Ultra-Large Format Cameras: When 300mm Is a Wide Lens

There’s no real upper limit to how large a digital camera sensor or film could be. Full frame cameras are usually smaller than medium format digital, which itself drops behind most medium file format film – and so on. On the high end of the scale are usually Ultra-Large Format (ULF) movie cameras.

What is an ultra-large format camera? It’s any camera by having an imaging area larger than 8×10 inches. In other words, each individual list of film – and yes it is film rather than electronic, unless you’re NASA – is substantially larger than a standard sheet of printer document. Even a basic 1200 PPI scan of ultra-large format film is going to be hundreds of megapixels… not that most scanners may fit such large linens of film in the first place.

As the name implies, ultra-large format is enormous compared to typical 35mm full-frame sensors or even medium structure. Relative to the sensors inside a phone, the difference is astronomical.

I chose that term – “astronomical” – because comparisons in order to astronomy are easy to make along with cameras this large. For example , here’s the relative size of the Earth versus the Sun:

Earth vs Sun Size To Scale

And here’s the largest sensor on the iPhone 13 Pro Max versus ultra-large format film (16×20, not really the largest standard ULF size):

iPhone Sensor Size vs 16x20 Ultra Large Format Film Camera

Many digital professional photographers have at least heard of 4×5 or 8×10 film digital cameras, which are large cameras within their own right. But these aren’t ultra-large format. They’re not big enough. Instead, the usual classification goes like this:

  • Typical digital cameras through 6×9 cm film: Medium format plus smaller
  • 4×5 through 8×10 inch film: Large format
  • Anything larger: Ultra-large format (ULF)

These days, the most popular platforms of ULF cameras are usually 11×14, 14×17, 16×20, and 20×24. There are also more panoramic sizes like 7×17, 8×20, and 12×20. (All of those dimensions are the inch dimensions of the film for the digital camera; by comparison, a full-frame messfühler is about 1×1. 5 ins. )

For a lot of ULF photographers, shooting using this sort of camera is a hobby in and of itself. Think of the differences between off-road Jeepers, vintage car restorationists, plus minivan parents. All of them may technically get you from Point A to Point W, but they’re not really after the same things. That said, these cameras all involve digital photography at the end of the day, and you can get some spectacular images from ULF cameras with enough effort.

Here’s what an especially big ultra-large format digital camera looks like:

Ultra Large Format Camera

This one, admittedly, is a bit extreme. It’s a 4. 5×8 foot digital camera that was the largest camera on earth in the early 1900s. No real surprise, that’s large enough that you’d have to build a single from scratch today rather than purchasing from an established company. But it goes to show that these cameras could be as big as you can build them.

If you’re thinking, there are usually   some operating professional photographers who make use of ultra-large format cameras nowadays (generally not quite 4. 5×8 feet) and even a few businesses that still make them new. So , I want to push back to the idea that ultra-large format digital cameras are nothing but antiquated collectors items. Nor are they just “let’s test my woodworking skills” builds. Here and there, a few professional photographers still put in the unusual effort required to use these types of cameras because the results could be impossible to achieve any other way.

And what answers are those? For most photographers, it is all about contact printing – placing the negative directly on a sheet of light-sensitive paper and getting an one-to-one print. Contact prints are usually remarkably faithful to the authentic negative (if you want them to be) and are capable of a lot more detail than just about every other type of print. However , it is an all-analog process with a lot of hoops to jump through before it turns out correct.

Why You Shouldn’t Get an Ultra-Large File format Camera

I realize that by writing about ultra-large format cameras on a popular site like Photography Lifetime, I may be tempting some photographers who never also knew such cameras existed to get that twinkle of GAS in their eyes. But towards the vast majority of photographers, I actually urge against buying one. They are remarkable cameras, but they are also deeply impractical in almost every way.

If you’re feeling adventurous, there’s a better solution: Go for a big 4×5 or 8×10 digital camera instead. Those formats already are slow and difficult to use – easily enough to fill up your daily quota of tribulation. But at least they’re nearly reasonable. With 4×5 or even 8×10 cameras, you have a great selection of lenses, film, spare parts, and accessories, and you should be able to troubleshoot any problems very easily. By comparison, the ultra-large format realm is like pulling teeth from a chicken while simultaneously herding cats.

Ansel Adams with 4x5 Camera
Ansel Adams was smart and utilized 4×5 or 8×10 for the majority of his life. 4×5 shown above.

An unavoidable fact of ultra-large format digital cameras is that they are large and heavy. Take the smaller end of things, for example: 11×14. Typical 11×14 cameras consider about 20 pounds, not counting at least an additional 3-5 pounds of weight for any lens and a two-shot movie holder. Even the lightest 11×14 cameras on the market (aside through rare custom builds) consider about 13 or 14 pounds, body only.

If you plan to carry such a camera beyond view of the car, good luck finding a back pack that can hold it comfortably – or even fit the particular camera in the first place. I’ve observed some photographers repurpose cumbersome kayaking backpacks for the job because at least those bags are big enough. Other professional photographers, even today, carry these digital cameras on a horse or mule.

Pack Horse
Henry Raschen, CC BY-SA 3. 0 , via Wikimedia Commons . Ca miner.

What ultra-large format does not have in practicality, it makes up for by being fiendishly expensive. Several “alternative” films aren’t so bad – like repurposing x-ray film from the medical industry – but a single 11×14 sheet of a standard B& W film like Ilford FP4+ is about $12. The expense of developing the negative can be another few dollars for the chemicals if you do it at home, or even $10 at one of the few left over labs which still evolves 11×14. That’s $15-20 per photo! It better do well. (Color film at this dimension does exist, but only  via special order from Kodak or an intermediary , as well as the minimum order costs about as much as a new car. )

For desperate loud, the Wikipedia page on ultra-large format photography has a dedicated section called “encumbrances. ” Beware, beware, when ULF is in the air.

So , I acquired One

Just how could I resist something like that? Meet my new 11×14:

11x14 camera in the field

I have been saving for this camera since I first learned about ultra-large format photography several years ago, and yes it just arrived this week. Yes, it’s difficult to use (to put it mildly) and yes, digital cameras have a million benefits over it. But for a number of factors (I’ll talk about them in a later article) I couldn’t end up being happier with this for our landscape photography.

Cumbersome though the 11×14 file format is, I’ve done whenever possible to keep my 11×14 setup in the “backpackable” weight range. I sacrificed a bit of balance to go with a lighter 13-pound camera and two fairly compact lenses.   I’ll be developing each bed sheet of black and white film myself to keep costs down.

It’s tricky to get lenses that cover this type of large format, especially if you want them to be lightweight and inexpensive. I chose a 305mm lens for my wide-angle, equivalent to about 28mm on a full-frame system. My other lens is 762mm, equivalent to about 75mm. Combined, the two lens weigh 4. 2 lbs / 1 . 9 lbs, which is as light as I could find for such a setup. I’m not concerned about the gap in between these focal lengths but could consistently add a 450mm or 480mm eventually.

Below is a photo of our 11×14 camera compared to the Nikon Z7 for range. Next to both of them will be the 4×5 camera that I’ve been using as my primary landscape photography setup in recent months:

11x14 vs Nikon Z7 vs 4x5
From still left to right: 11×14, Nikon Z7, 4×5

You read that will right – I’ve relocated to large-format 4×5 for our dedicated landscape kit and also have been using the Nikon Z7 for all other travel picture taking needs. The 11×14 camera is for special occasions when I possess time to set everything upward and wait for the right chance.

I know that will Photography Life has an almost exclusively digital audience, this is why I’ve avoided talking about the experiences with large- plus ultra-large format film up to now. But it’s become such an important part of my photography that I’ll surely talk about it some in the future.

In the meantime, I don’t however have any sample pictures from the 11×14 camera to share with you. (I’ve taken several but am still working on my film development program. )  So for now, I’ll leave you with a few earlier unpublished images from my 4×5 camera that I overtook the past months. These are the same sorts of landscapes that I am planning to capture with the 11×14 over the next few years – supposing I spend enough time within the gym that I can carry it beyond my car.

4x5 Monochrome American Basin Mountain
Chamonix 4×5; Nikkor 300mm f/9 @ f/25, 2 seconds, Ilford FP4+ 125; No movements; Epson V850 scan
Crater Lake Smoky Sunset 4x5
Chamonix 4×5; Nikkor 90mm f/8 @ f/20, 1 second, Kodak Portra 160; Slight front shift down; Epson V850 check out
Great Sand Dunes Golden Light 4x5
Chamonix 4×5; Rodenstock Sironar N 150mm f/5. 6 @ f/32, 1 second, Kodak Portra 160; Front point and swing; Epson V850 scan
Yosemite Telephoto Black and White 4x5
Chamonix 4×5; Nikkor 300mm f/9 @ f/20, 1/8 second, Ilford FP4+ 125; Slight front shift up; Epson V850 scan

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