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Choosing a Large Format Camera

by Philip Greenspun, 1998


  1. Top
  2. Size
  3. Staying at Home, Staying with the Car,
    or Packing into the Bush?
  4. The camera for the studio
  5. The camera for the road
  6. The camera for the wilderness
  7. Which lenses
  8. A few other items
  9. More
  10. Inspiration
  11. Reader's Comments<</a>

If you don't know what a view camera does or why you might need one, please read my camera tutorial before trying to wade through this document, which assumes that you already know why you need the perspective control and image quality of a view camera.


I'm going to risk crucifixion by saying that you shouldn't consider a 8x10 view camera unless you are planning to make contact prints. Note that contact printing is how Ansel Adams and Edward Weston made some of their most famous and valuable prints. Without the distortions of the enlarger lens or contrast reduction of enlarger flare (stray light from one portion of the image scattering into another portion), a contact print is a beautiful thing to behold. Nonetheless, if you're too lazy to do it then an 8x10 should be scratched from your shopping list. The cameras are simply too huge. The film is too expensive. You can't get Fuji Quickload film in 8x10 size. The only way to scan 8x10 is with a ruinously expensive drum scanner (i.e., no Kodak PhotoCD). You can't get simple Polaroid film in 8x10 size.

At the other end of the spectrum are medium-format view cameras, such as the Horseman VH 6x9 cm camera. These have the advantages of compactness and roll-film loading ease. However, they are about as cumbersome and slow to operate as a 4x5 camera. You could put a roll film back on a 4x5 camera if you wanted to avoid loading film holders. At the end of the day a medium-format view camera won't give you a beautiful 4x5 sheet of film for your light table. And the resulting negative won't be cheap to scan like a 35mm neg would be. So scratch anything smaller than 4x5 from the list.

Where does that leave us? With 4x5 view camera. If you need a bunch of images scanned, you can get a Kodak PhotoCD made from 4x5 film. You have the widest selection of emulsions in 4x5 size. The latest and best view camera lens designs are intended to cover 4x5.

Staying at Home, Staying with the Car, or Packing into the Bush?

The next big decision that you have to make is whether you are going to

  • take pictures at home in a studio
  • take pictures on the road but close to the car
  • take pictures in the wilderness

If you're going to take pictures at home in the studio, then what you want is a 12 lb. monorail camera with beautifully precise and geared movements. If you're going to travel but stay reasonably close to the car, then you probably want a camera that won't break your arm if you have to carry it 200 yards: a 6 lb. monorail. If you're going to take the camera into the wilderness and trek for 5 hours before setting up for the perfect photo, what you need is a camera that folds up compactly and is also fairly lightweight.

Let's treat each of these situations in turn.

The camera for the studio

My favorite studio camera is the Sinar X. Let's look first at why Sinar and then at why this specific model of Sinar. Suppose that Joe Clueless person looks through a catalog of photographic equipment. After doing extensive research through product literature and by testing some sample cameras and lenses, Joe tells you that Canon, Contax, Leica, Minolta, Nikon, Pentax, and Sigma camera systems are all basically just fine. The usability and final image quality on film are tough to distinguish.

Yet a working photographer knows that only Canon and Nikon make complete professional systems with the full range of lenses, attachments, and accessories that they'd be likely to need. Moreover, those are the only two systems for which they'd have a prayer of renting lenses, attachments, and accessories for a special job.

The view camera world is more or less the same. Leaving through catalogs and, if you're lucky enough to live near a good shop, playing with various view cameras, you would be likely to conclude that they are all the same. This is particularly the case since a view camera is really only a light-tight box. You can use any lens or film back on any view camera. So what difference does the box make?

At least in the United States, the only comprehensive view camera system available is Sinar. It is also the only system for which you can find rental gear. Since it isn't really any more expensive than other brands, there is no reason to ever consider another brand for studio work.

Now that we've settled on Sinar, let's look at what we've got. Every Sinar seems to have little calculator wheels that tell you (1) what aperture you need to get enough depth of field, and (2) at what angle you need to tilt the lens and/or film plane to bring a tabletop into focus via the Scheimpflug Rule. Every Sinar has lots of parts that interchange with other Sinar models. If you start with a cheap lightweight Sinar for use while traveling, you will be able to use all of your extension rails, bellows, etc. on the top-of-the-line studio cameras.

Let's get back now to my recommendation of the specific Sinar X model. Like the $6000 Sinar P2 it has geared and calibrated movements (and sadly, like the Sinar P2, it is a heavy camera). What is good about the Sinar X is that you can buy it for about $3000 at the end of every calendar year when Sinar has a sale. You can get it for pretty close to this price the rest of the year if you're affiliated with a university. Otherwise, budget a little over $4000. What you give up compared to the P2 is the ability to convert to 8x10 without having to buy a whole new rear standard and also the ability to stick a meter probe in the film plane.

The camera for the road

If you're going to stick close to the car but want a more easily luggable camera than the X, I recommend the Sinar F1 or F2. These are about half the weight of the X and start at under $2000, which is a much better deal than the X except at the end of the year.

The camera for the wilderness

I tried to do this with my Linhof Master Technika but it is simply too heavy and, in virtue of its being a view camera, requires too many accessories to take any pictures. The Horseman field cameras have always attracted me because of their impossibly light weight. Wooden field cameras drive me insane because the movements aren't precise and it is tough to even get the standards parallel. Actually, when I think about it, all field cameras inevitably drive me insane because they don't have the movement flexibility to which I became accustomed with my first view camera (a Sinar F2).

Check the comments at the end of this article to see if any other photo.net community members have found nirvana in this area.

Which lenses

Real view camera photographers will tell you that you should buy all your lenses from one company because they will be matched for color and contrast. Unless you're doing catalog photography, I think this is bad advice. First, in a world of digital imaging and color negative film, I don't see why color consistency should be so important. Second, one of the joys of view camera ownership is that you can choose any lens from any manufacturer.

Here are some of my favorite lens ideas:

  • the Schneider Super Angulon XL series; these are innovative wide angles introduced with great fanfare in the late-1990s. They are revolutionary in that they cover the full 4x5 frame while going as wide as 47mm (equivalent to a 15mm lens on a Nikon). Personally, I would get a 72mm XL. Don't forget to budget $500 extra for a center filter that corrects for the inevitable wide-angle light falloff in the corners.
  • Nikkor AM 210 ED macro lens. This is an apochromatic lens at 1:1 and covers 8x10 easily. It is frighteningly sharp.
  • Nikkor T 360mm lens. This is part of the Nikon telephoto series introduced in the 1980s. They have ED glass and, because of their telephoto design, let you take portraits without racking the bellows out to an absurd and usntable degree. Even more interestingly, you can get an extra rear element for the lens and convert it to 500 or 720 mm. Caveat 1: these are big long lenses. If you want a 300 for field use, consider an older 300/9 non-telephoto design. Caveat 2: because the telephoto design puts the nodal point way out in front of the lens, and therefore in front of the lens board, tilts and swings will not work as expected.
  • Rodenstock 250mm Imagon. This is a very strange soft-focus lens that covers 4x5. Use it for portraits and landscapes.
  • oh yes... a normal lens. The 210 macro will work reasonably well at longer distance so you might as well get a 150. Schneider's APO Symmar and Rodenstock's APO Sironar S are indistinguishable. If you want to get extreme with movements, the Schneider Super Symmar HM 150 is unique.
  • finally, for those times when the Super Angulon XL is simply too wide, you need a Schneider Super Symmar XL 120.

A potentially good strategy for saving some money is finding a set of Fuji lenses. These are very similar in quality to Nikon, Rodenstock, and Schneider but were always a bit cheaper and then Fuji withdrew from the American market.

A few other items

If you want to attach your fancy new lenses to your fancy new camera, you need lens boards, one for each lens. Generally it is best to buy the lenses already mounted on boards by a professional camera shop. Otherwise, you will have to invest in a spanner wrench and some brain effort.

To focus a wide angle lens at infinity requires mushing the front and rear standards very close together (about 72mm for a 72mm lens, for example). If you can do it at all, you'll find that the bellows becomes very stiff and it is hard to use the view camera perspective controls. One solution is a recessed lens board that holds the lens back behind the front standard. I don't like recessed boards because they make it hard to adjust aperture and shutter speed. A better solution is the wide-angle or "bag" bellows. These are, well, bags. On a Sinar, you can switch from regular to bag bellows in about 30 seconds. The bellows that are you aren't using becomes a lens hood. It is a very slick system.

To focus a long lens on a close-up object requires a lot of bellows extension. You'll probably need a 6-inch extension rail for your Sinar.

Personally, I find that my photography is improved when I put film behind the rear standard. This isn't so easy with 4x5. The traditional way is to buy a stack of film holders (Rite-Way are the best), a box of film, and a brush or can of compressed air to get the dust off the holders before putting the film in. After you've done this a few times, you'll probably decide that you'd get better results if you did it in total darkness, either by building a special room in your house or by purchasing a PhotoFlex Changing Room or similar tent-like changing bag (Jobo and Calumet sell them also). You put in the film, zip it up, and stick your arms in through elastic sleeves.

After you've loaded film this way for a few years, you decide to buy into the Kodak Readyload system. Kodak packages the film for you in their factory. Each pair of sheets comes in a light-tight dust-free cardboard sleeve. You stick the sleeve into a special Kodak holder and can take pictures almost as easily as with a roll-film camera. The film stays in its sleeve until the lab removes it for development. The system is perfect except for the 20-30% of exposures that are ruined due to light leaks and other system failures.

After you've gotten tired of Kodak's incompetently-designed system, you switch to Fuji Quickload, a system that appears on the surface to be similar to Kodak's. There must be some big difference because I've been using the Fuji system for almost ten years and have never had a single failure. Nor have I ever talked with anyone who has had a problem with Fuji. Nort have I ever talked with anyone who has gotten Kodak Readyload to work reliably. Kodak periodically comes out with a new film holder for Readyload and issues a press release saying "we've fixed Readyload so that it works".

But of course it doesn't.

So the right thing to do is either be a real photographer and take the time to load film holders or use Fuji Quickload and bitch and complain about the limited variety of emulsions available. As of December 1998 you could only get Velvia (ISO 50 slides; delicious but lurid), Astia (ISO 100 slides; delicious), Provia (ISO 100 slides; "the worst slide film ever made" according to one of my friends and I couldn't disagree), and Fujichrome 64T (tungsten slides).

Before putting that film in the rear standard, you might want to check that your camera is pointed at something interesting. For that you'll want a dark cloth that you can drape around the ground glass and your head.

In order to see if your subject is in focus, you need a magnifying loupe. My favorite is the "Toyo 3.6X Groundglass Focusing Magnifier" (about $40), though expensive German loupes lifted from the light table work reasonably well also.

As you're stopping down the lens to the correct aperture and adjusting the Copal shutter, you may wonder whether these settings are correct for the light and your subject's tone. A handheld meter is useful at this point. Real view camera nerds generally use a dedicated spot meter but I prefer the Sekonic L-508 (spot, incident, reflected, weatherproof).

Once your exposure is set, if your subject isn't at infinity you might want to make sure that a bellows extension exposure correction isn't required. For this you need a QuickDisc (free) or Quick Stick (not free).

If you're still not able to nail exposure, or if you're using studio strobes, you'll definitely want a Polaroid 545 back and some Polaroid 4x5 film (about $3 per exposure).

At this point you need a humungoid case to hold everything. The most convenient are those that let your camera hang from its rails. Lightware and Tenba make soft-sided versions of this age-old design. My Lightware case is a persistent source of difficulty and the doesn't seem to be great with support, so I'd personally get a Tenba View 45 case or maybe one of the Sinar-brand cases.



I'm going to try to keep tossing in photos here that show the advantages of large format photography.

Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree National Park.

Readers' Comments

Add a comment

Ellis Vener , December 19, 1998; 03:46 A.M.

An interesting brief introduction to LF photography. I have a couple of nits to pick but they are minor.

1.) How to say this politely? the Sinar F1 is the weakest link in the Sinar chain of otherwise fine cameras. They are large and not anywhere near as sturdy or as user friendly as say the Arca Swiss F series of cameras (the FC, the F-Line, and the F metric.) OTOH, they are easier to find. For example the tilt and shift controls are combined. Rise is not in the focal plane (as it is with the Arca) It is clumsy and large to pack. You need recessed boards with lenses shorter than 72mm (you don't with the Arca.)

Then again, Arca-Swiss can be hard to find. There are only three reliable dealers in the USA as of this writing (12/98): Badger Graphics in Michigan, Photomark in Phoenix; and the F-Stops here in Santa Barbara.

2.) An excellent darkcloth is the one made or sold by Darkroom Innovations. The collar that fits around the camera is elasticized. There is a slit that runs most of the length of the bottom that closes via velcro and you put your head through a generously sized hole at the back end of the thing. It is lightweight, and folds up really small and is relatively inexpensive (about US$50.00). It is much better and much less frustrating to use than the corner weighted horseblanket sold by Zone VI. You can grasp your loupe through the side of the thing and inspect your image with out having your third and fourth arm hold the dark cloth in place. Downside: in gets really hot in there in the middle of the summer.

3.) I muchprefer the 300mm f/9 M-Nikkor over the 360mm T-Nikkor. It is smaller and lighter but has a huge image circle for movements and is less than half the price of the T lens.

4.) For field work (I mostly shoot architecture and enviromental portraits ala Arnold Newman) these days I use a Canham DLC. I have raved on and on about this camera at Tuan's homepage. After nine months I still think it is great. the only thing comparable is the Linhof Technika TK45s, which costs a cool grand more through B&H for the basic body alone. Stand out features are extraordinary lens range without need for w/a or extra long bellows, (58mm to 720mm T-Nikkor); lightweight (4lb.11oz.); strength and rigidity; range of movements (but no rise and fall in the back); and size. The design is a unique split monorail on a flatbed platform.

Thank you Philip for this forum

Mark A. Brown , January 05, 1999; 10:20 P.M.

Quick points about film:

- There is a negative film available in QuickLoad, Fujicolor 160NS, at least in Japan, at the time of writing (Jan 1998).

- To clarify re Polaroid backs, there are two types, the 545 which takes individual sheets, and the 550 which takes film packs. Film packs are more economical to use (the single sheets are comparatively expensive) but have a smaller image area. They are most useful for checking exposure, where the final shot will be on conventional film. OTOH, some types of film are not available in pack form, notably type 55 pos/neg film which can give you a negative _or_ a positive and so can be used as a final shot.

- OTOH again, you neglect to mention that the Polaroid 545 back can also be used reliably with Fuji Quickload film (there are instructions in the Quickload packets). You could therefore save yourself some money and weight by just buying the 545 holder and dispense with the Quickload holder.

- Developing and film costs are expensive. If you're on a budget, you could do worse than using cut sheet film holders and black and white film and developing it yourself. When you start out, it'll give you more insurance against inevitable exposure errors you'll get using a spotmeter for the first time, and you can experiment with the Zone system since you can process sheets individually, surely one of the plusses of large format photography.

On loupes:

- not all film-viewing loupes are suitable. Some have wide skirts which can prevent you from viewing up to the edge of the groundglass. Some are not focusable, and you need a continuously focusable loupe, ideally, for ground glass work. Some are too high powereed - you don't need amazing magnification, around 4x will do. Last, purpose-made LF loupes have a place where you can attach a bit of string to dangle the thing around your neck. Very handy and it means one less thing to keep track of. Horseman and Toyo loupes are both reasonably quality and relatively inexpensive.!!!! Some other brands are badge-engineered and manufactured by Peake, but I can't comment on these.

- There are two types of Toyo loupe, a short one and a long one. The long one is for if you've got a deep viewing hood - if you haven't you should probably go for the short one.

Tripod head and legset:

- For LF work I've never seen eye to eye with a ball head: most people start setting up by levelling the camera, and this is more difficult when you can't adjust the axes independently. Also, minor tweaks can throw the level out of kilter when using a ballhead and can be frustrating. I find geared heads to be really useful for precision adjustment in LF work - the Manfrotto 410 for relatively lightweight cameras. There's a heavy-duty version for studio monorails as well. Your studio version should probably ideally be on a stand, not a tripod.

- For large cameras used indoors, I find the Manfrotto 075 legset to be amply sturdy with a Horseman LX-C on it (studio camera).

On flat-bed cameras:

- If you go for this type, one thing which is worth checking is the range of lenses that can be used. The beds are not interchangeable and may not be extensible, so the range of lens travel is more limited. Some cameras don't have interchangeable bellows either. You could therefore find some cameras restrict you at the wide end (bellows bind, or need a recessed lensboard) and at the long end (limited maximum extension - use a telephoto-type lens).

- Wooden construction is lighter but more fragile. It can also be more aesthetically pleasing - there's something about working with a mahogany camera with brass fittings! OTOH if your 'pod falls over it could be the end of the camera. Metal construction is sturdier but heavier - the Toyo Field 45A weighs getting on for 3kg, sans lens but is built like a tank.

- I wouldn't be so anal about not being able to get the front and rear standards absolutely precisely vertical in cameras which lack micrometer scales and worm drives. Most subjects you'll be taking probably won't be perfectly planar anyway, and if they are you should be stopping down sufficiently that you won't notice. Unless you're doing copy work, of course.

- That said, if you _are_ used to a cameras with precision engineering, you'll find yourself missing it on some field cameras.

On lenses:

- LF lenses can vary dramatically in size and weight even if they have similar specs on paper. Generally speaking, a fast maximum aperture can contribute considerably to bulk. Fast lenses offer brighter viewing, but if you go out into the field and are weight sensitive, more "classic" apertures are lighter and cheaper. (e.g. a 90mm f5.6 lens is considerably heavier and bulkier than a 90mm f8 lens). Do not underestimate lens weight as a consideration if you intend to be foot-mobile.

Monorail cameras:

- If you want a monorail camera which is light enough to be taken into the field, the Toyo VX125 may be worth investigation. Sexy but expensive. There is a lighter camera manufactured by Toho which weighs under 3kg, but it not too stable in wind.

General comment: LF photography is slow and very frustrating at times (especially outdoors on a windy day - carry a large umbrella to shield the camera and tripod, or wait for a lull), but amazingly fun.

Mark A. Brown , January 26, 1999; 12:37 A.M.

A few corrections to my comments above (maybe the moderator would be kind enough to patch my original to avoid confusion).

- On the subject of Polaroid backs, there are actually THREE which can be used with 5x4" camera: The 545i for use with Polaroid sheet film, the 550 which accepts 4x5" pack film and the 405 which uses 3 1/4x 4 1/4" pack film. Check the Polaroid film holders web page for definitive information.

- In addition, I've seen a FujiFilm instant film pack for large format cameras in Japan, but have no further information at this time.

- There are two different sizes of _Horseman_ loupe, a long and a short (not Toyo, as I originally wrote). There is only one type of Toyo loupe at the time of writing - x4 magnification, rubberized at both ends to avoid scratching the glass/your face and comes with a carrying strap. It is inexpensive at 5000 yen.

Ken Iisaka , February 14, 1999; 09:46 P.M.

The lightest monorail 4x5 is the Toho FC-45A. It weighs 1.1kg, and has full adjustments. Its non-interchangeable bellow allows extension up to 270mm (370mm with an optional long rail.) It is true that it is rather flimsy, and may be affected by blowing wind. Adjustments are not geared except focussing, either. Despite these shortcomings, its sheer compactness and lightness are highly valuable in the field. For the weight of alightest field camera, you get monorail movements.

They retail for 120,000 JPY, though I picked up mine used in Tokyo at 55,000 JPY, with two lens boards and 6 film holders. I added a Fujinon SW 90mm lens at 25,000 JPY, so even with film, I got to start shooting 4x5 at less than $800. I didn't have to buy a sturdier tripods and other LF goodies, thanks to its integral focussing hood and lightweight.

iain coghill , February 15, 1999; 09:01 A.M.

FYI. Teamwork photo in here London (http://www.teamworkphoto.co.uk/) claim:

"Fuji Quickload. Quickload film now available in Black and White, E6 and C41 - We have them all in stock."

I am not a user so I cannot comment on price or whatever.

Scott Gant , February 16, 1999; 12:51 P.M.

I think that the camera's that Phil has mentioned are WAY too overpriced. I'm talking WAY WAY WAY overpriced.

The beauty of large format is that the camera itself is not the main point in taking the picture. A Bender view camera kit that costs $300 has the exact same quality of image that the most expensive Sinar or Linhof if using the same lens. Yes, the Sinar and Linhof is much easier to control and adjust than the Bender...but they don't magically enhance the image striking the film holder.

Don't be fooled into believing that you must buy these expensive cameras to get into large format photography. Toyo, Wisner, Cambo all make excellent and complete camera systems that won't rake you over the coals in terms of price.

Chris Grantham , April 30, 1999; 10:21 P.M.

As far as the film costs mentioned above, what I've seen mentioned is around $2 an exposure for developing. It doesn't have to be that way. The only pro lab anywhere around my area is of the sort that are so obscure they're tucked into an alley and you have to know someone to find it.

I asked one of the local pro photogs, "Hey, Jerry. Do you use Custom downtown?" His response? "Jim? Sure, I use Jim, but only when I need it done right."

They charge $5 for 6 sheets of 4x5 and also do prints up to 20x30" (color) and 16x20" (b&w). I've never used them for LF stuff, but that's dirt cheap, and they are VERY good at everything they do. Check out their website and see for yourself - the owner practically dares you to be more picky than he.

Custom Photo
Pullman, WA 99163

Sean Yates , June 17, 1999; 03:36 P.M.

I don't think Phil has to worry about being crucified, or even drawn and quartered, BUT...

I'm not sure what he means by "simple Polaroid" not being available in 8 X 10? I know of at least two emulsions, 1 color and 1 B&W that Polaroid makes for this format. The Calumet Polaroid processor is a boon to using Polaroid less expensively than the Polaroid electric processor and it's portable. While it does cost more than a 545i, well, so does everything in 8 X 10 - BUT IT DOESN'T HAVE TO!

Chrome and color neg may be dauntingly expensive, but Freestyle sells Arista B&W for $37.95 (as of 6/17/99) for 25 sheets.

I got two 8 X 10's, 1 with new bellows, 1 case, 1 5 X 7 reduction back, five 5 X 7 holders for $1700.00. My holders cost 25.00 - 30.00 ea. A friend recently got an 8 X 10 in Ex++ condition with a case, two holders, a custom 4 X 5 reduction back, a 12" 6.8 Gold Rim Dagor (which can be had for as "little" as $700.00 sometimes) and a lensboard with a Universal Iris Clamp for $ 1650.00! THE DEALS ARE OUT THERE! My lenses cost as much as $400.00 and as little as $250.00. Obviously they're not multi-coated Super Symmar's but they'll do the job on my budget. It doesn't have to cost a lot if you shop smart and bide your time. Many of this century's most famous images were made with gear most folks would scorn. Of course we all want the best, but many of us can't afford that. It's better to be out making images than to sit at home and wait for the day you can afford modern glass or whatever. O.k. sorry for my rant...

sheldon hambrick , June 25, 1999; 04:07 P.M.

"Many of this century's most famous images were made with gear most folks would scorn. Of course we all want the best, but many of us can't afford that. It's better to be out making images than to sit at home and wait for the day you can afford modern glass or whatever. O.k. sorry for my rant..." <p> Amen Sean!!! Now if I can just talk my wife into letting me have $230.00 for that 12" f6.8 Astrogon with "minor coating problems on the rear element"! Sean's right. I just got my first 8x10 a few days ago (Calumet C-1). My first lens will be a 19.75in Kodak process lens with a Packard shutter. It ain't a Super Symmar or a Nikkor SW, but it will get the job done till I can afford one. Now, let's see if I can get that $230.00.......

Philipp Salzgeber , July 25, 1999; 12:11 P.M.

The URL of the QuickDisc has changed to: http://www.salzgeber.at/disc/ The QuickDisc is a FREE large format photography tool for easy and accurate determination of exposure compensation when photographing small objects. You can download and print out a copy for yourself! Another free photography tool is now available for download: The Zone System Ruler http://www.salzgeber.at/disc/zone.html by Luca Paradisi

sorry for the inconvenience...

Philipp Salzgeber

Rod Fleming , August 29, 1999; 10:39 A.M.

While not wishing to get flamed, I'd like to make a couple of points about the choice of LF camera. First off, I certainly would not assume that it is necessary to buy new kit; in fact, there is a very great deal of good used equipment on the market, at least here in the UK, and though it is a couple of years since I was last in the States (New York) there seemed to be a good selection of stuff there too. You can basically half the cost by buying used carefully, even when we're talking about up-to-date kit.

Secondly, I take the point about the difficulty of setting up the standards accurately on a wooden field camera, but surely this is not a big issue when the camera is being used in the field, for which it is designed; if you're going to do architecture or technical stuff, then you really need a technical camera- say a Linhof Technica or comparible as a minimum. (Bear in mind that the Linhof is a pre-war design, and that all German designs were "liberated" by the Allies at the end of the War, so you'll find clones much more cheaply. In UK the best is the MPP Mk8- great machine; I think Speed Graphic in the States) But if you're doing landscape or fine art photography, the wooden field camera will be fine.

A lightweight camera can be affected by wind, it's true. I use a string (net) shopping bag which can be filled with stones (found at the location) and hung from the tripod. That stiffens things up. For outdoors you really need a focussing cloth which can be attached to the camera - sew a turn along one side of the cloth and then feed through a length of elastic- draw it tight around the back of the camera and tie it off, or better still, tie a hook to one end and an eye to the other. Focussing cloths for outdoor use should be white on one side and black on the other- for reasons of heat protection.

As an aside, if you use a wooden field camera, you must realise that it is made using the same methods as fine musical instruments, and it will react similarly to sudden changes in heat and humidity. Your car may have aircon, but the boot(trunk) won't, and in an extreme climate you'll soon have trouble with glue failure etc. Just be careful. Also, most modern manufacturers of wooden cameras finish them in lacquer, to show off the wood; this is not ideal, as it affords little or no UV protection to the wood, which will sooner or later suffer. I'm not suggesting you should paint your new pride and joy, but make a point- whether your camera is wooden or not- of leaving the focussing cloth draped over it, white side out, whenever you leave it in the sun.

Also be aware that in the lens market, there are many fine older lenses around which have great qualities of their own. Unless you need a fast lens with really large image circle, you'll save a great deal of weight and money by buying a simpler lens- often an older one. For example, the Schneider Symmar has been around for decades and is a cracker, has a big image circle, comes in a range of prime focal lengths, and will even give you 2 focal lengths, simply by removing the front element group. Excellent for the field operator, and an older ones in really good condition start at about #150 in UK- say $250 USD. In addition, there are even older lenses which have simple or no coatings- these can produce a really wonderful quality; just don't try to take pictures right into the light! For example, I have an uncoated pre-war Voigtlander 135mm in a Compur- it is ferociously sharp and has a really lovely quality to its image. In addition, it has a very large image circle (though suffering from coma if you push it too far), but is nevertheless very compact and light. I think I picked it up for #15 or so- under $25, say.

Any 10x8 metal cameras I've used have been far too heavy to lug about, but you could easily go up to 10x8 in wooden construction.

Consider this; if you are presently using 35mm or medium format, your enlarger probably won't take a 5x4 neg- so you have to add the cost of a new enlarger. I know mono 5x4 enlargers are not too expensive- secondhand- but they're still quite costly, and are huge. You may well decide that it makes more sense to buy new or used (or build from a kit) a wooden 10x8 camera and do your prints by contact (you can do colour by using your present colour enlarger as the light source and changing the filtration as normal). The saving you'll make in up-front purchase cost will go a long way to making up for the increased materials cost of the larger format!

I agree about the advantages of the monorail for studio use, but you can get these used in good condition as well.

Great idea for a page BTW



Peter Mikalajunas , September 17, 1999; 03:34 A.M.

On the whole, a nice introduction. However, I have to disagree on a couple of points.

From your lens choices, I can see where you would have trouble packing in a 4x5. The modern XL lenses are wonderful! Some say they are the ultimate in lens crafting since the invention of photography. With that, I can't argue. I do know that they are very heavy and add more than a bit of weight. They are also very expensive.

For some alternatives, especially for the landscape photographer, I would suggest the following kit. A 90mm Wollensack Raptar for wide angle work or a 90mm Schneider Angulon. A 135mm Optar or 150mm Xenotar for normal work. A 210mm/370mm Schneider Symmar Convertible. So, altogether, the weight of the lenses are slightly more than a 1 pound.

For the 8x10 user, a Turner Reich triplet is a good choice for B&W work. Also, many of the older Artar and Dagor lenses are good choices here.

Given the above lenses, I have no trouble back-packing a Wisner Classic, about 6 pounds, with tripod, holders, etc. The total kit comes in under 20 pounds.

Philip Greenspun , October 07, 1999; 02:03 P.M.

The 20x24" view camera is seldom seen these days but is still useful for Polaroid work.

David Hedley , March 06, 2000; 02:26 A.M.

In Japan at least, an 80ASA Fuji Neopan Commercial black and white film is available in Quickload format. Similar to Kodak's Technical Pan, it can be treated as either a high or low contrast emulsion, depending on exposure rating and development. I haven't tried the higher contrast, but it responds well in Rodinal 1:50, with sharpness comparable to TMax100. I suppose that at a higher contrast rating it would be a good way to get to N+2, or something similar. In addition to this film, there are other Fuji black and white roll and sheet film which may be unique to the Japanese market ; e.g. in 4x5 sheets, Neopan 100 and 400 (I've only tried the 100, which is very good, and am waiting for Yodobashi to get some of the 400 in stock), and in rolls, Neopan F (ISO32), Neopan SS (ISO100), Neopan 400 and 1600. All of the data sheets are in Japanese only. It would be interesting if Fuji would license Quickload to other manufacturers, e.g. Ilford, so that their films were also available in this very convenient form.

R.P. Ramus , June 26, 2001; 07:35 A.M.

I can't agree more that Sinar is the best way to start out in large format in the U.S.A. because it is so widely available and rentable. Sinar is material perfection and they have it figured out to a fault. Also it is built to last so anything you buy will have high resale value if you upgrade. The Sinar F1 worked very well for me from my car and is so precise and easy to set up that there is no reason to use any other brand. I have since purchased a Sinar F2 because I like the strength of the front standard better and the fine focus is not to be disregarded either.The F2 also has individual lockup for all controls and this is very very important. The Sinar X or P2 would be even nicer but just over kill in field in comparison to the F2. I feel totally comfortable with the system and Sinar makes it easy to do repeat setups because of the fine markings and zero detents. Everyone should be so lucky as to start out with an F1 or F2, it will spoil you and you wont be happy with anything else. No fooling around with Sinar, you just jump in and get to work immediately. Like flying a 747 right off the factory tarmack. Get one and you'll love it and never look back. R Ramus June 27, 2001

Martin Pistor , June 05, 2002; 01:58 P.M.

Nice to find a forum, that at least features a little bit of large format work. To comment your Choosing a Large Format Camera hints I got just two points: -Today a lot of pros sell away their large format gear. I don`t argue this decision. The essence is, there is a load of 2nd hand gear on the market. So before spending 3000-4000$ for a Sinar X it`s worth looking at ebay i.e.. I found a P 5x7 with additional 4x5 back and WA Bellows for 1250,- Euro in Germany. For I do agree, the Sinar stuff, and especially the P series is nearly undestroyable, it`s totally different to look for a worn out old cambo. And its good to know, you get replacements i.e. for the gearing parts with no hassle. My P is certainly not a better camera than an X, and oc a little heavier, but less than half the price. -About choice depending on location: In town, I changed from using a car to using a bike. Great improvement: I never have to get rid of the car somewhere near the location (migth be really tricky) an then walk some 100 meters. I just stop where I want to shoot. With a little intelligence in packing it`s no problem to take my P outdoors. I didn`t believe it before I tried. Cheers Martin

adrian schafgans , August 14, 2002; 12:16 A.M.

Hot or cold wear a long U.S navy issue raincoat dark blue/dark cloth. Any camera will do small or large,I use a 8x10 dorff that has been accidently dropped by the original owner so he could sell it to me cheap. I use outdated film. I like it at least 5-8 years old (cheap and plenty). Dinky lenses with no shutters are best but I have been known to use a wide field ektar/ protar/ pinhole/ bottleglass/.I have had many accidental masterpieces (and a bottle of John Powers Irish whiskey never hurt the creative juices). Who am I???????

michael notar , March 01, 2003; 02:24 A.M.

the size of a LF camera is a big consideration. there are big and heavy and ackward, but worth 10x the trouble. also check out horseman and toyo, very good and there are many items avaible for rental. i have a schneider 210/5.6 symmar and 90 /5.6 sup ang XL, increadly glass. it also jsut got a caltar 360/6.8 N II, seems very nice so far. calumet (caltar) lens are cheap and good glass (rodenstock lenses with their name on it). the kodak ready load system, single sheet, is fine, just treat the film with care, for good results. use it only in single sheet readyload back, not in polaroid 545i back. in polaroid back they fog to the point where the image cant be used at all, the whole image. i have heard fugi is very good glass, but i have not used them. i have a bunch of rite way and fidelity elite holders and can not see any differances between them. they look identicle. the pop up changing bags are very bad for dust! use holders or ready loads. the following is not true : "After you've gotten tired of Kodak's incompetently-designed system, you switch to Fuji Quickload." they are both very very very similiar systems. just learn how to use them and you will ok. it me a few boxes of 20 readyloads to get use to them. they are not industructable or close to that. treat them with care and be gentle and you will be fine. Provia 100 is a great film. esp. Prova 100F! the vast majority of students at Brooks Insitute of photography use it! use kodak 64T not the fugi, kodak has much more neutral color and better reciciprocity. the sekonic L-508 meter is great and is worth every penny! to determine bellows exp comp use this fail safe system. tconvert your lens focal lengh to inches.fiind the f stop that corresponds with this lenght. measure bellows ext. find this number on the f stop scale. the differance between the 2 numbers is the bellows exp comp. example with an 8 inch lens (210mm) with 11 in bellows, F8 to F11 is a 1 stop, so bellows exp comp= 1 stop. or if 10 ine xt, exp comp= 2/3 stop etc. polaroid film for 4x5 is great! i shoot it by the boxfull. i easily shoot 20-30 4x5 polaroids in a 3 hour studio shoot.

John Smith , February 24, 2004; 11:03 P.M.

May I recommend an interesting book for reference titled "Medium and Large Format Photography" ISBN 0-8174-4557-9. This text is packed full of LF characteristics described above from studio to field cameras, films, backs, lenses, tri-pods and, from entry level cheap, to top-of-the-line expensive. A good reference.

Stuart Saxonberg , January 09, 2007; 05:52 P.M.

Someday I'll get a real 4x5", but for now I just have a 6x9cm Crown Graphic with a 6x6cm roll back... and I can't help but think Bernd has an excellent point, at least for people not willing to jump straight in, or who don't have darkrooms.

Tilt and macro work alone make the Graphic cameras useful; not as versatile as a real view camera, but more than you'll get anywhere else without a tilt/shift lens.

Of course, a Super Graphic has more movements than a Crown or Speed, but they're commensurately more expensive.

On the plus side, all the Graflex cameras fold down very compact, and are very sturdy, especially when folded.

Jim Young , March 13, 2007; 05:42 P.M.

Wood 4X5 cameras can't hold a set. Balls! Even a Shen Hao for what it is (an inexpensive wood camera) does a very good job. I've had two of the recomended monorails, and right now I'm waiting for an Ebony to be delivered. I guess those who can't do; teach...but I don't mean all teachers, that wouldn't be fair. Cheers.

Alan Rockwood , May 05, 2007; 01:42 A.M.


What venom comes from your pen, and not just in this thread either. How about leaving out the destructive comments, and just stick with the useful ones?

Brent Long , May 09, 2007; 09:43 A.M.

Perhaps, Bruce, you could have risen above the stench of "mediocrity" (subjective, might I point out...) without the venom??? Just a thought.

Louie Neilson , January 03, 2008; 09:18 P.M.

Hell-o Can someone tell what type of view camera and lens Ansel Adams used?



chris burgess , January 05, 2008; 06:23 P.M.

Yes, I agree, time to update; I just bought a Toyo GII and Caltar II N 210 lens, and a 120 graflex back for $660. New, it would be a $3500 proposition. Sinar, Schminar. Also bought a nice '50's retro Toyo 5x7 field camera, factory modded for 4x5 for $570. Both cameras, just like new. Can't wait to get an enlarger.

jaco van lith , April 18, 2008; 06:27 P.M.

What about wooden tripods, made by Berlebach (Germany)? Very good quality. Different types.

jaco van lith , April 18, 2008; 06:33 P.M.

What about wooden tripods made by BERLEBACH (Germany). Different types. Excellent quality, stability and price.

John Green , April 03, 2009; 06:21 A.M.

IR from Flagstaff, AZ

I have had good luck with my old Toyo G it is a centermount, (did not see anyone mention the difference) which is where the lensboard tilts from the center of the lens as compared to the lensboard being tilted forward and back from a hinge at the bottom of the lensboard, requiring a lot of refocusing. I had no problems loading it into my Backpack and carting it a mile or so into the Verde Valley in Northern AZ mountains. I had great luck with my old Schneider 360 that I purchased through the old Exite Classifieds for $150! I also use Rodenstock 210 Macro and 65 WA. I have about 15 Elite 4x5 film holders and a Polaroid back. (I have no problem loading them in my bathroom or a walk in closet at a hotel). I also had some problems with the Kodak bulk loads. Now I have discovered all the Kodak films I would dream of using have been discontinued. Boo Hoo no more Techpan @ ISO 12. I have had good luck with Fuji Velvia, and ASTIA, (now at ISO 100 in 135 &120 & 4x5). the professors I had at Northern AZ Univ swore by Provia. Personally I found Provia to be rather flat in saturation compared to Velvia or Astia. I do not even look at Kodak color products anymore. Anyone that used PRN (Pro 100 Color neg) knows why. Most of my work has been in IR and I have had some good results with MACCO. Much finer grain than Kodak HIE with great surrealistic effects.

I am real happy with my Bogen 3036 with a 3047 head. I have used my 4x5 as high as 6' (using a stepladder lol) with no stability problems.

As far as light meters go, I usually have good luck using the meter in my 35 mm Canon EOS 1N. in Manual spot mode

Another item I did not see mentioned was filters, I was taught "why spend $400 to $3000 for great quality Glass then cover it with a cheap plastic filter?" I have had good luck with B+W and Heliopan (I always buy 83mm Diameter with a lot of adapter rings, so it will fit on my largest lens... as well as smallest.

I firmly believe a photographer must learn to work with film before digital.

Jeff Schear , February 16, 2010; 11:28 P.M.

I agree, in college we learned how to work with film before we learned digital. Very beneficial



Jason Stoller , May 22, 2010; 12:02 A.M.

I also agree that the best path is to learn use film before digital as well. That process would have a Huge Impact on the spray and pray shooters.  People might understand the importance of a hand held light meter.  Its amazing to me how many people who call themselves photographers lack the knowledge to use both a light meter and are clueless when it comes to setting up studio lights properly. 

Looks like I am kind of going backwards as I get older.  This week I started seriously shooting a Hassy 201F I bought a couple of years ago and I am currently waiting the arrival of my first LF Camera.   Sunday I will be shooting my Digital camera at the local High School Graduation as I have been asked to do for several years.  My progression has been from around age 8 using a Brownie first and finally 45 years later making the final step to a Large Format camera.  Maybe its my age, but I really thing the opportunity I am taking at this time has to do with the low prices on Large Format gear and my desire to take the next step that will allow me to explore the creativity that a Large Format camera has to offer.  Many people think that film and film camera's are dead, but I beg the differ.  I think those who are seriously study the art of photography understand its value.

Although I doubt Phil remembers we bumped heads in one of the forums over 10 years ago, but I have to say I respect him and really appreciate his comments and perspective on things.  I also appreciate his story and relationship with George his beloved and remembered companion and dog. 

I have been fortunate enough to travel not only the US, but several countries abroad, and although I am certainly not famous, I have been lucky enough to  published many times, and even have had my photography used and shown on a national television program.  I am not shooting for myself, and my venture to Large Format photography gives me an opportunity to learn, study, and experiment which is what I feel keeps photography fun and exciting.

Jason Stoller

The is a famous American architectural photographer named Ezra Stoller who grew up in Chicago just like I did.  As far as I know I am not related but I do aspire to learn to be as competent as he was with his photography.


Kelly Beard , December 21, 2010; 02:10 P.M.

Nice article.  Needs some updating as certain films (Readyload & Quickload) are discontinued and the Polaroid 545 back is obsolete for now unless the Impossible Project takes off.

Peter Sanders , December 29, 2010; 08:31 P.M.

To: Author(s)

Concerning: Table of contents

Reader's Comments<</a> needs the &lt;&lt;/a deleted if it wasn't supposed to look like an "end link" tag at the end.

david fkin , March 25, 2011; 08:16 A.M.

HELP!! I have just purchased an Ultra Large Format Overhead Process Camera by Brown & Admiral. It is their #1, Model # 3131 OH-SD-PB, Serial # 31928, w/ Extension Back, approx. 30 year’s old, 4’ x 10’ vacuum & copy board and back light and in working condition. I AM LOOKING FOR DOCUMENTATION, MANUALS, ETC.

Thanks, David - drfkin@aol.com / 810.357.5608

Image Attachment: fileidHNST.jpg

Feodor Defemina , February 24, 2014; 04:52 P.M.

No large format survey is complete without Ebony, a rigid, lightweight, technically advanced camera. 

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