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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Funky Film Formats Update

As the digital revolution marches on, there's still a loony fringe that's using not just film, but sheet film; and not just your familiar 4x5, 5x7 or 8x10, but a glorious panoply of odd sizes. In nearly a decade of tinkering with view cameras, my own junkpile has grown to include cameras not just in the standard formats, but also in 2.25x3.25 inches, 3.25x4.25 ("quarter-plate"), 6.5x8.5 ("whole-plate" or "full-plate"), 7x11, 7x17 and 11x14. Other photographers I know, or know of, are using 4x10, 6x10, 5x12, 10x12, 8x16, 8x20, 12x20, 14x17 and 16x20 too.

Why bother? For fans of contact printing, whether in silver or in alternative processes that require it, the format you shoot is the format you get in your print (though digitally-generated inkjet-on-transparency internegatives are beginning to make inroads among the alt-process crowd). For some, esthetic considerations in picture composition play a role. If I had my druthers, for example, the formats that survived in broad commercial use would have been the harmoniously-proportioned quarter-plate, whole-plate and 7x11, rather than the too-square 4x5 and 8x10. Beyond that, the old—and sometimes new!—cameras can be lots of fun. Especially in the smaller formats, they can be quite affordable, too—quarter-plate Graphics, for example, tend to sell for much less than 4x5s, and whole-plate Eastman No. 2s for less than 8x10s, because most people don't realize they're still usable or imagine it's hopelessly difficult to do so.

It's possible to buy new cameras, too. If you're sufficiently eccentric, you can even invent your own format. With a few thousand dollars and a fair bit of patience—typically 12 to 18 months—you can usually persuade camera makers such as Canham, Lotus, and Ebony to build whatever you want (try that with Nikon or Canon!); other builders have come and gone over the years as well. In existing formats, vintage film holders can often be found, although they may need a good cleaning, and if they are glass plate holders then cut-film adapters will be required as well. Again with money and patience, new custom-built holders can be had from Alan Brubaker and Lotus. A venture started by well-known alt-process photographers Sandy King and Sam Wang now offers wooden holders in several of the more popular ultralarge formats on a regular basis (contact Quality Camera for details); sometimes they are able to build other custom formats as well.

How about film? Ilford has offered 11x14 film in the US on a more-or-less continuous basis. For many years Ilford offered the ultralarge (ULF) banquet film sizes from its catalog as well, but these became increasingly difficult to get and ultimately impossible by the time Ilford went into bankruptcy. For those fortunate to have the cash needed to meet minimum order quantities in the thousands of dollars or motivated enough to organize interested purchasers into a group, it has usually been possible to order custom cuts of existing emulsions from the major vendors, though vendors' receptivity to such special requests seems to wax and wane irregularly with the phases of the moon, what side of the bed the responsible managers got up on that morning, etc. For small purchases, the main supplier up until recently was Photo Warehouse, which would buy master rolls of FP4 Plus (and occasionally HP5 Plus as well) from Ilford and cut them to order in any size you wanted. But they also cut and sold standard sizes under their house brand, substantially undercutting Ilford on price. When new management brought Ilford out of bankruptcy this past year and set about stabilizing the business, that arrangement was understandably terminated.

But there have also been more promising developments on this front. For several years, Bergger has offered the Hungarian-made Fortepan 200 film under its own label, as BPF200, in a variety of odd as well as standard sizes, and the company has accepted special orders for unlisted sizes too. More recently another new vendor, JandC Photo, has emerged to play a major role in sparking renewed interest in obsolete formats, offering from regular stock a wide range of sheet film formats, procured from eastern European vendors such as Forte and Efke. In response to user demand, the new Ilford management team has begun to consider ways of reintroducing ULF and other odd formats, perhaps through occasional special order periods. Users have been invited to register their interest here. Finally, Michael Kadillak, a dedicated and enterprising user of Kodak TMax 400 sheet film, has been working diligently behind the scenes to lay the groundwork for a possible special order in several non-catalog sizes; Michael is now canvassing interest here.

When all else fails, partisans of odd sheet film formats have been known to cut their own, from whatever larger film stock can be had—8x10, for example, can be converted to whole-plate, 6x10, 4x10 or 5x7.

By hook or by crook, we on the fringe will have our way. And if and when sheet film finally becomes entirely unavailable? Well, at least we will have gone down in style. Cheers!

Posted by OREN GRAD


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