Fun With View Cameras

by ralph


When you hear "view camera” do you think of some old guy with a big, old fashioned bellows camera on an old wooden tripod, with his head under a black cloth and a monkey on his shoulder? Well, guess what? view cameras are still with us and although much modernized they still need a tripod (after all, they lack a finder -- the only one being the groundglass, also they are used when critical framing and composing are mandated), and you still might find the focusing cloth useful. The idea may seem old fashioned but the fact is view cameras have such extreme flexibility and are so great for experimenting that they can be real fun to use.

Basically, a view camera frees up the rigid and limited relationship of lens and film we see in our smaller cameras --lens centered and parallel to film--and lets you freely slide, tilt, swing and extend both the lens and film (to various degrees with different makes, models and types of cameras). A downside of the simple viewing system is that you have to view an upside down image on the groundglass.

There are two general types, the original flat bed (folding box) type which evolved into speed and crown graphics and today's field cameras, and the more recent monorail types which permit the most extreme range of movements but are too bulky to take very far from the studio. The macro bellows used for 35mm cameras are a mini version of the monorail concept and although movements are limited some, like the Nikon PB-4, do have a swing and slide for the lens and revolving back.

So what can you do with all this optical freedom? You can do architectural shots with parallel vertical lines by sliding the lens upward instead of pointing the camera up, you can do precise closeup work like macro, copying and still life photos because of all that bellows extension, and of course the most unique ability of the view camera is to extend sharp focus in particular directions. With the lens no longer locked in its parallel position you can easily bring an extreme foreground (rocks, flowers, etc.) in focus while keeping infinity tack sharp just by tilting the lens forward and refocusing. This lays the' focal plane right down on the subject. Swings enable you to work this trick on vertical surfaces like walls or building facades.

If you're puzzled about how to swing or tilt to extend focus here's where the “Schiempflug Principle" comes in. It states that the planes of the film (camera back), lens and subject should intersect at a common line. Think of a partly opened book; the planes of the film (front cover), subject (back cover) and lens (in between page) all meet in the spine of the book. That gets you in the ballpark -- the rest you do by eyeball changing the exact angle of tilt and focus until everything is sharp --and make sure you use a loupe to be critical.

Not only can you raise the lens to keep upward lines parallel but you can drop it, to the same effect, when looking down from a high spot like a building top. Here's where some field cameras get into trouble. While the lens can be easily raised in its track to shoot upward it normally centers in the fully down position so the only way to lower it is to drop the bed to a downward angle and bring the lens back to parallel with the back. It's a clumsy process and as the lens gets shorter its position, further back up the track, approaches the hinge, so there is- less and less drop. Monorails have a multiple advantage here. Some leave space on the lens standard for further drop and almost all let you raise the back -- an equivalent move (very few field cameras can do this).

Monorails also have an advantage with macro work near the 1:1 image/object size ratio. When you approach 1:1, focusing the lens seems to change image size but never comes to exact focus unless you move the whole camera (and tripod) one millimeter or so, a hugely tedious process. In that working range focusing
th
e back is the neat and quick way to sharpen up and only the monorails have a geared, freely focusing back (well actually some expensive field cameras do have limited back focus). The 35mm macro bellows usually has this advantage and the double track models go one better, by using the lower track the whole camera and lens system can be focused as a unit. This gives excellent control of the image size. Some monorail views also have unit focusing, driving the whole monorail plus camera at the mounting block.

Traditionally, view cameras used sheet film, like 4x5, 5x7 or 8xlO in. which comes packed like a stack of cards. The individual sheets are loaded in the dark into two sided holders (4x5 ones cost from $8 to $15 @, new.) It's very convenient to use when you want to shoot one or two sheets -- like a copy or still life-- but you can't carry many exposures. Eighteen holders, heavy and bulky, just give the same number of shots as one roll of 35mm. Back to the plus side, it's easier to go from b&w to 'chrome to colorneg or infrared just by pulling another holder out of your bag. No changing of rolls or cameras is needed. In fact that makes it easy to experiment with strange films or even to put a piece of color or b&w paper in the camera.

An increasingly popular alternative to the bulky holder problem is to use 120 roll film backs in either 6x6, 6x7 or 6x9cm sizes. That makes it easier to carry lots of film and still have use of all those camera movements. If used on a larger camera your lenses become effectively more telephoto, for example you may be only using a 2 1/4 x 3 1/4in (6x9cm.) portion of a 4x5 image, so you're getting a narrower angle of field. Roll film backs probably cannot be used in the really old view cameras since the idea started in the '50s with the Graflok back, but adaptability to roll backs has become fairly universal since. In fact 120 has become so accepted that at least two recent models (Calumet and Sinar I believe) have been designed around it exclusively.

Since there are no high tech hookups between lenses and camera bodies it is fairly easy to accommodate an oldie found in a flea market. All you need is a blank lensboard with a circle cut out to fit the lens, but be sure the lens comes with a flange or “jam nut". One thing you might want to avoid are lenses like 4 element tessar types (Xenar, Skopar, Commercial Ektar, etc.) that have limited size image circles unless their focal length is much greater than the diagonal of your negative. All those swings and tilts require a much wider circle because your be pushing and pulling the image around. The most useful lenses are what I call 'W" types (Nikkor W, Fujinon W, Symmar, Sironar). They usually have a maximum aperture of f5.6, have six elements, and while not true wide angles (of 90 degrees), they do have 70 degree image circles which give ample swing and tiltability. Excellent used ones can be found in the $200 to $400 range. Even older lenses like Dagors or the intermediate age Wide Field Ektars ( a truly excellent 4 element lens) will produce sharp images that will make your best 35mm images look pretty poor in comparison. When shopping for older lenses make sure the glass is not clouded or abraded and that the shutter doesn't hang up at low speeds.

Now fast forward in time to another great view camera trick. For extreme macro (larger than life size) you will be amazed how crisp and clear the magnified image from a reverse mounted 35mm lens can be. That's right it can cover a 4x5, I mount it by screwing a step-up filter ring in front of the lens, then screw another ring into the first while clamping a thin lensboard between the rings. The hole has to be cut to allow the threads of the second ring to go through without binding. That means the back end of the lens faces the subject, and you still have access to the f stops. A 50mm macro lens racked out to 10 inches (250mm.) gives you a sharp 5x image, five times larger than life. On one o
ccasio
n I used a 24mm Nikkor wide angle on about 12 to 14 inches of bellows giving me a 12x, or more, microscopic view of a computer chip (“micro”begins at 10x).

Once when working in a studio, I pushed well into the micro range when a chemical manufacturer wanted 50x microphotos of some new granular compound. It was the first time I tried the idea, and to an extreme, but it worked. I took a 25mm lens off a 16mm movie camera, reversed it, and put it on about 25inches of bellows on a big 8xlO view. That gave me 25x magnification but only the central 4x5 area was sharp. Good enough, I blew up that 4x5 to an 8xlO print yielding an amazingly sharp 50x blowup of the product. Wow! View cameras can do anything,--well maybe not photojournalism, snapshots, travel slides ------

You can find old time field cameras and even some simple monorails starting in the $200 to $300 range but desirable features add to the price. Nearly indispensable is a fresnel lens under the groundglass, otherwise the corners would be very dark. Also desirable are movements in the back as extensive as the ones on the lens standard. As the price goes up more of these movements will be smoothly geared instead of push-pull. One feature I like is precise zero detents on all swings and tilts so that if you're shooting a straight-on distant view and want corner to comer sharpness. you can revert to the small camera, rigid parallel setup without having to fuss-focus every corner. Also try to get extra lensboards, and be suspicious of old, beat up film holders -- they might leak light.