4x5 Backpacking System?

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

I am in the process of supplementing my 35mm work with 4x5. I have read several threads related to my general needs, but I would like to open this thread to address my specific concerns.

When I entered 35mm, I did considerable research on the overall system that I felt would best meet my needs (both present and future), and only then began to assemble (over several years) the specific camera and lens components which would best work for me. I bought the best equipment as I could afford it, and I have been pleased with the results. No small part of the data which I used for purchase decisions came from discussions similar to the present one.

Looking down the road ten years, I would like to have two cameras, both for use in the field, one backpacking weight, and one perhaps a bit heavier and more rigid but still portable (I don't anticipate architecture or studio work). Hopefully they would be reasonably compatible in terms of lens boards, polaroid back, etc. I would expect to probably have four/five lenses, 75/90, 150, 210 and 400, almost exclusively for landscape and micro work. The final product generally would be 20x24 prints (or larger) of high quality. I would also like to anticipate the use of digital recording of images, so far as that is practical and predictable at this juncture. What I would like to avoid is purchasing equipment and then selling-I know from my 35mm experience that I tend to hang onto equipment, so I would like to make every purchase count as best I can. I would expect to have the equipment for several decades.

I'm willing to spend the necessary amount as long a there is a substantial quality payoff, but I don't have unlimited funds. I'm not a Lexus or Rolex person-I drive around an 11 yr. old minivan that still runs like a top and have a Casio that serves just fine. But I appreciate practical quality and, for example, have generally purchased Nikon lenses except when the price differential became too large to justify (e.g., at 400mm). So what I'm looking for, I think, is 90-95% "perfection" at the best possible price.

What would be your recommendations for a reasonable starting point? From reading and some hands-on experience, I'm thinking about starting with one of the following cameras: Arca Swiss Discovery, Canham DLC45, Wisner Field Classic, or possibly the Toyo Field AX or AII. I would assume that a 210 and a 75/90 might be my choice for the first two lenses. What would be your specific recommendations?

-- Bill Thomson (wthomson@umich.edu), November 14, 2001


If you are going to have two systems, you can really optimize one for lightweight and the other one for versality and ease of use. Personally I'd lean towards the Toho plus the Arca-Swiss for that reason. For your choice of focals, the Nikkor 200M and the Schneider super-symmar XL 80 are great. Kerry has the best information on the web about lightweight 4x5 gear at thalmann.com/largeformat.

-- Q.-Tuan Luong (qtl@ai.sri.com), November 14, 2001.

It would be nice to find one camera that meets your weight and rigidity requirements, and don't forget to anticipate what movements you may need. If you can live with fewer movements (ie. no rear shift), or a more limited range for some movements, you can save weight and money, and probably increase rigidity.

For example, I decided to go with an Ebony SV45U (2.7Kg). It lacks the rear shift of the SV45U2, and trims 0.45Kg (that's 1lb) of weight. It is extremely rigid, and, so far, has more movements and range of movement than I have typically needed.

For my subjects (landscape and nature), I think I could have done perfectly well with The Ebony RW45: 1.7Kg, fewer movements (but all of the ones I use), reduced range of lenses.

I have packed my 2.7Kg camera on some strenuous day-hikes, and can't complain too loudly about the weight. Plus, I really find the asymmetrical movements very handy.

If you read the threads on this forum about Ebony cameras, you will find they are highly regarded in terms of quality, rigidity, and usefulness. You might consider adding them to your list of candidates. (The one drawback is they are expensive, but you should never have to buy another camera.)

-- Michael Chmilar (chmilar@acm.org), November 14, 2001.

I have a DLC45 and I think it's a wonderful camera. It is my first (and probably last) large format camera. The only complaint about it is that it could be a touch more rigid. However, for all my complaining (and the complaining of others) I have never seen a picture that was ruined by the slight flexibility. I've also carried my camera on day hikes in Alaska and weight wasn't a problem.

Before buying my DLC, I rented a Toyo Field AII and it was nice too. I really wanted the ability to back-focus on macro shots though.

Aas far as lenses, definitely look at the offerings from Fuji. In my mind, most of the lenses from Schneider, Rodenstock, Nikon, and Fuji will give you roughly the same image quality with small differences in contrast, color, or that most indescribable... "feel". I got a used Fujinon 180/5.6 W for a good price with my camera and I have no plans to trade it in. (incidentaly, I was planning on getting a 150 and a 210, but have decided that the 180 is sufficient to replace both of them. in 35mm my most used lenses were 24, 50 and 105 though).

Good luck with your purchases.

-- Nathaniel Paust (paustne@whitties.org), November 14, 2001.


Although I've occasionally tried to force a single camera to meet all my needs (Canham DLC), over the years I've found a two camera system to be the best solution FOR ME (YMMV). One reason, I find two cameras necessary is that for general purpose landscape photography, I like to use longer lenses, but am willing to leave the longest lenses home to save a little weight when backpacking. Also, it's nice to have a more full featured camera, when weight is less of an issue. Here's a few of the things I've tried over the years, and a list of what I'm using now...

For many years, I used an Anba Ikeda Wood View for backpacking. Picture and specs at:


Considering the small size and lightweight, it's a decent enough camera. Not the most rigid, smoothest, or most well built, but it was cheap, light and did the job. It served me well, until it was replaced a couple years ago with the Toho FC-45X. The Toho is just as light, more rigid, more movements and has a longer bellows. I like the little Toho a lot. It's not for all users or all uses, but for me, it's the perfect little camera for backpacking and longer dayhikes (say, over 10 miles round trip). I've also taken it as my "main" system when traveling by air. It's small enough and light enough that you can fit it and the rest of a reasonably complete LF system in a small carry-on. I have a very thorough review of the Toho online at:


For general purpose photography, I've used a number of cameras over the years. Zone VI, Wisner Technical Field Camera, Canham DLC and currently a Linhof Technikardan TK45S. I've used a few others from time to time, but those were my main cameras for at least two years each. That is the order I owned them in, and the reverse of the order I'd rate them in preference (weight not being an object, if weight was a concern, I'd swap the Canham and the Linhof - it's awfully heavy for a field camera, but a pleasure to use). So, I'm currently using the Linhof and I like it a lot. I got a good deal on it when I bought it, and if a similar deal had been available on an Arca Swiss F Line, I'd probably be using one of those now and liking it a lot. Which is another way of saying, both the Arca and Linhof are well built, well designed cameras - either capable of handling just about anything you might encounter in the field. One thing I like about the TK45S is that in its stock configuration it easily handles my 450mm Fujinon C without any add-on extension rails or longer bellows. For the Arca, the stock bellows is only 380mm. So, you'd need to buy a longer bellows and perhaps a longer rail (depending on which model) to accomodate a non-telephoto 450mm lens.

Here's what I'm mainly using in lenses these days:

With the Toho for backpacking: 90mm f6.3 WA Congo, 135mm f5.6 APO Sironar-N, 200mm f8 Nikkor M and 300mm f9 Nikkor M

With the TK45S: 75mm f6.8 Grandagon-N, 110mm f5.6 Super Symmar XL, 150mm f5.6 APO Sironar-S, 210mm f5.6 APO Symmar, 300mm f9 Nikkor M, and 450mm f12.5 Fujinon C

I also have a few more lightweight and speciality lenses that I carry when appropriate: 180mm f9 Fujinon A, 240mm f9 Fujinon A, 150mm f6.3 Fujinon W, 14" f9 L.D. Artar.

Also, since the Toho can accept lenses mounted on the Linhof panels, I can mix and match as the situation disctates. So, if I'm going on a long day hike in steep terrain, I can take the lighter Toho camera (and a lighter tripod), but still a full assortment of top quality lenses (75mm, 110mm, 150mm, 210mm and 300mm). This lets me fine tune what I'm carrying based on changing conditions and needs.

I'm a bit of a lens nut, and have written a number of pieces on assorted lens related topics. I have an article on Fujinon lenses in the current issue of View Camera (Nov/Dec 2001) as well as some additional info on my web site. Specifically...

Lightweight lenses for backpacking with 4x5:


Future Classics - My opinions on some of the best of the best of the current (and recent) crop of LF lenses:


This is all just presented as food for thought. It's all based on what I've used and what's worked well for me. All cameras and all photographers are different. I'm not suggesting that anybody else who rushes out and duplicates my system will be happy with the results. They may be, or they may be miserable. It all depends on their needs. As I mentioned, I like to be able to use longer lenses (like the 450mm Fujinon C), so I would never be happy with a system that did not support such lenses. And, although I use a 75mm, I'm not a huge wide angle user like many other LF landscape shooters. What camera (or cameras) works best for you depends on what lenses you like to use (and that may not map perfectly from 35mm as your photographic vision my evolve differently with the larger format and the new possibilities it affords and limitations it imposes). Some people (like me) are best suited with a two camera system. Others (especially those who don't use longer lenses) are perfectly happy with a single camera for all their needs (just keep in mind that some of these cameras can cost more than the combined cost of a Toho and a Technikardan or Arca Swiss - and not be as versatile as a two camera system). It's all about finding what works best for you. It sounds like you've already given it some careful thought and plan to proceed slowly. That's the best approach to eventually ending up with a system that best matches your needs (and not mine or somebody else's). Good luck.


-- Kerry Thalmann (largeformat@thalmann.com), November 14, 2001.

I would go with the Ebony range of cameras-check their website.For all the applications you are considering I feel they offer unbeatable specs.They are light,very rigid,have full movements (I have an SV45TE- non warping ebony wood and titanium-again,check website for specs),and can accomodate a wide range of lenses.True,they are not cheap,but when compared with other wooden field cameras are far superior.A camera for life,definately.

-- Andrey Belopopsky (sabaca10@hotmail.com), November 17, 2001.

One 4x5 camera for life/ that is easy: the Arca-Swiss 4x5 FC. Either that or the Linhof TK45S. With every folding field cameras 9includingthe Ebony) you are goingto may eventually run into technical limitations of some sort. But beyond that, just about any camera you enjoy using will serve you well and unless it is really badly built will not have an effect on your photography.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (ellis@ellisvener.com), November 17, 2001.

Moderation questions? read the FAQ