It’s time to address what has become my top question in emails and social media messages: What kind of 4x5 camera should I buy? It’s a topic I’ve put off far too long for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that I’ve never talked too much about gear because I find large format cameras to be such simple devices that hardly have any level of modern technology. Another reason I've put off this post is because there's much more to it than just recommending a few camera brands and models, I want to educate people on what to look for and how to come up with a decision based on their needs and understanding of what different view cameras offer. That said, once upon a time I had to make the choice for myself and anyone getting into the format will eventually need to decide what sort of light-tight bellows box they want to purchase to begin their journey into the realm of big film.
I will start by briefly explaining how large format cameras work and also discuss what sort of reasons you might have for wanting one. A large format camera is nothing more than a place to put film, a place to put a lens, and bellows between the two. The area where the film goes is called the rear standard and the lens gets mounted into the front standard. You can install just about any large format lens on nearly any large format camera provided you have a fitting lens board and that the lens has enough coverage to illuminate the size of film you are shooting. I will talk more about lenses later in this post.
To make things confusing, there are easily hundreds of different large format camera models available in the new and used market. I will break this down into two basic categories: monorail cameras and folding field cameras. Monorail cameras have a rail that connects the front and rear standards and typically have a wealth of any movement you could imagine. There is usually incredible amounts of rise/fall, shift, swing, and tilt. In general, these cameras tend to be large and heavy which makes them best suited to studio work or roadside applications including architecture where the extreme movements may be handy. There are some exceptions to the large and heavy rule such as the compact Arca-Swiss models, but typically these cameras will weigh 15 pounds for a 4x5 and are best carried in a large case or left in the studio.
Field cameras typically fold down into a compact size and can be rather lightweight depending on the construction material, which can range from metal to wood to carbon fiber. In general, field cameras typically have less movements than monorail cameras but usually plenty for landscape and modest architecture work. Weights for these cameras can range from 900 grams (just under 2 pounds) for the ultra-light Intrepid 4x5, up to 3 to 4 kilograms (6-8 pounds) for some of the heavier metal 4x5’s such as a Toyo Field. There are also press cameras which sort-of fall into this category. Cameras such as the Crown Graphic fold down into a small size and don’t weigh very much, but offer practically no movements of any use which can diminish the purpose of large format film aside from just having a bigger negative.
What movements do I need… and how much?
That depends on the type of work you’re doing. Most people that ask me are intending to use a 4x5 for landscape photography and maybe some architecture. If this is your main goal than you need some rise and fall to correct perspective, and certainly some front tilt to get everything in focus from near to far. Rear tilt is nice if you want to exaggerate foregrounds but if the camera doesn’t support it you can get the exact same effect by tilting the camera back with your tripod and readjusting the front movements, it just won’t be as quick as a camera with rear tilt mechanisms. Occasionally it can be nice to also have some swing movements for certain scenes such as focusing down a diagonally running fence line. How much do you need as far as movements go? Usually not all that much, and nearly every field camera on the market will have plenty of movements for all your landscape needs. If you’re primary focus is architecture, you might want to look for a camera that allows for bag-bellows which will let you use extreme rise with the big lenses that actually have a large enough coverage.
But Alex, what brand camera is the right one for me?
This is the point that everyone asking the question usually wants to know, often I will be provided with a list of several 4x5 cameras and asked which one is the best. The fact of the matter is that I do not own a camera store and have not had the chance to use dozens of different 4x5 models. My very first 4x5 was a ridiculously cheap Crown Graphic that did not have the movements for proper landscape work. Other than that I have only gotten my hands on two 4x5 cameras: the Toyo 45A II that nearly all of my work on this website was created with and more recently the Intrepid 4x5 that I use now for backpacking to save weight. Most of us large format guys out there will only ever have the chance to use a few select cameras, which means we can only provide any sort of real thoughts on the ones that we have personally gotten our mitts on.
For this reason I find it best for people to think about their own specific needs for a large format body. Depending on your situation, one of the first priorities might be your budget. If you want to spend under $1000 on a 4x5, then don't even look at ones over that price. You don't need a 4x5 camera over that price range. If you have money to burn and like the smoothest geared movements and artisan designs then by all means set your aim high, but in the end you will be able to create the same images either way. The other things to consider are size and weight. If you want to hike with it you will likely want something not too terribly large or heavy. Lighter weight cameras may have less movements or be less rigid in wind so keep that in mind. There is also the bellows extension of a camera. To use a 300mm lens on 4x5 you need to run the bellows out that far and not all 4x5 cameras can go out beyond 300mm, though many have extension rails and longer bellows available if you plan on doing a lot of telephoto work. There are also a few telephoto lenses available that have longer focal lengths without the need for running the bellows out that far, but these can be rather rare.
Usually the way I recommend people to shop for a 4x5 camera is to go to Google, ebay, or keh.com and look for 4x5 cameras. Immediately ignore ones that are way outside of your price range, then look for ones that at least look like a reasonable camera for your needs such as a field camera, folding, etc. Once you find some options then start Googling those models. You'll likely find endless forum posts, blog reviews, and more about the cameras. You'll also probably be able to find specs about how big and heavy it is and maybe even the amount of movements it offers. Chances are you'll run across forums where someone asks about the same camera model and three other people chime in and say "yeah, it's good." Again, this is because not many people have used several 4x5s and the fact is most of them are pretty darn good.
Take your time during the process. Since we're talking about used stuff things will pop on and off the market, if you aren't in a rush you'll likely run across a better selection and better prices. If you want something new then you can order straight from the manufacturer. Cameras like the Intrepid 4x5 are very inexpensive and light (you can read my semi-review and backpacking blog on that camera here). Of course the sky is the limit with higher end models that are still produced today and you can easily spend thousands if you'd like. If anyone is curious about my thoughts on the Toyo 45A II that I use they are right along the average forum opinion of "yeah, it's good." It's been my workhorse for well over a decade, has all the movements I could need for landscapes and more, and has a nifty rotating back that lets you switch from portrait to landscape orientation very quickly. It's a bit heavy, but very tough.
Ground Glass Options
I want to finish the camera section with a few notes about ground glasses. This is the surface where you see the image, upside down and flipped around. There can be a few differences between cameras in the type of ground glass they come with. Some will offer a Fresnel lens, which can significantly brighten the view when looked at directly at the cost of a darker image when viewed from the sides and little tiny rings appearing in the Fresnel surface that can make it a little tricky to find the perfect focus with a loupe on certain subjects. Typically, the benefits of a Fresnel outweigh the bad.
Another option is clipped corners or full corners. I'm a huge fan of clipped corners because they allow you to look at the actual lens opening to see if there will be any vignette when you're using a lot of movements. You can also see if you have a filter holder or lens shade blocking a part of the lens in ways that would be too hard to see on the ground glass. If you don't like the ground glass that your camera comes with you can typically change them out for a different one or add a Fresnel lens - usually for not all that much money.
Large format Lenses
Let's talk lenses for a bit! If you thought there were a lot of options for the cameras there are many more different lenses that are readily available on the used market for large format cameras. That's why once again it's not ideal to just tell someone what lenses to get, but rather educate people on what to look for when shopping for them.
Since the aspect ratio of 4x5 film is different than 35mm and full frame DSLRs, it makes comparison a little tricky but not too bad. In general, you sort-of multiply the 35mm focal length by three to get close to a similar angle of view with a 4x5 lens. Here's some common large format focal lengths and their approximate 35mm equivalent.
75mm on 4x5 ~ 23mm equivalent
90mm on 4x5 ~ 28mm equivalent
135mm on 4x5 ~ 45mm equivalent
210mm on 4x5 ~ 70mm equivalent
300mm on 4x5 ~ 100mm equivalent
These numbers will get you a close enough idea to figure out what sort of lenses you might want. If you're shopping for 8x10 lenses you need to double the 4x5 focal length to reach a similar angle of view.
This is a very important factor when choosing a lens. Large format lenses can be mounted on all sorts of different sized film formats, but that doesn't mean every lens will be able to cover the entire area of that film size. Before clicking the "buy now" button on a lens, it's worth Googling for the exact model and finding out the image circle of the lens. To cover a sheet of 4x5 film the lens must have an image circle of 153mm. To use any movements at all you must have a lot more than that. This can be a particular problem when you find rather small lenses or ones that were designed for a smaller format. Most wide angle lenses (like 75mm and 90mm) that cover 4x5 and allow for movements will have a rather enlarged front element so if you see one of those lenses that looks really small in the image pay close attention to the image circle - There's only a handful of really small wide angle 4x5 lenses that actual cover the format.
Thankfully there's a guy Michael Davis who has put together a chart of all the common large format lenses you might find out there and included their image circles so you can know if you'll be able to use some movements with a lens you're shopping for. 200mm of image circle or more is typically plenty for most landscape purposes, though with the longer lenses you'll find most of them cover a lot more than that. You can find that chart here.
Nearly all of the brands of lenses you'll find out there are of good quality. Mostly on the used market you will be able to find Schneider, Rodenstock, Fuji, and Nikkor Lenses. You will also see a lot of Caltar lenses which was Calumet's in-house brand and is almost always a re-branded exact copy of a Rodenstock lens. I say almost always because if it's a very old Caltar lens it may be a re-branded Schneider. Either way, they will be quality glass and sometimes found at a lower price. In fact, if you go with any of the brands I mentioned here you will not be disappointed. Kodak also made a lot of large format lenses back in the day, most of these will be older and people shopping for them will know the certain look they are going for such as the aero-ektar lenses.
Large format lenses are different from smaller formats in that the shutter will be installed in the lens between the front and rear elements. The shutters have a slide that lets you change the aperture from wide open down to usually f45 or f64 and also a ring that lets you adjust the shutter speed. The shutter speeds usually range from 1/500 down to 1 second, and there will also be either a Bulb mode, T mode, or both. The shutters come in a few standard sizes that lens boards will also have pre-drilled holes for, such as size 0, 1, and 2. There are three main types of shutters you'll see out there, Compur, Copal, and Seiko. I have personally not had very good experience with Compur shutters and will avoid buying lenses that have them in the future. I have had two fail, both in different ways. One had a T setting that you really had to whack the cable release to get it to work and the lens didn't offer a B mode. The other had a sticky bulb setting then one day would no longer open at all with the preview lever. Compur shutters are a little more likely to be found on older lenses, with the Copal shutters being the most common shutter that you'll find. They come in a variety of different ages with some minor variances but I have found them all to be reliable. The Seiko ones will sometimes come on Japanese lenses, while I have no personal experience with them I've heard they are generally reliable.
These shutters can be sent in for maintenance, and the cost for that maintenance will often run about the same as the street price for a replacement lens in good condition unless it's a rare and valuable lens. I have had some temporary success by taking the faceplate off of the Compur shutters and applying lube in just the right places, but be prepared for the possibility of tiny springs and screws flying around the room and a wasted shutter. I have yet to take apart a Copal because I've yet to have one give me any sort of trouble.
This is a feature I typically look for on a lens because the multicoating can reduce lens flare and boost microcontrast making for an arguably sharper image. This feature also usually means the lens is a lot newer than one without multicoating as it became rather common sometime in the 80s, which means the shutter is less likely to give you trouble down the road. Multicoating is usually noted with an MC on the lens barrel, or hopefully by the person listing the lens for sale. KEH will always note if a lens has it with MC in the listing. It can also be seen in the glass of the lens as a purplish iridescent coating on the surface.
You don't necessarily need multicoating. I've been very happy with my 75mm Super Angulon that does not have it, for whatever the reason this lens is rather flare-resistant and if it does flare it's rather pleasing and just a general reduction in contrast to the image. I had a single-coated 210mm Schneider and found the flare to be unbearable, if the sun even so much as thought about grazing the lens surface the image would be unusable.
That's really all the points I have to make about shopping for 4x5 cameras and lenses. I hope this helps to unwind some of the mysteries and help you make an educated decision! To learn more about lens movements and much, much more about film in general, check out my ebook: "Film in a Digital Age" and really hone in your film technique.