View Full Version : Choosing a large format film medium

4-Oct-2003, 19:18
Yesterday, after a year of thinking and reading about large format, including the many helpful posts on photo.net and now here, I ordered an Arca-Swiss 4x5 Discovery (a stripped down Arca) and a Rodenstock APO-Sironar-S f/5.6 150mm lens. I have to phone the vendor Monday a.m. to order a "film" film or "instant" film, and associated holder system, that I plan to use with this camera, which leads to the questions in this post.

I should preface my questions by stating that I am new to large format and that I intend to travel with this camera, including internationally. This means that choosing the best medium for learning large format, weight of camera system and convenience are major issues for me. On the anchoring side, the tripod is a Gitzo carbon fibre 1325 and the head is an Arca-Swiss B1, both overkill for my Nikon, but they were purchased in the expecation that I would wind up with a medium or large format system where a major objective would be keeping weight down.

One choice is to purchase a Polaroid 545i holder or the Fuji equivalent (although this dealer does not seem to carry the Fuji holder) and to use Polaroid 55 film with which to make black and white prints and negatives, and either Polaroid 79 film or the new Fuji FP 100C for colour. It seems to me that I may learn a good deal about large format photography by using these products. Furthermore, I gather that Polaroid 55 is considered to be a serious medium. The concern I have is that while it seems to be as fast as Kodak and Fuji black and white films available in Readyload and Quickload if one wants to make a print, it seems to be very slow if one wants to make a negative. I'm not sure that using it to make a negative with an f/5.6 150mm lens stopped down to, say, f/22, and using available light, is practical. On the colour side, I don't know anything about Polaroid 79 or Fuji FP 100C, but I get the sense, based on earlier posts and the Polaroid and Fuji web sites, that they are seen as principally good for tests and nothing else.

The other choice is to purchase a Kodak Readyload or Fuji Quickload holder and to use "film" film as a medium. If I go this route, I will commit to, and buy, one black and white and one colour film made by one of these two companies and buy a holder accordingly. In other words, I do not intend to try to use Kodak film in a Fuji holder or vice versa.

The advantage of this option relates principally to black and white film. I have a friend who is a co-owner of a lab. In July, I spent an afternoon with him while he was printing some black and white photographs for a French photographer who does a good deal of fashion and celebrity photography and who has published a few books. My friend, based on instructions accompanying the contacts, made at least three prints of each negative to try to fulfill the instructions. Every time he did this, I could see significant variation. As someone who has never been in a darkroom before, I found this fascinating, and walked away with the impression that photography, at least black and white photography, is in many ways really about printing. I don't have a darkroom, and I have no intention of building one, but there happens to be a very good shop a couple of blocks from where I live where one can rent darkroom time at quite reasonable rates. Consequently, if I choose to go the film film route rather than the instant film route, it opens up the door to playing around with darkroom printing sooner rather than later.

I should clarify a couple of things. Weight, convenience and bulk, as well as cost, are major considerations. In time, I may want to buy both Polaroid and Kodak/Fuji holders, but for the moment I'd rather go with one system. Also, I am working on the premise that none of these holders are truly interchangeable, meaning that I can't buy one of them and expect it to work for all of the media. I know that this question has engendered a lot of debate on photo.net, and I definitely do not want to trigger further discussion about that issue. The premise of my questions about is that the systems are mutually exclusive, a premise that I am quite prepared to accept for working purposes.

Thanks for any comments.

Ted Harris
4-Oct-2003, 19:36
Long question, short answer. Buy the Polaroid 545i holder it works fine with Quickloads, the new single sheet Readyloads and Polaroid film. Then use the film you want. Later you may want to buy one or both of the other holders for all the reasons you have read about ov er the past year but don't worry about it now. Buy the 545i.

Ralph Barker
4-Oct-2003, 19:36
You'll find out quickly enough, Rory, that each film has its own characteristics, and those characteristics can be substantially changed by the choice of developer. For learning purposes, get yourself a half-dozen conventional sheet film holders and load them with a medium-speed film like Ilford FP4+. Get a good changing tent, like the Harrison, unless you have a darkroom.

If you also want to do some 4x5 Polaroids, get the 545i holder, which can also be used with either Kodak Readyloads or Fuji QuickLoads. But, learn on the less-expensive standard sheet film, which is less than 1/2 the price of Readyloads or QuickLoads.

After you learn the essentials of using the view camera effectively, you can experiment with different films and developers. In the early stages, however, it is far better to use just one type of film to keep things simple.

Alan Davenport
4-Oct-2003, 19:46
Taking the learning stage one step farther: consider buying outdated film for your initial forays into LF. You'll spoil a somewhat higher percentage of shots during your early excursions, and the cost savings can be substantial. BTW, the 545i also works just fine with the older 2-sheet Readyloads, which I'm still using up...

David A. Goldfarb
4-Oct-2003, 21:40
Polaroid and type 55 are a good way to learn how to use the camera movements and get started.

Quickloads and Readyloads are easy to travel with, dust free, and convenient, but more costly than regular sheet film.

Regular sheet film is less convenient, but less costly, and most importantly gives you the greatest flexibility in choice of films, which is why I use it. I use old Grafmatic holders, which allow me to carry more film in less space and change sheets quickly, but maintain the choice of films. Fuji also has a modern version called "Quickchange" available from Robert White and Badger Graphic. It has a holder and an 8-septum cartridge. You have to buy the cartridges loaded with Fuji film, but then you can reload them with any film you like.

5-Oct-2003, 10:32
While Polaroid type 55 is an excellent (although expensive) learning tool, and certainly great in the studio, it's usefulness for travel is extremely limited by the requirement to carry around a bucket of Sodium Sulfite to clear the negatives, and then wash them and hang them out to dry. There are ways around some of this, but frankly in the field they are a PITA, (you can always shoot the type 55 and wait until you get home to process it).
If you're going to be shooting B&W, only the Kodak TMax100 is available at larger cameras stores in this country, although there is some private importation of Fuji Acros. For this reason, I think only the Readyload system is practical if you're doing a lot of traveling.

Christopher Condit
5-Oct-2003, 11:12
I'm going to have to disagree with my friend Ralph and others. My advice to a beginner is to avoid film handling, which is a secondary or even tertiary process to getting a successful image. So don't use traditional filmholders, don't use Graphmatics, and don't use Polaroids. They all add variables that complicate the learning process. Stick with ReadyLoads, the easiest handling and lightest weight, especially if you are travelling. Decide between slides and negs for color, then go with T-Max and E100VS or Portra 160. These are perfectly fine films that won't get in your way.

Yes, this route is expensive; save money by taking fewer pictures, and being more careful, and taking notes, till the process becomes natural and (relatively) trouble-free.

You can always buy a changing bag/holders/Polaroids in a year or two, and take advantage of other films, explore other possibilities, etc.


John O'Connell
5-Oct-2003, 13:06
Get the 545i holder and some Type 55. Some people never use anything else and it'll always come in handy. Best of all, no processing costs and you know instantly if your camera handling was a success.

5-Oct-2003, 17:18
With under 2 years experience behind me, my first efforts are still bright and fresh in my mind.... I ran through 4 packs of T-55 before ever loading up with "normal" film. Very good learning method. Also as development time is non-critical, you know any exposure mistakes are caused by your metering, not by processing errors. The fewer chances for error, the more confident you can be.

The problem is, as you point out, the speed; once you add a filter or two, you can easily get into 1 - 5 second exposures in sunlight. A sturdy tripod (which you have) and a windless day (which you can always try praying for) come in handy... But, you are looking at 1/15th to 1 second exposures with 100ISO film in the same conditions in any case so it is worth trying T-55. As mention by others, the 545i holder can come in handy later not only for Polaroid, but for Readyloads (which I now use mine mostly for) and Quickloads (which being colour-blind, I have no use for - well actually, I recently realised that scanning a colour nag will give me the opportunity to use the computer to colour-correct before printing (only took me 2 years to figure that one out...) but that is a different thread - sorry)...

Long story short: get some T55, the investment in the holder will not be wasted and the instant results from the T-55 will flatten the learning curve (somewhat...).


5-Oct-2003, 19:53
I'd like to thank everyone for the replies. For various reasons, mostly having to do with travelling convenience and the KISS principle, I do intend to go with either the 545i or the Kodak/Fuji systems. For the reasons expressed by Christopher Condit, I am leaning in the direction of the latter. Bob and some others have given me some last-minute pause. I guess that I'll just have to make a snap decision in the morning.

Thanks to everyone who has offered advice on this. It has been much appreciated.

neil poulsen
5-Oct-2003, 20:43
The best place to learn LF is on this site. There's lots of stuff to see. As you know, you also have the opportunity to ask questions. The two make a powerful combination for learning.

I agree with Christopher on starting out with color slides or negs. I would say negs, because you have a lot more latitude. Do you have a color "u-develop" in your area? If so, it can be an excellent resource in which to develop your own prints. We have one in Portland, and they help determine exposure, color correction, etc. This type of system works very well for beginners.

You can get some very nice B&W results from Type 55 negatives. But, you must expose them at about 30 ASA.

Martin Patek-Strutsky
6-Oct-2003, 00:13
I jumped in LF recently. If you are on a budget my recommendation is to get a rollfilm back and shoot some dozens of rollfilms before using sheet film or even spending a fortune for polaroids.

And prefer slide film over neg film as it will give you an unmistakable feedback on where you are on the learning curve.

After this relatively affordable experience you will know how to handle your LF equipment and you are ready to jump to larger formats and try different films.

I opted for a used Horseman 6x9 back, but there should be a lot of alternatives...

6-Oct-2003, 09:52
Thanks, I decided to go with a Kodak holder, T-max and Portra.

Neil, there's a lab about three blocks from my house that rents out time for both black and white and colour. The place has an excellent reputation. The new camera and I are going to Halifax this weekend for Canadian Thanksgiving. I plan to take some photos, together with some detailed notes. I figure that the notes will come in handy when I see the results and have to figure out what went wrong.

Paul Butzi
6-Oct-2003, 09:53
Everyone else is weighing in, so I'll throw my opinion on the pile.

When I first started working in 4x5, I did so with several boxes of type 55 p/n and a Polaroid 545i holder. It was an excellent start, because it freed me from the need to solve several problems all at once - how to load film, how to process film, etc. Instead I could, right at the start, work on actually making exposures. There's just no substitute for the instant feedback of Polaroid film, and I found that by making one test exposure (exposed for the print) and examining the print, I avoided wasting a lot of film that I would have blown otherwise. After I got a print I liked, I'd expose a sheet, not process it, and then process it back at home, do the sulfite thing, etc. I as a happy camper for several months before I felt the urge to move on to regular filmholders, etc.

I'll also second the notion that readyloads/quickloads are a great alternative. There are lots of film choices in color (so many I no longer keep track on my web page) and two excellent choices for B&W - Kodak TMax-100 and Fuji Acros (which I can buy at my local camera store, so the import thing seems to be solved!). Readyloads are compact, light, avoid the dust problem, and make keeping notes and film together a snap. The only downside is cost, and to be honest, I've yet to work on any significant project where the film was the major cost.

tim o'brien
10-Oct-2003, 19:40
Ah think I'll keep loading my APX100 (till it runs out), Classic200, and Efke 25 and leave the real pro film to all you pros.

I read the original post and thought, quite uncharitably, how anal is this thought process when he doesn't even have a camera yet.

But you all are the experts and have given him the benefit of your wisdom, so I will only point out a couple of things...

Make sure that lab you are planning on using has 4x5 capabilities, some don't.

Make sure you have the resources to finance all these high priced films and film systems. I learn alot by making do with my old Speed Graphic, Type 5 film holders, a homemade darkcloth (it has flowers on it), and a bathroom where I can load film, unload film, process film, and print to my hearts content, not feeding the economic machine of superfulous equipment that you have no idea how to use, and won't need till you have several thousand bad to mediocre images under your belt. Maybe using Polaroid materials will bring that down to several hundred bleah images but nobody can convince me that not going through with learning how to load film, process film, and print film will make you a better photographer. From the start.

Good luck Rory.

tim in san jose (a not so old fuddy-duddy)