Camera movements

Few things are more confusing at first than the 'movements' on large format (LF) cameras -- and yet few things are as simple or intuitive once you have mastered them. Matters are further confused by variations in terminology between English and American usage, and even between different photographers. Regardless of what you call them, movements provide ways of changing the shape of the subject in the final image, and of controlling the plane of focus.

 

More movements than anyone needs

The 121mm  f/8 Schneider Super Angulon on this Linhof Technikardan is pretty much at right angles to the ground glass, so there would be no chance of an image even if the bellows were not in the way. It looks impressive, but it is completely irrelevant to real-world photography.

linhof technikardan movements

RISING FRONT

The best-known movement is the rising front (or just 'rise'), which is used to stop the 'falling over backwards' effect when photographing buildings: this is of course the principal use of shift lenses on small formats. The lens remains parallel with the film, but is moved upwards relative to the film.

Rising front

Left: lens in normal position, centred on the film (or sensor). Right: lens raised  relative to film (or sensor) moves the field of view upwards

rising front
gandalfi full rise

Gandolfi Precision 8x10 inch, maximum rise

There are two separate rise movements on the Precision (now sold as the Traditional): a smaller movement on the lens panel (the little cut-out slot in the bottom left) and a much larger movement on the front standard. You can also see that both the front and back are swung in the same direction (to the right), with maximum front cross, for additional indirect cross (see below). The Linhof Technika panel is in a custom adapter.

Obviously, the lens can be moved in other directions: downwards (drop, fall) and sideways, either left or right (cross). Just as a rising front allows you to photograph something apparently 'square on' from below, a cross movement allows you to do the same trick from the left or right of the subject. A moment's thought will reveal that this will allow you to photograph a mirror without being reflected in it. Likewise, a bit of fall (drop, downwards shift) on the lens allows you to photograph down a flight of stairs without apparent distortion.

All of these movements, where the lens panel and film (or digital sensor) remain parallel are grouped together as 'shifts' or 'shift movements', and you may hear people refer to 'shift up' or 'shift left' or whatever. Because the lens axis is moved relative to the centre of the film, they are also known as 'decentring movements'.

Stop and think for a moment, and you will see why we say that movements can be used to change the shape of the subject. Point the camera upwards, without front rise, and you will get converging verticals. Keep the back of the camera parallel with the subject, but use the rising front, and you won't: the verticals will remain parallel. This is a clear change of shape!

 

Skyscraper, Washington Square

'Correcting' verticals is a bit of a misnomer. After all, we accept vanishing-point perspective in the horizontal plane; why not in the vertical? There's more about this in the perspective module. In any case, there are times when converging verticals look better. Here, the formality of parallel verticals would sit ill with the confused and messy lower part of the picture.

washington square skyscraper

 

castle green

Castle Green Bristol

This is a moderately busy road, so you don't want to stand in the middle of it. Camera: MPP Mk VII

castle green 2

Use the cross front

...and your viewpoint shifts to the middle of the road, only a lot more safely. Lens: 150/4.5 Apo-Lanthar

castle green 3

Add rise and cross

...and suddenly you have the entire ugly building in shot, without having to tilt the camera.

BACK MOVEMENTS

Instead of shifting the front, you can also shift the back of the camera. Instead of raising the lens, you can lower the back; instead of shifting the lens left, you can shift the back right.

Most monorail cameras offer similar movements on both the front (lens) and rear (image) standards. By shifting the front in one direction, and the back in the other, you can therefore double the effective movement.

calumet cadet

Calumet Cadet

The Cadet is one of the simplest monorails ever offered, and shows both front and back movements very clearly.

Both standards have swing (around the locking knob that secures the 'L' to the rail) and tilt (around the locking knob that secures the standard to the 'L'). On the front, there is a cross movement (with graduations on the lower arm of the 'L') and rise/fall (graduated on the vertical arm of the 'L'). Rear rise and cross were omitted in the interests of economy, but it is easy to see how they could be added.

SWINGS AND TILTS

With swings and tilts, the lens panel and film (or digital sensor) are no longer parallel. In English, a distinction is commonly drawn between swings, where the lens 'looks' to the left or right, and tilts, the 'nodding' movement where the lens 'looks' up or down. In American, the term 'swing' is commonly used for movements on both axes. Thus, both languages might say 'swung left' or 'swung right', but where an English photographer might say 'tilted up' or 'tilted down', an American might say 'swung up' or 'swung down'. As already noted, although these are broad national preferences, individual photographers may use either terminology

Calumet Cadet

As you can see, the principal limits on the swings and tilts with this camera are imposed by the flexibility of the bellows. It would however be quite impossible to take a picture with this degree of movement in use.

In the back of the camera is a 6x9cm Calumet roll-film holder: a good way to get camera movements with less expense and effort than sheet film.

cadet movements

Many field cameras offer few or no movements at the back, though some do: the Gandolfi Variant offers as much rear movement as many monorails, and the ways of arranging back movements are many and various.

'Baby' Linhof Super Technika IV

Like its bigger 4x5 inch/9x12 cm and 5x7 inch/13x18cm siblings, the 'baby' (or 6x9cm or 2x3 inch) Linhof Technika has limited back movements (off-axis swing and tilt) on struts, a feature borrowed by the British M.P.P.

Quite a number of manufacturers make or made '6x9' (cm) or '2x3' (inch - all nominal dimensions) technical cameras and even monorails. The triple cam seen in the baseplate, and the three holes in the rails, are for rangefinder coupling three lenses, normally 65mm, 100 or 105mm and 180mm. Cams must be custom-matched to the lenses for maximum precision: Bill Orford can do this.

baby linhof back swing

Swings and tilts are used to hold a receding plane in focus, or (more rarely) to isolate a narrow plane of focus and throw the rest of the image out of focus.We find it easiest to think of swings and tilts is in terms of focus. When you focus closer, you wind the lens further out. Now, imagine that you have two subjects at different distances, both of which you want to stay in focus. You need the lens focused at two distances at once: one nearer, one further. Swings and tilts allow you to do this.

swing and tilt

Swings and tilts

Left: distant object, small extension. Centre: nearer object, more extension. Right: objects at two distances -- use swing.

The Scheimpflug Rule

The gloriously named Scheimpflug Rule says that if the subject plane, the plane of the lens panel and the image plane all meet at a common line, everything in the subject plane will be in focus in the image plane.

scheimpflug example

The problem, of course, is that few subjects are dead flat. Even so, swings and tilts allow you to hold a receding plane in focus, without having to stop down anything like as much as you would have to if you did not have the movements.

The most important thing to remember when applying the Scheimpflug Rule is that the image is reversed on the ground glass, so the direction of movement required is (at least at first) counter-intuitive. If, for example, the left side of your subject is further away, the left side of the lens panel should be nearer the subject (and further from the film/sensor).

unlucky pfennig

Unlucky pfennig

This is a classic example of a receding plane; basically, the map, though of course the gun and the camera add an inch or two to the depth. Even so, the lens can be used at a much wider aperture than would be possible without the tilt; there is more than enough depth of field at f/11 or so, whereas without the movement, even f/32 might not suffice.

The picture was shot using the Scheimpflug rule, as described immediately above. We have forgotten which camera we used but it was probably our Technikardan with a 210mm lens, either Schneider (Symmar) or Rodenstock (Sironar-N).

The idea, of course, is a spy in the UK during World War Two; the (un)lucky 1941 pfennig, hardly visible at the size above, bears the eagle and swastika of the Third Reich

pfennig crop

BACK SWINGS AND TILTS

Just as you can have either front or back shifts (or both), so you can have either front or back swings and tilts (or both). Their effects are however somewhat different. Front swings or tilts have little or no effect on image shape; they merely affect the plane of focus. Rear swings or tilts, on the other hand, affect image shape quite a lot.

To see why, imagine an old-fashioned slide projector. Tilt the screen forwards or backwards, and you get 'keystoning': the top and bottom of the image are different sizes. The same thing happens when you use back swings or tilts. This is why, for many applications, front movements are to be preferred. Equally, of course, the distortions introduced by back swings and tilts may be used creatively.

police car

Front movements Focus OK front to back, shape about right

police car 2

Back swingCar 'stretched'; shape deformed, but not believably

police car 3

Back swing and tilt Car 'stretched' to look longer and wider

This is a tiny model car, a couple of inches (50mm) long. Of course, no advertiser would ever be so cynical as to distort the shape of a real car like this. Not when they could do it more easily in Adobe Photoshop...

SWINGS AND TILTS FOR COMPOUND MOVEMENTS

Another use for swings and tilts is to achieve extra shift movements. Tilt the back and the front forward by equal degrees; tilt the baseboard until they are both perpendicular; and you have compound rise. Swing the front and back by equal amounts, in the same direction, and you have compound cross.

indirect rise

Compound rise

The front standard on this Gandolfi Variant 10x8 inch has been tipped forwards to its maximum, and the rear standard has been tipped forwards level with it. The result is an altogether ridiculous amount of rise -- more than most lenses could cover, even if the bellows did not block part of the image (they could be propped up with a matchbox). See below for a note on bellows limitations. Compound cross (together with simple cross) can be seen in the Precision 8x10 inch, above. 

rodchenko's toast dave barber as rasputin

Rodchenko's Toast (left) and Dave Barber as Rasputin (right)

In both of these pictures, swings and tilts have been used 'backwards' to restrict depth of field artificially, rather than to increase it. On the left, the plane of focus is on the glass and the 'Vodka Russe'; the name is in homage to Alexandr Rodchenko, famed for his angled compositions. On the right, the plane is on Dave's eye and moustache, as though he were an evil hypnotist. The toning of the images is deliberate too: warm and welcoming for the toast, cold and threatening for the portrait. Dave was one of Roger's oldest friends; he died in 2006.

 

ON-AXIS AND OFF-AXIS MOVEMENTS

In the picture of the Gandolfi above (the one showing compound rise), both tilt movements are 'off axis', that is to say, at the base of the standard. This means, inevitably, that as you change the tilt, you will also change the overall focus and will have to refocus.

Ideally, the movements should be 'on axis', which is to say, on the optical axis of the lens and in the middle of the image. Look at the picture of the front of the same camera, on the right, and you can see that such movements are in fact provided as well. You can see the quadrants in which the lens moves for the front tilt, and you can also see that the front panel is swung towards the camera, about an axis at the top and bottom of the frame supported by the front standard

Gandolfi Variant

The Variant is unusual in offering both on- and off-axis tilts, front and back. The off-axis tilts are for when you need a lot of movement, and on-axis isn't sufficient. The off-axis tilts are used to set the camera up roughly; the on-axis tilts are then used for the final set-up.

In practice, although manufacturers who offer on-axis movements are inclined to make a great song and dance about it, the vast majority of photographers find that they are perfectly well able to cope with either on- or off-axis movements.

variant front standard

HOW MUCH MOVEMENT DO YOU NEED?

In diagrams and illustrations like the ones above, movements are normally much exaggerated for the sake of clarity. As a result, many first-time buyers imagine that unless they buy a camera that they can tie in knots, it will not have enough movement.

This is some way from the truth. Most of the time, you need only a very few degrees of swing or tilt, and not a vast amount of rise or cross. The latter is particularly relevant in light of the question of lens coverage, which is sufficiently important that it is the subject of a small module of its own.

Basically, a lens throws a circular image, and the camera uses only part of that image. If the image circle is big enough, you can decentre the lens quite a long way; if it is only just big enough to cover the diagonal of the image format, you cannot decentre the lens at all.

gandolfi front three-quarter

Gandolfi Universal

The Universal was Gandolfi's standard camera from about 1900 to the 1920s, and was still available afterwards. In fact, it is still available today. You can see the front rise and cross (both at their limits) and the back tilt (at its limit; it can tilt forwards or backwards). Back swing is similar, and is controlled by the two brass knobs on top of the rear standard. Even these modest movements suffice for almost all purposes.

Regardless of how much coverage your lens has, you will always do best to try to get the best viewpoint possible, then use the movements to make the final adjustments.

The above -- about lens coverage -- explains why a 210mm lens might allow a good deal of decentring movement on a 4x5 inch/9x12cm camera; a modest amount on a 5x7 inch/13x18cm; very little on 8x10 inch (though slightly more on 18x24cm); and it might fail to cover 11x14 inch altogether.Many cameras can run most lenses out of coverage, even before you resort to compound movements, so it is quite easy to buy a camera with more rise and fall than you can actually use without expensive lenses that have unusually large circles of coverage.

Also, your pictures will generally look more natural if you use a longer (and usually cheaper) lens; move back as far as you can; and use less shift. Wide lenses with big image circles are expensive, and the 'stretched' perspective can soon start to look unnatural. As, indeed, it does in the Castle Green sequence above, where the skyscraper is 'stretched' vertically.

St. Leger de Montbrun

Frances shot this on 13x18cm Ilford FP4 Plus using our big Linhof Technika and a 168/6.8 Goertz Dagor; about the equivalent, in 35mm terms, of a 35mm shift lens. The Dagor has a large angle of coverage, especially when well stopped down, but she had another trick up her sleeve: she shot from the platform on top of our Land Rover, so the camera was about 3 metres (10 feet) above the ground to begin with.

Starting from the highest possible viewpoint was common in Victorian times: some of the most wonderful pictures of the interiors of churches were taken with large, spindly wooden tripods, at their full extension, balanced on three chairs.

st. leger

BELLOWS LIMITATIONS

Another factor, alongside lens coverage, is bellows limitations. These are of two kinds. First, at medium extensions, they can sag, as seen in the picture of Gandolfi 8x10 above, illustrating compound rise. This can be overcome in a number of ways: using shorter bellows, so they are pulled taut; providing some sort of clip in the middle, so that the back part of the bellows remain compressed (and stiff) while the front extends; a biconic bellows, with a wide centre and narrower ends, as on a Linhof Technikardan; or some sort of mechanical support, whether an intermediate standard and two shorter bellows, or propping up the bottom of the bellows with a block of balsa wood.

Second, there is a limit to how far bellows can be compressed before they start to bind, i.e. they refuse to allow any shifts. This is obviously worse if you are using a wide-angle lens and want lots of movement. The classic solution is an interchangeable bag bellows, which is exactly what its name suggests: some form of light-tight bag to replace the bellows. Other possibilities include short, ultra-flexible bellows, or an eccentric (decentring) lens panel.

cadet wide angle

Calumet Cadet

The Cadet was an extremely low-cost 4x5 inch camera with fixed bellows -- so a wide-angle version was made with fixed bag bellows. We have a bag bellows for our Technikardan.

walker xl

Walker Titan XL

The XL is a variant on the standard polycarbonate-and-stainless steel Walker Titan, with a short bed and short bellows for use with wide-angles.

toho fc45

Toho decentring panel

Toho lens panels are round -- the big circle -- but the version seen here also has an inner, eccentric panel which can be rotated for rise or cross.

TOO MUCH MOVEMENT?

In one sense, you can never have too much movement: better to have movement that you don't need, than to need movement you haven't got.

In another sense, though, it is worth remembering that movements invariably add weight and expense, as compared with a similar design of camera without movements, and that in many cases, they may detract from stability. If they don't, the camera may well gain even more weight.

gandolfi variants 1 and 3

Gandolfi Variant Level 1 (left) and Level 3 (right)

Both have the same revolving back but the Level 1 lacks many of the movements of the Level 3. It also has double extension bellows (300mm) instead of triple extension (450mm). The Level 1 is entirely suitable for use in the field but the Level 3 is far more versatile in the studio.

TOO LITTLE MOVEMENT

It is entirely possible to buy cameras where the movements are so few, and so limited, that you cannot really take much advantage of them. This is why we do not recommend press cameras such as the Graphics, even though they  are often touted as a cheap route into large format.

baby graflex

Press cameras usually have no back movements at all; limited front tilt (often backwards only); and limited or no front swing. In fact, the only useful movement in many cases is a modest amount of front rise.

If your sole reason for buying LF is the bigger negative, you may be happy with a press camera or even with a rigid-bodied camera; but for us (and for many others), movements are one of the main reasons for using LF.

'Baby' (or '23') Graphic

The 'baby' Graphic offers much the same features (or lack of them) as its 4x5 inch brethren: no back movements at all, and front movements that are extremely limited in both nature and extent.

'Technical' cameras such as Linhof and MPP offer most of the movements that most people ever need, but for maximum versatility, especially in the studio or for demanding architectural photography, a full-featured monorail is always the best bet. With the professional shift to digital -- never mind the quality, feel the speed -- most monorails are now so absurdly cheap that even if you already have a field or technical camera, a monorail may be worth buying for studio photography.

linhof t70

Linhof Technika 70 Special (6x7 cm)

This camera started life as a Technika 70, with the huge range/viewfinder on top, but was modified by Bill Orford at our request in order to allow more rise. It now has enough movements for anything except the most demanding studio close-ups.

linhof kardan

Linhof Kardan Color (4x5 inch/9x12cm)

These often turn up at very low prices, despite the highly regarded Linhof name, because the back movements are relatively limited and because they're monorails, and no-one wants monorails any more. Their only drawback is their rather fragile plastic locking knobs.

MPP Micro-Technical Mk VII (4x5 inch/9x12 cm)

Micro Precision Products (MPP) cameras are quite common in the UK and can compete with Linhof Technikas. Here you can see front cross, swing and rise, and rear swing. The back is on four posts, allowing rear tilt or swing.

The Press version, the Micropress, has no back movements, reduced front movements, and a double extension (300mm) bellows instead of triple extension (450mm).

Use the subsidiary tripod boss (behind the strap) and swing becomes tilt and tilt becomes swing -- which is useful, as the front tilt goes only backwards. There is another way around this limitation, as described here.

mpp extension and swing

USING MOVEMENTS

The biggest problem facing the novice is the sheer choice of movements available. Everything can look very intimidating: it is all too easy to flail around, trying things at random, and never getting anywhere. Watch an experienced photographer, on the other hand, and he makes it look very easy indeed. This is because, once you are used to the movements, it is very easy. There are three important things to remember.

First, you seldom need all four movements (rise/fall, cross, tilt, swing) together. Sometimes, in fact, you don't need any: you don't have to use them, just because they are there.

Second, approach the movements in a logical sequence. Once you have established your viewpoint and focal length, the sequence given below works well.

Third, if the picture isn't working, there are two possibilities. One is that you are in the wrong place. Consider moving the camera, rather than trying to dig yourself out with ever more use of movements. The other is that you won't be able to make it work, no matter where you go. That's OK too. Fold up your tripod and silently steal away.

de vere hybrid back

Where to begin?

This De Vere-MPP monorail hybrid looks really intimidating, but it's really quite simple if you approach it methodically.

The big bottom knob is coarse focus on the rail; the knob above that is for fine focus on the dovetail; and the knob with the tommy-bar allows you to tilt the rear standard.

The lower, curved scale tells you how much you have swung the back, and the upper, straight scale tells you how much cross you have applied: the locking levers for swing and cross are on the far side of the rear standard.

USING MOVEMENTS IN ORDER

1    Rise (or fall). It is usually very easy to see whether you need this. If you would otherwise have to point the camera up (or down) to get everything in, but want to retain verticals as parallel, you need rise (or fall). Apply this first. If you can't muster enough rise (or fall), then move a little further away from the subject; or change lenses; or (if your lens and camera allow it) try indirect rise/fall as described above.

2    Cross. If you can't get the viewpoint you want, you may need cross. Apply this second. As with rise, bear in mind the possibility of indirect cross.

3    Tilt. If you want to hold a receding horizontal plane in focus, you'll need this. Visualize the subject plane. Unless you're photographing a flat road or something similar, the subject plane will normally slope upwards and away from you. If it sloped downwards and away from you, you would not be able to see it. Use front tilt for preference, unless you want to change the image shape.

4    Swing. Apply this last of all, according to the same criteria as tilt, to hold a receding vertical plane in focus.

Broken Treasures II

We shot this on a number of formats and films, black and white and colour, 4x5 inch and 6x7cm, using (as far as we recall) our Linhof Technikardan - the one at the beginning of the module - and a 210mm f/5.6 lens, probably our Rodenstock Sironar-N but possibly our Schneider Symmar-S.

The movements required were a slight drop (fall) on the front, and a small amount of front tilt to accommodate a plane of focus running from the beads at the front to the top of the glass at the back. Almost any LF camera would have done, though we'd have had to use our MPP (again seen above) upside down.

One of our readers once contacted us to say that this picture had reduced her to tears. We hope that it does not affect everyone this way.

broken treasures 2

 

THE BOTTOM LINE

Movements are a lot less important than they used to be. You fake most of them in Adobe Photoshop, and the main reason for mastering them is if you want to use large format cameras for aesthetic reasons. On the other hand, they're a lot easier to fake if you know how they work with a 'real' camera. And they really are very easy to learn: after a few minutes' explanation, Frances said, "These are cameras for lazy people: they make everything so much easier."

Like a great deal of large format photography, though, movements are hedged about with all kinds of false mystique: the Initiates like to hold themselves out as knowing Inner Secrets that are denied to the common horde. We hope that this module has exploded most of this nonsense. Yes, it takes a while to learn to use camera movements -- but it is only a matter of practice, and (at first) of rigorously reminding yourself of the Scheimpflug Rule (above) so you don't move the swings or tilts in the wrong direction.

rhodes governor's palace

 

Italian governor's palace, Rhodes

In order to keep the verticals parallel, some rise was needed. There was no trouble with left-right viewpoints, so there was no need for cross. The principal receding  plane is vertical, so a touch of swing was needed; no tilt was called for. Roger used our Toho FC45A with a 121/6.8 Schneider Angulon (not Super Angulon) shooting on the late, lamented Polaroid Type 55 P/N; the edge markings have been printed 'all in', an affectation favoured by many users of Type 55 P/N.

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© 2009 Roger W. Hicks