"What About an Ebony?"

greenspun.com : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

On 7/25/00 Howard Slavitt in a thread entitled, "Former Canham DLC Owners" http://www.greenspun.com/bboard/q-and-a-fetch-msg.tcl?msg_id=003Y7y asked me, "What about an Ebony?"

I really haven't given too much thought to wooden field cameras because Q.-Tuan Luong in his article, "4x5 Cameras: a round-up", describes Metal field cameras as follows:

"They have a more solid feeling than the wooden counterparts, and are indeed very rigid and sturdy, with greater accessory systems like reflex hoods, etc... If your tripod is knocked over by the wind, a metal camera is quite likely to remain functional with a few scratches, whereas a wooden camera could be totally destroyed. For these reasons they might be better for heavy use."

For as much as Ebony cameras cost, it would be quite a loss to have one destroyed by the wind.

Philip Greenspun in his article entitled, "Choosing a Large Format Camera" states:

"Wooden field cameras drive me insane because the movements aren't precise and it is tough to even get the standards parellel."

However, Tuan in his 4x5 round-up does refer to the Ebony as, " no compromise" cameras. Is Ebony the exception to the above comments and others like them? I would appreciate any first-hand experience related to these comments you feel like sharing. Thanks,

-- Charles Mangano (cmangano@heart.umaryland.edu), August 21, 2000


I haven't seen an Ebony in person, but have seen, played with or used just about every other wood field camera. They will all do just about the same thing. Some are more refined, some have more movements than others, some are prettier, and some cost a *lot* more than others. They will all break too in various ways if blown over in a gust. In the end however, they are *all* capable of taking razor sharp images of your own compositions given a good lens and good technique. If you are even considering an Ebony, cost is not an issue for you, so my advice is to go try out (rent perhaps) a few different kinds of cameras and see what suits you. The cost of trading up is not high, especially if its not an issue in the first place.

I too am an equipment junky and agonize over specs and appearance. But I am truly happiest when I have just picked up a pile of chromes from the lab after a successful trip in to the field.

Best of luck in your quest!

-- Richard Ross (ross@hrl.com), August 21, 2000.


Nathan Congdon has written a thorough and detailed review here:


I'm sure he would be willing to discuss the camera in detail and answer any questions you might have. Nathan showed me his camera when I was in Bal-mer last March. With all do respect to Mr. Wisner, I would have to agree that the Ebony is the most solid woody I have seen.

Any camera will brake under the right conditions. When I was in Tunisia I lost my Wisner to a concrete abuttment. I couldn't count on getting it back if I shipped it from Tunis to Massachusetts for repair. I could however find all kinds of skilled craftsmen right there who could fix that wooden camera even though they weren't sure what it was.

I have a metal camera now and am nervous enough about it that I don't like being without a spare. I know when/if I break that 'un - it'll probably be less expensive to buy another used than to get it fixed.

Re: Mr. Greenspuns comments, I can only liken the difference between a camera with non-geared movements to a SINAR P2 or Linhof as being similar to the difference between a 1958 Dodge Power Wagon and a Mercedes whatever - totally different creatures for different purposes goals etc. BOTH will get the job done when used as intended.

Personally, I favor the Dodge.

-- Sean yates (yatescats@yahoo.com), August 21, 2000.


Don't overlook the Lotus cameras. You can buy direct and the US:Euro ratio was favorable recently.

I've owned many wooden cameras in various formats...and I must say the strongest camera I've held in my hands in my Lotus 4x5. Everything is precision and the focusing smoother than any Wisner I've owned. By a LONG shot. My Wisner 7x17 was a bit wobbley. Very lightweight. I can use my heavy 24" Artar/#3 on my Lotus and not worry about the bed breaking in half or the front standards failing.

A camera is just a box. Better to concentrate on the optics. I have a Lotus becuase I wanted to use my big Artar and I needed the extra bellows draw...othwerise I would still have a little Wisner or a Zone VI.

I would suggest going to a large LF shop and playing with several cameras to get the feel of them.

Many historical/classic/momumental images were made with rickety old field cameras. Those older Koronas/Anscos/etc weren't exactly precision pieces. Don't get hung up on the equipment side of things.

Jeff at Badger Graphics sells the Ebony. Call him and get his take on it. He's an honest character and you should be able to gets some good hands on info from him.

-- Carlos R. Herrera (rogue2@inreach.com), August 21, 2000.

Though I've only briefly seen an Ebony in person, I will say that what I've seen of them seems to indicate that they're a quality product (should be, given the price). However, I think a much better value would be a Deardorff. I just bought a moderately well used 8x10 (bad finish, else good) with front swings for about $750 and the thing is absolutely wonderful. Everything works smoothly and easily and, while it may not move with the exacting precision of my Linhof 4x5, it is most certainly a very sturdy and capable camera. Take a look at one if you can- you might be pleasantly surprised.

Just a thought...

-- Dave Munson (orthoptera@juno.com), August 22, 2000.

Charles, I have been using an ebony SW45 for almost 12 months now and am completely and utterly impressed by it!! It is extremely solid, lightweight and very robust. It may dent or worse if dropped but then I suppose any LF camera would suffer some sort of damage or misalignment if dropped .....I am very careful with mine!! Every one has their favourite make or model, but I purchased mine after a great deal of thought and after comparing many other makes and models. They are expensive but should out last me (as long asI dont drop it!!) Regards Paul

-- paul owen (paulowen_2000@yahoo.com), August 22, 2000.

I guess what I am trying to understand, is *why* some people still prefer wooden field cameras in light of comments such as those made by Q.-Tuan Luong and Philip Greenspun. Is it because of appearance, nostalgia, or some functional or practical reason such as weight?

If these generalizations are correct, and I have no reason to doubt them, is the Ebony simply the expensive exception and if so, why? Certainly, cost savings wouldn't be a motivating factor for someone to prefer or recommend an Ebony. Thanks for helping me to understand this apparent contradiction.

-- Charles Mangano (cmangano@heart.umaryland.edu), August 22, 2000.

I prefer my wooden field camera (Wista DX) because it weighs less than four pounds and folds quickly and easily in to a self contained box. This is the only way for me to backpack a camera in to remote locales. Yes there are the very light wieght monorails, e.g. Gowland and Toho, but they have their own set of compromises. I simply could not imagine carrying a metal field camera or a 6+ pound wood one for that matter. If my application were different, say architecture, the Ebony SW models look attractive as compared with a Toyo monorail for instance, not because they are wood, but the compact design and range of movements they provide. For that application a Wisner Tech Field looks wholly unattractive.

-- Richard Ross (ross@hrl.com), August 22, 2000.

Charles, I've just purchased a new Ebony SV45U2 several weeks ago. I'd previously been using a Wisner Pocket Expedition 4x5, and was *very* unsatisfied with it for a multitude of reasons. I'd virtually decided to get a Linhof MT2000, and Jeff at Badger Graphic suggested that I look into the Ebony. I did, and after inundating Jeff with questions, decided that the Ebony would indeed meet my needs. And so it has...I am extremely happy with it, and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it. It's an absolutely spectacular camera, and solves EVERY ONE of the things I didn't like about the Wisner.

As Nathan and others have said, it's very well built. Quite an understatement, actually, since it lives up to Ebony's statement that it's absolutely rigid. It's almost twice as heavy as the Wisner - as much as the Linhof, in fact - but I have no problem with trading that minor inconvenience for so many positive features.

A good reason for choosing wooden cameras is their flexibility as opposed to metal field models. Some, such as this one, have nearly the movements, etc that are available from a monorail, yet are compact and easily transported and set up, unlike most monorails. The model I bought, for example, allows use of 35mm-800mm (tele) lenses all with the same bellows, and in general has a LOT of movements possible. Plus that wonderful feature, "assymetrical tilts"...

In short, it's worth every penny of its admittedly high price. A camera may just be a box, but there's something to be said for convenience and pleasure of use, which I didn't have until getting the Ebony.

Feel free to email me if you have questions about it and I'll help if I can. Regards,

-- Danny Burk (foto28@aol.com), August 22, 2000.

My experience with the supposed superior sturdiness of metal cameras hasn't been nearly as good as Tuan's comments suggest. I have a Linhof Technika V. About six months ago it fell out of my backpack as I was lifting the backpack to put on my shoulder. The camera was wrapped in a Calumet wrap and fell a distance of maybe two feet onto dirt. One of the knobs that controls opening and closing of the back snapped off in the fall. I was fortunate to find a used knob and mechanism for the Tech V because this part of the camera was totally redesigned with the Master and Linhof no longer makes the parts for the Tech V. Then last week while on a trip from Florida to Pennsylvania the locking mechanism for the front standard stopped functioning, making it impossible to keep the front standard in place after tilting it. I just today sent the camera off to Marflex for repair (one way shipping cost $50). So I don't know, this particular metal camera doesn't seem all that sturdy to me.

-- Brian Ellis (bellis@tampabay.rr.com), August 22, 2000.

I use a Linhof Tech in 4 X 5 and the Ebony at 8 X 10. Metal is more rigid than wood, it's just how God made them and the best manufacturer in the world can't change it. That being said, at 8 X 10, the Ebony gives the best combination of weight, movements, quality and convenience of use out there, and that's why I chose it. The asthetic of a metal camera is quite different from that of a wood one, which you will prefer really does depend as much on your personality as comparison of spec sheets. Ebony cameras are beautifully designed and extremely well-made, and I'd be happy to talk to you any time about my experience with mine.


-- Nathan Congdon (ncongdon@jhmi.edu), August 23, 2000.


You wrote:

"I guess what I am trying to understand, is *why* some people still prefer wooden field cameras in light of comments such as those made by Q.-Tuan Luong and Philip Greenspun. Is it because of appearance, nostalgia, or some functional or practical reason such as weight?"

In spite of Tuan's comments, I think it's very significant to note that the large format camera he uses is a WOODEN 5x7 Canham. And believe me, he totes it all over the backcountry (we spent four days hiking and photographing at Mount Rainier last week and he's now in Alaska) in all sorts of harsh environmental conditions.

I think you hit the nail on the head with your last question. Although some people simply prefer the "look" and/or "feel" of a fine wooden camera (just like some people prefer a Steinway to an electronic keyboard), I think one advantage wood still has as a material is light weight. Granted, there are some tremendously light metal cameras (Toho, Gowland, etc.), given similar designs and capabilites, a wooden camera will be lighter. It's simply a matter of the relative density of the materials. By using wood for the camera "box", it is possible to build a camera that is both sturdy and light.

That said, all wood cameras are not created equal, but then neither are all metal cameras. There are different types of wood, different designs and different levels of assembly quality. I haven't yet had my hands on an Ebony, but I have two on the way that I will eventually be reviewing for my largeformat.homepage.com. I also have a 5x7 Lotus on the way.

I'm currently using metal cameras, but have used several wooden models in the past. I find the whole notion that wooden cameras are somehow fragile or sensitive to be preposterous. For many years I lugged a little Anba Ikeda Wood View up and down hundreds of miles of trails in everything from rain forest to desert to mountain to coast. This is one of the lightest, and least robust wood fields ever made. And guess what, it held up just fine. The most fragile parts of any field camera are the ground glass and bellows. Protect these bits while it's in your pack and you'll be fine. Yeah, metal is a more robust material than wood, but are you going to take pictures or pound nails? All this talk about which cameras will and won't survive being dropped is a bit nonsensical. My advice: DON'T DROP YOUR CAMERA. And that advice applies whether your camera is wood, metal or some polycarbonate 35mm autofocus wonder. Cameras aren't designed to be dropped. To make a purchasing decision based on such criteria is to impose unrealistic constraints on the problem.

When shopping for a field camera, I consider all models regardless of materials. To me, functionality (bellows length, movements, ease of use, etc.), weight, quality of construction, price, etc. are much more relevent than the material choice for the body. Afterall, if wood was so inferior, why are so many camera makers (Wisner, Canham, Phillips, Lotus, Wista, Tachihara, Zone VI, Ebony, etc.) still using it, and why are so many photographers still making great images with wooden cameras?


-- Kerry Thalmann (largeformat@thalmann.com), August 23, 2000.

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