LF Questions


Troll Extraordinaire
Mar 15, 2005
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I'm about to make my first foray into the LF world with the purchase of a 4x5 monorail camera. I've been looking around at different lenses and the like, and am slightly confused. Could someone please give an overview of lens boards? My biggest questions are 1)Do i have to buy a brand-specific lens board (i.e. a cambo board for a cambo camera)? 2)What's the deal with Copal shutters? I.e. what's the difference between a No. 1, or 0 or what have you, and how does that affect what board/lens I use? 3) Quality issues aside, are all 4x5 lenses created equally? Will any 4x5 lens work in any 4x5 camera, provided I have the correct board/shutter?

Thanks in advance for any help.
Lensboards can be different from camera to camera. Some lensboards are little more than a square piece of wood. For my older 4x5 cameras I make my own lensboards from thin wood I get at the hobby shop (I think it's for RC airplanes). Others can get a little complicated, and would be more difficult to fabricate. You should start with a board you know is going to fit your camera. Then you can see if it's a fairly generic or specialized design.

Copal numbers such as 0, 1, and 2 refer to the size of the shutter: mainly refering to the size of hole you'll need in your board, and what lenses will fit the shutter itself. The smaller the number the smaller the shutter.

Just like any other lenses, 4x5 lenses are not all created equal. You can find them for under $100, and over $5000. But technically any lens you could mount on the lens board will work, even one from a 35mm camera (although it probably wouldn't cover 4x5). Press lenses (from old 4x5 press cameras) are often much cheaper than typical 4x5 lenses. Some are dogs and some are gems. A cheap lens may only show it's inferiority wide open and/or at the edges, or may not offer enough extra coverage for big movements, so for lot's of situations they are still quite usable. you can even use enlarger lenses if they have enough coverage. Some will screw into shutters, or you can use them like a barrel lens (no shutter, use your darkcloth, hand, lens cap, etc... to stop the exposure). I like Schnieder and Fuji lenses for my LF work, but I've used lots of cheaper brands with great success.
I hope this doesn’t confuse you:

Lens boards manufactured by the camera maker are typically machined (if made of metal) to a tolerance of +/- .0005 inches (.01mm) all around, with what is known as a surface finish of about 4. That translates to a fairly fine finish (equivalent to a piece of wood sanded with 120 grit sand paper), but with enough grab to keep the lens from twisting, or vibrating off. The boards are usually made of the same material that they will be mounted to, i.e. aluminum to aluminum and usually with channels or runners to block light. Thos channels and runner are also made in a certain length or thickness to keep the top of the board to the top of the mounting surface.

If the material of the board is wood, then tightening the lens onto the board will compress the wood and keep the lens from rotating due to surface friction.
Moist wood will swell keeping the lens on, but once the wood dries; the lens can come loose from the wood shrinking.

If you shoot macro with the camera, the flatness and tolerance of the board becomes critical. You want the lens centered on the board with whatever board you use, home made or not. ( I learned that one the hard way).

Not all LF cameras have full movement. If you want full movement, then look for that when shopping around. Also look to see if the lens has a ‘T’ setting. Not all do.
The ‘T’ is for time, and is used to keep the lens open while you set up the image.

Don’t forget a GOOD loupe. The loupe will determine if your image is truly in focus or not. One of the real advantages to LF is the greatly enhanced sharpness of the image. You are now dealing with a virtual 1:1 ratio on the image capture area, and can capture detail nearly impossible with either a 35 or MF.

If you buy a monorail, check to see if the friction wheels are working properly or not. Those friction wheels will keep the bellows from moving around too much, and can be a major headache if they are not working properly.

What ever you do, GET A SOLID HEAVY TRIPOD!!!!! You will thank me later on that. Do not get a cheapy at the local photosplat place. A solid tripod will keep the camera from vibrating, and keep the image sharp. If you can, go with Nikor, Sinar, Schnieder or Fuji as mentioned above. They are pricy, but worth it. For a 4x5, go with as large a piece of glass you can get. The more coverage area, the better.
Soocom1 said:
You want the lens centered on the board with whatever board you use, home made or not.

Several of my 4x5 cameras use boards where the lens is centered horizontally, but not vertically (it's a little higher than center). I wrecked a few lensboards by drilling holes in the center assuming that's where they needed to be.

Soocom1's suggestion of getting as much coverage you can afford is a good one. If you can score a lens that will cover 5x7 or 8x10, you won't need a new lens if you ever decide to go even bigger. The only downside to more coverage is that they can be much bigger and heavier, although that shouldn't be much of a problem if you are willing to haul a monorail around.
Have you already bought the monorail? What kind of photography are you doing? For studio work, or photos shot within a few hundred feet of the car a monorail is great. You may want to look into a field or press camera. They may not have the extreme movements of a monorail, but a Super Speed Graphic has all the movements I need for 99% of what I'm shooting with it (portraits and landscapes), and it folds up into a much more portable package. Not counting the film holders I can cram everything I need for my 4x5 press cameras into a medium format sized camera bag. My monorail requires a suitcase.
I've considered something like a speed graphic but decided against it because I think monorails have more to offer. I like having the extra movements, more easily interchangeable lenses, interchangeable bellows if I need to extend or go wide angle, etc. I much prefer something like 6x7 for "portable" photography anyway. I'm not going to be doing a hell of a lot of running around carrying the 4x5. I'm trying to get more into portrait work, anyway. My local shop has basically an unused Orbit 4x5 in ridiculously immaculate condition, with a lens, for $350, so I'll probably spring for that.

I'd really like to get a metering back...do they make generic ones or what? I don't wanna have to buy an expensive Toyo or whatever just to be able to find a metering back...
That sounds like a good deal. I don't know anything about metering backs. I like my Sekonic 508 hand held. It'll do incident, spot, and flash.

With the exception of the extra film bag, I've found my Speed Graphics to be just as quick and portable as my Pentax 67II for tripod work. Consider that going from 6x7cm to 4x5 is almost as big of a jump in film area as going from 35mm to 6x7cm (4x5 is 3 times the area of 6x7cm which is 4 times the area of 35mm).
and three times the cost lol...I think having a very portable 4x5 would be too tempting to blow lots of money on film. If I begin to find myself in situations where I wish I could carry around a 4x5, then I'll probably buy something like a speed graphic as well, but for now I think i'm gonna stick with the monorail. Thanks for the advice.

Can anyone else shed any light on my metering back question?
You can try metering off any ground glass back really, but Sinar makes sensor probe attachments for their cameras to meter directly from the film plane, useful in the studio. They are the only one's I am aware of that have such a wide selection of equipment for this. Not so much useful, IMO, for the field. Not all meters will read off the ground glass accurately either. Unless you are going to be doing some serious studio work, I do not think it would be needed, nor will you be finding such accessories for an Orbit.
One thing to keep in mind, the monorails are not hauling-friendly. A field camera might be better that way. Check the Shen Hao (Chinese) cameras, they are amazingly well built. If you still want to go for a monorail, check the Cambo and the Toyo cameras. A Toyo can be had for as little as $200.

As for lenses, don't go overboard with lenses that will cover 5x7 or 8x10. While they offer wider coverage, keep in mind that you will need to extend your bellows, more so for the tele lenses. Hence you might need to get a longer rail and bellows extenders. A great lens that is just waesome is the 203mm/7.7 Ektar. Good coverage, sharp beast!

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