Not Too Big, Not Too Small; In Praise Of 5x7 Format

Do you love black and white photography? If so, does this sound like a dream camera to you: inexpensive, easy to use, forgiving, and capable of the finest results in the world? I thought it might. Welcome to the world of 5x7".

All Photos © 2005, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

Inexpensive? Yes. The last 5x7 I considered, but didn't buy, was a twin-lens (!) on its own studio stand. It was under $100 at a camera fair. Sure, it was ratty and manky and nasty, and would have taken a weekend to clean up and put in working order, but even so, cleaning it up would have been fun. The main reason I didn't buy it--apart from the sheer size and weight, and the fact I was 200 miles from home--was that I already have two and a half 5x7" cameras: a Linhof Technika V, a Gandolfi Variant, and a 5x7" back for my 8x10" De Vere monorail.

Gandolfi Variant 5x7"; interchangeable rear standards are also obtainable for 4x5" and 8x10".

When it comes to lenses, you can use virtually anything that will cover the format: after all, you aren't going to enlarge the negatives, and there are precious few lenses that don't deliver 30 line pairs per millimeter (lp/mm), generally regarded as the absolute theoretical limit of resolution of the human eye at around 10"/25cm. One of my favorite lenses is a 165mm f/6.8 Goerz Dagor, roughly equivalent to 35mm on 35mm. I don't know how old it is but I'd be surprised if it were later than the 1920s.

You might think 5x7 would be expensive to run but it isn't. Yes, one sheet of film is expensive, but how many sheets are you going to shoot in a day?

Most 5x7" holders are of the Fidelity type, where the bottom of the film holder folds down and you load the film like this. Note how the emulsion is toward you when the notch is in the top right-hand corner. The external dimensions of standardized holders are identical for 5x7" (127x178mm), 13x18cm (5.1x7.1"), and half-plate (43/4x61/2", 12x16.5cm); only the internal dimensions vary.

Easy to use? Again, yes. Put the camera on a tripod. Open the shutter. Focus and compose on the ground glass: you can use the camera movements or not, as you are inclined. To begin with, shoot without them. You'll find out what they do soon enough, just playing with the camera. Next, close the shutter. Set the aperture and shutter speed. Put in a film holder; pull the sheath; fire the shutter; replace the sheath; and you're done.

Linhof holders are completely interchangeable with Fidelity, but load in a different way, as you can see here. A lever in the slot at the head of the holder enables you to check whether or not the holder is loaded, and can also be used to push the film out when the bottom is open.

All right, this takes a lot longer than pointing your autofocus digicam and pressing the button, but is it actually difficult? Hardly! There is nothing here that is beyond a person of average intelligence and dexterity.

Besides, it's easier to figure out the workings of a 50-year-old 5x7" than a new digital SLR. There are so many buttons, switches, and knobs on my Nikon D70 that I've always lost count before I've arrived at a final number: it's about two and a half dozen, and many of them are multifunctional. Some of them I've never used: I don't even know what they do.

The actual film size is normally marked on the film holder, just under the maker's name, though Fidelity takes 5x7 as standard and only marks the others.

Forgiving? Again, yes. Almost any exposure will do, as long as it is on the generous side. The main disadvantages of overexposure are bigger grain and reduced sharpness. With a 35mm negative, which you might enlarge 5x or 10x or more, this matters. With a contact print, you'll never see the difference. Outdated film? Grainy developers? Same thing: who cares?

You can see here how 13x18cm (bottom) is fractionally bigger than 5x7" (middle) while half-plate (top) is quite a bit smaller: all are lined up by one corner. Films in these sizes are available from Ilford, Bergger, Maco, and others.

And the results; ah, the results. Grainless, obviously, and with detail you can dive into. Put a magnifier on the print, and the detail goes on and on. A 5x7" contact print is a miniature world, which you feel as if you could enter, like Alice through the looking glass.

Now, most people don't think of 5x7" when they think of large format. They think of 4x5", or of 8x10" or larger. But the devotee of 5x7" will tell you: 4x5" doesn't really deliver much better quality than roll film, but is a lot less convenient, and you still have to enlarge it. With 5x7, on the other hand, you have a perfect size for a contact print. After all, once a picture is big enough to see, it doesn't necessarily gain anything from being bigger.

For unexposed films with Fidelity and similar holders, the shiny side at the top of the film sheath is outward. When you expose the film, reverse the sheath so the black side is out. No more double exposures!

The larger formats, 8x10" and above, are all very well, but they are too big and heavy, and beyond about 10x12" the film handling becomes problematical. In the darkroom, great wet wobbly sheets of 11x14" or larger film can start to seem like a malevolent entity from a '50s sci-fi movie, the Thing From The Black Developer Tray, perhaps.

Again, Linhof holders are different. The tab on the sheath is asymmetrical and has a numbered (and smooth) side and an unnumbered (and ridged) side. You therefore have both visual and tactile reminders of whether the film is exposed or not. Unexposed films have the tab on the right; number visible; smooth side of tab out. Exposed have the tab on the left; number invisible; ridged side of tab out.



Very nice and instructive article. It opened my eyes to those incredible Orbital Processors and motivated me enough to buy one.


guitarboy's picture

One of the best things about the 5x7 format is its proportions. It is longer than 4x5, less boxy, wider--more like the natural vision of the human eye.

That's a beautiful Argyrotype! I wonder if you would comment on how easy or difficult the process is to master?