Camera Types. First, all of the cameras discussed here are designed primarily for film, though some may be fitted with digital pickups and some of the designs were jumping-off points for evolving digital cameras. In general camera types in medium (MF) and large format (LF) have overlapping and sometimes confusing type names, so carefully distinguishing them is useful. The glossary below will help you thread your way through the technical terms used for MF and LF equipment. The links lead to additional pages with discussions of the four principle types of LF equipment--press, technical, field and monorail designs. These more detailed pages are also available from the Shopping menu.

Press camera

Technical camera

Woodfield camera

Reflex Camera




Early studio camera


Folding Kodak ca 1890
Source: Coe, Cameras

  • View camera - Any camera whose principle means of focusing and composition is on a rear groundglass panel and which supports at least some movements. This includes the four of principle types of large format camera designs--press, field, technical and monorail cameras.
  • Press camera - Generally a box with fold down front on which a focusing rack is mounted. A front lens standard, attached to the case with a bellows, travels out on the rack for focusing. Most press cameras support some movements on the front standard and very limited movements on the rear. This group also includes medium format rangefinders with helical lens mounts, that almost never support movements.
  • Technical camera - Most often designed like press cameras--self-enclosing or otherwise folding--with movements on front and rear standards and usually with rotating or reversible backs.
  • Field camera - Typically a camera with movements on at least the front standard and whose weight and bulk are such that it is reasonably portable. This includes both wood and metal designs.
  • Woodfield (Wood field) - Usually a flatbed camera with an clear-finished wooden case and focusing bed that may fold up for travel and storage.
  • Flatbed camera - literally a design where focusing is done by moving the lens and focal plane standard on a flat bed with a focusing rack; the rack may be hinged or segmented to improve portability.
  • Reflex camera (single lens) - A camera which includes a movable mirror allowing viewing and focusing at 90° from the lens plane. Twin-lens reflexes with both a viewing and taking lens are common in medium format designs and rare in large format designs.
  • Monorail camera - A design where focusing is done by moving the front and rear standards on a tube or rail under the camera.

With so many design variations, it is important to rely more on an analysis of features, and less on the tacit acceptance of a marketing name as guidance in purchasing decisions.

A Brief History of Larger Format Cameras

The earliest cameras were much like the ultra-large format cameras used today--typically flatbed designs with a rear film back and a front lens standard connected by pleated bellows. The large studio camera shown at the left was of a type that would be five to six feet tall and use and use plates as large as 16 x 20. These weighed hundreds of pounds and clearly showed the need for something more portable outside the studio. "Hand" cameras using much smaller plates, like the Folding Kodak, were developed for "field" photography.

The "hand" camera design has proven to be very durable. Early photographers would have little problem quickly adapting themselves to shoot with modern press, technical or woodfield cameras. The woodfield design is still about the only practical option for very large format cameras, 8x10 and larger and these are still popular 4 x 5 cameras because of their light weight. Press and technical cameras developed in much the same way, often trading off quick setup and rigidity for some technical movement. Modern large format cameras exploit modern materials, but most follow the outlines of the earliest cameras. As photojournalism moved toward smaller formats, the designs for LF equipment tended to depend entirely on ground glass composition.

Since the technologies necessary to build flatbed/field cameras are rather basic ones, it isn't surprising that the number of manufacturers of this LF design is the largest, with principal suppliers in the U. S., Japan and China, offering 4x5, 5x7, 8x10, 11x14 and larger traditional formats as well as some panoramic formats. The earliest cameras used wet glass plates requiring portable darkrooms to coat and process the images, George Eastman's development of much lighter dry film made photography practical for millions. Dry roll film quickly became a compact format. As film emulsions improved, cameras got smaller and more portable, but the design remained similar. Metal framed cameras became available with the introduction of the 35mm format, but rollfilm bellows folders persisted into the 1950s. The bellows design is still the most common contemporary large format cameras.

Today most people think of medium format cameras as single-lens reflexes, like Hasselblads and Bronicas or largish rangefinder designs like the Mamiya 7 or the Fuji GA645. Medium format also includes older rangefinders--predecessors to the Mamiya 7 and Fuji--like the Graphic XL , the Koni Omega, and the Mamiya 23 Press/Universal that generally had helical lens mounts rather than bellows. Sometimes these were called press cameras, but that term was generally reserved for older bellows designs, primarily Graphics--but also Burke & James (B&J), Busch, Tower--that were made in three common sizes 2 1/4 x 3 1/4, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4, and 4 x 5 in the same design. The smallest of these would today be considered a medium format, while the larger two models would be considered large format.

When a press camera is opened, a front lens frame or "standard," attached to a folding bellows, is extended out onto a rack with a pinion-driven focusing mechanism. Composition is done through an optical eye-level viewfinder, a wire frame finder, or on ground-glass on the rear focal plane. Most traditional press cameras have coupled rangefinders. Lenses are mounted on the front standard and can be interchanged, although only the latest models have rangefinders that can be adjusted to work with lenses of different focal lengths. Most press cameras were sold with between-the-lens shutters and Speed Graphics have an additional focal plane shutter, so it is possible to use them with barrel lenses that do not have an integrated shutter. These cameras typically had lenses with a maximum aperture of /4.5.

With the popularity of press cameras among photojournalists prior to WWII, combining the convenience of the press camera with the camera movements of the flatbed camera was an inevitable progression and Linhof reached for the gauntlet. The Technika design recognizably extends back to the Linhof aluminum framed camera of 1889. Modern Technikas were developed in 1934 and first produced in 1936 when the term 'Technische Kamera' was adopted. Technikas had the front movements that were present on other cameras, but also had a rotating film gate/ground glass frame that could be adjusted for tilt and swing. Technikas were and are made in 6x9cm and 9x12 cm formats. This design inspired other companies like Micro Precision Products and Meridian to build similar cameras. Many early Technikas are recognizable in models that Linhof produces today. Later Wista, Toyo, Horseman and Canham, along with others have produced technical cameras.

The original single lens reflex medium and large format cameras were Graflexes, shown at the left, made by the same company that made Graphics. Graflexes were also made in three common sizes 2 1/4 x 3 1/4, 3 1/4 x 4 1/4, and 4 x 5. Graflexes, in general, had focal plane shutters and barrel lenses of about f /4.5. They had removable lens boards and provided better support for swapping lenses than Graphics because of the SLR design. Graflexes had a movable mirror for focusing on ground glass. Most had to be manually stopped down before taking the shot, though the last models had a preset feature that automatically stopped the lenses down after the shutter release was pressed. Although there were exceptions, most Graflexes had no support for perspective control. Most had rotating backs that usually included a groundglass focusing panel, but neither the backs nor the lens standards supported movements. Both Graphics and Graflexes used primarily sheet film, but could also use film packs (now discontinued) and many could use rollback adapters.

The popularity of 35mm SLR has supported this design in larger rollfilm cameras--typically 6 x 4.5, 6 x 6, and 6 x 7 cm designs. Hassleblads and Bronicas were early designs in the 6 x 6, formats. These were followed by designs in all three formats by other Japanese manufacturers. The most persuasive design advantage for SLRs is that lenses can be interchanged and focused without the need for any other optical adjustment.

Generally monorail designs derived from flatbed designs, but are almost always metal cameras where camera rigidity and control of standards movements are the controlling factors in design. The two standards are connected by a pleated or a "bag" bellows, then this assembly moves on a metal rail that also includes a tripod mount. Monorails usually provide the most extensive movements and are likely to have the greatest range of travel for the standards (extension). They often have gear-driven movements and scales to improve precision. For that reason monorails have been preferred for commercial studio and architectural LF work. They are usually the best choice for macro work because they can close focus a wider range of lenses. Because of the all metal design, monorails are usually the heaviest of the large format designs, though there are notable exceptions.

While early digital development was centered on small format equipment, the immediacy of results and feedback allowed by digitial became an attraction to MF and LF designers. New digital view cameras have been designed that provide traditional movements with digital backs. Digital backs have been introduced that fit the international back (Graflok) standard. Lens formulas have been optimized for use with digital pickups. The MF and LF products markets are not likely to attract first time LF buyers, because the prices are steep. Since lens design for digital photography varies from that of lenses for film, consideration of these LF digital outfits is warranted.

Modern camera users will note that most LF cameras have no built-in metering and most digital and 35mm users will mostly have used automatic metering and may not be familiar with manual metering. For LF work, you will need a good independent meter, typically one which can be controlled for angle of measurement. This might be something like a Luna Pro with the 7°- 15° attachment or a spot meter that can measure an area as narrow as 1°. You will also have to learn how to operate the meter and make informed use of its readings. Because exposure is so important you may want to explore a technique developed by Ansel Adams--the Zone System. More on exposure .



05/07/2009 1:02