how many cameras do you need?

The short answer, of course, is none. You won't starve, freeze or otherwise come to a nasty end if you don't have any cameras at all. Most of our readers are likely to have at least one, though, and many will have more than one -- some of them many more. To be honest, it has been some years since we lost count of how many cameras we have.

Then again, what do you count as 'a camera'? Many photographers acquire all sorts of more or less usable cameras for a wide variety of reasons: nostalgia, curiosity, as gifts or inheritances...  The list goes on. Here, we're concerned with cameras that are bought mainly to use, rather than those that are bought (like the Exakta Varex IIa on the right) mainly as curios. Of course the old Exakta is still usable, but it's pretty low on the list of cameras we'd choose for serious professional work. Our real concern in this module is choosing the right camera for the job, whatever 'the job' may be.

buying the same camera again and again

Amazingly many photographers buy the same camera again and again. Not exactly the same camera, that is, but the same kind of camera. They trade in one small-format SLR on another, or one 4x5 inch camera on another. We suggest that you'll do better to look at what your existing kit can do, then see if you might do better to keep what you have and then buy something else as well.

Sure, this can get expensive, but you don't always have to buy new. If you have different cameras for different purposes, you don't need the latest all-singing, all-dancing version of every single one. For example, our main 35mm SLRs are original Nikon Fs. They are normally used either in the studio or for landscape photography with long lenses. How much automation do you need at this point?

At the other extreme, if you can afford it, there's no reason not to buy a whole range of top-end equipment: an Alpa for hand-held wide-angle photography (and digital, if you like); a Leica for street photography; a Linhof 617 for panoramas; a Gandolfi for large format...

 

Kitchen, Mision de la Purisima Concepcion, Lompoc, California.

 

All right, it's a fake: the Mision was heavily refurbished in the 1930s as part of the New Deal make-work programs. But it's a beautifully done fake, and when we lived in California, a few miles from Lompoc, it was one of our favourite places to take pictures.

Because of the large inherent tonal range, the kitchen is a great test of equipment, materials and technique, and we regularly used to try out new equipment there. You couldn't get into the kitchen, but had to shoot from a sort of reverse prison cell, poking the camera through the bars. We tried it with wider and wider lenses: 21mm (Leica M-fit) when that was all we had, then 17mm (Tamron SP) and finally 14mm (Sigma) in Nikon fit. This is a 21/2.8 Elmarit-M on a Leica loaded with Fuji RFP ISO 50.

The important thing is that because we didn't keep changing systems, we could extend our range of both Nikon-fit and Leica-fit lenses. If we'd switched to (say) Canon or Pentax, there would have been an enormous new investment in lenses. As it is, we can mix and match lenses and bodies and indeed we're still using our old Nikon manual-focus lenses on our Nikon D70 digital and mixing new and old Leica and Voigtlander lenses on our new and old Leicas and Voigtländers.

This is the message. Don't chop in the old gear. Buy something DIFFERENT that does a particular job better. Our rangefinder Leicas and Voigtländers, and our reflex Nikons (old Fs) aren't rivals: they're partners. Sure, all photographers feel the need of a change from time to time, but if you have several different systems, you can change to and fro according to the needs of the job and how you feel.

the myth of the universal camera

There is no such thing as a universal camera. Almost any camera has one or more specific advantages over its rivals, even if it is only cheapness. If you don't think cheapness is an advantage, consider a situation where the camera you use is at serious risk of destruction, whether as a result of adverse weather or hostile crowds. Which would you rather lose: an old Konica you bought for a tenner at a camera fair, or a new Leica?

can it do what you want?

Moving on to more conventional considerations, the first and most important thing is that the camera should be able to do what you want. Your requirements will be different if you want a portrait camera for studio use only, or something light and portable for travel or street photography.

The most important word in this definition is 'you'. The camera must do what YOU want. Not what its manufacturers or advertisers say you want; not what your friends want; not what the imaginary 'average photographer' wants. We hope that this will become ever more clear in the rest of this module.

 

Barge museum, Faversham

There's a big difference between the camera you use most, and the camera that can do everything. The Bessa-R2 that Roger used for this shot, fitted with a 50/1.5 Voigtlander Nokton and loaded with Paterson Acupan 200 (still available as Fomapan 200), is arguably not as versatile as, say, a modern autofocus SLR. On the other hand, it did what he wanted much better than an SLR, and he enjoyed using it more. He'd still be using it today if he hadn't got a Leica MP. As it is, Frances has taken it over. This was printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, toned in selenium.

image quality

This is pretty simple to understand. The quality that a camera delivers is made up of four components. First, and most importantly, there is the photographer's skill -- and part of this lies in learning to accept the limitations of what a camera can and cannot do. Second, there is mechanical quality: a camera that is sloppily built, or leaks light, or doesn't focus properly, is unlikely to deliver consistently good pictures. Even so, some people do choose to use exactly this sort of camera. The cheap and nasty plastic Holga has many devotees, for reasons we find hard to understand. Third, there is optical quality: some lenses are better than others. The fourth factor is film/sensor quality. With film, it's easy: the bigger the area of film, the more information it can hold. With digital, it's slightly more complex because pixels are not all created equal, but as a general rule of thumb, more pixels equals more quality. Depending on whom you believe, a 35mm slide is equivalent to anything from about 10 megapixels to 30 megapixels or more. There is more about this in Welcome to Film, another free module.

It's a fair question, though, how much quality you want or need. If your pictures only ever appear on the web, you don't really need anything more than a 3-megapixel digital camera: the extra quality obtainable via other routes will probably be invisible.

Dormitory, Tibetan refugee centre, Dharamsala

If you want maximum quality on film, use the biggest format you conveniently can 0-- and ideally a tripod as well. This was shot with Frances's Alpa 12 S/WA on 6x9cm Ilford film; the lens was the 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo-Grandagon. We asked the people in the shot to keep their heads moving during the one-second exposure: if they return to Tibet (as they may have to) they face beatings, torture and imprisonment if they are recognized. We wanted a deliberately old-fashioned, almost large-format look to contrast with this shocking truth: we felt we were shooting for the record. Printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

ease of use

It doesn't matter how wonderful a camera is if you don't like using it. It it's too bulky, too heavy, too inconvenient or too difficult to use, it's the wrong camera for you. The trouble is, bulk, weight, convenience and ease of use are not only subjective: they also vary widely according to circumstances. Very few cameras are bulkier, heavier, less convenient or harder to use than our 12x15 inch Gandolfi, but on the rare occasions we do want to use it, we put up with all of these drawbacks in return for the sublime image quality of a huge contact print. Likewise, although our Olympus Pen W is a lovely little camera and delivers extremely good quality for a half-frame, it's still only a fixed-lens, half-frame camera.

There's also the point that 'hard to use' can mean different things to different people. We find electronic auto-everything cameras hard to use, because there are just too many buttons, dials, switches and knobs, but we find our Leicas and Voigtländers extremely easy to use because there are so few controls: essentially focus, aperture, shutter speed, and film wind/shutter cocking. Someone else, less familiar with manual control, might find the auto-everything camera easier.

 

Toe shoes and dumb-bells

'Easy to use' in the studio isn't necessarily 'easy to use' in the field, though the 4x5 Linhof Technikardan that Frances used for this Polaroid image transfer is one of the smaller and more portable full-feature 4x5 inch cameras being made today. Of course there's absolutely no 'idiot proofing' so you can double expose, fail to expose, fog the image and more -- but you can handle all that by a methodical, disciplined approach, so we find the Technikardan easy to handle. The lens was (probably) our old 210/5.6 Schneider Symmar.

rating cameras

Whenever you are thinking of acquiring a new camera, it is worth asking yourself what you will use it for, and giving it a mental rating. The ratings that follow are the ones we use, and reflect our priorities. Your priorities may be different, and indeed you may care to use a different scale entirely: one, two and three stars, for example. And don't be afraid to give 'split' ratings: A/B, or C/D. But unless you think hard about why you are getting a new camera, you may be disappointed when you get it.

Waterfall, Julian Alps, Slovenia

Sometimes, a 'magic' combination can lift a B-list camera into the A-list. Despite our categorizing our old Nikon Fs as 'A/B' later in the module, an F with the 200/3 Vivitar Series 1 and a Soviet-era orange filter is one of Roger's A-list cameras for almost all travel. He always shoots the same film in it, Ilford HP5 Plus, and prints all the images on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. When we went to China in 2005 the F and 200/3 travelled in our checked baggage because we didn't have room for it in the carry-on.

A   One of our primary cameras: essential for the work we do. Basically Leicas and Voigtländers.

B   Either extremely useful (e.g. Nikon D70) or extremely enjoyable (e.g. Gandolfi Variant 5x7 inch) or sometimes both (e.g. Alpa). We could live without Category B cameras, but we'd hate to do so.

C   Specialized, but useful for specific reasonably frequent applications. Usually, another camera could do the same job, but wouldn't do it as well or as easily. This again includes cameras that are a pleasure to use, even if we don't use them very often, such as Roger's old Retina IIa.

D   Rarely used, and objectively not outstandingly useful, but nice to have.

E   Essentially owned out of idle interest, historical accident, nostalgia, because they're pretty, or because they are worth little enough that we might as well hang on to them (or of course buy them, which is how we acquired the Exakta at the top of the page). Also includes cameras we could use professionally if we had to, but would prefer not to if there were any choice at all. Surprisingly many can in fact be be used professionally if there is no alternative: even an Exakta IIa or a Pentacon 6 TL is better than no camera. In fact, we'd prefer either of those to any digicam on earth, if we could only have one camera and couldn't sell the digicam to buy something that took real film.

Actually there's an F category as well, of cameras you'd really prefer not to have around because you never use them and you don't really like them very much. If they're too valuable to throw away, then either give them away or take them to the next camera fair and see if you can turn them into a modest amount of cash.

Do not worry if you have more than one camera in each category, but equally, if you have several cameras that do essentially the same job, ask yourself if it might not make sense to rationalize them and stick with the ones that do the job best, or that you like best. For example, if you have both Nikkormats and Canon FT series, maybe it would make more sense to stick with just one or the other.

Finally, don't underrate the importance of such things as pride of ownership, enjoyability of use, and even pure snob value. The last can include 'reverse snob value'. If you can get good results out of a camera that most people regard as junk, it makes you feel good about yourself.

Margate Sands

Roger shot this on Ilford XP2 using a Soviet-era Zenith Photosniper (300/4.5 Tair 3 on Zenith E) for which he paid thirty quid (fifty bucks, forty-five euros) in a pawn shop. In printing (on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, sepia-toned with home-made sulphide toner) he had to crop both extremities of the image because of shutter bounce and imperfect capping, which is why the image is printed from 24x30mm instead of 24x36mm. We would still have the camera today, except that a friend really, really wanted it, so we gave it to him. Besides, we have two other 300mm lenses, a 300/4 Pentacon and a 300/5.6 mirror lens. If you can get just a handful of pictures from 'junk' equipment like this, it justifies the price you paid for it. A clear D/E on the above scale.

digital cameras

We make no apology for beginning here, for two reasons. First, more and more people do indeed start with digital cameras. Second, they are wonderful tools for learning: because there are no film costs, and mistakes can simply be deleted, you can develop your "eye for a picture" faster and easier with digital than with film.

On the other hand, there are several strong arguments against digital. It's inevitably battery dependent, whereas plenty of film cameras have no electronics whatsosever and plenty more lose only their metering if the battery dies: you can still guess the exposure and set it manually. Digital cameras have a short life, being constantly superseded by something new: often, if they do break, they are no longer reparable. By contrast, our oldest camera is almost 100 years old. Next, unless you spend a very great deal of money, digital quality is markedly inferior to film. Very roughly, to get a new digital camera that even begins to rival film for quality, you would need to spend at least twice as much as on a film camera, and quite possibly ten times as much. Figure in second-hand cameras, and you can get quality that rivals new digicams at one-twentieth to one-fiftieth of the price, or maybe even less.

A further disadvantage to learning with digital is that it's all too easy to get lazy, and not learn anything at all about technique. Failure? Delete it! What caused it? Who cares! This is not an inherent problem -- with the right digital camera you can learn at least as much as with film -- but it is a potential problem to be aware of in yourself.

 

Bridge over the lake in the park, Moncontour

A great advantage of digital is that you can experiment with composition, exposure, anything you like: if a picture doesn't work, you just delete it. This is particularly valuable when you are dealing with several tricky variables at once, such as the combination of bright reflected light and a soft focus lens seen here. The lens was a Dreamagon on a Nikon D70. Of course you can transfer the lessons learned on digital to film photography, and we constantly hear about people who either go back to film or buy a film camera after starting out on digital. It's not just quality: a common refrain is that somehow, film is more 'real'.

digital slrs

For the majority of serious amateur photographers, these are probably the most useful digital cameras. Something like our Nikon D70 offers speed, convenience and the choice of manual control or automation. Most of the more recent technical and equipment shots on this site were shot with the D70. We also use it for all kinds of other pictures where we do not need ultimate quality (understandably, it can't begin to compete with our Leicas and Voigtländers); where we want a few pictures in a hurry (far quicker and easier than processing a film); and where its relatively large size and its battery dependency are not significant drawbacks. We'd hate to be without the D70, but equally, if we could only have one camera, this wouldn't be it. True SLR design (i.e. not viewing an LCD screen) also makes it much easier to focus accurately and to judge depth of field. Our category: A/B.

Bicycle, back yard

Most digital cameras can resolve coarse detail and shapes more distinctly than film, but almost all of them suddenly run out of resolving power at a point where film usually has quite a bit more to offer. In a soft-focus image there is rarely any sharp detail anyway so there are no real disadvantages in digital. This was very nearly Roger's first picture with the D70.

 

bridge cameras

Like many other categories in this section, we don't own one. For us, they fall between two stools: too bulky for compacts (below) and not versatile enough for SLRs. You may feel differently. Our category: E.

digital compacts

Although at the time of writing we didn't have one of these, we had just ordered one: a Minox. Like several high-end mini-digis, it's more than just a camera: it can also record sound and video. The quality (3 megapixels) is adequate for small illustrations such as are needed when covering photo-shows, and it's tiny, compact and convenient. It's also suitable for snapshots, the kind of thing for which we would normally use either the Rollei AFM35 or the Olympus Pen W. It looks as if it's going to be a useful tool, but it's hardly a serious camera, more of a notebook. Our category: C.

digital backs for medium format

Increasingly, these are the standard professional tool. Quality isn't as good as the best roll-film, but it is at least as good as the best 35mm. So it should be: you could buy a Leica for every day of the week for the price of a 30+ megapixel back, and that's before you put it on a camera. As well as the camera you also need a lot of computer storage space and preferably a laptop as well. Compare this with a camera and some film and it's not only the cost that's ruinous: it's also the weight and bulk, if you have to carry the camera any distance.

We don't own one because we couldn't begin to justify it: we just don't shoot enough of the sort of pictures that demand digital. Let's assume that such a back has a life of 5 years (probably generous, but it will do for the purposes of argument). Let's also assume that the back and associated computer costs 20,000 euros (GBP 15,000, USD 24,000): again, close enough for the purposes of argument. That's 4000 euros a year in depreciation. Now assume that a roll of slide film is 10 euros, processed. That's 400 rolls of film, or 4000 frames of 6x7cm or 14,400 35mm slides. If you are running a commercial studio, the mathematics are unanswerable: it almost certainly makes sense to buy a digiback. If you're an amateur, it's a lot harder to justify. No category, because we can't afford one.

scanning backs for large format

These are similar to digital backs for medium format, only more so: more quality, more expense, more weight, more computer-dependency. If we could afford one, we'd love one, but equally, because we can't, we don't really miss it much. Once again, and for the same reason, no category.

camera phones

From the top end to the bottom end. Living in rural France, we really don't have much use for cell-phones. Roger's is 3 or 4 years old; Frances's, about 2 years old. When we lose or break either of them, we'll probably replace it with a camera phone, but it isn't what you'd call a priority. Our category: C.

35mm cameras

Until recently the automatic, all-but-universal choice, 35mm cameras still have a very great deal to recommend them: long life, high quality and very modest cost as compared with digital cameras of comparable build quality. Go to the used market instead of buying new, and there are staggering bargains to be had. Stupid photographers have traded in their 35mm cameras against digital; wise ones have bought digital to use alongside 35mm.

single-lens reflexes

From the late 1950s to the meteoric rise of digital imaging in the early 21st century, the 35mm SLR was quite reasonably seen as the nearest that had ever existed to a universal camera. Ultra-wides, ultra-teles, macro, even shift and tilt/shift lenses lent it an extraordinary versatility.

On the other hand, 35mm SLRs aren't the perfect cameras for everything, and diehard aficionados of rangefinder cameras (see below) regard the SLR as a means of filling in the gaps in the things that a rangefinder can't do as well. The cameras themselves range from the latest all-singing, all-dancing electronic wonders to amazingly basic cameras such as the ancient (1959-1973) Nikon F reflexes that we use.

Most photographers (except those who are wedded to digital) would regard these as Category A, but as far as we are concerned, our category is A/B.

Dog and barn, Slovenia

This is from the first trip where Roger used the Nikon F/Vivitar 200/3 combination which has since become his principal use for 35mm SLR cameras. Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DDX and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone.

rangefinder cameras

Small, light, unobtrusive, with a very reasonable range of lenses provided you don't want anything very long, rangefinder cameras are ideal for most of what we do, especially travel photography. 'Unobtrusive' is especially important. To a non-photographer, our Leicas and Voigtländers look very like amateur snapshot cameras, whereas monster modern SLRs are intimidating and put a much bigger distance between us and our subjects. But for long lenses we have to switch to SLRs and for close-ups we need either an SLR, a reflex housing or the (very expensive) 90/4 Elmar that goes down to one-third life size with the help of its close-focusing 'spectacles'. Most people would give rangefinder cameras category A/B at best, but our category is definitely A.

 

Sunbather, Rhodes

Many lenses for rangefinder cameras are significantly contrastier and more saturated than the corresponding focal lengths for reflexes, let alone zooms, and must therefore be used with discretion with highly saturated modern films. This picture (by Roger, using a Leica M-series and 35/1.4 Summilux) is arguably a little under-exposed. On the other hand, the idea was indeed to capture the super-saturated colours of the sea and sand and to emphasize the rather nasty case of sunburn that this holidaymaker had acquired, presumably without realizing it.

snapshot/pocket cameras

There are always times when you don't want to carry a 'real' camera, even one as small and light as a Leica. A digital compact (see above) or even an APS camera might suit some people, but we prefer 35mm because the quality is so much better than either: not as good as from our top-flight cameras, but still adequate even for good-quality photomechanical reproduction. Of course you need something of decent quality: our favourite snapshot cameras are a Rollei AFM35 (c. 2001), an Olympus Pen W (1960s) and an early-1950s Kodak Retina IIa. Our category: B.

medium format

There is one huge argument in favour of medium format (MF) and this is image quality. And the bigger the format, the better the quality. An A4 magazine page (210x297mm, 8-1/4 x 11-3/4 inches) is an 8.75x enlargement from 35mm or 3.75x from 6x9cm. This means that the lens on the MF camera doesn't need to be as sharp; the mechanical precision doesn't need to be as high; the film doesn't need to be as sharp or grain-free...  Even a middle-ranking MF camera can often deliver superior quality to a top-flight 35mm camera, and of course, there are many top-flight MF cameras built to similar standards to the very best 35mm cameras: Hasselblads are perhaps the best-known example, while Alpas are almost certainly the most precisely built.

Zuerich

This was one of Roger's earliest shots with his Alpa 12 WA and 38/4.5 Zeiss Biogon on the (Alpa-unique) 44x66mm format, which is masked down from 6x7cm. The reason for the odd format is the limited circle of coverage of the Biogon, just 80mm: the same lens is of course used on the Hasselblad Superwide cameras, but with a square format. What looks like a piece of dirt in the sky is in fact a bird and is resolved as such in a decent-sized print.

Even the relatively small 44x66 format is usefully bigger than 35mm: a 10x15 inch (25.4 x 38cm) print is only 5.8x instead of 10.6x. This allows ready use of Ilford's tonally excellent HP5 Plus without worrying anything like as much about grain as you would have to with 35mm. This was, in fact, when we rediscovered the charms of HP5, which Roger had not used since pre-Plus days. Printed (as so often) on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone, here lightly selenium toned.

Because the film isn't held as flat as with 35mm and because it is harder to design and build a lens that covers a larger format, you don't necessarily get the direct multiplication factor in quality that you might expect. In other words, a 35mm shot blown up 10x will usually look better than a 6x9 cm shot blown up 10x. On the other hand, a 10x enlargement from 35mm is 24x36cm, or a bit under 10x15 inches, while a 10x enlargement from 6x9cm is 56x84cm or around 22x33 inches. At 24x36cm the 6x9cm shot is a mere 4.3x, and it is still likely to look rather better at 6x (34x51cm, 13x20 inches) than the 35mm shot does at 24x36cm.

MF does however have several significant disadvantages. The cameras are necessarily bigger and heavier than 35mm, and they tend to be significantly more expensive than all but the very best 35mm cameras (though there are plenty of second-hand bargains to be had). The lenses are slower, partly because it's difficult to built fast, sharp lenses that cover larger formats and partly because even if you did, they would be huge, heavy and expensive and depth of field at full aperture would be negligible. And you have to reload a lot more often. The vast majority of MF cameras use 120 film, which gives at most 16 exposures per roll (the so-called 645 format) and more usually gives 12 (6x6cm), 10 (6x7cm) or 8 (6x9cm). Switch to the panoramic formats and you get 6 exposures (6x12cm), 4 (6x17cm) or even 3 (6x24cm). The 220 size -- effectively 120 minus the backing paper, which allows it to be twice as long -- is ever rarer, with a reduced choice of emulsions, and many cameras either won't accept it or require a special back to use it. Rarer still is 70mm, a great idea that never really caught on: it's like double-width perforated 35mm in big velvet-lipped cartridges, usually in loads of 50+.

mf slrs

Long the mainstay of high-street wedding and portrait photographers, and also popular in advertising and catalogue work where there was no need for larger formats, these have been very hard hit by the rise of digital. Some have disappeared altogether, while others are struggling in the face of a flooded second-hand market. The quality they deliver wipes the floor with anything under 20 megapixels and even a 30+ megapixel camera cannot really compete with a top-flight 6x7cm transparency in fine-grain film.

We have very mixed feelings about them. We have owned and used both Hasselblad (500C) and Mamiya in the past (RB67 and 645), and we currently have both a KowaSIX and a Pentacon Six TL, one inherited, the other bought (second-hand, cheap) for a magazine article. We stopped using Hasselblad because in the days before scanning it was too risky to let art directors and layout artists loose on 6x6cm images -- they used to crop them wrongly for a hobby. The RB67 was just too big to cart around, and we simply wore out the 645 and never bothered to replace it. Although the RB was good in the studio, we preferred the control we could get from a 'baby' Linhof, and outside the studio we prefer direct-vision cameras (see below).

This shows, very clearly, that it is extremely easy to be persuaded by a camera's reputation, and by others' needs, that a particular style of camera will be more useful than is actually the case. From time to time we think of buying another classic Hasselblad, because they are so small and neat and deliver such high quality, but we don't seem to get around to it. Many photographers would rate these cameras A, but our category is no more than B/C at best.

Kowa/SIX (left) and Pentacon 6TL (right)

Not exactly cutting edge -- but even frankly mediocre SLRs like these can give top-flight 35mm cameras a run for their money, simply because of the much bigger image area.

twin-lens reflexes

Twin-lens reflexes (TLRs) were among the first MF cameras to achieve professional acceptance, in the guise of the Rolleiflex. Rollei TLRs are immensely strong and deliver superb quality but are handicapped by fixed lenses (though wide and tele versions have been made) and some people just don't get on with them -- including us. Very few interchangeable-lens TLRs have been made, with Mamiya's C-series the only major contender. Those who love TLRs rate then very highly but as far as we are concerned, our category is only D/E.

direct vision cameras

This includes both rangefinder cameras such as the Fuji series, the Graflex XL and the Koni-Omega, and scale-focus cameras at all levels, up to and including the Alpa. We frankly prefer these to SLRs, but then, we use them mainly for travel: we don't do medium-format portraiture or weddings. Our category: A/B.

Great Wall of China

Frances shot this in October 2005 with her Alpa 12 S/WA and 35/5.6 Rodenstock Apo Grandagon fitted with a deep yellow Tiffen filter; film stock was Ilford HP5 Plus developed in Ilford DD-X and printed on Ilford Multigrade Warmtone. To appreciate the full quality of an Alpa shot you really need to see a big original print.

baby view cameras

'Baby' (6x9cm) Linhofs are the classic example of these, whether you go for the Technika or Technikardan, but there have been plenty of others: we used to have a 'baby' Cambo, though this is a relative term as it was bulkier than our 4x5 inch Technikardan and about the same weight. In the past we were great believers in 'baby' Technikas and indeed we still have one, a heavily modified Technika 70 with a 100/5.6 Apo-Symmar. We still use it sometimes for travel photography, but in the studio we generally prefer a roll-film back on our 4x5 inch Technikardan. Using a 4x5 chassis also permits the use of a 6x12cm back, where the 'baby' is limited to 6x9cm.

The big advantage over an SLR as far as we are concerned is the availability of movements, especially a rising front. Against this, the cameras are of course slower-handling. Quality on the 56x72mm Linhof 6x7cm format is superb but you can after all put the same backs on a 4x5 inch camera: we even have the Linhof adapter that puts the 'baby' backs on, instead of buying separate backs made specifically to fit 4x5 inch.

'Baby' view cameras are ever rarer, and can actually be more expensive new than their full-size brethren, simply because there is even less demand. Today, on the used market, 4x5 inch cameras are such a drug that once again savings may not be all that great. Our rating has dropped over the years from A/B to C but that's because we also have direct vision cameras and large format cameras.

 

Galley slave quarters, Malta

It doesn't show very well on screen but in the original transparency you can just see texture and detail in the shadowed rock in the foreground and the 'hot' brightly-lit edge to the galley slave quarters. These were excavated in the era of the Knights Hospitallers and during World War Two were used as a Navy rum store. If you are setting up a shot carefully like this, camera movements are often useful; so is close focusing; and you really aren't in the sort of hurry that you are when you bang off a few shots on 35mm. Roger used our Linhof Technika 70 Special with its (interchangeable) 100/5.6 Schneider Apo-Symmar.

panoramic roll-film cameras

These are great fun and the huge transparencies (especially 6x17cm) are very impressive indeed. On the other hand the running costs are high -- 6x12cm is 6-on-120, while 6x17cm is only 4-on-120 -- and you spend a lot of time reloading. If your personal vision inclines you towards this sort of camera there are a few things we have found that are not immediately obvious.

First, we find 6x12cm (56x110-120mm) rather too short and stubby, and 6x17cm (56x170mm) a bit too long and thin, though given the choice, we find 6x17cm easier. Our 'ideal format' for panoramics would be 6x15cm, which could be 5-on-120. At least one camera is in preparation which will offer this.

Second, we often find that extreme wide-angles are less successful that more modest lenses. On a 6x17cm, for example, 90mm is as wide as we care to go and 135mm, 150mm and even 180mm are more useful for some shots.

Third, composition is different with panoramics, especially once you go beyond 6x12cm: unless you have a long, thin subject that suits the format, you need two (or more) centres of interests in the composition. Otherwise it becomes a conventionally shaped picture with spare bits at the edges.

Fourth, unless you want to impress someone by showing them the original tranny, there may not be very great advantages in using a panoramic camera as against cropping a smaller format, even 6x7cm, at least in colour. Crop Linhof's 56x72mm format to our 2:5 'ideal format' and you have 29x72mm. Scan this at 2400 dpi and it will reproduce as 23.2 x 57.6 cm or about 9.1 x 22.7 inches. Move up to 6x9cm, a true 56x84mm in most cases, and you can crop to 34x84mm which at an 8x enlargement is 27.2 x 67.2 cm or near enough 10.7 x 26.5 inches. The improved film flatness of the smaller format may, in some cases, offset the advantage of the bigger image. In black and white there's a stronger case because a 3x enlargement should deliver near-contact-print quality, and 6x17cm (56x170mm) at 3x is 16.8 x 51 cm or 6.6 x 20 inches.

Snow scene, northern California

Roger shot this on Kodak Ektachrome 200 using a 'Longfellow' 6x17cm camera built by Dr. A. Neill Wright. The shutter on the 90/8 Super Angulon was slightly sticky in the cold weather so the picture was a little over-exposed and had to be 'tweaked' in Adobe Photoshop. Compositionally, instead of multiple centres of interest, it is almost 'multiple centres of no interest' conveying quite well, we think, the scale and inhospitability of the landscape.

Among the things that are more obvious about panoramic cameras are the fact that not all scanners can handle panoramic shots; that you need a 4x5 inch/9x12cm enlarger for 6x12cm and 5x7 inch/13x18cm for 6x17cm; that the cameras are quite big and heavy, which makes them awkward if you have to carry them any distance; and that they are generally best used on a tripod.

If we could easily afford one, there's no doubt that we'd buy a Gilde. This is why we would rate it Category C even though we don't have a dedicated panoramic camera (though we do have a 6x12cm back for 4x5 inch).

large format

This covers a wide range of formats, traditionally from 9x12cm and 4x5 inch upwards -- a long way upwards, seeing that very-large-format (VLF) or ultra-large-format (ULF) cameras are increasingly popular. Essentially, there are three groups of 'standard' large format, then a range of VLF/ULF cameras.

group 1: 9x12cm/4x5 inch

An interesting one here. Until we came to write this, we'd probably have said that we don't really need a 4x5 inch camera any more (despite the fact that we have four of them...) but then we realized that we do actually use them quite a bit with roll-film backs, 6x7cm and 6x12cm. This makes them pretty much Category A/B, even though we expose relatively little 4x5 inch film. Equally, if we didn't have any 4x5 inch cameras we'd be able to live without them because we'd use the 'baby' Technika instead.

From our point of view, 4x5 inch and its smaller brother 9x12cm are only 'super rollfilm': they still have to be enlarged, because the contact prints are really too small. Of course you get gorgeous quality from a 2x or 3x enlargement but as far as we are concerned it's very little more trouble to enlarge 13x18cm/5x7 inch/half plate (see below) and these have the additional advantage that they are big enough for a decent contact print.

Both 9x12cm and 4x5 inch film fit in standardized block-form holders with the same external dimensions, and can therefore be used in the same cameras, though of course the internal dimensions are different and the ground glass needs to be marked for the different formats. Almost all modern cameras (the last 50 years or so) take these holders, though older 9x12cm cameras may use a single 9x12cm holder instead of a double 4x5 inch holder; the two are not interchangeable. World-wide, even in metricated countries, 4x5 inch is much more common than 9x12cm.

 

National Library, Malta

A few -- a very few -- 4x5 inch monorails are small and light enough to consider for serious travel photography: this was shot with our Toho FC45X and 110/5.6 Super-Symmar XL Aspheric on 4x5 inch Kodak ISO 100 colour film. A drawback to using 6x12cm backs on 4x5 inch is that you often want to use more of the image on the ground glass than you can fit onto 6x12cm.

group 2: 13x18cm/5x7 inch/half plate

As with the first group, these three formats all fit in standardized holders with the same external dimensions, and can be interchanged in the same cameras. Half plate is the smallest and rarest of the three, at 4.75 x 6.5 inches, 12.1 x 16.5cm: 13x18cm is 5.1 x 7.1 inches and 5x7 inch is 12.7 x 17.8cm. Both 13x18cm and 5x7 inch are widely available, the former mostly in metricated countries, the latter more in Britain and the United States. Japan seems to be a stronghold of half-plate. Once again, there are some old cameras that don't use standardized block-form holders but they are rare: Gandolfi offered the old book-form as an option into the 1960s, and indeed will still make them (at a price) if you want them.

For shooting black and white for fun, this is just about our favourite format. If you are making contact prints, you really don't need to worry much about lens quality, and old Kodak Specialist half-plates are often absurdly cheap, though admittedly big and heavy. Exposure isn't critical if you print on POP (printing our paper, our favourite again): just make sure it's generous. Likewise, contrast doesn't matter much with POP as long as there's plenty of it. This is because of the self-masking effect of POP. If you want to enlarge, you need to take slightly more care but grain and sharpness aren't really an issue with a format where an 11x14 inch print is only a little over 2x.

Everyone believes that the cameras are rare and expensive but it ain't so. In fact, they are sometimes silly-cheap because people don't think that the film is available any more, or don't realize that you can use 5x7 inch in half-plate cameras or vice versa. Nor is film hard to find, at least in black and white: the choice in colour is rather smaller and processing is difficult, so if colour is your thing, stick with 4x5 inch/9x12cm.

Another curious belief, held throughout the world, is that this format is more popular somewhere else. In particular, Americans think of it as a European and British format, while Britons thing of it as American and European and Europeans think of it as British and American. Enlargers are thinner on the ground than 4x5 inch but still not hard to find.

Of course you can put a reducing back onto a larger format camera (usually 18x24cm/8x10 inch) and indeed we do this with our De Vere. Another interesting possibility is a replacement back for the Gandolfi Variant 4x5 inch, which converts it from a triple-extension 4x5 inch camera to a double-extension 5x7 inch camera. As you might guess from all this, our category for this format is A/B.

 

Candle and holder

The 5x7 inch/13x18cm/half plate format is, for us, the still life format par excellence. We never shoot colour in this format -- it's too hard to find, too expensive, too difficult to process -- but for black and white it's wonderful. This started out as a technical exercise to show how easy it was to hold an enormous tonal range when printing on POP, but it ended up as rather a nice still life in its own right. The camera was either a Gandolfi Variant or a Linhof Technika V; the lens was probably our 210/5.6 Schneider Symmar. We normally shoot either Ilford FP4 Plus or Ilford Ortho Plus in this format.

group 3 18x24cm/8x10 inch

These are the largest sizes that most people consider, and like the previous two groups, both sizes can be used in the same cameras because the standardized block-form holders (see the glossary) share the same external dimensions.

Although 8x10 inch enlargers are available, most people make contact prints. The main problem we have with this is that 8x10 inch is a rather stubby format which only works (as far as we are concerned) with some subjects. We find 5x7 inch to be a more congenial shape, as well as implying smaller, lighter, cheaper cameras and lower running costs. For this reason, our category for 8x10 is only about a D.

Work bench

This is one of Roger's favourite 8x10 inch still lifes, not least for the extraordinary glow around the bottom of the oil can, caused simply by light reflecting off the shiny metal. But he can't help feeling that it would have worked equally well in either 5x7 inch or a very large format, neither of which he owned at the time. The camera was a De Vere 8x10 monorail; other technical details forgotten, but it looks like a 300mm shot on Ilford Ortho Plus. The print is on Centennial POP.

 

group 4: very large formats

We have to confess to a degree of schizophrenia here. VLF cameras are fascinating, and it's great to look at that huge, TV-screen-size ground glass. We had an 11x14 inch, but got rid of it because we hardly ever used it, and we now have a 12x15 inch Gandolfi with three double plate-holders and reducing frames for 10x12 inch, 8x10 inch and whole plate (see below). The difficulties are however legion, as follows:

The cameras are huge, heavy and expensive: our Gandolfi, in its box, with its three bookform film holders (see glossary) weighs 65 lb, a shade under 30 kg, and the only tripod we have that conveniently supports it weighs another ten kilos (22 lb). Lenses are hard to find. Film choice is limited (in fact we had to have 12x15 specially cut by Bergger), but as the camera is almost 100 years old we aren't complaining too much. Film handling is a nightmare: vast, floppy, expensive sheets of film that have to be tray-processed in huge lakes of developer and fixer. It's really hard to find subjects that warrant using such a monster.

But when you do; ah, when you do... A well-made big contact print is a thing of extraordinary beauty, even if the subject is less than exciting; the vast, infinitely detailed print can make a picture out of nothing. This is why we are constantly torn between selling the Gandolfi (which is worth a small fortune) and keeping it. So is a friend who has a much more modern 11x14 inch Gandolfi. Really, you can't assign VLF cameras a category. Either you really, really want one, so badly that it hurts unless you have one, or you can't actually see the point.

If you are going to get a VLF camera, the largest with standardized film holders is 11x14 inch. These are frighteningly expensive. Other cameras usually have to be matched to their holders, like our Gandolfi, though of course Gandolfi will still make new holders to suit in whatever size you want. Our own view is that if you have the VLF bug, 8x10 is going to seem miserably small. Certainly, we'd rather have an 11x14 inch (or bigger), preferably with reducing backs, than only an 8x10.

obsolete large formats

The principal obsolete large formats are quarter-plate, 3.25 x 4.25 inch, 8.3 x 10.8cm, and whole plate, 6.5 x 8.5 inches, 16.5 x 21.6 cm. Whole plate is a delightful size, let down only by very limited film availability -- though this is better than it was a few years ago. Both quarter-plate and half-plate fit in standardized film holders.

Traditionalists regard quarter plate as the largest of the 'medium formats', ranking it little above cut film in the 6.5x9cm, 2.25x3.25 and 2.5x3.5 inch sizes, all of which are also confusingly known in the American market as '2x3' despite the fact that (a) none of them is actually 2x3 inches and (b) they are all different. The three small sizes all fit in standardized film holders with the same external dimension but as compared with roll film offer no great advantages, and several disadvantages.

Apart from these, most of the other obsolete large formats are very large (10x12 inch, 12x15 inch, 11x17 inch, etc.) and have to be used with specially made film-holders anyway.

the bottom line

Sunset in the Pelopponese

We no longer own the MPP Mk. VII that Roger used to take this picture, because we just didn't use it enough to justify keeping it -- though if we wanted to go back to hand-held 4x5 inch, we would look for another one. On a tripod, where we normally use 4x5 inch, the Linhof Technikardan is more versatile, easier to use, not a lot heavier or larger, and less prone to light leaks. The Toho FC45X monorail is actually smaller and lighter than the MPP, though not quite as easy to use as the Linhof. We still have the back, though, a 6x12cm (nominal, actually 56x110mm) Horseman, and we use it on both cameras. The film stock here was Ektachrome 100. This is actually flipped left-right; we prefer it that way, and unless you know the place, there is nothing to give the game away.

The bottom line is very much the same as the top line. No one camera can do everything perfectly. The sort of pictures you take may (or may not) be best served by something out of the ordinary. If you are interested in more than one style of photography, you may well find that you need more than one sort of camera. You almost certainly don't need as many cameras as we have, because (to be honest) we have a lot of near-duplicates: there's not much advantage in having both the Kowa/SIX and the Pentacon 6 TL, for example, and we only have the Linhof Technika V 13x18cm because we didn't know there was a Gandolfi Variant 5x7 inch on the way. But you might do well to have a 35mm SLR AND a digital SLR AND and rangefinder camera AND...

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last updated: 15/02/05

© 2005 Roger W. Hicks