My 4x5 View Camera Lessons learned...

Written by Bruce Barrett (I can be reached at )
Document located at:

Table of Contents


  1. Don't bend Polaroid film. It won't develop properly.

  2. Keep track of temperature when developing Polaroid film. I recently saw the suggestion that aquarium press on (LCD?) thermometers be used. These are the ones that change color based on the temperature, making only one number at a time visible. Keep this with your film and back.

  3. Running a color Polaroid print under water and rubbing gently will cause the emulsion to come right off! I did this right after development. I did it because there seemed to be chemicals left on the print after I pulled it out.

  4. Separating Polaroid prints: This takes a bit of practice, but essentially you hold each side of the outer casing between a thumb and forefinger and pull apart - but not too vigorously! You want to keep the "binding" of the 2 (or 3) page book you're creating together. Then place you're thumb on the tan tissue-paper like corner and peel the photograph away.
                         .\*| <-- Place thumb here.
                         . \| 
                         .  | 
                         .  | 
                         .  ~ 

  5. The way to tell which side of a piece of sheet film has the emulsion on it, in the dark, is to feel for the notches. Film goes into holders this way:
                 +=========================+ /
        | D |    ||                       ||//
       /  A |    ||                       ||// +--------------------+
       |  R |    ||                       ||// |                    |
       |  K |    ||      Film holder      ||// |                    |
        \   |    ||                       ||// |       Film         |
        | S |    ||                       ||// |                    |
        | L |    ||                       ||// |                    |
        | I |    ||                       ||// |                    |
        | D |    ||                       ||// |                    (
        | E |    ||                       ||// |   Note, notches--> )
        \---+----||=======================||/  +--------------------+
    If you're about to slide a piece of film into the holder, from the right, the notches will be in the lower right. The notches are different for every type/brand of film. Kodak and Fuji both have references for this.

  6. What comes inside a film box: Film, with a piece of cardboard on the top and bottom, wrapped in foil, in a box half, in a box half, in a box half. Like this (side view):
        |                                              |
        |   |                                       |  |
        |   |  +---------------------------------+  |  |
        |   |  |      Film, wrapped in foil,     |  |  |
        |   |  |            goes here.           |  |  |
        |   +---------------------------------------+  |

  7. How to tell if the film is in the right part of the film holder.
    Once the film is in the holder I've been running my fingernail along the top of the track to make sure the film is flat in the holder. (Hard to describe) Looks like this ... (viewed from inside the holder):

        ========================================  ((finger))
        Dark slide slot                           ((_here_))
        Film slot                   -------------film-----------
                            (Bottom of holder)    
        ========================================   ((finger))
        Dark slide slot          -------------film-  ((_here_))
        ========================================   \---
        Film slot                                      \--------
                            (Bottom of holder)

    In the incorrect version you can feel the ramp the film makes as it cascades from the dark slide slot to the bottom of the holder.

F I L M _ H O L D E R S

  1. Clean the rollers and other surfaces of your Polaroid back. This would seem to be especially important if you're renting the Polaroid back. Any dust or grit will show up as a defect on the print.

  2. Some Polaroid backs come with instructions on them, some do not. The large letters indicate:
    Here are the official Polaroid instructions {with my comments}...
    1. Move the control arm to L (rollers open)
    2. Hold packet as shown, with POLAROID facing you, and insert if halfway.
         {illustration shows packet entering the holder from the right with the
          control arm visible and in the L position. The film packet is being 
          held along the lower (P-R) edge with the thumb on top and a loose 
          fist below. The thumb and curled forefinger are doing the holding.
          The hold is to the left of the chemical packet. (and now you know 
          why they illustrated it rather than describing it!  :-) }
       Shift grip to end of packet, push in until it stops.
         {Same hand grip, now it's at the coutoured end of the packet.}
         {Note you'll hear a click as the metal tab at the end of the film
          packet engages with the catch in the holder.}
         {a left out step at this point is to insert the holder into the camera.}
    3. Withdraw the envelope (this uncovers negative). Check for pod as 
       described in film instructions. Shoot.
    4. Reinsert envelope all the way.
    1. Move control arm to P (rollers close).
    2. Pull packet completely out of holder at medium speed.
       Pull straight without stopping or slowing down.
       {No one has ever described to me what is meant by "medium speed"; 
        I'd say about 1 second at room tempature. At colder tempatures
        the chemicals are more viscous and I'd suggest going slower, 
        maybe even 2 seconds. If you get undeveloped "patches" try
     3. Wait for full time given in film instructions. Then remove film
        from envelope and separate positive from negative as described
        in film instructions.
       {Note also for Ready-loads and QuickLoads}
    1. Check that control arm is at L (rolers open).
    2. Push in film release lever (R) and while holding it withdraw film
    1. Move control arm to L (rolers open).
       {If you mistakenly leave the control arm in the P position you'll
        find the rollers too stiff to free from the hooks.}
    2. Open roller cover on other {back} side of holder by pulling upward
       at marks (^^^^) on ends.
    3. Detach hooks from ends of rolers. Lift top roller.
    4. Clean rollers with damp cloth. Never scrape them with metal or your
    5. Replace top roller, engage hooks, snap cover closed.

  3. Keep the white side out on the darkslide for unexposed film, black side out for exposed. (The only standard I've heard of for empty holders is black side out. This way you can make it a rule "black never goes in the camera") Note that the white side has a row of dots so you can tell the difference in the dark.

  4. Be vary careful loading film into film backs that you don't insert it into the dark slide runners. I did this once and the film jammed as I re-inserted the back slide. I forced it and the film popped out into the bellows. I didn't realize it until later and the result was the next two shots were ruined by reflections from lens to popped out film to the film being exposed. I was quite surprised how important it is to have the inside of the camera be flat black. (see #7 above for testing this.)

  5. The little "L" brackets that are supposed to prevent the darkslide from coming out don't always work. I had some film holders in an attache type camera case, one of the "L" brackets apparently moved and when I opened the case it neatly and cleanly withdrew the dark slide, without benefit of camera, lens or shutter.
  6. Keep them dust free. Blow them out with compressed air, or vacuum them out.


  1. Double check dark slide is up before tripping the shutter.

  2. If you're shooting close double check the "bellows factor."

    Method #1 - Traditional

            Ne = N * (Si/f)
            Ne = effective f-number (corrected for bellows factor)
            N  = the f-stop number (from the light meter)
            Si = distance from rear principal point to
                   film (image) plane
            f  = the focal length of the lens
    So if a 100mm lens was set at f11 and the distance from film to lens is 200mm then the formula becomes:
            Ne = 11 * (200/100)
            Ne = 22  You lost 2 stops of light (f11-16-f22) due
                   to bellows extension.
    Method #2 - Simplified

    But easier than the above. The following is really harder to write than do. Work it through a few times and it will become second nature to you.

      1. Sew a cloth tape measure to your dark cloth. (Barry
           was that your good idea? Someone on the net anyway,
      2. Measure in cm from lens to film.  Call this "B"
      3. Convert your lens focal length from mm to cm. (Divide
           by 10. Call this "F".
      4. Convert "B" and "F" to the nearest f-stop numbers -- this
           seems really odd converting distance to apature ratios,
           just hang in there a moment longer. Example: 100mm lens
           (F) is 10 cm, call this f11.
           200mm lens-to-film distance is 20 cm, call it f22.
      5. The difference in f-stops is the amount of additional
          exposure needed. In the example the f-stops (as we all
          know only too well) go 11, 16, 22, 32. So 11-16-22, 
          that's a difference of 2 stops. The same result as in
          the first example.
    You can, of course do the above calculations by converting lens length & film distance to inches but that always seems tougher to me. You end up with smaller "f" numbers, which might be a little eaiser, for what it's worth. You could even do the calculations in mm but I suspect most of us don't know off-hand the closest f-stop to 300, for example.

    Why does this work? Light falls off with the square of the distance just as light transmitted is a function of the square of the iris diameter. Hope that helps.

    Method #3 - Using a ruler & target

    You can place a target in the scene, measure the target with a special ruler that has the "conversion" factor built-in. This works because the bellows extension is also a function of magnification. The bellows ruler (postscript file) can be found: here.

    S E T - U P and P O S I T I O N I N G

  1. If you have a camera that starts with lens and back all the way down (dropped) you can raise the back instead of lowering the lens. Sinar is like this.

  2. Sinar + tripod + ball head (pan too, perhaps) is quite far off the ground for flower close-ups. Having a Bogen 3021 (or similar) where you can splay out the legs helps get the camera lower, but you may find that it's still higher than you want. You may need to invert the whole mess.

  3. Hard to do tilts and swings with a 90mm lens (or shorter) and normal bellows. Bag bellows would be better for this.

  4. Polaroid back does not capture all that you see on the ground glass. Take a shot and compare the results to your ground glass image and mark the ground glass.

  5. Bring a tape measure and read "Focusing the View Camera" by Harold M. Merklinger. The appendix (or at least some of it, I haven't downloaded it) is available on Compuserve, in the Photoforum. Library 3. Start with FVCNOT.TXT. The book is $US 17.95, Phone number (in Canada): 902/423-8271. This gives you a quick and precise way of setting your plane of sharp focus. You will need to be able to set the angle of your lens in relation to the film plane. Get a protractor until you figure out how to put scales on your camera. Highly recommended.

Amazing things about View Cameras

(...that I've used, compared to 35mm. Yes these are generalizations based on a rather small sample. They are meant to give you some idea just how different the two experiences are, especially for view cameras that are not much more than a film holder and a lens holder)

  1. Lens does not automatically stop down. Remember your 35mm camera where you could dial in the f-stop and focus with the lens wide open, then when you hit the shutter it stops down to your setting? You cannot do that with these lenses / shutters.

  2. Film insertion. It is just as easy to insert the film into the film holder emulsion side in as emulsion side out (correct). The results will differ though ;-)

  3. Film holder insertion. It is just as easy to insert the Polaroid film holder into the back of the camera with the film facing the lens as with the film facing the back. Please don't laugh, but I was tired and in a hurry and actually did this once.
    It is just as easy to insert the film holder into the back of the camera with exposed film facing the lens as with unexposed.

  4. Shutter / dark slide It is just as easy to release the shutter with the dark slide blocking the film as it is with the dark slide removed. This applies equally well to regular film holders, Polaroid and QuickLoads.

  5. Dark slide - leaks It is possible to have light leak in from the dark slide hole. This seemed to have happened on 2 of my exposures. Probably the same film holder, sigh.

  6. Shutter / film You can trip the shutter without any film in the camera. Hmm maybe this one is just like 35mm.

  7. It's trivial to expose the same piece of film twice, or not at all.

  8. You can tilt or move the lens such that the corners of the film are not covered (properly) with the lens. (Vignetting). You need to check for this before you put film in the cameras. Peer through the corners of the frame where the ground class isn't. If the hole of light is round you're OK. If it's shaped like a cat's eye the corner(s) will be darker than the rest of the photo. You can probably stop down the aperture to get a round hole. Its possible to have this happen on only 1 or 2 corners, depending on tilts and swings. Check them all at first. You can even look through the corners as you stop down until you see the light as a circle. Then read off the f-stop. You need to be at no larger opening than that.

  9. It's easy to pull out the dark slide in preparation for tripping the lens while the aperture is still open for composing and focusing.

You may also want to check out My 4x5 Initial Experiences

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