14x17 Ultra Large Format Photography
The intimacy of holding a large format contact print in your hands and viewing the exquisite and ethereal qualities is why fine art buyers and collectors around the world continue to value these classic silver gelatin pieces of art.
It is difficult to not think about the simplicity of Weston making his now famous large format contact prints and the lessons we can take from him.
In our modern high-tech world it is easy to get drawn into the latest technologies and gear and put these things above the reasons why we started photography in the first place.
Large and ultra large format analog contact prints remind us of a simpler time that doesn't need advancement. To make world-class fine art prints you need vision, creative drive, and the ability to focus and explore your passion much more than you need high-tech gear.
Henry Peach Robinson was a pioneer of Pictorialism in the mid 19th century and one of his quotes has really stuck with me over the years. Henry said "Photography would have been settled a fine art long ago if we had not, in more ways than one, gone so much into detail. We have always been too proud of the detail of our work and the ordinary detail of our processes."
The image quality and presence of a large format silver gelatin contact print is something special to behold and highly revered by art buyers and collectors around the world.
I got my first 11x14 camera in 2010 and I was astounded by how much bigger 11x14 was over 8x10. I guess I didn't realize that 11x14 is about 192% larger than 8x10.
14x17 is 238 square inches, making it 3 times larger than 8x10 and 1.5 times larger than 11x14.
When you look at the illustration to the left, it gives you a good sense of how much more significant 14x17 is in terms of size over 8x10.
The folded size of my Chamonix 14x17 ultra large format view camera is 544mm (21 in) x 514mm (20 in) x 150mm (6 in) and it weighs 10.7kg or 23.6 pounds.
Once I started making 11x14 silver chloride and platinum prints, they seemed huge compared to 8x10 prints and everything that I loved about 8x10 contact prints was even better with 11x14. I knew one day, I would find a project that was worthy of even bigger contact prints.
The details were even more impressive and the impact and "x-factor" of these bigger contact prints became very special to me.
I thought if the 8x10 and 11x14 large format contact prints were so incredible, then the 14x17 prints would probably blow my mind and I was right.
I love mounting my 14x17 ultra large format contact prints with a 4 inch border making the final artwork an impressive 22"x25".
I finally gave in to the temptation of the 14x17 format and I ordered a brand new Chamonix camera with a couple film holders and an 8-inch to Sinar lensboard adapter. I use Sinar sozed boards on my 11x14 and 8x10 cameras, and a few of my lenses will cover 14x17, so this adapter makes my life very easy.
In a world of 7 billion people, I would estimate that less than 100 people are actively shooting 14x17 ultra large format making this group of photographers rare and special.
The 11x14 is the first step into ultra large format by most photographers definition, and I feel that it is as well. 14x17 doesn't see that much bigger until you get behind the ground glass. Wow!!! You really have to pay attention to your compensation and edges around your ground glass.
Everything about ultra large format photography is exponentially more difficult. With the right mindset, patience, commitment, and willingness to invest money will lead to a lot of fun and personal fulfillment.
Making 8x10 and 11x14 contact prints over the years really helped build my skills and enabled me to make high quality 14x17 contact prints right out of the gate.
SOME CONSIDERATIONS REGARDING 14x17
This sounds odd because the gear, lenses, and materials are fairly expensive by most people's standards.
For example, if you use smaller formats and make enlargements, then you need an enlarger and a lot of other gear associated with that workflow as opposed to a piece of glass or contact printing frame and a simple light bulb for making contact prints.
You can buy an ultra large format camera and a lens or two and use it for the rest of your life without the need to ever buy more gear ever again. Modern day camera manufacturers and screaming right now and hopeful that you don't realize that you only need 1 camera and a few lenses for your entire life.
Large format enlargers and the full range of tools and supplies is typically not a cheap endeavor in the beginning. But, if you only make ultra large format contact prints, then you can eliminate a lot of other gear and expenses and I think you will spend significantly less money over time than the average digital photographer today.
I think making large and ultra large format contact prints is fine art photography in its most simple, pure, and beautiful form.
Depending on your physical ability to lug, transport, and haul your big camera around, this may be an issue for some people.
Make sure you understand the total size and weight of your future ultra large format kit before making a purchase. Some of the smaller lenses are relatively lightweight, but others are the size and weight of a small child!
The bigger you go in format, the fewer lens choices you have and the more difficult it is to find what you are want or need. Your patience and persistence will surely be tested.
Make sure you have a dark tent or other suitable means of loading your big film holders. I use a Harrison Jumbo Film Changing Tent.
If you are on the fence about getting an ultra large format camera, do everything you can to see if the new gear is what you are truly seeking. For example, if you think your 11x14 contact prints will be better than your 8x10 prints, buy an 11x14 contact print from an accomplished photographer or maybe try and work out a print swap deal or something similar if money is tight.
Make sure you are capable of developing ultra large format negatives in trays because this is most likely how you will be developing your negatives. If you don't have a proven process for developing in trays, start with a smaller format and master that first because everything is much more difficult at full scale.
If you tend to fly by the seat of your pants, then ULF might not be for you. You will need to plan just about everything from ordering your film once a year to doing extensive research if you plan to go out in the field with your kit. Working with formats like 14x17 and larger requires a lot of patience, planning, and willingness to work through a series of inevitable problems and this needs to be a match with your personality type in order to be successful over the long term.
I personally think the challenges are worth the end results and when you get to the point of making high-quality large format contact prints that bring a tear to your eyes, I think you will feel the same way.
MY LENSES FOR THE 14x17 FORMAT
My personal lenses for 14x17 include the following:
Wide Angle: Rodenstock APO Sironar W 300 F5.6 in Copal 3 Shutter (490), and Schneider G Claron 355mm F9 Barrel Mounted (444)
Slightly Wide: Nikkor M 450mm F9 in Copal 3 Shutter (440)
Soft Focus: TT Signature Pictorial Barrel Lens 18 inches (457mm) F7.5 and 24 inches (609mm) F10, (DIY Meniscus 335mm F4.6 (510), DIY Meniscus 500mm F6.9 (810).
Special Use: I use a 150mm Nikkor SW F8 lens designed for 8x10 mounted in a Copal 1 shutter as a crazy wide closeup lens. With 1030mm of bellows draw on my 14x17 Chamonix camera, I can do some incredible 1:3, 1:4, and even 1:5 macro work (400). A lot of my other 8x10 lenses can also be used as closeup/macro lenses too like the Heliar 300mm F4.5, Cooke Series II 12 inch, B&L 20 inch Triplet, and many others.
MOST COMMON LENSES FOR 14x17
All three of these lenses are typically found mounted in a Copal 3 shutter, but not always.
For example, my Schneider G Claron is in barrel and I am okay with that because I shoot a lot of very slow emulsions and don't need a shutter. My Nikkor M 450mm F9 is in mounted on a Copal 3 shutter and this is great when I want a sharp lens and need faster shutter speeds. I sold my Fujinon C 600mm last year, but that was also mounted in a Copal 3 shutter as well.
The prices listed above were confirmed via eBay in December, 2020. Note: IC indicates image circle at F22.
The rare and difficult to find Rodenstock APO Sironar W 300 F5.6 lens works on 14x17 as a wide angle lens with an image circle of 490mm.
I am fortunate enough to have bought this lens brand new which seemed expensive at the time, but now it is very expensive often going for $6,000 or more if you can even find one.
If you don't need a longer lens, then the expensive and illusive Fuji 600mm isn't a big concern.
I personally use a slightly wide to normal lens on my camera and never had a personal need or desire for a longer lens. I had purchased one brand new when they were available and never used it. I sold it and I was happy to give it to a photographer that was going to use it.
The G Claron 355mm is the easiest and cheapest to find and considered to be a mid-range wide lens, and the Nikkor M 450mm is still considered to be little bit wide on 14x17 and it is the second easiest to find.
If you are into the 7x17 and 12x20 ULF formats, most of these and similar lenses will work as well.
The advantage of the three lenses listed above is their small size and weight. With the camera already being huge and very heavy, toting around a small canon makes things even more difficult.
In the section below, I listed some additional lenses that you can consider over time depending on your style of photography.
Vintage Soft Focus Lenses (Coverage Up To 16x20)
Crown Anastigmat Series I 23 1/4" F4.5 (rarely on eBay)
Dallmeyer Patent Portrait Lens Series A No.6A 30 inch F4 (very rare and expensive)
Brand New TT Signature Pictorial Lens From Tri Tran (highly recommended, I own one)
Vintage Soft Focus Lenses (Coverage Up To 14x17)
Crown Anastigmat Series I 20 in. F4.5, Symmetrical, Barrel Lens (rarely on eBay)
Cooke Series IV 18 in F5.6 Barrel Lens (rare and expensive)
Cooke Series VI 16 in and 18 in F5.6 Barrel Lenses (rare and expensive)
Sinclair Port-Land Soft Focus Lens 18 in. F5.6 Barrel Lens (rare)
16x20 General Purpose Lenses With Coverage Wide Open (Up To 16x20)
B&L Extra Rapid Universal Series D 22 3/4" F6
B&L Special 30" 700mm F6.3
Carl Zeiss APO-Planar 32" 800mm (rare and expensive)
Carl Zeiss Protar 24" 600mm F7.2 (rare and expensive)
Goerz (Berlin) Dragor Series III 30" 750mm F7.7
Voightlander Collinear 24" 600mm F6.3
APO Nikkor 600mm F9 (huge image circle up to 20x24, cheap $300 to $250, razor sharp, in barrel)
There are other lenses available that are bigger and heavier.
Symmar Convertible 360/620mm F5.6/F12 IC 500mm in Compound 4 Shutter 1910g (4.4 lbs)
APO Ronar CL 600mm F9 or F11 1563g/1547g
Goerz Red Dot Artar 24" (610mm) F11 ($1750 in shutter 7/2021, $1095 barrel lens 7/2021)
Buying 14x17 B&W film is a once per year event that will make you cry if you miss the annual Ilford ULF film order.
You don't have to use just film with ultra large format cameras.
One good option is to use silver gelatin RC glossy paper as a negative medium. In fact, it is one of my favorite negatives in any type of large format camera.
I have an entire video workshop dedicated to using silver gelatin darkroom paper as a large format negative.
To get you started in the right direction if you want to explore using silver gelatin darkroom paper as a negative, I highly recommend using an RC glossy paper. The RC glossy paper produces an incredibly sharp negative and allows you to make very high quality contact prints that are unlike film, wet plate, or dry plates. However, if you want something more textured or abstract, use a variety of different papers as your negative.
An inexpensive way to get started with 14x17 is to use Arista EDU Ultra Glossy VC RC Glossy paper as your negative and then you can even use the same paper to make ultra large format contact prints using a strong light source. For approximately $85, you will get 25 sheets of paper to use as negatives or 12 negatives and 12 prints if you want to look at it that way.
DEVELOPING ULF NEGATIVES
Depending on your specific needs and local environment, you may employ one or more methods for developing your big film.
In the picture to the left, you see a Jobo 3063 20x24 Expert Drum which is a great choice for developing bigger film and paper negatives. If you are developing 11x14, I would suggest using a smaller drum.
You will also notice that I have a Beseler Reversible Motor Base.
Based on my testing, I have found the reversing of the drum during developing to provide accurate and good results every single time. I would not recommend using a motor base that only operates in one direction. If you do have this type of motor base, you can pick up the drum and swap it around every 30 seconds to help with the random agitation and movement. This helps avoid streaks and other non-desirable development artifacts.
If you don't have a big drum and a motor base, you could also use trays which is a time proven method. If you don't have a 100% dark space to developing your film in trays, you could use a Jumbo Harrison Film Changing Tent like the one shown in this photo to the left of this text. You can definitely get 3 11x14 drays in this tent and 2 16x20, so depending on how you tray developing your film, you may have to make some adjustments.
Technically, you could use 2 trays and make it work. Tray one would be your developer and tray 2 would be TF-5 fixer. With TF-5, you don't need a stop bath and after the film is fixed, you could wash it out in open light.
CASES & BACKPACKS FOR 14x17
One of the things that I love most about large and ultra large format photography is that you are required to think outside of the norm because very few solutions are made specifically for your camera.
The case that you see above is made by Gator and it is intended to be used as a commercial music equipment storage and transport. I spent hours looking at various cases and I found one that was seemed like it was made for my Chamonix 14x17 camera. The dimensions of my camera folded down is 21 in 20 in x 6 in and the internal dimensions of the Gator case is 23x21x6. I wondered if someone at Gator also shot 14x17!
In the photos below are the backpack that I use for my camera. This is a canoe backpack from REI that works perfectly for my Chamonix 14x17 camera. This pack has a padded hipbelt and shoulder straps along with compression straps that help stabilize the load. It is made from a rugged Cordura fabric and the entire pack weighs only 1 lb. 3 oz. The dimensions are 27.5x27.5x7.25 making it a great fit for my camera.
I store my camera when not in use in the Gator case whether the camera is at home or during transport on a trip. I then transfer the camera to the backpack when I get on site to my location.
I also have an Allen Sports Premier Aluminum 2-Child Jogger/Stroller that I use out in the field too. The model that I have isn't made any longer, but I highly recommend anything made from Allen Sports based on my experience with this unit.
I can put my camera, film holders, tripod, and other supplies in the stroller making the transport significantly easier. The large wheels on the stroller make it easy to navigate difficult terrain too. I have had this stroller all over the USA in some places that you probably wouldn't imagine and it continues to perform well. The maximum payload recommendation is 100 pounds, so this is more than enough for all of my ultra large format gear and supplies.