DigiView Take 3 – Part 1

(You can click on an image for an enlarged view!)

OK, lets quickly review what has transpired so far in our quest to create a workable camera system that allows a DSLR to be the capture device when you need to have the optical movements of a view camera.

The first iteration, produced a couple of years ago, saw me first fabricate and then buy adapters that allowed me to mount a DSLR onto the rear standard of my monorail view camera.  That worked fine and produced precisely the sort of result I wanted but though it was also pretty cheap (total cost of all the parts except the DSLR and lenses was well under $1,000.00) it did have some drawbacks.  The biggest was that it was a royal pain to lug around a full sized studio-based view camera with a long monorail into the field.  In silhouette I looked like a moose trying to get through the trees.

The results should hardly have been a surprise to me since in my film days, due to exactly the same drawbacks of the full fledged view cameras, I had two each 4x5s and 8x10s, a true  long monorail or flat bed view camera for the studio and a field or folding flat bed camera for taking out into the field.  I was hardly the only one to do that since hauling my C2 metal 8×10 in the woods was ridiculous so I used a Grundlach wooden field camera for that.  My studio 4×5 was a Toyo (similar to the one I have now) but my field 4×5 was a Burke and James folding flat bed.  And it helped that I had a wonderful, and wonderfully strong, assistant, Tom who I think could have just carried in the grip truck if necessary.  Ah, so soon we forget…

Anyway… The second iteration, whose testing was just recently completed and posted here, involved the use of a Cambo Ultima 35 system.  A marvelously precise bit of Dutch engineering that mounted a DSLR as the rear standard for a fine and precisely geared view camera front and gave complete view camera ops for the DSLR.  At first glance this seemed like the ultimate solution but it too had some severe drawbacks.

For one, it was such a piece of precision-machined wonder that it was also incredibly heavy for its size.  Indeed, one immediate problem was that it weighed more than my 8×10 Grundlach and not all that much less than the C2!  And the switch from horizontal to vertical was less than spontaneous.  Worse, if you recall, the supplied “L” bracket placed the camera so far off center that you had to dial in full left shift to center it and that eliminated using it for 3-shot pans.

Oh, and did I mention, it cost over $6,000.00 PLUS DSLR camera and lenses.

Sooooooo…. It was time to consider a compromise.  Remember that the goal was to create a camera/camera system to take into the field AND be able to use some front and rear optical movements AND use a DSLR as the capture device.  And, as a last requirement, I wanted to be able to produce at least three frame panos in camera for what would be approximately the same as a 49 megapixel camera using my 1Ds MkII as the capture device.

It turns out that falling just below the features of a full fledged view camera are two  types of cameras, with often confused names, called “Technical Cameras” and “Field Cameras.”  Some photographers use the terms interchangeably or call them both “Field Cameras.”  Strictly speaking they really are two distinct approaches but the manufacturers have muddied the water by using those same terms pretty loosely.

My ego would love for me to have the final say on it in the interests of precision, but my brain tells me to get a life and get real so I’ll just describe the two and you can then call them whatever you wish.

One type of so-called field camera is actually like a studio camera but with a shortened bed or rail instead of a monorail.  They are lighter in weight and designed for ease of use in the field at least as compared to the normal view camera monorail.  Linhof’s TechniKardan is such a camera.

To be honest however, I don’t really think of those as anything other than short rail view cameras that are wonderful for wide angle shooting such as in architectural interiors, and industrial environments, but not something to take into the woods, especially slung over your shoulder on a tripod.

A second type of field camera is a folding flat bed camera.  These fold up nice and compactly, some even fold into a larger shell for protection, and are usually made of aluminum, wood or composites of some sort to reduce weight.  These have pretty much always been called “field” cameras.

But, alas, I no longer had one since I sold my Burke and James when transitioning to digital in the early 2000s.

The third type, exemplified by the Linhof Master Technika, has almost always been referred to as a “technical camera.”  They look at first glance like a press camera on steroids, in fact it even folds up like a press camera.  But unlike the press camera it has pretty functional and nearly full front standard movements, some rear standard or back movements, a multi segment rail for using long lenses, and in some cases, even comes with a viewfinder, a rangefinder, and a hand grip so one could, at least in their dreams, hand hold them.

Some people insist on calling these field cameras as well and you know what?  I don’t care because they certainly do fill that service quite well.  Landscape shooters do not need anywhere near the degree of optical movements one needs doing product work in the studio, so these cameras can handle virtually ANY landscape job and actually quite a few studio based tasks as well.

Therefore this seemed like the obvious next “base” to use in the search for my ideal digi-cam system.  These were VERY expensive cameras new and in the heyday of film.  Far more expensive actually than even many high-end monorail cameras.  But with film dying as a major capture medium, and with these modern “kids” calling themselves photographers, who would blanch at the idea of carrying anything heavier than their iPhone, some of the proud old workhorses are starting to appear on the used market in pretty fair shape.  The really good ones from Linhof, Wista, and Horseman are all precision masterpieces, built like tanks, and though the exteriors may have seen some rough treatment as they were hauled all over the place, the working parts, safe behind their armor, continue to work just fine.  And camera bodies that ran from $5000 to $9,000 new can now be had for well under $1,000.

For this iteration I’ll use a Wista SP45, a 4×5 technical camera (or field camera if you insist)  that was created purposely to compete with the venerable Linhof Master Technika but be significantly lighter and less expensive.  It even uses Linhof Technika lens boards so if one finds a Linhof selected Schneider, Zeiss, or Rodenstock lens on a board (and as lenses go, these are the best of the best) it will fit on the Wista just fine.

Because some shooters used these cameras with rangefinders and attached a roll film adapter, most are capable of accepting standard “Graflok” style accessories to include the DSLR to 4×5 adapter plates from Fotodiox.

So with camera, lenses, adapter, tripod, and DSLR in hand it was out into the back yard to do some shooting.  I decided to follow the same process as I had used for the Ultima so the comparison would be fair and make sense.  You can easily refer back to those tests to see the results obtained with that system.  So for the first shot I decided to shoot the same palm fronds I shot with the Ultima.

Here is a shot of the Wista with the ground glass removed and the sliding DSLR adapter attached to the Graflok pins.

Fotodiox DSLR sliding adapter on Wista SP 4×5 Technical camera

I wanted to do as fair a comparison as possible so instead of attaching my 1Ds II I decided to attach my 5D since that is the same as with the Ultima tests.  This is a 12.8 megapixel camera.  Here are two views of it attached to the Wista.

Canon 5D mounted on Wista 4×5 Technical Camera using Fotodiox adapter.

And here is a shot from the other side…

Canon 5D on Wista 4×5 Technical Camera from the other side.

It turns out that since it is the same plant and at about the same distance as used for the Ultima tests (a couple of feet farther away actually since I was using a 135mm lens on the Wista compared to the 50mm on the Ultima), I knew the uncorrected view would have the same depth of field issues only be a wider shot.   So I didn’t bother with it and went right for the corrected version.

Here is a shot of the front of the rig with a very slight counter clockwise swing of about 5 degrees.  You have to look carefully at the bottom of the lens standard to see it is out of neutral alignment.

Front of Wista with front swing used for palm frond shot.

So how did it do?  Well, I took 5 shots with about a 20% overlap just to be sure I had everything.  The result was an 8208 x 4579 pixel stitched image from the files.  That is just barely less of a panorama than a 12 x 6 view (12×6 is a 2:1 aspect ratio, this is a 1.8:1).  It is interesting that this pixel resolution is not far from the resultion of some of the new generation of DSLRs with well over 20 megapixels on the chip.  But their chips are still 36mm x 24mm.  Effectively were this a single chip it would be roughly 65mm x 36 mm.  That gives me the 5D’s  pixel pitch of 8 microns instead of the smaller  6 of the 5DIII or even the 4 of the D800.

Here is the unedited file stitched directly from the raw files using Photoshop’s photo merge function.

Initial stitch from camera after trimming uneven top and bottom border. This is an 8208 x 4579 pixel file.

This is far more of a panoramic aspect ratio than the 1:1.5 of the single frame shot from the Ultima.  I seems that somehow I must have slightly moved the camera slightly counter clock wise because my initially planned composition is off and there is too much dead space on the left hand side of the screen.  So I cropped it into a 7706 x 4265 pixel image (188.1 megabyte file or about the aspect ratio of a 6×10).  Here is the resulting file with a little burning and dodging.

Cropped version of the Pal Fronds test shot. You can click on the image for an enlarged view and then click on that to zoom in even farther to chack out the detail capture in the shot..

I think I am quite happy with the quality of the results, and this is just with the D2 at 12.8 megapixels not the 1Ds II at 16.7 megapixels!

So this first test was a success.  It was easy to set up and provided all of the control I needed for the shot.  So far, so good…

BTW: I have been asked about the use of view camera lenses from the standpoint of resolution compared to the high-end lenses for the 35mm format.  It is true that as a rule of thumb the larger the glass in lenses becomes the harder it is to produce a lens with the same resolution as those with smaller elements.  It was not a problem in the film world since the increase in detail far overcame any loss in the lenses.

But in the digital world, I’m still using about the same sized sensors… sort of.  But because they are using a tiny portion of the lens’s coverage circle, and since the comparative lens resolution starts its fall off several inches from the center of its coverage circle, I was using the sweet spot.  Plus, the lens I shot with was a Linhof Selected Schneider 135 mm.  I mentioned that in passing above.

But what is a Linhof selected lens you ask?  Well, I’ll be glad to tell you…

Linhof branded their own lens/shutter combinations.  To do so, over the years, they worked with Schneider, Zeiss and Rodenstock in a sort of partnership.  The lens manufacturer would send to the Linhof plant their very best lenses, hand selected by each manufacturer’s quality control team.  These represented the best that these manufacturers could make.  But Linhof would then go over them again, selecting only the top 10-15 percent to put the Linhof brand on and sending the rest back to the manufacturer for normal sales.   Linhof did not make lenses themselves, but lenses bearing the Linhof brand are truly the best of the best.

The Ultima tests were, by comparison, performed using Zeiss Hasselblad lenses, the best medium format lenses around which are capable of astonishing clarity, resolution, and contrast.  I’ll leave it to you to decide, based on the finished shot above, how the Schneider compares.

About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to DigiView Take 3 – Part 1

  1. David, very innovative 4X5 rig, if I still had my Toyo I could once again be able to shoot it 😀

    • ndking says:

      I’m pretty pleased with it. As I concluded, the Technical Camera provided, for my use, the best of all worlds. Not the perfect answer for everything but for somethings it is ideal.

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