[Note: Ctein's column will appear tomorrow (Friday) this week. And in case you don't read all the way to the end of this post, Happy Thanksgiving! —Mike]
I find it curious that digital photographers are preoccupied with format just like film photographers were (and are). In digital we have all sorts of delightfully unstandardized, arcane size labels—just like film, albeit even more so. Quick, what's 1/1.7" in plain English? You have no idea, do you?
Don't feel bad—I don't know either, offhand (1/1.7" is 5.7 x 7.6 millimeters, a 4:3 aspect ratio). The point is, if you're a film virgin who came of age after the advent of digital, you might also not know that "6x7" and "4x5" refer to centimeters and inches, respectively, or that "127" refers to an outmoded 46mm-wide rollfilm usually but not always used in cameras as a 4cm square. The various film sizes are a permanent motley, never to be rationalized now (efforts to rationalize, which have been persistent down through the years, have almost always just led to a still greater proliferation of formats and film sizes).
Here's a brief and by no means exhaustive rundown of common film sizes:
Subminiature and Miniature (anything smaller than 35mm)
- Minox—8x11mm image area on film 9.2 mm wide.
- 110—a cartridge format miniaturized from the once-popular 126 cartridge format; 13x17mm image area.
- APS—the short-lived format introduced by a consortium led by Kodak and Minolta to rationalize consumer snapshooting at the end of the film era. 24mm-wide film in cassettes, with three standard aspect ratios.
Small format (usually just called 35mm)
- 35mm—By far the most successful and ubiquitous film format in the history of still photography was and is movie film, 35mm wide, with totally redundant double rows of sprocket holes, one on each edge (by contrast, 110 film has one index hole per frame. A Kodak scientist once told me that if 35mm film were designed today, it would need at most two sprocket holes per frame, and only along one edge). Image area is 24x36mm. This same size has come to be known as "full frame" in the digital Universe, mainly to adapt to legacy camera and lens designs.
Rollfilm (also called medium format)
- 120 and 220—"rollfilm" refers to medium-format film, despite the fact that 35mm film comes in rolls (as in "give me two rolls of film, please") and "bulk rolls" (100-foot or longer rolls of film that come in tins and that you load into re-usable cassettes yourself).
Rollfilm, first introduced in 1901 strictly for amateurs, does not come in cartridges or cassettes—it is wound around a spool with a partial or complete paper backing behind it, and when you "run it through the camera" you literally run it through the camera—it comes off the front spool and is taken up by the initially empty back spool, so it comes out of the camera wrapped around a different spool than it went into the camera on. The empty front spool is then used as the take-up spool for the next roll.
There are two sizes, called 120 and 220, the latter being twice as long (many medium-format cameras can take both kinds). The different rollfilm formats are created by using various segments of the 6-centimeter-wide film—the segments being commonly 4.5cm, 6cm, 7cm, 9cm, 12cm, or 17cm long—hence 645, 6x6 (or 2 1/4, pronounced "two-and-a-quarter"), 6x7, 6x9 (Fuji made a 6x8 studio camera system once), and 6x12 or 6x17 panorama sizes.
Large format (refers to individual sheets of film that can be loaded into a camera, regardless of size. A subset of large format is ultra large format, which refers to anything larger than 8x10-inch. It's abbreviated ULF, a term that started to gain currency only in recent decades).
- 2x3" (6x9cm)
There are a few larger sizes as well, such as the famous 20x24 Polaroid cameras, but there is little standardization in mammoth cameras and they are relatively quite rare.
Another major subset of format which I won't go into here are the various panoramic sizes, which range from 35mm swing-lens cameras such as the Widelux to so-called "banquet" cameras, which are ULF cameras in panoramic or semi-panoramic aspect ratios.
Johnston's First Law of Format
The essence of format in film is that—as I've always said—the larger the film size, the easier it is in the darkroom and the harder it is in the field; the smaller the film size, the easier it is in the field but the harder it is in the darkroom. That's why I always shot 35mm black-and-white—I'm a very good craftsman in the darkroom but only so-so in terms of my shooting skills. Virtuoso shooters like Edward Weston and Joel Meyerowitz (who published ~100 of ~400 8x10 exposures in his great book St. Louis and the Arch (OoP and rare), which still amazes me as a "keeper" ratio) can make great work with bigger cameras. Much-more-average me, not so much.
And the most interesting thing about format (in film; it has different technical connotations and hence different meanings in digital) is that there are trade-offs all along the progression from small to large, and yet the advantages and disadvantages are almost always overlapping, which makes the tradeoffs and balances endlessly fascinating.
Just a few examples:
- Zooms much more common, in smaller formats. Yet 35mm isn't an absolute cutoff; there exist a few medium-format zooms.
- Enlargements from larger formats tend to look more grainless and have more resolution. But it depends on the degree of enlargement. At 11x14", 4x5 doesn't look that much better than 6x7—at least, most non-photographers can't tell the difference. Similarly, medium format doesn't look better than 35mm in a 4- or 5-inch-wide print. But as you go bigger and bigger in enlargement size, the larger format's advantages always begin to pull ahead at some point.
- The larger the format, the more likely you are to need a tripod. But of course sometimes you use a tripod with 35mm cameras, and there are 4x5 cameras that are intended to be handheld (the famous Graflex Speed Graphics from the 1930s and '40s, for instance).
Weegee with a Graflex (above); the cameras are still common on Ebay (below).
I won't go into a complete rundown of all the issues, because when I think about it, it seems that the great majority of my readers would fall into one of two camps: those who already know all this, and those who won't care.
When large is small
What interests me about format at the moment are the tradeoffs in the "large format" category, which, as you recall from the above, basically means the 4x5-inch to 8x10-inch segment, and traditionally comprises three formats: 4x5, 5x7, and 8x10.
The least common of the formats we're discussing, 5x7, exists on an uneasy razor's edge. It's just a bit small for contact prints, although it the size does work with many images; and it's just a little too big to enlarge, although it's still possible to find 5x7 enlargers without too much trouble. And the retrenchment mode of film photography in the onslaught of digital has made something of a casualty of 5x7. It was never popular to start with, but cameras, films, and holders have been getting even less common lately. It's still viable, however, for those who choose to use it.
Four-by-five has always been by far the most popular and ubiquitous sheet film size, for reasons of economy and camera portability to some extent, but mainly because it's by far the easiest large format to enlarge. Again, there's not a clear cutoff: there do exist some 5x7 enlargers, as I say, and even a few 8x10 or 10x10 ones, although the latter tend to be enormous and prohibitively expensive.
A Saltzman 8x10 enlarger being loaded on a truck.
(From a post at Aardenburg Imaging.)
Lately, however, it seems to me that the meaning, the significance, of the larger formats has shifted considerably. Professional photographers, especially studio and architectural pros as well as still-life and landscape fine art photographers, previously constituted a major market for 4x5. Now they have abandoned shooting the format in droves. The classifieds are awash with old studio monorail cameras, and development and sales of new models have declined precipitously.
Furthermore, it seems like "convenience," always a relative term, is no longer the advantage it once was in large format. True, 4x5 is still the most common and easily the most widespread large format, same as ever. It's easiest to find equipment and film for, by far, and generally it's quite a bit more cost-efficient than still larger formats.
But, as I've always said, the problem with 4x5 is that it's too small.
How is that? The statement becomes less puzzling when you consider what you are going to do with the negatives. While 4x5 originally was popular because it's by far the easiest sheet film size to enlarge, you also essentially have to enlarge it—because it's too tiny to contact print. What's the problem with that? Nothing at all, except that 4x5 enlargers are expensive and require a big commitment now that you're unlikely to need one to help you make a living.
In the days when you just wanted a camera with movements, the tiny-ness of 4x5 was a big advantage. Now—when digital is better in virtually every way (more flexible, more convenient, less costly, on and on)—why would you want to shoot large format at all? There's only one real reason, I think. Well, two, the second being that it's just plain great fun. But the main reason might subtly have shifted over to what my friend Oren Grad referred to the other day as "mainlining pure, unadulterated photo-optical pleasure": contact printing.
I've been talking here in part to you "film virgins" out there—people who don't happen to have a past with this particular mistress. So I should digress momentarily to define a contact print. It means printing without an enlarger, by sandwiching the negative above the photo paper and shining light through it. Here's a link to a photo of Edward Weston's darkroom. (Not quite a shrine yet—notice the CDs!) Note that there is no enlarger—just a light bulb. That's what he printed with. The little rectangle under the light is a contact printing frame, the purpose of which is to keep the negative flattened against the paper. No other equipment needed, to speak of.
And here's a link to a picture of photographer Eiichi Scart looking at a contact print. Note that the surround is black; that's natural. Think about it. That's why Ansel Adams trimmed and dry-mounted his 8x10 contact prints.
There's no reason you "need" a contact print. They're not materially "better" than 2x enlargements from 4x5, or, for that matter, than well-made inkjet prints from good digital files.
They're just beautiful, is all.
And nothing imparts a more direct and visceral sense of the image cast by a lens. Certainly, in this age when the Big Print is indomitably fashionable, they won't "carry a room"—they're not great for framing, tending to get lost on most walls. They're really best for holding in your hands and looking at. I've seen thousands that way, in my marathon sessions at the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Just the picture and the viewer, an intimate, one-on-one experience.
Toward this end-point, 4x5 is just below the threshold. It's not till you reach 5x7 that you really move into the range of contact-printable sizes.
The trouble then is that as you move up in size from there, the problems of cameras, lenses, films, holders, and all the rest quickly mount, requiring real devotion from the photographer who wants to practice the old art. The cameras get to be whacking huge monsters right quickly, the lenses get very long in focal length (a normal lens for a 4x5 camera is 150mm, for an 8x10 300mm), the film gets expensive (a single sheet of 8x10" Kodak Portra costs $9. That's just for the film, and doesn't include developing), and the weaknesses of large format—long exposures (and hence motion blur), shallow depth of field, cost, etc.—increase exponentially with format size.
Rare English Middlemiss Patent Field whole plate camera, 1886
(photo from Wood and Brass)
Curiously, a new "sweet spot" might be beginning to emerge in the changing world of large format's new meaning. It's so far just a glimmer, highly esoteric, just a tiny subset of a tiny subset of photography at the moment. But I've finally come round to agreeing with Oren's longtime conclusion that it's curiously perfect.
It's called whole plate (6.5x8.5 inches). It an unstandardized format (literally—there is no ANSI standard as there is for 4x5, 5x7, and 8x10) that sits right in between 5x7 and 8x10. It's rather radically old-fashioned—the term itself harkens back to a full-sized plate for a daguerreotype camera (whole plate daguerreotypes—the pictures, I mean—are rare, and prized). Daguerreotypy was the dominant photographic technique from roughtly 1840 to 1850.
Grace Greenwood, a whole plate daguerreotype from the George Eastman House collection. Original size 6.5 x 8.5 inches (21.6x16.5 cm.)
Yet it just seems like a perfect size for a contact print. To see if you agree, try this little exercise: take a common piece of bond paper—copier paper—and cut out a 6.5x8.5" rectangle. Now, just hold that in your hands, and imagine that you're looking at a picture of the highest resolution conventional photography has to offer. Just you, with a print in your hands, one on one. Nice, isn't it?
Modern Chinese Chamonix whole plate camera is one of
only a few available new.
A whole plate camera can be considerably smaller than an 8x10, and a normal lens for the format will probably be mounted in a #1 shutter rather than the much larger #3. So far, there are only a few modern whole plate or WP cameras—from Ebony, Chamonix, and Argentum, and custom builds are possible from bespoke cameramakers who offer such services, who might include Keith Canham, Richard Ritter, Gandolfi, and Lotus (you'll have to check). More than usual care must be taken in entering into this recondite little back-tributary of photography, because holders are not (!) standardized, and film is not generally available—it must be cut down from 8x10 or ordered during the once-a-year ULF special order from Ilford.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether WP will grow, or if it's a passing fad. I'd love to see a true standard developed, and it would be wonderful to see new cameras. Maybe we could do a print offer some day of some nice examples of the work of present-day whole plate enthusiasts. We'll see.
The once and future king
Of course, of the conventional formats, the best for contact printing is the way Weston worked for much of his life, the tool of choice for photographers from Richard Avedon to Nicholas Nixon to Alec Soth, and the final refuge of many purists and searchers-for-the-grail: 8x10. It has many of the advantages and few of the disadvantages of most of other large and ULF formats.
I'm afraid a fuller discussion of 8x10 must await another day, however. This post has gone on a bit too long already, and a discussion of 8x10 could easily go on for just as long again. And your humble blogger has turkey to get to. So let me just say "Happy Thanksgiving" to all (yes, even those of you not in countries where Thanksgiving is celebrated: when you think about it, every day is thanksgiving with a small "t"), and...
...To Be Continued!
P.S. For more about whole plate, you really shouldn't miss Oren's excellent article on whole plate that we published in 2007. It's good.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Dave Karp: "Mike, another really fun article. Regarding your friend Oren: I have corresponded with him many times via the Internet. He is supremely knowledgeable, easily shares that knowledge, is generous, reasonable, and level-headed. His online posts and his comments are always right on. I am grateful for his advice over the years. Certainly, I caught my WP addiction from him.
"Regarding WP: You are Oren are absolutely right about a WP contact print. The size of the print and of the camera are both 'just right.' There are still old cameras out there. I have an Improved Seneca that was probably made early in the 20th Century (and a 5x7 back for it too). A new bellows and some cleanup were all it needed.
"The lenses, in addition to being smaller and lighter, are also generally less expensive than modern lenses that cover 8x10 and larger. Most of the lenses for my 4x5 also cover the WP film size nicely. I have a bunch of old holders, but new holders are available; the lowest-priced come from Chamonix. Have a Happy Thanksgiving."
Featured Comment by Bill Bresler: "And thanks for the photo of Weegee, that 'genuis' of the camera. I worked with a photographer who knew Weegee. One of our reporters actually went out on a date with him when she was going to schoool in NYC. He took her to the the Yiddish Theater. I was a young punk at the time and was pretty impressed."
Featured Comment by Arne Croell: "Since your post was about all the different film sizes still (though sometimes barely) available, don't forget the European cousins of 4x5, 5x7, and 8x10, which are 9x12, 13x18, and 18x24 (measures are in centimeters). Also note that they are a tad smaller in reality, as they are for the inch sizes (!), since the nominal sizes were for glass plates, and in old times you had to deduct the size of the film adapter for your plate holder.... Of those European sizes, 9x12 and 18x24 are smaller than their inch equivalents, whereas 13x18 is larger and thus a small step towards WP. If you look at the used market in Germany, 13x18 seemed to have been more popular than 5x7 in the USA; you can find a fair amount of cameras, holders, etc. in that size."
Featured [partial] Comment by David Dyer-Bennet: "Since one of the purposes here was to provide information about film formats for people new to film, it should be pointed out (and nobody else seems to have done it yet) that the metric nomenclature for 120/220 roll film that we all use is a recent imposition, and only approximate.
"That film format was designed in inches, and the formats using it are 'really' inches. 2.25 inches by 2.25 inches ('two and a quarter') is what '6x6' 'really' is. 6x7 is 2 1/4 x 2 3/4. 6x4.5 is 2 1/4 x 1 5/8). Oh, and 6x9 is 2 1/4 x 3 1/4."
Featured Comment by rolo: "In all this fascinating nomenclature, you overlooked the glorious term for 120 film that is used in the instruction manual for the Nikon Coolscan 9000: Brownie film."