The 5x7 format in practice

By QT Luong for

Once popular, the 5x7 format has fallen far behind in popularity behind the 4x5 and 8x10 formats. This article looks at the advantages and disadvantages of the 5x7 format, and gives a few practical pointers to the resources available to the 5x7 photographer.

The size and format advantage of 5x7

Compared to 4x5, 5x7 is almost twice as large. The image on the ground glass is nice and big to look at, but not so big that it becomes difficult to see as a whole, like in 8x10.

The additional size makes it easier to make high quality large prints. Since you need to enlarge two times less, imperfections in equipment or technique are less likely to show up. Some photographers find that the improvement in B&W quality is quite visible at 16x20 (a 4x enlargment from 4x5). In color, if digital printing is used, based on an on-film resolution of 40 lpm and a requirement of 5 lpm for critical sharpness at normal viewing distance, one would begin to notice a difference between 4x5 and 5x7 starting from 30x40, which is large, but not uncommonly large. I have made prints at the largest Lightjet size (50x70) with excellent results.

However, it is when you are not enlarging that the larger negative counts the most. Contacts from 5x7 are large enough to view comfortably, whereas contacts from 4x5 appear small. If you are a B&W photographer using 5x7, all you need to create satisfying visual gems is a lightbulb and a contact printing frame. A 5x7 transparency on a light box displays a sharpness and a brillance which are far more impressive than a 4x5 transparency.

The other difference is in aspect ratio. 5x7 is more elongated than 4x5. For that reason, I find it more satisfying for photographing large landscapes. Others have reported that the format fits architecture and the human figure well too. However, photographers more interested in abstracts will probably like the more squarish aspect ratio of 4x5 better.

Like many photographers, I learned using 35mm, and since the aspect ratio of 35mm and of 5x7 are practically the same, I felt immediatly comfortable composing with a 5x7. When using both formats simultaneously, there is no aspect ratio confusion. I find 5x7 to be the perfect companion to a 35mm system. In addition, with the advant of high-end digital cameras, the gap between 35mm (digital) and 4x5 (film) is narrowing. Using 5x7, I still have two systems with widely different capabilities.

The 5x7 camera versatility

If you move to 8x10, you'll almost certainly find yourself wanting a ligher system to use on long hikes, backpacking trips, or travels. Then you will have to maintain two systems, with the different lenses and film holders, and think about which one to take on any given trip. On the other hand, it is quite possible to do all your large format photography with 5x7.

5x7 gear is not much more heavier or bigger than 4x5 gear that it becomes difficult to work with. The tripod and camera can still be moved with one hand, and it is still possible to backpack. I have traveled in Europe on public transportation with my 5x7. I have backpacked extensively with it, including on a week-long trip into one of the world ultimate wilderness areas, Gates of the Artic National Park in Alaska, and a trip down to the river (and up !) from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. I have fit it inside a kayak for two weeks in Glacier Bay.

With a reducing back, a 5x7 could be used as a nice 4x5 camera. It has a longer extension, bigger bellows to reduce internal flare, and more generous movements. Furthermore, a 5x7 can be used as a 6x17 (cm) panoramic camera with an appropriate back. Such backs were rare (only Art Pan made one, that you had to custom modify). However, recently Keith Canham has presented a new model, with a battery operated advance system. Weighting 2.2 lbs, and costing around $1000, it will fit behind the ground glass of many 5x7 that have 1 1/2 inches of clearance.

While the surface area is almost double, depending on the design, 5x7 gear is in general not twice as heavy as 4x5 gear. In some cases, the difference in size and weight with 4x5 models is quite small, while 8x10 cameras are significantly heavier and bulkier. For instance, my own Canham 5x7 weights less than popular 4x5 cameras such as the Zone VI, Wisner Technical Field, Linhof Technika, and Arca-Swiss F-line.

One way to get started in the 5x7 camera is to use a 5x7 extension back for 4x5. This was the route I initially took. However, these backs are quite cumbersome, and have limitations, such as internal vigneting (you are using bellows and a back opening made for 4x5) and the difficulty to use very wide lenses, because of the additional depth of the back. Once look at transparencies on the light table, it will be difficult to use 4x5 again, and you may be tempted to sell your 4x5 ! This is what happened to me in 1995, after buying a 5x7 for my 4x5 in 1993. I've used almost exclusively 5x7 since then, except for a couple of projects on Polaroid film where I used the 4x5 reducing back on my 5x7.

Cameras and lenses

The lightest 5x7 weights only 3 lbs and can be ordered from Peter Gowland. Some fully featured 5x7 cameras (eg the Canhams, Lotus, Wisner Pocket Expedition) are lighter than popular 4x5 cameras (eg Linhof, Wisner Technical, Arca-Swiss). However, if you optimize 4x5 gear for portability, you will usually get to 2/3 of the weight of a 5x7 system of comparable capacity. Over the past few years, manufacturers seem to have realized that weight matters, and a flurry of lightweight camera designs has emerged. While five years ago, you couldn't find a fully featured 4x5 field camera for less than 6lbs, now there are plenty in the 4lbs-5lbs range, and the lightest ones are under 3lbs.

The 4x5 Canham DLC metal is 4 lbs. 11 oz. while the 5x7 Canham MQC is 5 lbs. 11 oz. On the other hand, the 5x7 versions of the Tachihara and the Toho, two of the lightest 4x5 cameras, are both about twice the weight of the 4x5 version.

While five years ago there was only a couple of field 5x7 made, offerings have increased recently, with new flatbed cameras available from Canham (classic woodfield T657 and metal MQC), Ebony (SV57,SV57E,SV57UE,57SUE), Fine Art Photo Supply (Artworks, similar to Tachi), Gandolfi(Traditional, Variant, All movements), Lotus (their most popular camera: Rapid Field 5x7), Osaka, Shen-Hao (HZX57), Tachihara, Walker (ABS 5x7 wide), Wisner ( Traditional, Technical Field, Pocket Expedition). New monorail cameras available from Arca-Swiss (F-line, Metric, Monolith), Linhof (Kardan), Sinar, Peter Gowland (all movements, light), Toho (FC-57).

Some of the most affordable cameras on the used market such as the Kodak, Burke and James, and Korona were made at a time when 5x7 was still a popular format. They come with 4x5 and 5x7 backs, like the the 4x5 Canham wood, which is actually a 5x7 with a reducing back. Worth noting on the used market are the Nagaoka and Anba Ikeda, which weight only 3.75 lbs, less than almost all 2x3 cameras ! Nagoaka still makes ultralight 5x7, but they are not imported to the US.

Lenses to cover 5x7 are plenty, and range from the Schneider 72XL (equivalent to a 15mm lens in 35mm) to the Nikkor 1200 T, with plenty of choice in between. Most of the 4x5 lenses, especially in the longer focals, will cover 5x7. Taking into account the usable surface area of a sheet of 5x7 film, you'd multiply your 35mm focal length by 4.7 to get your 5x7 focal length. Most photographers will find that, with a few exceptions, the lenses that they use in 4x5, starting from 90mm up, will cover the 5x7 format.

The focals for 5x7 are 1.4 as large as those for 4x5 for the same angle of view, which translates into larger lenses. However, a lot of 4x5 photographers use lenses which have more coverage they need. Examples of such lenses are the 120/8 wide angle lenses (which are being displaced by the Schneider 110XL), and the 210/5.6 plasmats, which all cover the 5x7 format with plenty of spare image circle.

Film and holders

The cost is automatically higher due to larger size. This is the one area where the choice in 5x7 is much less than in 4x5.

No preloaded film (ie Fuji Quickloads or Kodak Readyloads) are available, so you have to use double cut film holders. These are bulkier, heavier, require you to spend a significant amount of time loading and unloading (usually at a time you'd rather go to bed to get rested for that 5am sunrise), are more prone to catching dust, and more difficult to track. You cannot use Polaroid film in this format either (it's available for 4x5 and 8x10). All the digital scanning backs are designed for 4x5.

The main problem for many is that the number of emulsions available is extremely limited in color in their country. In particular, those emulsions can be difficult to get in the US market.

Kodak recently dropped several of their 5x7 emulsions. As of 2005, in the US, you can get only Kodak Ektachrome Professional EPR 64 and EPY 64T as transparency films. Those are pretty old films which have a following for product photography but that few landscape photographers would find satisfying. In addition Kodak 160NC (negative) is also available in 5x7.

Fuji makes Velvia, Astia, and Provia F in 5x7, but it is not officially imported in the US. International sources include: (in Japan) (UK) (UK) however, note that in any case the price will be above $5/sheet. In the US the most convenient source is Badger Graphics, however, they have to buy it retail in Japan, and as a result, you'll also pay $5-$6/sheet (Jeff says they don't make money on the transaction). Note that due to lack of demand, Badger doesn't import Astia.

In B&W, the choice is better, with Kodak Tri-X, TMX, Ilford FP4+ and HP5+, and Bergger BPF200, to choose from in the US. Other available European films in 5x7, all currently imported by J and C, nclude Forte 400, Efke PL25, Efke PL100, and Rollei R3. B&H offers Fomapan 100 and 200 in 5x7 by special order. Arista films from Freestyle in Los Angeles have been found to have identical characteritics to Ilford films. T-Max 100 film in 5x7 size is available as Nov 2001 a special order in single 50 sheet box qualities from a Kodak registered sales dealer (the Kodak order number is #822-6334). The same 5x7 sheet film in T-Max 400 requires a 30 box minimum.

In Europe, both 5x7 and 13cmx18cm coexist and you can get both sizes (but metric is easier to find). The size of the film is different (5x7 is 12.7cm x 17.8cm and the difference is beyond the internal dimensional tolerance), therefore the holders are too, however, the exterior dimensions of the holders are the same so you don't have to modify the camera. In the US, Calumet sells 13x18 film holders (that are actually makes by the same factory that produces 5x7 holders), and J and C photo sell European 13x18 film. There is also the option of buying over the internet over suppliers such as Nord Photo in Germany. The choice of 13x18 film is quite large and includes Kodak Portra 100 T,E100G, E100VS, Agfa RSX 100, Fuji NPS (negative), Provia F, Astia F, Velvia F, Velvia. Prices are comparable to the retail price for 5x7 film in the US before it was discontinued in the late 1990s, eg. 40-50 Euro. Using 13x18 film may possibly be the best option for color photographers. Ted Harris has offered to facilitate a group order.

I chose to cut myself the film from 8x10. This is done neatly with a Rotatrim Mastercut II, a rotary blade cutter, and while it sounds a delicate task at first, it is in fact very easy to do. I wouldn't use anything else, as precision is critical. One tip: I've found that it is difficult to align the film with minute precision, I cut slightly smaller than 5x7 to be sure there won't be problems to fit holders. Because of that, you'll need to cut a sheet of 8x10 three times to make two 5x7. If you use only one kind of film, it is not necessary to punch a new notch. I just keep the film emulsion facing the top of the film box. I have misloaded film only one time, out of more than a thousand of sheets cut. It takes me between 30 min to one hour to cut 25 8x10 sheets. It's not that tedious if you listen to music at the same time. The problem is that while you don't have to worry about finger marks which are washed away by the developper, you increase significantly the chance of getting dust on your film, which in turn can cause surface scratches as you are traveling.

With this method, you can use any emulsion which is available in 8x10. The cost of a sheet of color transparency film is $3-$4 if 8x10 is bought in boxes of 50. Personally, I located a large batch of out-of-date, cold-stored 8x10 Astia that I bought at a very low price, so I won't have to look for film for maybe one more decade. At this point, my main problem is that I have only 5x7 film boxes that date from the good old eays days when EPP and Velvia were available in the US, and although I have a large number of them, each year they get more worn out.

Processing, Viewing, Scanning, and Printing

All commercial labs will process 4x5, but there are a number of them which don't have racks for 5x7. The price of processing 5x7 is often twice as much as 4x5, and comparable to processing 8x10. Most will find it necessary to use mail order processing, especially with the closure of many E6 commercial labs caused by the widespread adoption of digital. I have used Flatiron Color Lab, Holland photo, and Fleshtone LA.

The price of commercial scanning and printing is independent from the transparency size. An excellent drum scan on the Heidelberg scanners, resulting in a 300 MB file can be had for $80 from several sources, including West Coast Imaging and Pictopia.

If you want to scan yourself, for 5x7, the good news is that you don't need the same scanning resolution as for 4x5 to get equivalent results. 1800 dpi, within reach of most current flatbed scanners, will yield that 300MB file with 5x7. Although the choice in scanners for 5x7 film is adequate, 4x5 photographers have more choices. Introduced in 2004, The Epson 4870 was the first popular unit that had a transparency unit large enough for 5x7. Replaced by the 4990, which can scan up to 8x10, it can be had for less than $400. Prior to that, the Epson units were limited to 4x5 for many years. The recent Microtek i900 scanner in the same price range will also handle 5x7. I choose the Epson over the Microtek because its digital ICE (automatic dust removal) works on transparencies, while Microtek's ICE works only for reflective materials, however I was not able to get this feature to work on large scans. The advantage of the Microtek would be a drawer for glassless scanning. Up to a budget of $1000, there are a few 8x10 scanners (such as the Microtek 1800) which are said to be better than the Epsons. While there are other options available in 4x5 in between, for 5x7, the next step are the high-end Imacon scanners. However, note that with the Imacons the resolution drops with film size. So if you have a piece of 5x7 film, the largest file you can produce is about 230MB. This might suffice in practice, but it is not very satisfying for a scanner of that price. The FT848 scanner will scan the 5x7 transparencies at a maximum resolution of 1600 dpi. Their latest and greatest, the FT 949 will only scan up to 4x5.

If you buy a flatbed scanner, you will most likely find that while it comes with holders for 4x5, and maybe 8x10, there are no holders for 5x7. My solution is to cut a piece of matboard with a 5x7 opening, and tape the transparency by its four edges with some stretch. The tension helps with film flatness, to the point that some 4x5 users have reported obtaining sharper scans with such custom holders than with the stock holder. Just laying out the transparency on the glass is not optimal for two reasons: the possibility of Newton rings, and the fact that the focus distance of the scanner is above the glass. In fact, this focus distance is not carefully controlled on consumer scanners, and some users have found that while it is close to the distance to the stock holders, it is not exactly equal. To experiment with various holder thickness, matboard is too thick, and a possibility is to use thin sheets of black plastic from a clear book folder, sold in stationary stores.

To view 5x7 color transparencies, I recommend the Hakuba KLV-5700 viewer. It is ultra slim with even illumination, and can be used either with an AC adaptor or on batteries. The viewing area is exactly 5x7, so there the distracting bright border is minimal. The only drawback of this viewer is that it is not as bright as some thicker ones. Hakuba products are not widely sold in the US, so see http:/>

If you work in B&W, you'll most likely do your own processing, so you won't incur high costs. You can easily find a 5x7 B&W enlarger on the used market. The Zone VI enlarger will work with this format, and seems to be the most popular new 5x7 enlarger.

In conclusion

5x7 is an interesting compromise between 4x5 and 8x10.

If you are a B&W photographer, I believe that by steping up to 5x7, you'll lose only the portability of some lightweight 4x5 systems, and you'll have much to gain.

The color 5x7 photographer faces additional problems related to scarcity of film and processing, which do not affect the 4x5 photographers. The gains from the larger transparency are less tangible, unless you plan to make huge prints.

However, if you are still tempted by a larger format than 4x5, 5x7 can replace entirely 4x5 and 8x10 so that you can work in a single format, and not worry about which camera to take regardless of whether you are shooting next to your car, or backpacking for a week.

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