The Digi-View Camera Revisited: Part 1

You can click on a photo to see it enlarged.

The Problem:  Needing to shoot with a digital camera when you need the full optical movements of a view camera for distortion control and/or depth of field enhancement all beyond the capabilities of a normal “tilt/shift” lens for your DSLR.

Some of you may remember several years ago when I showed how to mount a DSLR onto the back of a normal view camera.  For that project I designed and had the school metal shop fabricate a single position mount to use with a Graflok™ back to replace the ground glass on my Toyo View.  Then my friend Lee Peterson turned me on to a movable mount sold by Fotodiox… which I quickly purchased.

This new adapter allowed me to mount a DSLR onto a normal 4×5 view camera and thereby gain all of the optical movements of that view camera.  And the sliding adapter let me stitch 3-4 shots side by side with NO perspective or distortion issues to solve. (You can read about this in a handout on my site, www.ndavidking.com/sdccd.htm in the Photo 240 section.)

The only problem was that compared to handling a normal small or medium format camera it was huge and clunky to operate.  Oh, it was certainly a show-stopper when I set it up at the famed “Tunnel View” in Yosemite back in 2004, in fact it was hard to shoot since people kept coming up around me to see what I had.  But it had one huge drawback.  I was using normal 4×5 lenses.  In order to use a wide angle lens, say in the 45mm range, the only way it would work was with a recessed lens board AND a bag bellows.  Then I could focus and shoot but the front and rear standards were still so close to each other on the rail they did not allow very much in the way of optical distortion or depth of field correction.

Lee used his Fotodiox adapter on a Toyo field camera and that was a little better due to the bellows designed to fully collapse into the case.  I think mounted on something like a Linhof Master Technica it could become even more workable with the rear movements available.  But, the bottom line with my monorail camera rig was that it was, from a practical viewpoint, really relegated to studio use where you were working fairly close on small products with a 90mm – 210mm lens where the standards were far enough apart to allow full movements.

However, there are other solutions to the problem.  Bear in mind that if money is no object one can always get a 4×5 scanning back for their view camera or a wonderful medium format view camera such as the Linhof M679 coupled with a P45 medium format digital back.  But to do so will require an amount equal to a deposit on a house or you could buy a nice car for the same amount.  Yes, the results would be extraordinary quality, but let’s get real; how many of us are really ready to shell out enough money to take a big bite out of a $50,000 bill for such a package?  (You can do better getting used stuff but have to be VERY careful you get ALL of the parts and the correct cables and RUN from anything marked “As Is!”)  If you are shooting professionally aimed for a high end market then you may have no choice but to go this route, but students and amateurs, even lots of professionals find it very hard to make a business case for such a steep purchase.

But let’s say that the image quality you are getting now is OK, it is simply that you need view camera movements for product or landscape use.  Let me introduce you to yet another option courtesy of Cambo (sold through Calumet), the Ultima D.

Designed specifically to mount DSLRs behind view camera or Hasselblad’s and Mamiya’s medium format lenses, this gives you enough focusing space, with the bag bellow, to photograph nearly anything and to use as much of the camera movements as the projection circle of the lens will allow. (The camera has sufficient movements to go beyond the edge of a medium format lens’s circle and that is more than enough for 95% of the work you will ever encounter.)

This is a real piece of precision engineering.  Here it is with a Canon 5D and a Hasselblad 50mm f4 lens.

Cambo Ultima D view camera style adapter for DSLRs.

For this first test shot I just set up in my back yard.  Some of the palm fronds seemed like a reasonable subject to demonstrate the movements to control depth of field.  To demonstrate its effects I’ve shot with the lens wide open (f4) for minimal depth of field.  Below is a plot of the situation.

Layout of camera and subject plant for this test shot.

As you can see the plane of the fronds is at an angle to the camera.  Shooting it with all of the movements at a zero or null point is like shooting any camera without such movements.   But with a view camera we can use the optical principle documented by Austrian Army Captain Theodor Schiempflug.  As applied to view cameras, if the image plane, the subject’s desired plane of focus, and the lens’s optical plane all intersect at a point, the depth of field will now tilt in a wedge shape whose prime angle corresponds to the desired subjects.  There is also a handout on my main website (www.ndavidking.sdccd.htm) in the Photo 240 section which illustrates this and other view camera operations clearly.

First, here is a shot with all of the movements at Zero (Neutral) position.

Plant at f4 with all movements set at Zero, i.e. no movements at all.

You can see that even with the 50mm lens, set at f4, its widest setting, the very front and very rear of the plant is not in sharp focus.  So its time to bring in the view camera potentials and that brings us to Theodor Scheimpflug and his famous rule.

(The next two paragraphs are an aside for all the nerdy technical types out there.  There are actually TWO rules involved here.  The one that is typically credited to Scheimpflug actually was discovered and documented by a French photographer named Jules Carpentier whose name is lost to obscurity.  The rule that Scheimflug actually generated is a little different and is often referred to as the “Hinge Rule.” 

So just to clear this up, the Scheimpflug Rule (or principle or effect or theory depending on the author) is actually Carpentier’s rule and the Hinge rule is actually Scheimpflug’s rule.  Clear?  Anyway, according to the Hinge rule (Schiempflug’s REAL rule), if the plane of the lens when it is parallel to the image plane, the plane of the lens after movement but adjusted for focus distance, and the desired plane of sharp focus all converge at a point, then the modified plane of sharp focus will be at the desired angle.  In practice, both rules come into play but Carpentier’s rule, which we now, as you recall, almost always call the Schiempflug rule, is easier to visualize.  The good news is that since we can see the result of such movements in the viewfinder we do not actually have to break out the protractor and get anal about the math involved.  And once the three planes intersect properly, if all subsequent focusing is done by the rear standard (the image plane) then the Hinge rule steps in and keeps the new plane of focus.  However, focusing with the image plane also changes the scale slightly.)

OK, we are beyond the nerd part and back to reality.  In the case of these test shots, I swung the front standard to where a line drawn through the lens axis would intersect at the same place as a line drawn through the desired angle along the frontal plane of the fronds and a line drawn through the image plane.  Below is the result, still wide open at f4.  Et Voila, the frontal plane of the plants is all “focused.”

THe same plant at f4 showing the effect of swinging the front (lens) standard in accordance with the Scheimpflug/Carpentier rule.

It may appear that the rear frond fringes are not focused but if you look close you can see it is actually a double image caused by a sudden gust of wind.

Here is a shot of the front of the camera showing the front swings used in the plant’s corrected shot above.

The only problem with this rig is that so far (I do not have a manual for it) I have not determined how to rotate the camera into the verticle (portrait) position but I’m sure it can be done.  All camera functions such as shutter speed and shutter release are handled on the DSLR body, focus is done by adjusting the separation of the standards, but setting the aperture is done manually on the lens.

Final reaction is that this fine bit of engineering is a very good and relatively inexpensive solution for studio shooting.  It obviously would work for landscape and macro shooting as well since it creates a built-in bellows for close ups.  But it is VERY heavy.  All of that metal mass creates quite a bit of weight.  It is no heavier than the 8×10 I used to lug all over the place when I was a lot younger, but, though perhaps it is an admission of age and laziness, I think I would quickly grow tired hauling this on longer hikes through the forests, especially at altitude.  Maybe because its weight is in such a compacted space it just SEEMS heavier than it actually is…???

Hopefully before I have to return this rig I can demonstrate its use for distortion correction and maybe, if the subject allows, complex movements far beyond the capabilities of a tilt/shift lens.

(For the techies, the camera mounted on the Ultima is a Canon 5D and the camera used to take the shots of the rig is a Canon 1Ds MkII with Canon 85mm f1.8.)

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About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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