Large Format Film Logistics

16th May 2013
In: Gear, Blog
Large Format Logistics

As I write this I’m about 8 days away from a trip up to Skye. It’s primarily a climbing trip but I can’t possibly head up there without taking my large format camera. So I thought this is as good a time as any to talk about the logistics of large format photography and how we have to manage sheet film. This will probably be an eye opener to anyone accustomed to the convenience of digital.

8Gb memory card: 366 shots in my GF1. Grafmatic: 6 shots in my 5x4" camera

These days image storage logistics for the vast majority of photographers simply means making sure you’ve got enough empty memory cards with you, and maybe before a long trip taking extra or something like a laptop to transfer the images to. With my rate of shooting on digital even on family holidays I rarely fill all my cards.

But the world of the large format shooter is a little different. Well, it’s a lot different. For a start, whereas a memory card the size of a postage stamp can store hundreds of images, a sheet of 4x5” film, the size of a postcard you might want to stick that stamp onto, stores one image. So you need to carry quite a few of these sheets, and to complicate matters you have to keep them in the dark. Yep, you’ve got to buy them, load them into film holders, load them into the camera, shoot them, then unload them and develop them without ever seeing them. Sounds bonkers doesn’t it?

When you buy sheet film it comes in a box containing several sheets, and you can only open this box in the dark. So by touch alone you have to load each sheet into a film holder – this alone is potentially problematic and requires a bit of practice. Modern holders, also called “double dark slides” can carry 2 sheets of film, one on both sides. Once they’re in the holder they are safe to bring into the light again.

Large Format film management: film boxes, double-darkslides, changing tent, Quickloads, Quickload holder, etc etc

Of course this assumes you’ve got a dark place to handle the film. I don’t just mean a bit dark, it’s got to be totally dark. You know when you think of the classic darkroom scene in a movie or on TV with a dim red light illuminating the room? Well that’s because photo paper is blind to red light, but most film sees all colours so you’ve got to be in the pitch black to handle film without exposing it. I use a Calumet changing tent which is quite handy, and easy to pack flat into a bag for travel, although the classic way of loading film when travelling is in a hotel interior bathroom with a towel blocking light under the door. Simple?

But not so fast, you’ve forgotten about DUST!

Dust is the bane of the large format photographers life. It is everywhere in the air, and some places are worse than others. If dust gets into your film holders or onto your film it blocks out light when you take the photo, leaving you with black dots, or hairs or worse on your image. So to minimise this there’s a few precautions you can take. I basically do two things to counter the dust problem, one is keeping each holder in a sealable plastic bag to keep the outer clean (as any muck on the outer easily gets onto the film when you pull the slide out), and the other precaution is that I vacuum out each holder prior to loading. Other people have different systems but this seems to work pretty well for me, and generally get very little dust on the film.

The other logistical issue to consider at this stage is actually remembering to vacuum and load your holders in advance. All to often I find myself the day before a trip or a holiday realising than I’ve not got enough holders clean and loaded, and then spend a frantic evening packing and sorting out the film.

So anyway, once loaded, you carry as many of these loaded holders into the field as you want. But you’d best keep half an eye on weight, as each holder weighs about 170g, so six holders containing 12 sheets of film takes you over a kilo in film alone. I personally own about 19 film holders and three Grafmatics, the theoretical maximum number of sheets I can carry into the field at any one time is 56 weighing about 4.5kg, or well under what 2 rolls of 35mm can provide, and a fraction of even my smallest memory card. So as you can see with large format you tend to be quite frugal and make damn sure that every shot is as good as you can possibly make it – which usually is more of an advantage than a disadvantage. I generally carry between 6 and 10 holders, though generally on any one outing I rarely shoot more than 4 sheets, often only a couple.

Lowepro bag with Chamonix, two holders and two Grafmatics (bottom left), meter, and three lenses

Another of the great advantages of sheet film shooting though is you can carry just a couple of sheets of different types of film that maybe you would use rarely, and just shoot them when you need to, unlike with a 35mm or 120 camera you are committed to a full roll of any particular type of film when you load it. Personally I love this, so although I shoot mainly Velvia 50 I can also carry a few sheets of a faster emulsion like Provia and a few sheets of black&white, and only use them when I need to. I actually much prefer Provia shot in this manner, whereas with 120 or 35mm I’d often shoot only a few shots which were ideally suited to Provia on each roll.

When shooting the film you need to keep tabs on which sheets you’ve shot and which you haven’t, as its perfectly possible to accidentally shoot two photos onto the same sheet, losing you not one but two images you might have spent hours working towards. The actual darkslides in the holders usually have a white and a black side so you can flip them over when you take a shot to give a visual reminder. I use the convention of white side indicating an exposed sheet, but oddly this seems to be the exact opposite of the rest of the large format world, who have black indicating exposed.

Darkslide in the Chamonix, showing white side indicating its just been exposed

So then what about afterwards? You of course need to unload the holders in the dark (out comes the dark tent again), and herein lies another complication. When you take the film out to store it prior to being developed you’ve got to keep film which needs different development separate to each other. In practice this means E6 slide film and C41 colour negative needs putting into separate boxes, and any different types of black&white film need to be kept separate because most types need different times in the developer. So Ilford FP4+ needs a separate box to your HP5+. Strictly speaking you can identify film in the dark by the notch cut into it at the time of manufacture (they all have a different pattern of notches) but you’re better off keeping them in separate boxes for the sake of sanity. Also any film needing special processing needs to be kept separate too.

To give you an example of the logistics of travelling abroad with large format gear, say if I was going away for 2 weeks holiday I might take 80-100 sheets of different type of film to be on the safe side, expecting to actually shoot about 20-40 of those. I’d probably load all the holders before I go, and take the rest of the film in boxes to be loaded while I was away. I’d probably also take the changing tent in case there wasn’t anywhere suitable when I got there (although there often is). I’d also have to take a few empty boxes to store film once it’s been exposed. I’d need a box for every film type, and need to make sure that if I plan on push processing any film that I’ve got enough spare boxes for this too. So I might be taking half a dozen full boxes and another handful of empty boxes, plus as many loaded holders as I can fit in my bag. In the past I’ve resorted to consolidating boxes of film together to cut down on space, but this needs careful management. You also need to keep your boxes of exposed film clearly labelled so you can tell them apart from the unexposed stuff.

So before I’ve brought any clothes I’ve already filled up a fair proportion of a bag with holders and boxes, which can be quite an issue if I’m flying. Especially since ALL film needs to be taken on planes in your cabin carry-on bag rather than checked into the hold. The reason for this is the x-rays used to scan hold baggage are strong enough to knacker your film, but the machines scanning carry-on bags are generally safe. I’ve flown with film a fair few times and never had a problem with x-ray damage, but very fast film can be at risk.

By now you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “why the hell doesn’t someone invent a better system for carrying and storing sheet film?”. Well as it happens both Kodak and Fuji did, called Readyload and Quickload respectively. Each system featured film pre-loaded into sealed lightproof paper envelopes, in a dust-free environment (yay). The photographer then inserted one into a special holder which allowed the envelope to be pulled out leaving the film in place in the camera, and then reversed that process to let you remove the whole thing from the camera. This was genius as it meant you could retain the single sheet workflow but instead of darkslides you could just carry umpteen lightweight paper envelopes, allow more film to be carried for less weight and bulk.

Chamonix with Quickload holder in place

The downsides to these systems were mainly cost, reliability and availability. I’ve never used the Kodak system but it seems to have had a mixed reputation for reliability, and I think in their prime both systems had a per-sheet cost of about double what normal loose sheets cost – although the great irony is that Quickload prices from only a few years ago are now below what Fuji loose sheet prices are after recent price hikes. The Kodak system was discontinued years ago as professional studio users (who must have formed the bulk of the market) switched to digital, and the Fuji system was recently discontinued although there still seems to be film for sale “new” in Japan if you know where to look.

Second hand Quickload and Readyload still pops up on eBay buy often commands a ridiculous premium due to increasing rarity, although a lot of it is quite old now so prices should drop as it becomes less attractive and die-hard Quickload shooters have mostly weaned themselves off it now. I have a few boxes in the freezer saved for either lightweight trips into the mountains to times when it’s impractical to travel with all the boxed loose film clobber.

So there you go, a quick and rambling breakdown of the logistics of managing sheet film. Easy! Of course don’t forget that after all this you’ve then got to develop it before you can see your images…..which I think is a subject best left for another day.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go and hoover out a dozen filmholders for the trip to Skye.

The Cuillin on Skye


Photo comment By Simon Nicholas: I really enjoyed this article and seeing what's in your bag! The Chamonix looks beautiful. I guess that added to the weight of all those film boxes you have the added weight of a tri-pod. Respect!
Photo comment By Joel: Great article Dave. I'm just about to start my first 4x5 adventure and appreciate your experience travelling with a whole kit. I just bought my first grafmatic and have one question for you: Say you have a great spot and want to take a few exposures. Do you pull out the whole grafmatic from the camera and then do the shuffle or do you leave it the camera while you shuffle through exposures? Thanks again
Photo comment By Dave: The grafmatic needs to be in the camera, with the lens closed, in order to cycle it. Otherwise you will be exposing all your film, which is obviously a costly mistake you'd only make once....

Leave a comment

Your Name
Your Email
Your Comment
No info required here, please press the button below.