What is a film holder?
A film holder is a device used in medium and large format photography cameras as a means to handle film. By name, camera film holders can sometimes be confused with scanner film holders, also known as negative holders, but their design and operation is very different.
The following write up aims to describe the different types of film holders used in photography. Sheet film holders, like the Toyo pictured above, is what most photographers would think when asked about film holders. Within this category, however, exists a vast variety of shapes and sizes. Let’s have a look at some of the most common ones.
View camera film holders
Most 35mm and medium format cameras have in-body film handling mechanisms. With them, you would generally just load the 35mm casette or 120 film spool and the camera mechanics handles the rest. It is not so with view cameras, like the Linhof Kardan pictured above.
While view cameras come in formats as small as 6x9cm, the term is mostly used to refer to large format cameras with negative sizes of 4×5″ or larger. By design, all view cameras come without built-in film handling capabilities. What this means is that you need auxiliary devices to hold the film, which is what film holders are.
While this might seem inconvenient at first, it’s actually one of the features that give view cameras their flexibility. This design allows for multiple formats and aspect ratios to be used with a single camera body. It also allows for much greater control over film handling and developing.
Sheet film holders
Sheet film holders are the main system by which film is handled in a large format photography workflow. As 120 film is the largest roll film commercially available, any photographer seeking larger negative size has to resort to sheet film. This has also brought around the division line between medium and large format. Large format negative is one
Single sheet film holders
Single sided sheet film holders do exist but are a lot less common today. Having evolved from glass plate holders, they are single sided casettes into which film is loaded to be exposed in a view camera.
Today, the most common single sided film holder variety you’ll find is in fact plate holders used in wet plate photography. Some plate holders can be adapted to using film by the means of inserts or septums. The septums compensate for the reduced thickness of the film and bring the emulsion into proper register with the camera designed film plane.
Double sided film holders
Double sided sheet film holders are by far the most ubiquitous type of film holders out there. Each side has a dark slide that protects the film from exposure until the holder is secured onto a camera or in a darkroom. This is why sheet film holders are sometimes referred to as double dark slides.
The dark slide is removed from the holder once it’s securely attached to the view camera. Once exposure is made, the dark slide is returned into the film holder before it’s removed from the camera. Dark slides typically have an indicator strip on the handle end, with one black and one white sides. They are used to mark the sheet behind the dark slide as either exposed or unexposed.
Most commonly, sheet film holders are made of plastic, wood or metal. Like single plate holders, some newer wooden double glass plate holders can be adapted to using film with septums.
Multiple sheet film holders
Multiple sheet film holders are a way to introduce some of the roll film convenience into the large format camera domain. Holding between 6 and 18 sheets or plates, the multi film holders use clever mechanical design to allow the user to cycle through film sheets in broad daylight. Multi sheet film holders are slim enough to slide under the ground glass like a traditional film holder on most cameras. Most of them can also be attached by Graflok sliders present on many view camera backs.
They offer considerable space and weight saving benefits compared to traditional double sided film holders. In the hands of a skilled user, they also allow for a relatively fast sucessive shots. Because of this, they were a popular option for press photographers using 4×5 cameras like the Graflex Speed Graphic.
However, due to their relatively complex construction, multi film holders are not as reliable as the double sided models. A lot of the multiple sheet film holders were prone to jamming, which can halt the shooting process and/or compromise the film loaded within. With any of the multi sheet film holders, reliability lies much more at the skill of the operator and the condition of the particular unit than the design.
Several models were manufactured though the years, but none are available new today apart from an occasional new-old-stock (NOS) find.
The Grafmatic (pictured above) is the most popular of the multipe sheet film holders. Available in 2×3 (6x9cm), 4×5 (9x12cm) formats, the Grafmatic holds six film sheets placed in individual metal septums. The Grafmatic holder is largely made of metal, and it’s darkslide is non removable. Due to their rugged construction, Grafmatics are widely regarded as the most reliable of the multiple sheet film holders.
Later models have a sheet counter wheel which imprints the number of the exposure onto the edge of the film. They also have a double-exposure prevention system which locks the holder once all six septums as cycled through.
Graflex Film Magazine (Bag Mag)
The bag mag is an earlier version of the Grafmatic that uses a leather bag on the side of the magazine, hence the nickname. Bag mags are capable of holding between 12 and 18 sheets, but are not as automated as the later Grafmatics. They are generally considered less reliable than the Grafmatics and are less common on the market today, however they do come in a larger model variety.
There are 3×4, 4×5 and 5×7 models. There are also plate versions that can be adapted to film. The Bag Mag is the only multiple sheet film holder option for the 5×7 format.
Burke & James Kinematic
The Kinematic is Burke & James’ version of the Grafmatic. Very similar in apperance and construction, it holds 10 sheets of film instead of the Grafmatic’s six. The Kinematic is reportedly not as reliable as the Grafmatics, but more so than Bag Mags.
Preloaded film holders
At one time, both Kodak and Fuji offered 4×5 sheet film sealed in light-tight paper envelopes that was to be used with dedicated holders. This allowed the photographer to skip the traditional film holder setup, which offered great weight and space savings. Another great advantage of this design was that it greatly reduced the possibility of dust ending up on the emulsion.
A variety of emulsions were available in Fuji QuickLoad and Kodak ReadyLoad. Both systems used virtually the same construction, and as a result films from one were compatible with the holder from the other and vice versa. In addition, instant film by Fuji and Polaroid was also compatible with the QuickLoad and ReadyLoad holders. This brought even greater flexibility, allowing the photographer to use the same film holder for both instant and traditional film shooting.
Unfortunately, both Kodak ReadyLoad and Fuji QuickLoad systems have been discontinued for many years.
Instant film holders
In the days before the wide adoption of digital capture, most commercial photography was done on large format transparency film. In these days, instant film was regularly used to quickly proof lighting and composition before the shot is done on slide film. To fascilitate this process, a range of instant film holders for view cameras was available.
Both Polaroid and Fuji produced instant film and backs to suit variety of cameras. The Polaroid 545 and it’s later models is the most popular instant film holder on the secondary market, even though it has not been produced since Polaroid’s 2008 bancrupcy. Because of similarity of the systems, Kodak QuickLoad and Fuji ReadyLoad were also compatible with the Polaroid 545i back, albeit users report mixed results.
Roll film holders
The second most popular film holder option for view cameras is the roll film holder. A roll film holder attaches to the back of the view camera much like a sheet film holder and allows for use of 120 roll film. Some models like the Cambo 6×7 Slide-in roll film holder and the Sinar Zoom are designed to be slid under the ground glass like a traditional film holder. Others, like the Linhof Super Rollex pictured above, are attached with Graflok sliders once the ground glass is removed.