Monorail vs Flatbed for Outdoor Field Work : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I am planning for my eventual jump to LF photography. I have done a lot of reading, and spent a good amount of time browsing this web I think I have pretty good knowledge of what's out there. Only I still have one point of indecision. I'd like to hear some arguments for or against the use of Monorail cameras for outdoor landscape/nature, etc photography....and what cameras will do the trick. Right now I'm leaning towards a Wisner 4x5, but would like to other views.

Thank you in advance!!

-- Scott Mittelsteadt (, March 26, 2000


Well... here is my story...but I should warn that I am not a fan of most wooden cameras and will explain why later...

I started out with a Sinar F, mainly due to attending a Sinar seminar on large format photography. The asymmetric tilts and angle finders seemed to make tilts effortless. That was in a studio! In the field, I found that tilt angles were often so small that the angle dials were useless. The camera didn't pack up very small, and the standard bellows length was limiting.

I switched to a Wista VX field camera. I didn't like the lack of zero detents on tilts. In the field, if you overshoot in tilt, it is nice to be able to quickly go back to zero, and start over. So I got a Toyo 45A which I used for nearly 15 years. I still love that camera for reliability, ruggedness and packability. The only limitation I found was limited bellows length and a bit more vibration than I liked at maximum extension.

So I have recently switched to an Arca-Swiss 45F Field which is a monorail camera. This camera seems to have all of the capabilities and none of the limitations of the other cameras I have owned. It packs up very small, with lens in place, and is very fast and easy to set up. It is spectacularly rigid and precise in movements, yet has simple, easily identified controls.

Here is the upshot. I think you need simple controls that can naturally be identified by touch. Most of the wooden, and many of the metal fields I have tried have have gobs of small identical knobs. After a tedious process of unfolding the thing and tightening the myriad of knobs, you are faced with trying to adjust the camera while looking at the ground glass and you have twenty small brass knobs on both sides of the camera most of which you don't want to touch. You also need a positive yet unrestrictive zero detent so you can manipulate the camera back to "zero" without taking your eye off the groundglass but also without battling the zero detent for small movements. The toyo as pretty good in these respects, the Arca-Swiss is better.

As far as rail vs flatbed, its mostly a matter of system expandibility and extreme movements. The latter are mostly unused in the field unless you are into architecture. Long extension rigidity is often better with monorail designs, but there are some flatbeds with good extension (Linhof and others). Flat beds can be a problem if you like really short lenses and don't want the bed in your images.

Both will work for most shots.

-- Glenn C. Kroeger (, March 26, 2000.

Try and get your hands on one of each and try them out. You always take a new car for a test drive, right? if you don't live near an l.f. stocker, e-mail Wisner and see if he knows of any owners in your area. You could always post an add or something, see if the local studio has one.

As far as knobs go, the Deardorff was built with knobs of different size and shape for specifically that reason. I think it's reallly a matter of familiarity anyway - you get used to where the gear shift is and what pattern your car uses and then you get in your friends car and turn the windshield wipers on when you're trying to signal for a left.

Bear in mind, although it's nice to get it perfect the first time, it's not always possible. Look at the divorce rate in the U.S. for example. Sometimes you really have to put some time in to find out if it's right for you.

-- Sean yates (, March 26, 2000.

Most photographers I've seen working any distance from their cars with a monorail camera weren't happy. They can be a pain to set up and take down and are very hard to pack unless you take them apart. They don't compress any more than a flat bed camera so a wide angle lens is just as problematic as a field camera. I own a Gandolfi Varient 4x5 and have 18" bellows draw and it takes a 90mm/f8 lens with some tilt and swing. It weighs in at 7 lbs but I haven't had a bit of problem with it even in the rain. My buddy had a GraphicII and switched to an Osaka after using my camera. It only cost $550 new and although it only has 12" bellows it will take a 90mm/f6.8 with movements. It is very ridgid and weighs in at 4.5 lbs. Very nice camera. Movements in the field are very small so the advantage of a monorail is inconsequential. The main problem witha monorail in the field is the rail arrangement. Some folks don't mind and some do. Try both but make sure you pack it a ways and use it before making up your mind. James

-- james (, March 26, 2000.

I chose a monorail since I think it's more intuitive to use, especially with rear back movements since there's no box to get in the way. There are several monorails that are quick to setup/take- down and have a reasonable weight (Toyo VX125, Arca Swiss F-line, Linhof Technikardan). Plus if you ever decide to shoot architecture, you won't find yourself limited on movements. If I were to go with a field camera, I'd probably get something with generous movements for greater flexibility. From what I've seen, the Linhof Mastertechnika has the most of any field camera, but it also weighs as much as some lightweight monorails.

-- James Chow (, March 27, 2000.

One of the reasons I chose the Canham DLC is that is a hybrid of monorail and flatbed design. If you are using very wide angle lenses like a 65 mm or a 58mm you have no problems. likewise if you are using longer focal length lens 300mm or longer the rails extend far enough out (550 mm to be exact) that you have enough bellows even for closeup work, and it will do both the wide angle and the long focus work without changing bellows. It is also very rigid. My other camera is an Arca Swiss F-line that is very good for exactly the reasons Glenn listed. You really should try to handle the cameras you are considering, modern ergonomic designs like the Arca F-line and the Canham DLC make the experience more enjoyable. If you are looking at the Wisner because you want a wood/metal camera also look at the Phillips and the Canham wood/metal 4x5 (different from the DLC).

-- Ellis Vener (, March 27, 2000.

Might as well add my two cents worth. I've used both monorails and folding cameras in the field and my experiences with both were positive. I'm currently using a Wista 45DX and love it because of its small size and light weight. On the other hand, I do miss axis tilts from time to time and could also use a bit more bellows draw even though I have extended lensboards for my longer lenses. As for movements, you can always use more. In contrast to many people's experience, I routinely overstretch my field equipment's capabilities in the field (the monorail too!). I've crinked the bellows, vignetted and compromised composition because the darn thing just wouldn't twist into a pretzel! The deciding consideration for me (and maybe for you) was: How much will my camera choice hinder/help me to take the pictures I want? For me, since I hike, climb, clamber and crawl through everything from coastal underbrush to narrow desert canyons, size and light weight were of prime consideration. Being able to get everything into or onto a fanny pack and fishing vest leaves both hands free for saving my life when I slip on steep slopes, scrambling, etc. My monorail is great on the trail carried unfolded on the tripod but there are some places where it doesn't let me go, so I usually carry the wooden folder. The Wisner Pocket Expedition 4x5 that I saw seemed to be a fabulous camera (and maybe my next) and I don't think you would be unhappy with it. However, you should assess carefully (and honestly) where you will be carrying and using your camera and weigh the trade-offs (there are always some), especially the weight/size/performance(/price) balance. If you never plan on getting more that 10 yards from the car, then get the biggest monorail you can afford. If you are climbing mountains with a 4x5, you'd better consider size and weight. I agree with the above posts as well: get your hands on some cameras and see what you like, and what likes you, before purchasing. Hope this helps a little, ;^D)

-- Doremus Scudder (, March 27, 2000.


I used both a 4x5 wood field and a Toyo monorail for years. I now use a Canham DLC, for many of the reasons given by E. Vener. The camera combines most of the advantages of both flatbed wood field and studio monorail designs.

I just came back from a month-long trip where I used the Canham daily, setting it up and taking it down repeatedly, long distances away from the vehicle. The camera is a real joy to use. Very solid and rugged, extremely light and compact, flexible enough for any situation, simple to manipulate, and handled all my lenses (long to short) with ease.

I particularly appreciated the T-type locking knobs on the front and rear base tilts and front rise/fall, and the cam lever locking devices on the focus tracks and all other movements/adjustments. Very sure and solid once set up and locked down, even with gloves on, and easy to identify behind the darkcloth. I recall the confusion of the many little, round, brass locking knobs on my previous wood field. Not only did they require you to remove your gloves to gain enough purchase to lock them down properly, but their similarity often had me reaching for one knob when I meant to use another. And loosening one of these round brass things, if locked down too tightly, had me screaming and looking for a pair of visegrips.

To me, a good camera design is one that you literally forget while using it, leaving all your concentration for the task at hand. Good luck, Sergio.

-- Sergio Ortega (, March 27, 2000.

if you can, find a Linhof Technikardan 45s, and spend a few minutes with it. notice the unique design, with attributes of both monorail and flatbed. pay attention to the precision, stability, quality, and unlimited movements available. note the zero detents and partial detents, linear markings on all adjustments, 30 second setup and takedown times .. leaving the lens attached.

true, it is $800 more than some of the above mentioned cameras. however, if you view this as an investment or a lifetime purchase, the extra is inconsequential compared to your photographs and the joy you'll garner from working with such a well-crafted camera.

-- daniel taylor (, March 27, 2000.

In reply to comments by James: "Most photographers I've seen working any distance from their cars with a monorail camera weren't happy. They can be a pain to set up and take down and are very hard to pack unless you take them apart. They don't compress any more than a flat bed camera so a wide angle lens is just as problematic as a field camera...Movements in the field are very small so the advantage of a monorail is inconsequential. The main problem with a monorail in the field is the rail arrangement. Some folks don't mind and some do." I own a 4 x 5 monorail camera, the Linhof Technikardan, which I find a joy to carry. The camera weighs about 6-1/2 lbs and folds up quickly (1/2 minute) and compactly (8 x 10 x 4 in.) without having to be disassembled. The only inconvenience is having to use a bag bellows with wide angle lenses of 115 mm focal length or less. By positioning the lens at the tip of the monorail, the rail does not protrude into view. Because I use a 210 G-Claron for 1:1 closeups at an extension of 420 mm, I find the TK's monorail extension capabilitiies relatively advantageous. Very few flatbed cameras can attain such an extension. The TK has centimeter markings on the monorail that aid me in determining how much extra exposure is needed for closeups. Because lens tilt of 5-10 degrees might obstruct the image due to the lens shade, I often use the degree markings on the front and rear standards to transfer some of the needed tilt to the rear standard, eliminating the drawn curtain effect. To attain rear standard tilt with flat bed cameras typically is achieved by additional and more complex movements: dropping the bed and adjusting the front standard. Stability and free lens movement are preserved with wide angle lens. Flat bed cameras typically have less lens movement with wide angle lenses because of the necessity to drop the bed down and tilt the front standard backwards. I do not know how commonly flat bed cameras become less stable with bed tilt, but I have read of a comment to that effect as to one flat bed camera. My knowledge about comparative impact resistance is limited. My camera has fallen to the ground several times, sustaining only minor damage (an abraded knob and a loosened bellows that was repaired with glue). I have seen wooden flat beds that developed impact-related cracks but remained fully functional. Aesthetically, many wooden flat bed cameras are more attractive, with their brass hardware, leather bellows, and reflective hardwood finishes, especially when combined with a well made wooden tripod. I associate the TK with precision engineering and life-time durability. I do not think of it as the best choice for a professional photographer in need of a portrait camera or camera for table top photography, spare no expense and ignore the weight, because it cannot be upgraded to 5 x 7 or 8 x 10, lacks geared movements, and does not have dials to quicken attainment of the desired depth of field. If I were to buy a flat bed camera, I would give serious consideration to either a used Master Technika (going for about $2000) or a new MT or MT 2000 from some foreign distributor offering it at much less than the prices commonly charged by USA distributors. The MT camera weighs about 6 lbs and folds up to about 7 x 7 x 4.5 inches and does not need a bag bellows for wide angles. It has a 360 mm extension and can be used with 500 mm telephoto lenses. It is easier to set up and close than the TK and I assume that it is extremely durable and resistant to impact damage. Both the TK and the MT use the same size lens board, a relatively small 96 x 99 mm board, that eases storage of lenses in the pockets of a camera bag. Both use center axis lens tilt rather than base tilt for sharpness adjustment and I regard that to be advantageous to base tilt for landscape photography where yaw-free movement is not needed. The TK has independent levers for lens rise and tilt, while some flat beds have a single knob controlling both rise and tilt. Regards, David

-- David Caldwell (, March 29, 2000.

See for an in-depth review by Kerry Thalmann of the Toho 4x5. It's a monorail that seems to have been designed for fieldwork. He reports on his experiences backpacking with it and compares it to the (more expensive) Canham DLC and to a (cheaper) wood field. It looks interesting.

-- Chris Patti (, March 29, 2000.

I have a Toyo 45A. It's a rugged little camera. I thought the wooden flatbeds too flimsy. I had an original Calumet monorail before, and the 1/2 inch rail flexed too easily for field work.

I used the Toyo recently for the first time in a quite few years outdoors. Yosemite at 35 to 40 degrees. The focusing was stiff. So I just bought a Toyo 45CX. It has a 39mm (1.5 inch) rail which won't flex. Everything on it seems easy to use. I can even see how to remove the lensboard 0 detent, since it seems to stiff. Big bonus: all my 45A accessories work on this camera. Lensboards, backs, etc. And it's only $550 discounted, so it's about as low as you'll get for an entry level camera. It weighs a couple of pounds more than my 45, but that's not a big deal.


1)I think monorails are easier to use; 2)They are a little bulkier; 3)You can get a monorail that doesn't weigh much more than a metal flat bed; 4)I can't recommend wooden view cameras, but lot's of people like them.

Good luck! Charlie

-- Charlie Strack (, March 29, 2000.

Well David, since I haven't seen you out in the canyons and mountains where I do a considerable amount of my shooting, I will stick with what I said. "Most of the LF photographers I see out in the environments where I do most of my photography use field cameras." The photographers that have monorails don't have a problem with using them when they get them set up, just that their set up effort is more than mine. Some have had short rail models and fit into their packs easily. The longer versions had to be disassembled to fit into their packs efficiently. Monorail cameras have their advantages and disadvantages. My Gandofi flatbed field camera( which isn't meant to say it's the greatest camera) uses lenses 90mm to 480mm all on the same toyo boards. It is a very rugged camera and has had it's share of spectacular spills with no adverse effects and gets wet quite often with no harm. Flatbeds fold up neatly, quickly, and efficiently into small packages. Most have more than adequate movements front and rear. Except for Toyo A1's and such, most flatbed cameras don't need to drop their beds to use short lenses. If you use a mono rail camera, great. No disapproval here. But from my experience, most of the shooters I see use field cameras because they are so much easier to fold up and store in a pack easily. And if you need more than a few small movements to get everything from your feet to the distant horizon in focus or that flower or that building, maybe you need to visit Mr.Schiemflug again. You might have missed a lesson or something. I'm not saying monorails aren't great cameras. I'm saying I don't see that many of them out in the wilds far from the roads. James

-- james (, March 31, 2000.

I'd like to ask a provocative question for my own information. Please do not smite me with flames. My LF camera is a Super D Graflex, which has no lens or back movements (tilt, shift, or rise). To increase depth of field I simply stop down to f:32 or f:45, while carefully checking the ground glass for sharp focus. To correct for unwanted converging lines in the negative I tilt the enlarging easel. It is quite rare when I need to do either of these things. I wonder how much others actually use their lens or back movements when in the field. 1)Often, 2)rarely, or 3)almost never?

-- Bill Mitchell (, March 31, 2000.

Quite often when there are any straight lines such as buildings or windows/doors in the image. Or if I want to exagerate an existing foreground object or lengthen /shorten the foreground, door/window, or legs. James

-- james (, April 01, 2000.

Stopping down as far as you do does increase depth of field and reduces lens performance if you go too far do to diffraction.

On the other hand tiltiing or swinging the lens does not increase deppth of field. It controls the plane of focus. So does moving the back (although with a change in image shape).

For extreme sharpness from near to far both a tilt and or swing as well as closing the lens down to its diffraction limited stop is commonly used with view cameras.

Simply stopping all the way down is not the answer.

As to correcting on the easel rather then the film means that it is virtually impossible to make 2 identical prints at 2 different times. It is far better to simply eliminate the convergence (or introduce it) at the time the picture is made.

-- Bob Salomon (, April 01, 2000.

Bill, I use at least one of those movements for virtually every LF image I make. Front rise/fall and rear shift I use most commonly, followed by tilts of either standard, followed by swings. I try to set up in such a way that the less movemetns i need to do the better but very occasionally (and never in the field) I end up with a combination of some times as many as six or more movements (each standard having four types of movement not counting focus).

-- Ellis Vener (, April 01, 2000.

I have never used a monorail, only a flatbed camera. On the Technika and other flatbeds, the axial point of the lens is about 95mm from the base of the camera. This compactness is quite reassuring when working outside, with air streams coming from everywhere. Looking at monorails (Technikardan, Arca-Swiss) makes me somewhat giddy, for the axial point is about twice as high. In practice, does it really make a difference in sensitivity to vibrations due to wind?

-- Paul Schilliger (, April 07, 2000.

Paul... despite higher pivots, my Arca-Swiss is much stiffer than my Toyo 45A was... as for wind, although the profile is higher, there are fewer large flat surfaces (bed, sides) to catch the wind so it seems to be an even trade.

-- Glenn C. Kroeger (, April 07, 2000.

Scott: In seeking advice about whether to buy a flat bed or monorail camera, you need to consider whether the person giving the advice suffers from "homo erectus dysfunction." People with this syndrome only take pictures with the camera positioned at eye level. At this level, very little lens tilt, if any, is needed to bring the ground (horizontal plane) into clear focus from the near to the far. These people can get along fine with cameras that have limited movements because their needs are modest. Because of their limited experience, these people may be clueless why any one would need to tilt the lens 5 to 10 degrees to maximize sharpness along the horizontal plane. A few landscape photographers are noted for wide angle images in which the camera is positioned within a few feet of the ground. I think of these people as "homo neandertals," because they assume a stooped or seated position and at times place their knuckles or palm on the ground. Lowering of the camera to this height magnifies the foreground and allows small objects such as few flowers to fill the lower third of the print. Lens tilts of 5 to 10 degrees are needed to realign the plane of focus and bring both the foreground and infinity into sharp focus. Lens tilts of this magnitude are needed at lower camera heights in order to ensure convergence of three planes at the same point: the horizontal plane (represented by the ground), the imaginary plane that passes through the optical center of the lens and tilts as the lens is tilted, and the plane of the film. The most prominent photographer that I can think of who uses this technique is David Muench. If anyone thinks it incredulous that I would need more than a few small movements to get everything from my feet to the distant horizon in focus or that flower or that building, maybe he needs to visit Mr. Schiemflug again. You might have missed a lesson or something. Regards, David

-- David Caldwell (, April 08, 2000.

Here is one other viewpoint:

John Fielder wrote in his 1996 book, "Photographing the Landscape, The Art of Seeing" page 134:

"Field cameras fold into a relatively small size for portability, while mono-rails have a central rail upon which all of the parts are mounted. Mono-rail cameras are more flexible than field cameras, but they are also more unwieldy. Mono-rail view cameras are best used inside studios, and field cameras are best for the outdoors."

-- Charles Mangano (, July 24, 2000.

Depends on your monorail. My 8x10 Gowland Pocketview folds flat with the rail removed and fits into a conventional knapsack designed for a laptop computer. The Arca-Swiss F-line monorails also seem to fold quite compactly if you use a collapsible rail.

-- David Goldfarb (, July 24, 2000.

Well, since my previous post above, I have acquired a Toyo VX125. I must say, working with this camera is a delight, from the Linhof TechV user point de vue. But, I now always have the two cams with me. If there is moderate wind, the Linhof allows me to keep working, which the Toyo does not.

-- Paul Schilliger (, July 25, 2000.

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