At Last – Large Format 4″x5″ (5″x7″)

Ok, I admit it. It must have been leading to this from the start. Large negatives have a certain je-ne-sais-quoi for me. They attract. After looking at photos from Shorpy ( – DO take an evening there! Absolutely fantastic shots, both B/W from 1900 and colour from the 1940’s) I was even more losing the battle.

Once again internet auctions came to the rescue – and this time I did not really understand what I was getting. My thought were along the line of “ok, it must be a cheap start of a system, I’ll get what is more needed later”. As it turned out I was lucky in that it was a complete camera with lens, shutter, bellows and back plane. All mechanical parts were however firmly stuck in place and it required more than one evening of lubricating and dismantling until is started showing signs of functioning. From my Ikontas and other old cameras I have stopped being worried about slow or even stuck shutters. An evening with screwdrivers, pliers, pincettes and ethanol (for cleaning) has hitherto solved all jammed shutters and restored them into mint shape. So also this time.

The camera itself is of some unknown pedigree. I have searched the web high and low but have not found anything like it. Where large format cameras usually have a lens plate this one has a round inset where the shutter and lens is situated. It took me a while, but it is actually removable with a twist. Lubrication is the thing here too!

The lens is a Schneider-Kreuznach Xenar 150/4 from the 1950’s according to the serial number. But there is no marking whatsoever on the other parts of the camera! Mystery indeed. The lens also was in need of a working over, but that work also finished successfully and it is now perfectly clear and have proven to be as new.

Unknown large format camera. The lens is a Xenar 150/4 (ser# 2441436). Shutter is a Press-Compur (ser# A493309) with time settings T, B, 1s downto 1/200s.

The Press-Compur shutter sports times from 1/200s to 1s as well as T- and B-settings. One can argue that 1/200s is not very short but in the large format world it is plenty as stopping down is the rule for maximum sharpness. The slower times of 1s, 1/2s, 1/5s, 1/10s etc are more generally more important. The B-settings opens the shutter as long as the lever is pressed. The T-setting is a little more unusual but toggles the shutter from closed to open or open to closed. The word “press” in Press-Compur refers to a small button on top of the shutter which, if pressed when engaging the shutter lever, forces the shutter to stop half-way in its open state. Another press of the lever closes the shutter (I honestly don’t see the use for that).

The camera has a full assortment of movements. Front raise, fall and twist as well as rear tilt and twist. The bellows has been severely manhandled at some point but is tight and I would rather not touch it until it breaks. Building bellows feels a bit out of reach just right now:)

The backplane accommodates 9×12 originally but 4″x5″ also fits.

Anyway after getting it lubricated and in order I  had several sessions where I just tried to get to know this entirely knew piece of equipment. Being the first large format camera in my possession there are lots of things to remember. I can not count all the times I have made “blind firing” with it and performed the task of inserting the film cassette and so on. Practice make perfect, or so I hope.

I have understood that the camera is quite heavy for a LF camera, indicating it is intended for studio use and not portable field use. We will see about that! I do the odd landscape and it would be great bringing this piece with me.

Loosening the knurled knob on the right side one can rotate the back plane for portrait mode.

The 5″x7″ back in landscape orientation.

The camera came with a few woodwork masterpieces. Today it is hard to understand how much care has been put into the fabrication of the camera. All wooden parts have been meticulously crafted – surely by hand. From a time long gone when things were better?

The 9×12 cm film holder is made entirely out of wood! Amazing precision that still holds. There is a metal insert that apparently shall hold the film. I believe that the holder is for glass plates originally and the metal insert is a later add-on to accommodate sheet film. The slide is plastic but everything else is wood.

A film holder for 9×12 cm sheet film. Its outer dimensions are the same as for 4″x5″ holders!

The 5″x7″ back plane has had its ground glass broken at some point, no real problem now, as I have yet to find a way to develop negs of this size. Not to mention to scan them! The 5″x7″ back can also be rotated 90 degrees for portrait mode should the need arise.

With  the backs removed the damage of the bellows is readily visible. 

Camera and 4″x5″ film holder. The holders’ outer dimensions are identical to the older 9×12 cm format. 

Film is inserted into the camera in the form of loaded film holders. In complete darkness you have to remove a film sheet from the pack and slide it into the holder after which the black slide has to be inserted. Voilà, one photo is ready to be taken. The film holder is double sided and takes a total of no less than two (2!) sheets of 4″x5″ film. For now I have acquired two holders, giving me a grand total of four shots (4! wow!) before I have to go down the basement and load new ones. You don’t waste too many random shots with this camera!

Handling of the camera is perhaps straight forward – but very awkward when used to point-and-shoots. First the tripod is strictly necessary of course, then the composition and framing of the shot has to be done where the shot is projected upside-down, after which the exposure has to be set, after which you make certain the shutter is closed, after which you insert the film holder, after which you double-check that the shutter is really shut, after which you remove the black slide and get ready to press the shutter – preferable through a shutter release cable, after which you reinsert the black slide and remove the holder. Done! One shot of large format is taken!

Wow, that was a bit of serious labour for just one shot. Is it worth it? Well, yes! The look of the negative is fantastic for a start. Also the details in the shot are amazing. An even more stunning effect is that one can twist the lens in different angles. With this camera it is possible to let the plane of focus run sideways in the picture! In the picture below the simultanuous focus on the front of the camera to the left and radio would not have been possible with an ordinary camera. In this case the lens was rotated a small amount around its vertical axis, then the shot was taken with f/22 for maximum DOF. (I admit exposure is an area I have to get better!).

A 4″x5″ test shot. My scanner does not do more than 6 cm wide negs so this has been stitched with DoubleTake.

Two miniatures show the amount of detail achievable:

Cool isn’t it?

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2 Responses to At Last – Large Format 4″x5″ (5″x7″)

  1. Greg Heath says:

    A great place to acquire a new bellows is I have ordered from him and they are quality. Thank you for the article.

  2. jabcam says:

    Glad you liked it! The bellows have no leaks (yet) touch wood. I’ll make a note of the link. Thanks!
    PS I looked at your gallery. That is a very nice aircraft museum! Even a Me-262, they’re not that common. …and was that a little Beaufort under the Spitfire??
    PS2 I also looked you up on qrz:) Perhaps this page is a common interest:

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