crown Anastigmat Series I 23 1/4″ F4.5 (rarely on eBay)
Dallmeyer Patent Portrait Lens Series A No.6A 30 inch F4 (very rare and expensive)

Brand New TT Signature Pictorial Lens From Tri Tran (highly recommended, I own one)

16×20 General Purpose Lenses With Coverage Wide Open (Up To 16×20)

B&L Extra Rapid Universal Series D 22 3/4″ F6
B&L Special 30″ 700mm F6.3
Carl Zeiss APO-Planar 32″ 800mm (rare and expensive)
Carl Zeiss Protar 24″ 600mm F7.2 (rare and expensive)
Goerz (Berlin) Dragor Series III 30″ 750mm F7.7
Voightlander Collinear 24″ 600mm F6.3

APO Nikkor 600mm F9 (huge image circle up to 20×24, cheap $300 to $250, razor sharp, in barrel)

There are other lenses available that are bigger and heavier.

Symmar Convertible 360/620mm F5.6/F12 IC 500mm in Compound 4 Shutter 1910g (4.4 lbs)

APO Ronar CL 600mm F9 or F11 1563g/1547g

APO Nikkor 600mm F9 775g

Goerz Red Dot Artar 24″ (610mm) F11 ($1750 in shutter 7/2021, $1095 barrel lens 7/2021, $750 without mounting flange 11/2021)

Goerz Red Dot Artar 30″ 762mm F12.5 (longer than normal lens for 16×20)


LENSES FOR 8×20 ULTRA LARGE FORMAT

My personal lenses for 8×20 include:

For 8×20, I like to categorize my lenses by their optical characteristics. Sometimes, I want a very sharp lens, other times, I may want a more soft and painterly feeling to my image.

The folded dimensions of my Chamonix 8×20 Camera: 635mm x 320mm x 130mm or 25″ x 12.6″ x 5.1″.

Sharp Lenses

  • Schneider 210XL (8.25 in) F5.6 (super wide)
  • Rodenstock Sironar W 300mm (12 in) F5.6 (wide)
  • Goerz 14 in (355mm) Blue Dot F11 (This is a new lens for me and I need to verify coverage)
  • Nikkor M 450mm F9 (18 in) (normal)
  • Kodak Ektanon 21 1/4″ (540mm) F11 (normal)
  • Goerz 24 in F12.5 (600mm) Red Dot Artar (long)

Soft Focus Lenses

  • TT Lens 18 in (457mm) (normal) 24in (609mm) (long)
  • Wollaston Meniscus 250mm (10 in) F3.4 (I need to verify coverage at infinity) (wide)
  • Wollaston Meniscus 335mm (14 in) F4.6 (wide)
  • Wollason Meniscus 500mm (20 in) F6.8 (normal)

Lenses in Shutter

  • Schneider 210XL F5.6 (super wide)
  • Rodenstock Sironar W 300mm (12 in) F5.6 (wide)
  • Nikkor M 450mm F9 (normal)

Finding a case for an ultra large format camera is never an easy task. I have typically had good luck with Gator cases that are intended to store and protect music equipment on the road.  I was fortunate to find a case that will hold the 16×20 camera and all four film holders!  Here is the link on Amazon for the case in case you want one for your camera. 

The dimensions of the Chamonix 16×20 camera are 24″ x 25.25″ x 6.75″ (610mm x 640mm x 170mm), and the dimensions of this case are 24″ x 30″ x 13″.  This allows me to store the camera and 4 film holders in the case all together along with the lenses too. 

The folded dimensions of my Chamonix 8×20 Camera: 635mm x 320mm x 130mm or 25″ x 12.6″ x 5.1″.

EXTERNAL RESOURCES

Lenses for 14×17 and 12×20 by Spencer Cox

Jim Fitzgerald (Carbon ULF/LF)

ULF – When 300mm is Wide Angle by Spencer Cox

ULF – Flickr

ULF Lens Discussions on APUG