Burke & James
4 x 5 flatbed c 1960
Wista DX with
Horseman HD 4
Field cameras are the functional extension of the earlier "hand" cameras. They are designed to be portable and provide at least a minimum of movements to control perspective and plane of sharp focus. When set up, woodfield cameras often look like early flatbed cameras and they may have this design--a front standard on the front of the bed and a moveable rear standard for focusing. Field cameras have evolved from this original design to include other structural designs and materials. Most field cameras fold, making them very compact for their format; some are made as non-folding. The kinds of front and rear movements they can support vary with the design. In cameras made in the last quarter century virtually all field cameras supported at least front rise/fall and tilt and rear back tilt. Some models allow front shift, and rear swing, rise/fall and shift, making them nearly as versatile as monorails.
Field cameras are often made of wood with metal fixtures to secure the standards and provide smooth focusing. Wood species vary, with quartersawn cherry being the most common. Walnut, mahogany and rosewood are used, and Ebony cameras are named because of their primary material. Dimensional stability and flatness are a primary characteristics sought in wood species. Types and quality of joints are critical in case design. Most designs use box or finger joints for case sides. Lamination is a design technique for improving dimensional stability. Metal reinforcment of case corners is common and positive so long as the underlying joints are good in themselves. Case woods can be varnished, lacquered or finished with penetrating oils that leave no surface film.
Metal field cameras are much like technical cameras without technical backs, that is to say very much like late press designs. More recent designs have exploited new materials. An often defining characteristic of field cameras is weight reduction. Backs with movements inevitably add weight, so the lightest field cameras typically have only rear tilt. Heavier models may use plate pivot systems like those used in some modern technical designs. Field designs don't really involve a different set of tradeoffs from those considered in the designs of other types of large format cameras, it is just that in general, field cameras are expected to be light.
Woodfield cameras, and some technical cameras were/are made with leather bellows; others have cloth bellows or cloth bellows with an outer plastic cover. Older cameras with cloth and leather bellows may have damage at the corners and may have developed pinholes. When buying a used camera with folding bellows, this is a common point of failure that you should check.
Most woodfield cameras have reversible rather than rotating backs to change between portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) orientation, because the former are lighter and because rotating backs necessarily introduce a major set of metal parts that traditionally would be considered inappropriate in wooden cameras; this hasn't prevented manufacturers from adding metal international G backs to many woodfields. Many current and earlier woodfield cameras `have "spring" backs, like the one shown on the Wista DX. Spring backs have focusing frames that are not removeable, so they can accept only sheet film holders and rollholders that have thin-bodied film gates that will fit in the limited gape of the spring back. Some woodfields, like the Wista DX have spring backs that can be entirely removed and replaced with international backs. Most woodfield designs have double extension focusing racks.
A controversial issue with woodfield cameras is their rigidity and stability. The bodies are made of flat pieces of wood joined together at the corners by joints that may range from butt joints to interlocking finger joints. These joints may have metal caps. Shipbuilders made wooden joints that took the pounding of angry seas for centuries, so there is no reason to believe that a wooden camera body, as such, should be suspect. Metal fittings for woodfield cameras are made from a variety of metals--brass, aluminum, steel and even titanium--of various thickness. These metals may be pressed, bent, cast, welded, natural and/or plated. Their strength and durability will depend on design and manufacturing. The number of features and standards movements will add to the complexity of making a rigid camera and will affect its weight.
Most, though not all woodfield designs have base rather than axis tilts. Base tilts are inherent in the design of folding cameras and adding mechanisms for center tilts adds weight and can reduce stability. Base tilts are less convenient because they necessarily involve refocusing after each tilt adjustment and since many rise/fall adjustments are done indirectly by changing the angle of the bed. The mechanisms that support standards movements on woodfield cameras vary considerably and the types and ranges of movements vary among brands and models.
Field cameras can generally boast of their congenial relationship with short lenses, particularly those with short beds and those with moveable rear standards. These allow the front standard to be located on the front edge of the bed, none of which then projects into the field of view.
Providing a history of field cameras is challenging because there have been so many; the wood/metal design is perhaps the easiest to manufacture on a small scale and with the least startup expense. Several American companies produced professional wood cameras, often in very large formats. The Kodak 2D, an 8 x 10 model, was produced before and after WWII. Kodak made a magnesium version just prior to the War, but ended its production during the War because of a shortage of magnesium. Burke and James (B&J) made wood cameras for many years, including a foldable flatbed design in several different sizes. Japanese companies that have specialized in large format designs often have a considerable tradition in making woodfield models. To add to the confusion, companies have sometimes manufactured woodfield cameras and licensed or produced them for other companies.
Although I am limiting discussion here to the 4 x 5 format, it is worth noting that currently the only commercially available field cameras in the 6 x 9cm format are those from Ebony. Older Crown 23 and Century 23 Graphics might squeek by as field cameras, but would probably be disqualified because even their front movements are limited. In larger formats, field cameras are the primary type because they can be the lightest. Several companies currently make designs in both wood, metal and more exotic materials in sizes as large as 16 x 20 and in panoramic formats.
The Ebony cameras are arguably the finest of this type and to learn more about the design of woodfield cameras and their manufacture, visit the Ebony site. I have not included other information about their cameras here because they are well beyond the price that most new LF users are willing to spend. One interesting design variation in the Ebony line is that there are folding and non-folding models. Functionally, the non-folding models are quicker to set up and provide better support for short focus lenses, while the folding models provide longer extension and greater range of some movements, though they are more finicky to set up. Ebony makes non-folding woodfield models; this may seem academic at first, but since the configuration and features of other brands vary, it may be useful to understand the two Ebony designs as reference points.
An early Japanese model was the Ikeda Anba/Nagoka. They are light and have a moveable rear standard. They offer generous front and rear movements, including swing on both standards. The Ikeda Anba has a spring back that accepts sheet film holders and thin-bodied rollholders.
Burke & James. The Chicago firm of Burke and James served the professional market for many decades with a catalog of wood and metal cameras. The folding flatbed camera shown here was the smallest of several formats. The wooden frame is surprisingly light and, while folded, it is a bit bigger and heavier than todays wood field designs, it provides all movements on both standards. It has a greater range of movements than my Cambo NX--7 in. of rise/fall, 2.5 of shift, ~ 25° of L/R swing and ~ 25° of axis F/B tilt on the rear; and 5 in.of rise/fall, 1.75 in of L/R shift, ~ 25° of swing and ~ 25° of F/B axis tilt on the front. The primary bed is 13.75 in. and the supplemental bed adds 9 in. Extension is about 20 in. It can focus a 90mm lens with a flat 5.2 in wooden lensboard, of course with no movements and allows moderate movements with a 135mm. It will focus a 300mm at 10 ft. without the extension. The front standard is of 3/8 in. wood with nickeled metal reinforcement for slots. The back is a little more caselike to protect the bellows. The case rides up and down on 3/16 in. thick slotted aluminum standards, so when locked down, the B&J is as stable as a metal technical. I plan on making some converters for Wista lensboards and perhaps modify a Graphic-to-4 inch converter so that it works with the B & J. It had an unremarkable wooden reversible spring back, which I have supplemented with a wooden/Cambo international G back. It weighs 5.8 lbs., plus another 1.5 lbs. for the extension bed. It rides around in a bright red 9x9x10 insulated plastic food bag and sets up by just dropping the hinged bed and setting it on a tripod.
Horseman offers a woodfield model. Case and bed are cherry. It has an international back that is reversible. Fixed bellows are attached to a front lens frame that mounts Technika/Wista boards. The front standard allows rise/fall, shift, swing and tilt; the back standard swings and tilts forward and backward. Extension is from 45mm to 315mm. Weight is 3.2 lbs.
Horseman also offers
the HD metal camera that generally fits the definition of a field
camera. The HD has an alloy body and a double extension bellows. A
reversible back has only rear tilt via the drop bed. Like the other
Horseman technicals, the HD uses an 80mm square lensboard, which can
be limiting for large lens/shutter combinations. Since HDs focus from
back to front, they share that same limitations as press and technical
designs do in the use of short lenses. HDs weigh 3.7 lbs.
The Toyo 45CF is the only field camera built primarily from carbon
fiber and it follows the general layout of the technical cameras that
Toyo makes. It has an international G reversible back with rear back
tilt via the drop bed. Front movements are generous for a self-storing
field camera. It will focus lenses from 90mm to 400mm on flat lens
boards. At about the same price as entry-level woodfields, it offers
an interesting option that is quick to set up with good film flexibility.
Graphic. Though most of the Graphics have more limited movements than most field cameras, the Super Graphic does offer competition. I have listed it with the Press Cameras, but at about 4 1/2 pounds it has full front movements and rear tilt via the drop bed, with the convenience of a rotating back--surpassing the convenience of the Toyo 45CF and with equivalent movement and greater stability. Details
Shen-Hao. China has become a signifcant source for woodfield cameras and Shen-Hao one of the major imported brands. Wood species for cases and racks have varied between teak and walnut; similarly fittings have included brass (raw, plated or painted), natural aluminum and black stainless steel; some larger models have titanium fittings. Different wood and metal choices may be available on special order. The case sides are made with box joints, a generally good choice for this kind of construction. The U. S. distributor, Badger Graphics, stocks most of the 4 x 5 models, a 5 x 7 and an 8 x 10 model and some more esoteric panoramic models; they can order any of the Shen-Hao models subject to manufacturer availability.
The HZX-4x5-IIA has been a popular model with an impressive range of movements for an entry-level field camera: front rise/fall, shift, and swing; rear rise, swing and both base and center tilt. Current models are in black walnut with black stainless steel fittings (there have been reports that the fittings are brass painted black). Shen-Hao 4 x 5s use a Wista lensboard and front to back focusing. This model has removeable bellows with an optional bag bellows. It has an international back, in the sense of having Graflok-style sliding bars to lock film backs, but removing the focusing frame is reported to be tedious. Newer models may not suffer from this problem. This is one of the earlier models and there has been considerable discussion of quality control issues possibly being at the root of ongoing disagreements about Shen-Hao quality. Then again, disagreements might also be a problem with quality control of LF photographers.
The newer TZ45-IIB also has a black walnut case, but aluminum fittings. Back suspension has been redesigned. The movement ranges are different from those of the HZX-4x5 and the newer model can focus lenses as short as 50mm.
Shenhao has previously offered a non-folding model in a design similar to the non-folding Ebony models.
A recent addition to the Shen-Hao line is the PTB 4x5 Light Weight. This an unconventional design, but not one original to Shen-Hao; it is a copy of the Chamonix, which is a copy of the Phillips. It folds, but not in the same way as conventional woodfield cameras. The PTB has a center mounted rack on which the front standard mounts at one of several points along the length of the central focusing rack. Swing and shift are controlled from a single central knob that fastens the front standard to the central rack member which is focused by a single worm gear with a focusing knob centrally mounted under the back. This entire focusing assembly is mounted on a flat bed. The rear standard pivots on two slotted brackets attached to the bed; the brackets can be adjusted for extension and the front standard can be attached to any one of several bushings on the centeral rack to vary extension. Front center tilt and rise/fall are adjusted by a single set of knobs on each side of the front standard, which owes a debt to the Gowland Pocket View. The PTB weighs about 3 lbs., making it among the lightest woodfields. Some view combined controls as more efficient; some may feel they make the camera less precise to set up. $650. Search the LF Site forums for detailed comment about Shen-Hao.
This is perhaps a good place to comment on unconventional designs. The layout of the Shen-Hao PTB/Chamonix/Phillips may not seem intuitive to those who have used conventional field, technical or press cameras. This seems to be the case where designers value capability-to-weight ratio because they need to think outside the box to reduce weight. The price paid for these weight reductions may be performance, convenience and/or having to change long-established habits. While this design provides a folding rear standard whose angle is controlled by locking knobs at the pivot point--a design familiar to several technical models--the front standard is fastened to one of several bushings on the central focusing platform. Changing lenses of varying length often requires unmounting/remounting of the front standard. And focusing is done by rotating a knob on the back of the camera that turns a worm gear, an adjustment that may seem tedious to those familiar with traditional rack focusing designs.
is another woodfield camera that is relatively common on the new market.
In appearance it is similar to the Shen-Hao, but lacks rise/fall in
the rear standard. Tachiharas are made from well-seasoned cherry,
which should mean that the cases are durable. The corners of the rear
standard are covered by metal angle brackets, which also cover a wood
joint--box or perhaps something less robust. Like many woodfield cameras,
Tachiharas have a spring back which cannot accept fat rollholders.
It also seems to have fewer accessories available, but this may be
an importation issue that is subject to change. Tachiharas may be
a few ounces lighter than the Shen-Hao.
Wista. The DX is the current model of Wista woodfield design. Like many others, it is available with a cherry case and bed, but also in rosewood and ebony. The DX has rear base tilt; rear swing is based on pivoting plates, a design similar to that of the Wista technical cameras. The DX does not have rear shift. They are available with either spring backs or international G backs. The rosewood model has interchangeable bellows.