Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
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"
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.
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
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.
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
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....