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Sinar A1 4x5 View Camera

by Hamish Reid, 1995


The Sinar A1 is Sinar's cheap (US $850) 4x5 introductory or beginner's version of the F1 (being, in fact, the F1 in all but name, rail, and rail attachments, as far as I can tell). Sinar sells it with a four year full price-back arrangement if you trade up to a more expensive Sinar model; you also get a reasonable case for the A1 included in the price (the case also fits lenses, spare bellows, and backs in with the body).

The A1 has friction movements and geared rear focusing; the movements are roughly 70mm rise/fall and shift, at least 35 degrees swing and (base) tilt (all figures for each standard). The A1 has an easy-to-use tilt, swing, and depth of field / f-stop calculator built in. Bellows are fully interchangeable (and come in three increasingly wide-angle models). The film back is not rotatable, but is easily taken out and put back vertically or horizontally without much fuss. Maximum bellows extension is with the standard rail is 19"; there is also a 6" rail extension available. Minimum extension is a function of lens rear element size when using the wide angle bellows. The rail attaches to both 1/4" and 3/8" screw mounts.

Sinar provide a few pricey accesories like binocular reflex viewing hoods, etc, but third party accesories like the Calumet roll film back, filter holders, lens shades, etc. work well with the Sinar (it's worth remembering too that Horseman accesories and lensboards generally fit Sinar models).

The setup I used included:

  • Sinar A1 4x5 body (new)
  • Normal and wide-angle bellows (new)
  • Nikkor 180mm/f5.6 "W" series lens (new)
  • Schneider 90mm/f8 lens (rented)
  • Sinar lensboard safety catch thing (new)
  • Sinar binocular reflex viewing hood (rented)
  • Polaroid 545 back (rented)
  • Calumet C2N roll film back (new)
  • Bogen 3036 tripod and 3029 head.

The rented items were from Gasser's in San Francisco.

In summary, the A1 is a nice way to get into 4x5 if you don't mind either getting third party accessories or can put up with Sinar's prices ($2,200 for a roll film back?). The A1 is light, strong, has adequate movements, is easy to use, and produces good results. I have only minor criticisms, all of which are covered in a later paragraph.

Oh, and it also attracts curious crowds wherever you go....

Background & Uses

I was relatively new to large format photography when I decided to buy the Sinar. At the time (several years ago now...), I'd been using a Pentax 6x7 for several years, and while I liked the 6x7's sharp and essentially grain-free results, I needed movements - especially front standard rise and tilt -- for the various streetscapes and landscapes I do.

Most of my large-format photography is either landscapes (urban, desert, California's Central Valley, mountains, etc.), architecture, or high art (the usual nonsense). I did not want to use it much for portraits or commercial still-life / product stuff, but I didn't want to pre-empt this either.

Likes

So what did I like about the A1? In no particular order:

  • Price, availablitity, and support - last year I almost bought the cheap Calumet 45NX (then US $599), but lost my nerve. When it came to do it again, the Calumet had increased in price to about $700, and I couldn't try it before buying it. So the A1 with case and money-back upgrade seemed more attractive this time. In the end, though, what made me go with the Sinar was really the store support here - I walked into Gasser's and they cheerfully let me play with the body (and several lenses, etc.) for an hour or two - no rush - and were happy to talk about the pros and cons of the various options. They knew a lot about it, and they're only a cheap phone call or short drive away from here. (I also played with one of the Horseman models at Gasser's, but it was hideously expensive; I also got to look at the Technikarden, but that was really only to get a feel for how the other half live).
  • Sturdiness and light weight - this body is light (about 3Kg, I think), which is important out in the field. This lightness is not a function of flimsiness - the body's been thrown into the back of a car many times already, and survived being roughly handled.
  • The interchangeable components (bellows, backs, lensboards, etc.) all fitted together well and generally worked well together. The various methods for attaching backs, etc. have a high quality feel to them, and seem to work. Things "click" (metaphorically and really) into place. Reminds me a bit of the Hasselblad, but maybe not quite so nice (nor as foolproof, much to my chagrin).
  • The DOF and tilt caclulators - these seem to be a good idea, and appear to have worked so far, but see some of the comments below about them. In general, they're easy to use and (if you trust them) almost automatic after a while.
  • Smooth movements (except for rise and fall - see below). In general, all the movements feel smooth and are easy to use.
  • The geared rear fine focus is nice.
  • The case was a pleasant surprise - I'd expected to spend another few hundred dollars or so on a case, but it came with the unit. The case is actually useful, and fits pretty much what I needed - roll film back, extra lens, etc. while also storing the body with rail and lens attached.

Other Points / Hints

  • Sinar sells a little claw / hook sort of thing to stop the lensboard falling off the front standard when you pull the lensboard detach lever (clearly I can't remember its real name).

    This is worth its weight in gold (and it only costs about $16) - it's remarkably easy to pull the lever unintentionally when you meant to pull the bellows release lever or without getting a good grip on the lensboard - and this little accesory has saved my skin already. I leave mine on all the time.

  • The binocular reflex hood was worth renting, if not buying ($700...). It's a lot of help in urban settings where speed is essential; it works well outdoors with the brighter subjects even without a fresnel lens. Frankly, I'm still having trouble with an image that is both upside-down and laterally reversed, so the hood helped a lot with this too.
  • This is not so much a Sinar design problem as brain failure on my part, but I can't believe the number of times I've forgotten to lock the back standard coarse focus, meaning I stand there fine-focusing back and forth for a while wondering why nothing's changing as the focus bed moves up and down the rail leaving the rear standard motionless.

Detailed Peeves

Again, in no particular order:

  • The front and back rise and fall are often "sticky" and difficult to use smoothly. This is not a function of the bellows getting in the way (comparable shifts work well, but the bellows do make a difference in some cases), but of the design - the posts rise and fall through a mechanism that seems designed to make it hard to move without a lot of effort, meaning you nearly always over-shoot. The standard detents are also far too easy to miss as you blunder up and down. The back standard rise / fall lock is also a bit difficult to use, being too hard to lock / unlock (the front version is fine). This does all get better with time and practice, and I've pretty much mastered the art of getting just the right rise out of the mechanism on demand, but it's still irritating - especially since front rise is by far the most common movement I use at the moment.
  • The rail / tripod attachment mechanism is primitive and doesn't inspire much confidence. It's always worked, and appears to work OK, but it's sort of hard to trust this flimsy-looking sliding square of aluminium to hold your vast investment safely on top of the tripod. It's also an awful fiddle to attach to the tripod head because it slides too easily in the rail, meaning it always disappears one way or another as you try to mate it to the thread on the tripod head. Yes, I need to buy a better head attachment. One day....
  • It's far too easy to accidentally swing the rear standard when putting film backs in. The rear standard swing/shift lock needs to be really tight before you open the back - and I mean really tight. This gets to be routine after a while, but I initially spent a lot of time refocusing due to this - and getting even more annoyed when my tightening the swing lock caused the tripod head itself to rotate. A real comedy of errors for the spectator....
  • Shift and swing adjustments use the same lock on each standard, making it a bit too easy to change both when you only meant to change one.

    Additionally, there's no zero detent on the front or rear standard shift movements (but the swings have zero detents). The movements themselves are nice and smooth, but you can't judge whether they're centred without looking at the scale; this is a pain for front standard shifts.

  • You might not like the base tilts (yes, you have to refocus). This hasn't fazed me much, but I don't have any experience with axial tilts, so I can't really comment.
  • The trade-up offer may not be as useful as it looks. Given that a) the A1 is an F1 (and almost an F2) in all but name and rails, and b) the first Sinar with fully-geared movements costs somewhere around $3-6,000, if you're looking to get something better after the A1 / F1 / F2, you might be better off going with the cheaper Calumet, Toyo or even Horseman geared models rather than the Sinar, particularly if you want geared movements. This makes me a little wary about buying Sinar accesories (like the binocular reflex lens hood I covet). On the other hand, I can't see myself trading up anyway - I never seem to get rid of old camera gear, and the A1 looks like it has a long useful life ahead of it.

Sinar certainly seem to concentrate on the high end and digital market (i.e. over $10,000 per basic body). I've got to admit that I like what I've seen of these high end Sinars, but I'll never be able to afford them....


Copyright © 1994, 1995 Hamish Reid. All Rights Reserved.

Article created 1995

Readers' Comments


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Jerry Flynn , March 06, 1997; 08:16 P.M.

I recently purchased an a1 demo from a local at a discount: teir most recent Sinar pricelist indicates the a1 is discontinued.

Philip Greenspun , August 09, 1997; 08:43 A.M.

I used a Sinar F2 for many years. The system is wonderfully transparent to use and has some special features I've never seen on any other view cameras, e.g., mechanical calculators to figure the proper lensboard or back tilt angle.

My one complaint with my Sinar was that I wasn't using it very much. It tended to stay in the studio because it was so cumbersome to transport. Now I use a Linhof Master Technica which folds up into an expensive little cube. I often miss the controls of the Sinar, though. There is just no substitute for a studio monorail view camera (maybe a Linhof Technikardan comes close?).

Agnius Griskevicius , September 24, 1997; 06:02 P.M.

I use one at school, and the biggest gripe so far has been the lack of individual controls for tilt/shift. The same tention lock locks both, and it is quite anoying to have all your tilting to spring back to default when you decide that you need to shift the back. Beyond that the camera is quite useable. However, if I was buing a view camera, I would make sure there are seperate control locks for all the movements.

Agnius Griskevicius

Matt Hill , December 26, 1997; 11:46 P.M.

The Sinar A1 is discontinued as of February, 1997. However, they are still in stock at Sinar Bron Imaging, NJ.

Donald Becker , January 26, 1998; 12:40 P.M.

I must say that I disagree with the comments about both the Sinar A1 and about the Zone VI camera, both on this web site. I looked at a Sinar A1 camera several years ago and actually had it sent to me using the educators discount they were offering (since I am Associate Director of the Washington School of Photography, Bethesda,MD; ) After looking and trying, I decided it was not sturdy enough (not nearly as sturdy as the other Sinars), even for personal use. I returned it. I have since purchased a used Zone VI wood 4x5 cmaera, and find it sturdy, convenient, lightweight for field use, and very reliable.

Don Becker Silver Spring, MD (http://www.tidalwave.net/~dbecker/photo.html)

David Gabbé , April 02, 1999; 09:25 P.M.

Re: comment about tripod mounting. Really Right Stuff makes a quick release system that is joy to use. I have one of the plates on my 4x5 and it works easily & flawlessly.

Fabio Bustamante , January 21, 2001; 09:49 P.M.

I'm a amateur photographer and I don't own a large format camera so I must say that some of these reviews are lacking good pictures of the camera itself! I read the reviews and I don't know what are you talking about, if the handcaps mentioned are important, etc.

flossie barnes , August 29, 2006; 04:27 P.M.

I have a 210mm lens for this camera if you would like to purchase it....contact urcmphoto3@pres.admin.unt.edu and we can discuss prices

larry vaughn , December 04, 2007; 11:54 P.M.

8 comments in 10 years shows how many people are interested in these cameras today. The F-1 is a good field camera and is quite inexpensive now used.

Mario Henriquez , February 28, 2008; 06:06 P.M.

Well, I am interested. I have been reading about these cameras because I would like to perhaps own one. But either I miss that information or it's not there at all, but am I understanding this right and each copy or each "roll" of film costs $2000? Please keep the information coming. Thanks. (Are these cameras digital or just film? Also, what's the difference between a field and a view camera?)


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