Photo Economics: Multiformat Large Format

Getting the Most out of Camera and Lenses

The equipment for large format film photography can be very expensive. While this is true for 4X5 equipment, it gets even more so for 5X7 and 8X10.  Modern lenses and shutters for the bigger formats go for the amounts I am more inclined to pay for a car, and I have worked carefully over the years to avoid investing that kind of money into photo equipment.  The quality of my negatives has not suffered for that avoidance however and I am quite satisfied with my camera kits.  I’d like to talk about that and offer some suggestions on getting the most out of a limited set of equipment.

Protar VIIa and Ilex Paragon 12 in 4.5

I have a C-1 black beast 8X10 camera that I bought about 15 years ago that came with two reducing backs and an extra 8X10 back for about $250.  The 34 inch bellows was full of pinholes, hence the price.  Still, after about doubling the price for a custom bellows and installing it myself, I had a camera with three film sizes for not that much money.  It takes a six inch lens board and I had one lens, a 12 inch Ilex Paragon 4.5, uncoated and unshuttered.  I found a dealer in Spokane who had the big Compound shutter #5 and who made a reducing ring and mounted the Paragon in front of the shutter.  Mounting it in a wooden 6 inch board got my camera working.  The shutter and mounting cost me 75 dollars.  The lens was free as it was in a closet having spent 20 years demonstrating what aperture leaves looked like to photo classes.  The reducing backs set me on the path of photo economics as a 12 inch lens on 4X5 is very different in aesthetic and technical qualities than it is on an 8X10 inch piece of film.  Combining that with a 34 inch bellows gave me a camera and lens of awesome versatility! My second lens was also someone’s throwaway and I found it dusty and uncovered in a cardboard box, and when cleaning it up recognized the name Protar VIIa, and doing a little research got me very excited.  It is a 7+ inch lens with combined elements, 11+ with only the rear element, and 16+ with only the front element, mounted on the rear.  This lens combination was meant for 5X7 work, but the rear element covered at least 5X8 and the front much more than 8X10.  As the coverage area increases the closer the focus, and as these anastigmat components increased coverage are as they were stopped down, I had a 1920’s lens that gave me wide angle coverage to ultralong coverage depending on which film I was shooting.

the black beast

I have said before and will repeat that these old lenses prove themselves in both sharpness and contrast, and that I have found no significant loss of negative quality in their use.  In the meantime I had picked up a 5X7 Eastman 2D complete with tailpiece from a friend in California, a donation as he was going blind and couldn’t photograph any more.  This camera takes 4 inch lens boards while the C-1 takes 6 inch.  Over several years I found an 8 ½ inch Commercial Ektar and a 254mm Ilex Calumet Caltar, both in Ilex shutters, for the 5X7. I wanted to be able to switch between cameras and extend the use of my lenses.  The solution came through my friend Johnny Coffey who is a locksmith and machinist extraordinaire.  I took slider parts from a defunct Speed Graphic 4X5 Pacemaker, showed him what I wanted and he created a 6 inch anodized metal lens board with the sliders mounted at top and bottom of a 4 inch square hole.  The 4 inch wooden or metal boards dropped into this ridged slot and the Speed Graphic slider fastened them into place.   Now the 8 ½ inch Ektar and the 254mm Caltar fit nicely onto the 8X10 C-1 with its abundance of camera movements.

reducing lens board
Modified lens board, 6 to 4 in.

What it boils down to is that one of the virtues of a view camera is the flexibility of its front and rear standards, and with the combination of reducing backs and the reducing lens board, and throwing in the convertible nature of the Protar VIIa, I have six different lens possibilities on three different film formats.  I know that the Commercial Ektar doesn’t quite cover the 8X10, but with that long bellows I can do all kinds of in-close work with that lens on the largest film size and it has made beautiful 8X10 negatives in that mode.


If I had to do this all again I would look for an 8X10 camera, not a monorail, but like the C-1, or like the Eastman Commercial 8X10, folders that are easy to transport without a big long case, and the reducing backs. One added advantage of having the biggest camera body is that the big bellows can significantly reduce the in-camera flair caused by lenses with more than adequate coverage.  The wider bellows doesn’t reflect light and bounce it all over the inside of the camera like a narrower 4X5 bellows might.  Most photographers who would shoot large format in the first place would tend to have other cameras and multiple formats. Reducing backs simplify that. Reducing lens boards is not a new idea and having acquired one I have found it to be a great one.


The biggest drawback is of course that a big camera is a big camera, and an 8X10 is, generally speaking big. It can also be heavy, although the new custom built cameras of carbon fiber and nice thin wood have reduced the weight but at a price far more than I could justify paying (both to my conscience and my wife and partner Kathy.)

Commercial 8X10
Eastman Commercial 8X10 B

Speaking of weight, I now have an Eastman Commercial 8X10 that is manufactured from magnesium, and it is considerably lighter than the C-1.  It doesn’t have the wide range of movements, especially at the front standard but for field work it proves itself fully capable.  The C-1 on the other hand is the studio camera of choice.


Good Shooting


Bill Kostelec,

July 5, 2018



Medium Format in the Digital Age



This is the second in my series on film formats and how they influence our photographs. “…how they influence our photographs” is a rather loose way of putting it as there are countless things that influence us. Still, my own use of medium format roll film convinces me that it is a topic worth exploring.

When I was a 35mm shooter only, and when 35mm was the standard for most amateur and hobbyist photographers, the notion of using a medium format camera seemed pretty exotic to me. I could never have afforded a Hasselblad or a Rolleiflex and those cameras seemed to be for professionals and for me out of reach. In fact, I think it would have been much more economical and affordable for me in the 1970s to buy a monorail 4X5 and a lens and some holders.

When I moved to Spokane, Washington from Atlanta, a house fire burned up all my equipment, negatives etc., and a goodwill gesture from my boss landed me his old Rolleicord, my first medium format camera. Shooting square negatives was a big change as was, “shooting from the belly” which I somehow connected to forms of meditation that I had studied in graduate school. That was 25+ years ago and in the last several years I have acquired a nice setup with two Mamiya TLRs, a C-220 and C-330 with 6 interchangeable lenses and a couple alternative viewing hoods. The accumulation of the Mamiya equipment is not because I acquired wealth, it is rather, directly related to the digital revolution in professional photography! I have gotten hold of the discards from professional portrait and wedding photographers who went digital, and for little money.

I started using the Mamiya TLRs at a time when almost all my images were made on either 4X5 or 5X7 sheet film. A friend had given me a Rolleiflex T that was having winding problems and I did some research and settled on the Mamiya as a camera that I could use more loosely, without a tripod, to make more or less spontaneous snapshots when I was in such a mood, the bigger negative then supposedly increasing the image quality. I guess I was thinking of an upgrade from 35mm.

hilyard widow with markBLOG2

What I found instead was that the TLR worked best on a tripod, was lightweight, with brilliant lenses and good viewfinder, and lent itself to more formality than I had envisioned. It was also quicker, much quicker than the large format cameras and much easier to carry around with me. As Kathy liked the TLR as well, we found a second body and lens and within the first year became very enamored of the possibilities; hence 6 lenses.

I usually characterize the experience as a dramatic increase in productivity, by which I mean the increase in negatives that excited me, were easily printable, and that helped maintain a strong degree of motivation. I padded my interest in making images by every roll off successful negatives. What was especially gratifying in this process was that I also increased my output of sheet film work, developing a couple of series sets that I found very satisfying. Those were particularly suited to large negatives, long bellows draw and a slow and contemplative process of setup and shooting. In other words, the prolific medium format work made the particular characteristics and strengths of the large format equipment much more obvious which then pushed me to develop the aforementioned series work.

Hosata leaves after the rainBLOG2


I often print square, with little or no cropping. The square is a nice slice of film and looking down at the ground glass the square is what I see. I know Ansel said that he mentally cropped his Hasselblad images before he pressed the trigger but as he had always preached visualizing the finished image before the exposure he could hardly say anything else! When most of us compose, we quite reasonably use the black 4 walls of our viewfinders or groundglass frame to do so and so I look for a composition that makes good use of the square. Another advantage to printing square is that I can take an expensive piece of printing paper and square it, getting a test strip and a print out of the same rectangular sheet.

Using the TLR on a tripod also means that I can most often use film of 100 ISO or less, increasing the ability to enlarge with little in the way of grain or other “artifacts” of the film negative. It seems strange to think about artifacts with a film negative. Sometimes I really like the feel of grain in an image, but the tripod means that I can use a film like Pan F when I have something else in mind.

As far as image quality goes, I have seen some comparisons done in online blogs “proving” that high end digital cameras produce sharper images than medium format film cameras, but such things are the fodder for self congratulations for those who don’t have the patience to work in a darkroom anymore, and that’s just fine. The notion that one has to have the “best” and sharpest and so on is, in my mind, detrimental to the whole purpose of the game, which is to make significant and satisfying images. And the darkroom is not for everyone, but it is satisfying to see our students, most who have never worked in a photolab before get so excited when one of their prints begins to reveal itself in the developer tray.

In any case, the Mamiyas have proven their ability to produce images of high resolution, great sharpness and fine detail. Even our oldest chrome shutter 80mm lens performs very well.

The histories of photography are usually narratives of “great photographers” who somehow became guiding lights for those that followed them, and to a limited extent there is truth in such stories. My take on the history of photography is a little different, in that I picture the major changes in photography as being technology driven, with the guiding lights as the pioneers of using technological developments to good advantage, (e.g., Stieglitz and the 4X5 Graflex SLR). Each major development in the camera and lens let talented photographers expand the possibilities of the medium. Each new development did not eliminate the utility nor the potentiality of the earlier technologies. Sheet film was not replaced by roll film. This means that because we have such a variety of photo technologies available to us, there is a vast number of approaches to image making. And because so many professionals had to abandon film to meet the market demands, that also means those of us without endless wealth can have access to loads of excellent equipment and the potential images that such equipment represents.

And that is good for us all.

Bill Kostelec

April 2018


Film Format and Image Differences

I’d like to spend a few blog posts on thinking about how moving from one format to another, from 35mm to 8X10, for example, can significantly transform the way a photographer works and the kinds of images he or she produces. There’s nothing mysterious in this and I’m not offering a new idea, but I usually gain something whenever I start reflecting on my own camera work and because Kathy and I received a camera collection as one man relieved his own burden onto another, I often feel almost plagued by too many options.
In reality though, my-go to cameras are much more confined than the collection. For this first reflection, I want to think about shooting large format, which for me includes 8X10, 5X7 and 4X5. For the past couple of days I have been contact printing older 8X10 negatives on Fomalux contact printing paper. For these sessions I have been mixing Ansco 120 developer, a soft working formula that has only Metol and a lot of sodium carbonate. The Fomalux paper is available only in grade 2 but it is a pretty harsh and contrasty grade 2, much more so than the Lodima grade 2. It is also much more affordable. The Ansco 120 did its job and really tamed the contrast without sacrificing the rich blacks that mark this Foma paper. We are able to enlarge up to 5X7 negatives so for the 8X10s scanning or contact printing are our present options.

I have had an 8X10 camera for over 20 years. The first was an Eastman 2D with no back rail extension nor sliding block. Then I bought a C-1, B&J version with 3 backs very cheaply on eBay and after installing a new bellows I have a very useable and versatile camera, and very heavy. My last acquisition is an Eastman Commercial 8X10 with block and extension rail and is made of magnesium! This is my big field camera. I don’t own any large format lens later than the 1960s, nothing multicoated, mostly Ilex Acme shutters and my older lenses include my favorite Protar VIIa in a Compound shutter. It dates from the early 1920’s while I have a brass lens with the faceplate missing that I suspect is an 10 inch Goertz Dagor in an Ilex Acme no 4. I mention the lenses because as a large format shooter, I can successfully use a lot of old glass and be very happy with the results. This is, I think, a prime positive characteristic of making large format negatives.

This first illustration is a scan of a platinum/palladium print from an 8X10 negative shot with the 7 inch component of the Protar VIIa. None of the big equipment is really light and the 8X10 and 5X7 cameras require a tripod. These college girl models were dancers and were very good about holding their poses. All of us knew that the big wooden camera required something more than flashy moves, and their facial expression, very relaxed and focused, was at least in part the result of being before the 8X10. So besides that truism that large format takes more time, there is this truth, that often it has a positive effect on those who stand before its studied gaze. Using a tripod leads to a second characteristic possibility of large format: one can do long, long exposures.


The second illustration is from a 4X5 negative taken with a Crown Graphic and a typical Optar 135mm lens. I was deep in a cavern looking down at an unnamed creek with a small waterfall behind my back. The creek and its bed were not spectacular, kinda of tangly and disordered, but there were some interesting rock outcrops. Around here there is a lot of basalt leftover from slow flow lava from long, long ago. My meter groaned at the darkness and I stopped down to f-22 and held the shutter open for a clean 60 seconds. My tiltall tripod did the trick and I made two negatives. Now the disorder and messiness of the little creek became something else, all mystery and light, things that my eye could not see were revealed. It was the possibility on the groundglass that pushed me to the image. If I could have used a 35mm on a tripod I might have got something similar but the 4X5 glass is much more revealing and the large negative evoked much more of the presence of the wet rocks, now luxuriously there!

waterfall negative edit mysterycrop.jpg

The third illustration is of a chair sitting by the fireplace. There is a high window behind it, a typical multi-pane Craftsman house window. This is also a scan of a PT/PD print. With an 8X10 negative, it is a natural thing to make a contact print and doing that invites the photographer to explore some of the 19th century printing processes. This image was shot with Ektascan xray film, a very inexpensive option for 8X10 shooters which I have also found hard to process to its full advantage. It is exceedingly sharp, and scratches if you breathe a little too heavy in its direction! (that is an exaggeration). Here the convenience of being in the house makes a heavy 8X10 camera seem very manageable and so it lends itself to such intimate shooting.


Finally, this last illustration represents yet another characteristic of the big cameras. With 34 inches of bellows, some of my lenses can get really, really close. This photo, made on a 5X7 negative is the result of an hour or so of playing with things at hand on the shelf below that same multi-pane window. I had a theme in mind, working in the context of a series of images and this makes a vague reference to the “Devil and his Wife” which in addition refers to a song I wrote and recorded, “The Devil is Beating his Wife”, which also, in turn, refers back to an old Southern saying which my young and Southern wife introduced me to. The Zuni Bear is apparently, their pet. Here the big 5X7 glass lit up with the bright daylight flooding through and behind the widow glass and with painstaking balancing and fiddling and lots of experimentation I finally saw this image, and shot it. The closest object to the lens was about one foot away, thanks to that long, long bellows. At this point, measuring the bellows extension is required and reciprocity factors in as well. I love looking at the big ground glass. It’s beauty is infinite because we can continue to look at new things and see how the glass transforms them.


So that’s a little reflection on using large format film and cameras. The next reflection will be on using medium format film and cameras.

Bill Kostelec
April 2018