What Is It About Large-Format Cameras?

Why Pros Choose View Cameras for the Big Picture


   "I don't just like working with a view camera—I love it!" is the sentiment expressed by virtually every photographer interviewed for this article. Not only do they have a passion for large-format photography, they are totally brand-loyal.
   As we know, images captured with a view camera have negatives that produce prints with unsurpassed tonal range, sharpness, and extra-fine grain quality. And although it's possible today to get the same "look" digitally, well, it's just not the same thing. But why are view cameras the sine qua non for many photographers?
   "It's very simple," states Steven Inglima, Horseman product manager. "You can buy the world's most expensive 35mm camera with a fancy zoom lens, or a beautiful medium-format camera that takes excellent-quality pictures. But until you can take the lens and tilt, shift, or somehow change how the image is presented to the film, it's still a snapshot."
   As fine arts photographer John Sexton sees it, "When choosing a view camera, you find something that's right, then you establish a relationship with it. When I teach, I talk about learning to drive a view camera; it's a lot like learning to drive a car—especially a stick shift. Your first experience with a clutch and a stick was probably not very smooth. But when you get into your car now and fire it up, you don't think about depressing the clutch. You just go. It's the same with a view camera. It's a manual shift transmission, with gears and levers and dials and knobs."
   Although large-format cameras have a great reputation as tabletop workhorses, they're used to record pretty much everything. Read on to discover why some of the pros have had a long-standing love affair with their view cameras . . .
From "Large Format Nature Photography" by Jack Dykinga 2001 Jack Dykinga. Amphoto Books, New York
   Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Jack Dykinga (www.dykinga.com), perhaps best known for his wilderness advocacy books, including Desert: the Mojave and Death Valley and Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau, documents (and preserves) the landscape with an Arca Swiss F field camera fitted with a Horseman 6x12 panoramic back.
   Dykinga has just completed Large Format Nature Photography (Amphoto Books), a user-friendly guide to large-format photography, to be published in October.
   "The Arca Swiss F field camera combines the rigidity of a full-blown studio monorail with the lightweight, tapered bellows of a field camera," says Dykinga.
   "It has the ability, because it's a monorail, to loosen and tighten up a scene without moving the tripod. I can slide the monorail forward and back, which is really important for close-up work. It's as sturdy as some of the big, heavy cameras, but lighter than the Linhof, and about the same weight as a Toyo field camera. I like it because I always use the rear controls on a camera. I focus with the standard forward instead of the lens back. With the traditional field camera, the bellows always goes out and away from the film. I move the film away from the lens, the other way."
Dancing Lady, 1988 © Rod Dresser
   The fine arts imagery of Rod Dresser (www.roddresser.com)—who was once a special assistant to Ansel Adams and business manager for the Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust—may be seen in The Weston Gallery in Carmel, Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco, and galleries in Tokyo and Washington, D.C. Dresser primarily works with the Cambo Ultima D, a 4x5 designed for use with film and digital imaging backs.
   "I love the Ultima D—it's the best camera I've ever used! Every movement of the Ultima is geared and it's very user-friendly. I can manipulate the camera to get what I want out of it, but most of all the camera doesn't come between the subject matter and me, so I can just concentrate on the image.
   Dresser also uses the Cambo 8x10 Legend. "Because a lot of the movements are not geared and have to be hand-operated, it takes a little longer to make the adjustments and get the precise focusing. But it's a good camera that I use in the studio, mostly for my ballet series, when I'm a little further away from the subject. I use both units for my flower project, but mostly the Ultima because it's such a beautiful camera." Dresser favors Rodenstock lenses—300 and 60mm for the 8x10—and a Fuji 180 on the 4x5, along with standard film holders.
© Neil Molinaro
   Although digital imaging has replaced some of the time-consuming work photographer Neil Molinaro (www.neilmolinaro.com) used to produce with a multitude of Sinar Bron ps and p2s, he still uses the cameras today for his commercial work. "I started using them more than 20 years ago," says Molinaro. "At that time, there was no other camera out there that had the modular system it had—and still has.
   "The reason I got into large-format was for the controlled movements. I was doing a lot of multiple exposures and multiple sets and using many cameras to create one image. I'd move from film to film to camera to camera to camera. The stability and locking mechanisms and the repeatability of the Sinar camera gave me what I needed. I'm no longer doing all that moving because the computer has quite simply taken over most of what I did with several sets, but I'm still doing large format and mostly still life commercial work . . . and I'm still using the same system I've built over the years. The cameras are totally contemporary."
©2001 Gregory Ross
/Ross Studio Inc.
   Greg Ross (www.ross-studio.com), who works a lot in the resort industry, says, "Ninety-seven percent of everything I photograph, from lifestyle to product to food to architecture, I shoot with a Horseman L series 4x5, even fashion, because I do more big-set designs as opposed to using a model on location and blasting away with 35mm. Ross uses a variety of Schneider lenses, including 75mm, 90mm, 120mm, 210mm, and 300mm.
   "I've been working with a Horseman camera for about 16 years. It's traveled the world with me and taken quite a beating. It's a very solid camera with accurate movements—both the swings and tilts. Everything is gauged and I can control my front and rear standards; I don't have to `guess-timate.' There are three rails, so I can put on a very short rail for extreme wide-angles. I can also change the bellows from standard to a bag, and break the whole system down, pack it up, and put in on a plane. For me, the beauty of the view camera is it doesn't outdate itself."
© platinum
photograph by
Gary Auerbach
   Portrait/architectural photographer Gary Auerbach (www.platinumphotographer.com) has been working extensively with Native Americans. "I'm documenting different tribes and establishing a collection of work that might ultimately lead to a project involving the same family groups Edward Curtis photographed some 100 years ago. This project would hopefully be funded by the Smithsonian and involve a five- to 10-year effort."
   Auerbach uses both a Wisner 8x10 Expedition field camera and a Wisner 11x14 Technical Field camera. "For close-up portraiture work, a long bellows extension is important. I need 30-plus inches of bellows," says Auerbach, "which not all view cameras have. I produce platinum prints, which are made by hand-coating watercolor paper with a platinum-palladium emulsion and making contact prints. I'm not actually enlarging. I also have 4x5 reducing backs so I can shoot a 4x5-inch size negative (with Polaroid 55 film). I generally use a 450 Nikkor M lens—which covers 8x10 and 11x14 when there aren't a lot of extreme movements—a 250 wide field Commercial Ektar, and a 24-inch Artar lens."
© 1995 Joseph Deiss
   Joseph Deiss (www.josephdeiss.com) is a Deardorff die-hard who works with an 8x10 field camera. "I like it because it's 8x10, made of wood, and I can disassemble it into a million pieces (actually, 216 pieces when fully disassembled). It can be put on a tripod or a stand, it folds into a box, and it's portable. I use it for everything from the trumpets to architectural work to portraiture.
   "The Deardorff presents a great many challenges when doing architectural and product photography because it's a bit harder to control the perspective and depth of field. When I shot the trumpet I had to control the perspective and the focus in two directions, because the bell is closer to the camera than the mouthpiece, and the camera is looking down on the instrument. It doesn't have the movements of, say, a Sinar or a Wisner, but it's such a simple, elegant camera, and I love it. My dream is to use the 20x24 Polaroid . . ." Deiss uses a 330mm Wollensack lens (vintage 1950, uncoated) and a 240mm Schneider G Clarion F9 240mm.
© 2000 Stacy Apikos-Boge for
Estée Lauder's "Surface"
   Stacy Apikos-Boge would agree with Deiss that using the Polaroid 20x24 is a dream come true. "I do photo-documentary, portraiture, and fashion. The advantage and beauty of using Polaroid is its immediacy. I can alter the color and experiment. It allows for accidents—which I believe in, in art. The manipulation comes from exposure time, lens, lighting. There's a real honesty with it."
   Apikos-Boge used the 20x24 for a recent Estée Lauder campaign promoting a new men's skin care line called "Surface" (see image at right). "I thought because the packaging was so modern that I'd take what was going on in the fashion/music world and show more skin—photographing very close-up portraits of men without their shirts. The 20x24 was the only camera I could use to get an actual reproduction of the models' faces. After the campaign, Estée Lauder put the prints in its art collection. Apikos-Boge also shot for Vera Wang on the 20x24 camera after Wang saw her Lauder images.
   "There's this whole experience that goes on between the photographer and the sitter—whoever you're photographing has to remain perfectly still because the lens is an eyelash away. It's truly a collaborative process between the photographer and this incredible piece of machinery. There's a group of people in there helping me to create these images. John Reuter, who operates the 20x24 camera, is the one who helps `stretch the canvas' so I can `apply the paint.' I only have one chance to make sure everything is right."
© 1977 John Sexton. All rights reserved.
   John Sexton (www.johnsexton.com) has been working with Linhof cameras for about 20 years now, photographing primarily the natural environment and landscape. His most recent book, Places of Power, features natural as well as high technology, man-made subjects, including the U.S. Space Shuttle and Hoover Dam. Sexton photographs with both the Linhof Technika 2000 and the Technikardan S 9x12 (4x5).
   "My experience with Linhof goes back to the 1980s, when I started with a model 4," states Sexton, "which I purchased used and refurbished myself. I fell in love with the camera. I also had a Master Technika, which is now called the Classic. For fieldwork, where I'm taking the camera quite a distance, the smaller, lighter, more compact 2000 without the rangefinder is perfect. Many times," he continues, "when you have a compact 4x5 camera, you sacrifice some of the rigidity and precision you might expect in a larger, monorail camera. The Technika 2000 has proven to be the best blend of a relatively lightweight camera with precision and rigidity. And when it's folded up into its little package, it's well protected. It's also a versatile camera because I can use it with very wide and long lenses. I have one Schneider 50mm lens and one Fuji, a 450mm. All lenses today are of exceptional quality, but I've never been anything but thrilled with my Nikon lenses."
Large-Format Cameras: TechTalk

The Arca-Swiss F field 4x5 camera was designed for photographers who shoot our in the field, capturing landscape, architecture, and wildlife/nature images, etc. The camera provides all the qualities of the Arca-Swiss F classic 4x5. The front standard is 6x9, making it possible for the photographer to carry more lenses on small lens boards. The camera comes with the 38cm standard synthetic bellows and with a collapsible rail, which provides for a compact camera in transport. The 30cm rail becomes 15cm when collapsed. The camera can remain assembled on the rail, ready for use in seconds. It weighs about 3.2 kg without lenses. The bellows are available in wide-angle leather, 24cm, with 35-210mm focal length; standard synthetic, 38cm, with 150-300mm focal length; and long synthetic, 50cm, with 210- 480mm focal length. All Arca-Swiss models come with a fresnel lens and ground lens.

According to Calumet Photographic, Inc., the Ultima and Ultima D view cameras are designed specifically for digital imaging. The view camera's compact, aluminum construction features a depth adjustment mechanism that allows photographers to position the CCD chip of any high-end digital camera back (even smaller chips) precisely in the right location for maximum performance. This precise alignment of the chip plane prevents the center of the image from moving out of focus when using swing or tilt movements.

The cameras can be used for both traditional and digital photography, and offer precision geared focus, rise-and-fall, tilt, swing and lateral shifts. A dual-range focusing feature allows for both rapid coarse and precision fine focusing; a "virtual pivot" design provides yaw-free variable axis tilts. They convert to 8x10 inches and 2- 14 inch roll film formats. Their design also allows the use of lenses down to 47mm, without a recessed lens board. The Ultima weighs 13.2 pounds, has a 300mm monorail length for digital shooting and 480mm monorail length for film shooting. Ultimas are compatible with every digital scanning and three-pass back on the market, including models from Better Light, Eyelike, MegaVision, Leaf, and PhaseOne.

The Cambo Cadet 4x5—compact, easy-to-use, affordable, lightweight—is recommended for those looking for a portable back-up camera for travel. It features a rigid L-frame design that ensures vibration-free performance as well as simple operation. A built-in, fixed, pleated bellows allows the use of a wide range of focal length lenses from 75mm to 305mm. A Cadet Wide Angle 4x5 (popular among architectural and fine art photographers) with built-in bag bellows is also available. Both models accept 4x5 sheet film holders, Readyload holders, Polaroid 4x5 film holders, and Calumet slide-in 120/220 roll film holders available in 6x7 and 6x9 formats.

It's probably safe to assume that the Deardorff can be considered a collector's item since it is no longer being made. Laban F. Deardorff was a camera repairman for almost 30 years before he built the first 8x10 Deardorff. Formerly employed by the Rochester Camera Company in the 1890s, he worked on a portion of the design of the Premo line of cameras. Around 1920, several pro photographers and architects asked Deardorff to build a camera to photograph buildings so the image had parallel lines. L.F. Deardorff & Sons proceeded to make a camera very much influenced by the English Folding Field camera design of the 1880s, but with more movements. Production ended in 1996. For the complete history, visit members.nbci.com/deardorffcam/indexa.html

The Horseman LE 23135, a 4x5 optical bench modular camera that weighs just under 10 pounds, features geared rise, fall, and shift mechanisms, lens and film axis tilt, and rack-and-pinion focusing. Specifications include die-cast and machined aluminum alloy, international standard, two-way insert, rack and pinion drive (focusing), yaw-free base tilt, a focus computer, depth-of-field scale. The Horseman L- shaped camera was the first of its kind to receive the G mark, the "Good Design Award" from the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), an award bestowed on products distinguished by their beauty of form, functionality, safety, and quality.

The LX-C 23134, a 4x5 optical bench modular camera, is the top-of-the-line in the Horseman L series. It features a built-in focus computer, and digitized depth-of-field measurements that are computed for the user by the on-board focus computer. The LX-C, states the company, represents a generational development in camera design and an advanced level of technical excellence. Specifications include a die-cast and machined aluminum alloy body, rack-and-pinion drive, 10mm grid pattern w/6x7/6x9/6x12cm marks,140mmx140mm lens panel, a standard Fresnel lens, yaw- free base tilt. The camera weighs a little over 15 pounds.

The Linhof M 679 CC is a dual system camera for digital workflow and rollfilm photography. It is compact with logical technique for control of perspective, correction of converging verticals, depth-of-field control, and creative movements. A complete range of accessories allows for easy handling. The M 679 covers the formats 6x6 cm, 2 1/4 x 2 1/4 to 6x9, 2 1/4 x 3 1/4 and is compatible with standard medium-format systems as well as digital backs.

The Technikardan S 9x12's design principle is perfectly adapted to the larger 4x5 size, states the company. Full format flexibility from the standard rollfilm sizes up to 4x5 inch cutfilm, including 6x12 wide-field images and all the appropriate Polaroid film formats. By changing from normal to wide-angle bellows, the camera allows adjustments with extreme wide-angle lenses to 35mm. The Technikardan S 9x12 is fully compatible within the Linhof system.

There are only five Polaroid 20x24 cameras in the world—in New York, Boston, Cambridge, San Francisco, and Prague. The cameras stand 5 feet high and weigh 235 pounds, and produce both full color and B&W 20x24-inch contact photographs in 70 seconds. The system features a Fresnel viewing screen, a built-in film processing mechanism, and an adjustable digital timer, which signals the completion of print development. Lenses, ranging from 135mm to 600mm, allow for minute reduction as well as magnification up to 10X."

Sinar Bron
The f1 and f2 are lightweight, compact cameras featuring patented 2-point focusing and angle calculator for exact swings and tilts; depth-of-field scale; full Sinar System compatibility; geared fine focus combined with sliding coarse focus for speed and precision; true yaw-free movements so verticals stay vertical; zero detents on swing, tilt, rise, and shift movements, and an infinitely extendible monorail. Both models are fully upgradeable to film plane metering or more sophisticated models.

The Sinar x (4x5) and p2 (4x5 and 8x10) are the most advanced, feature-packed easy- to-use view cameras available. Both cameras are based on asymmetric tilts and swings, not the traditional center or base tilts, for rapid and precise settings without losing sharpness on the axis. In addition, users can calculate exact swings and tilts. All movements are gear-driven with precision micrometer drives that are smooth and self-arresting. All controls are on the right side of the camera for one-hand operation, and there is a depth-of-field calculator. Both are compatible with all Sinar accessories (back to 1948).

Both the Toyo 45GII and 45GX monorail system cameras are heavy-duty all-metal, modular-system studio cameras with precision-geared focus, rise & shift, non- vignetting 360° revolving back with Easy-load Bail Arm. The cameras accept all types of cut film, including Polaroid 545 and 550 holders, 6x7, 6x9, and 6x12cm roll film holders. The frame design utilizes 158mm square lens boards and minimizes internal vignetting. They also have interchangeable G/GX 39mm diameter monorails and can use all Toyo G system accessories. Rack-and-pinion micro-fine focusing, a center tilt that maintains focus during tilt, geared rise and shift and independent locks on all movements are also standard.

Hand-finished in select, book-matched mahogany, walnut, satinwood, and other fancy veneers, the Wisner connoisseur Series cameras are custom-made, in limited editions. In all cases the company works with the client to plan a pleasing and somewhat classic design, although Wisner is not opposed to something more radical. This same treatment is also available on the custom-fitted cases, as well. To calculate the cost, simply take any one Wisner's standard models and add 40 percent to the price. The Pocket Expedition is available in natural or black varnished cherry, and silver, black, or brass anodized aircraft aluminum. The camera (available in three sizes) is smaller and lighter than the standard Expedition camera. It offers patented geared axis tilt on the front standard as well as the rear, and geared front rise and fall, making the bag bellows less often required when using short lenses. It also has "top rear focus" with short lenses in mind, allowing photographers to bring the rear standard forward on its rails, close to the front standard, independent of its normal rear focus. The Pocket Expedition weighs only 3.6 lbs. (5x7 is 4.75 lbs, 8x10 is 9.5 lbs).

The 20 x24 Technical Field camera is not for everyone, states the company, but no camera can match its results if the ultimate in large contacts prints is the goal. This camera has full movements on the front standard, including geared front rise and fall, base tilt and geared axis tilt in the rear, and a rear focus knob that faces the photographer for easy simultaneous viewing and focusing. This is a true field camera and the only one of its kind, according to Wisner. The camera is built to order.

Announcing the long-awaited processor for 20x24 Polaroid film. The new system allows the photographer to use the Wisner 20x24 camera with Polaroid film anywhere, anytime, and in both vertical and horizontal mode, something the original Polaroid cameras were unable to do. The complete system includes the film holder, which holds the negative material, the processor and camera. The processor will run on 120, 220 or 12v for remote field use. The Processor for Polaroid film and Holder are custom orders.

The Wista Field 45SW cherrywood camera features a cherrywood body assembled with frames, brackets, and boards, finished with clear lacquer. A special Wista rollfilm holder is available for the camera, and it has an interchangeable leather bellows type (allows for bag bellows for wide angle photography). According to the company, unique accessories can upgrade the camera to custom-made status. Other features include a recessed Linhof lens board, replaceable camera back, and folding hood magnifier.

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