The Film Holder Problem

Many photographers who use an Ultra Large Format camera in the field will hike with only one or two film holders, although many of those will claim virtue rather than necessity.

The film holder evolved from the early days of Wet Plate, was adapted for Dry Plate, and through to film, but the design of the holder and the method of loading the holder into the camera has remained fairly constant for well over a hundred years. Although I haven't been able to trace the origins of the modern film holder, the Edward's Patent holder from 1896 shows many of the elements in place.

The film holder, the Double Dark Slide, is the defining element of pretty much all ULF camera systems in use today.

5 8x10 holders in padded protective case - 3.4kg 11x17 7x17 c1117 camera ulf

Originally designed to be made in wood, the smaller ones ( 11 x 14 ) made the transition to plastics and retained their overall dimensions; they even got a little heavier. There was good reason for evolution, it meant that new film holders could be used in existing and older cameras, and standardisation was a good thing.  Even though progress was made in 4x5 holders, in the form of quickloads and readyloads, those advances were never made for the larger sizes.

The traditional film holder is still made today, and many are beautifully crafted objects that can take hundreds of very precise operations to produce. Large format film holders are made to a standard set of dimensions, as defined by ANSI specification, or at least some of them are. Some older cameras require their own specific holders, but these are quite rare nowadays. If you're buying an antique camera to use for making pictures, it can be a good idea to make sure your holders will work with it, or that it comes with holders that fit, are serviceable, and that they place your image on the same plane as the focusing screen you're using .

Large format camera systems are, by definition, large. A few cameras manage to be large and lightweight, but the weight savings of the camera can be undermined by the weight of the film holders. Take the image on this page, for example - six 8x10 film holders in this padded protective case weighs in at 4.13 kg, that's 9.1 lbs. That’s more than the weight of my 8x10 camera …

Large, and Ultra Large Format film holders can make up a substantial proportion of the weight of a lightweight camera system. Many photographers who use an Ultra Large Format camera in the field will hike with only one or two film holders, although many of those will claim virtue rather than necessity...

It is possible to use more than one film format in a large format camera- you can use a masked film holder to produce multiple exposures on a single sheet of film, or you can use a reducing back in place of your standard back, which will allow you to use smaller formats in their own dedicated film holders. Some camera makers allow the use of different back, focusing screen, and bellows combinations to convert the camera to allow multiple formats, each requiring their own dedicated film holders.


Now maybe there isn't a film holder problem at all.

In fact, I fully expect a backlash from people pointing out that there is no problem, although mostly by those who haven't managed to read this far.

However, I wanted to shoot two different formats covered by the same lens- a squarish format for portraits, and a more panoramic format for landscapes, and some research showed that I'd need two different camera and film holder systems to be able to use that same lens, and that seemed less than acceptable.

I began to wonder if there might be a different way ...

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