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TECHNICAL NOTES



3d. In the Field - Lenses



Wentworth Falls from Rocket Point, 2010



Lenses: Lenses are the unsung heroes of photographic equipment. Many photographers will pontificate endlessly on the relative merits of different types of light-tight boxes, yet ignore the wonders of the lens. Without the lens there would be no photography as we know it (OK, slight exageration as pinhole camera users will attest:-).

With one exception, the large format ("LF") lenses I use are now all obsolete - either no longer manufactured or superceded by revised models. But I dont feel penalised by not having the latest and greatest. Since the widespread implementation of multicoating and computer aided design and manufacturing in about the 1970s or so, modern lens formulations have resulted in barely discernible improvements in image quality. Instead, attention has focussed (pardon the pun) on improvements in the conflicting parameters of size, weight and focussing brightness. So provided you are using a lens from a reputable lens-maker and manufactured since about the late 1970s you will be enjoying optical performance that is as close to current as makes no difference. Amongst a collection of different relatively modern lenses sample to sample variation due to such as abuse or handling is more likely to impact a particular lens' optical performance than design specification.

Of course, all this assumes you want modern standards of optical performance. In some circles there is a movement away from the razor-sharp modern lenses back to lenses from the 1800s or so. One of the nicer features of the lens is that provided its in good condition then it will not wear out or simply "stop working" - although shutters are a different matter...

And speaking of shutters: A difference between LF and the smaller formats is that with LF, the shutter does not form part of the camera body, but rather each lens is mounted in its own shutter. And you'll note that the fastest shutter speeds are slow by smaller camera standards: the fastest speed on a Copal No.0 shutter is 1/500th of a second, while the larger Copal No.1 tops out at 1/400th. While this might be considered limiting, these cameras are not really designed for capturing high-speed action. In practice few of my exposures are quicker than 1/30th of a second.

Another feature (advantage?) of large format photography is that you are not tied into a single manufacturer's system. In fact, as far as I am aware none of the "big-four" lens manufacturers (Fuji, Nikkor, Rodenstock or Schneider-Kreuznach) have ever made large format cameras. As a result almost any modern 4x5 LF camera will take almost any modern LF lens designed for 4x5 (although there are a few exceptions with ultra-wide and very long focal lengths).

The lenses I use are as follows (from widest to longest):

A picture of the fleet:


Top row - left to right (weight excl. lensboard and filter; front filter size; image circle; shutter size)
Nikkor-SW 90/f8 (355g, 67mm, 235mm, Copal No.0)
Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S 135/f5.6 (215g, 49mm, 208mm, Copal No.0)
Nikkor-M 200/f8 (180g, 52mm, 210mm, Copal No.0)
Nikkor-M 300/f9 (270g, 52mm, 325mm, Copal No.1)
Front row: Schneider-Kreuznach Apo-Symmar MC 150/f5.6 (250g, 58mm, 220mm, Copal No.0)

N.B. The 90/f8 - top left - is mounted in a recessed lensboard (see another image below). The other lenses are all mounted on flat lensboards, although the 150/f5.6 - bottom row - is mounted in a generic (non-Linhof) lensboard.




The development of my lens kit may be of interest to others. The first lens that I ever purchased was the Apo-Symmar MC 150mm - a fairly standard focal length lens for 4x5. That lens served me extremely well as a learning tool and some of my favourite images have been made with it. But after a while I decided to supplement it with something from the wider and longer ends of the focal length spectrum. While my first lens was by Schneider-Kreuznach, when considering my next acquisitions I decided to go for a "best-of-breed" approach rather than sticking to a single maufacturer's range. There are pros and cons to each approach. Advantages of mixing and matching include:

  • There is really just one advantage to mixing and matching, but its huge. It's the ability to pick the lens from any manufacturer's range that best suits your requirements. In my opinion, no single manufacturer has the "best" lens in every focal length/weight/speed combination, and by choosing the lens that best meets your requirements from each range you can build a truly righteous "best-of-breed" lens-kit.

On the other hand, there are advantages to sticking to a single manufacturer's range. These include:

  • All lenses operate the same way. In my case, the copal shutters on the Nikkors operate slightly differently from the standard copal shutters on the Schneider and Rodenstock: on the Nikkors the fastest shutter speed is found to the left of the dial when viewed from above (see image below), while on the others, the speeds are reversed with the slowest speed to the left. Not a big deal, but sometimes slightly annoying. For example, when the location of your tripod means you cant see the front of the lens and you need to set shutter speed etc by feel, you do need to think about which lens is mounted and how the shutter speeds are ordered. (A handy tip here is to use a little mirror mounted on a stick to view the front of the lens.)

  • Lenses are more likely to share a common front filter size. For example, my two longer length Nikkors (the 200mm & 300mm) both use a 52mm filter, minimising the number of filters I need to buy/carry. Unfortunately the Nikkor 90/f8 uses a 67mm filter. These problems can be minimised by using step-up/down rings.

  • All lenses will share a common "look". Some claim to be able to distinguish the look of an image made with a Japanese lens from that of a European lens; or a Nikkor lens from a Schneider lens. Usually this is only discussed in relation to colour images and as I don't shoot enough colour to be particular about it, its not an issue for me.

The truth of the matter is that in terms of optical performance, and assuming the particular lens is in good condition, you are unlikely to go far wrong with any relatively recent lens from one of the "big-four" (Fuji, Nikkor, Rodenstock or Schneider-Kreuznach - although Nikkor no longer make LF lenses). Your choice should therefore be determined by intended use. For example, studio shooters who use a lot of camera movements are more likely to place a premium on image circle but wont be so concerned about size and weight; those shooting architecture will place a premium on both image circle and size and weight, while those shooting landscape (where camera movements are not as extreme as in studio or architectural use) wont be quite so concerned about image circle and are more likely to place a premium on size and weight. By and large my choices were based on user feedback in various on-line forums and magazines etc., what my "heroes" (e.g. John Sexton) were using, and recommendations from sources such as Kerry Thalmann's pages. So why did I choose what I did?:

Nikkor-SW 90/f8 mounted in recessed Linhof lensboard

  • 90mm: For many years a 90mm was considered the wide angle lens to have - largely thanks to Schneider-Kreuznach's ground-breaking Angulon and Super-Angulon designs and the fact that there weren't many wider lenses actually made. Nowadays there are wider formulations but given the way I see my photos, I think I'd have only limited use for something wider than about 90mm - and they are more difficult to use on my older-model Technika cameras. After consideration, the toss-up was between the Super-Angulon 90/f8 and the Nikkor-SW 90/f8. The Nikkor won-out on the basis of slightly smaller size and lighter weight combined with slightly larger image-circle. I'm very happy with the choice I made and the only downside is that it can sometimes be difficult to check focus in the corners of the ground glass in dull light on account of the widest aperture being f8 (a consideration that would apply equally to the Super-Angulon). There are faster 90mm lenses but they are generally significantly heavier and bigger. For example, the Nikkor-SW 90/f4.5 weighs 600g compared with just 360g for the 90/f8, and requires huge (and expensive) 82mm front filters compared with 67mm for the 90/f8. Given I often carry my kit in a backpack, the trade-off of ease-of-use against size and weight is a compromise I am willing to make. Of course, if someone formulated a 90/f4 or 90/f5.6 lens with the same optical performance and physical characteristics as my Nikkor-SW 90/f8 then I'd be tempted to update... did someone mention Schneider's SSXL 80/4.5 ? ...

    As seen above, my SW 90/f8 is mounted in a recessed lensboard. This may not be strictly necessary but it makes operation on my Technika slightly easier as it means that for a given focussing distance, the front standard sits slightly further forward on the camera's focussing rails. Consequently the bellows is not quite so compressed and this in theory allows for slightly more movement. It also avoids the situation where the standard needs to sit at precisely the spot where the rails on the hinged drop-down bed sit against the rails inside the camera body. A recessed lenboard does have the disadvantage that because the lens is housed in a recessed "cup", access to the lens controls is slightly more difficult. As I have reasonably slim fingers this is not so much of a problem for me - its also easy enough to use the tip of a pen to manipulate the aperture lever.

  • 300mm: This is a long lens for the 4x5 format and the Nikkor-M 300/f9 chose itself. Its everything a field photographer could want in a long lens: small, light and with impressive optical performance. In fact you try and find a 4x5 photographer who uses one and doesn't like it! The only possible criticisms may be that it comes in the slightly larger Copal No. 1 shutter and that the widest aperture is f9. Interestingly, while the widest aperture at f9 is even slower than the SW 90/f8, I find it much easier to focus in dim light than the SW 90/f8. I'm not sure why that should be but I assume it has something to do with the angle at which the light is hitting the ground glass, particularly in the corners. (I note also that one of the lenses on my "wish-list" - the Fujinon-C 450/f12.5 - is even slower and you dont hear anyone complaining about it.)




For many years this 90mm - 150mm - 300mm, 3-lens kit served me well. But after a while I began to find that the spacing (gaps) between the wide, normal and long focal lengths was a bit wide. Too many images were falling between the three focal lengths (no such thing as zoom lenses in LF!). I was happy enough with the lenses at either end of the range, but was finding that the 150mm was often just a bit too short or just a bit too long. I've therefore recently revamped my lens kit by replacing the 150mm with two lenses: a 135mm lens and a 200mm lens. This new 90 - 135 - 200 - 300 kit means each lens is roughly 1.5x the focal length of the next widest lens - compared with the 1.7-1.8x spacing of my original three lens kit. So what factors influenced my choices for the two latest additions?:

  • Apo-Sironar-S 135mm f5.6: This lens has a stellar reputation among LF photographers based on its compact size (49mm filter size) and light weight (215g) combined with exemplary optical performance. A further decider for me was that I can close the Technika with this lens still mounted - even with a single glass filter, lens caps and cable release all still attached to the lens!. This means my 4-lens kit occupies no greater physical space than my existing 3-lens kit, and also gives me the option of a super-light/small single lens "guerilla" outfit (for the next time I'm on Mt. Everest...)
  • The Nikkor 200-M f8 was an obvious choice on the basis of my experience with its big brother, and again the considerations of size and weight balanced against optical performance. That it uses the same size 52mm screw-in filters as the 300/f9 and also allows me to close the Technika while the lens is still mounted was really just the icing on the cake (although the lensboard has to be reversed if there is a filter and front lenscap on and the cable release must be removed).
Some more images of my current field kit - or lens porn for those so inclined (N.B. All lenses have a Hoya glass screw-in filter on the front element):

left to right (weight excl. lensboard and filter; front filter size; image circle; shutter size)
Nikkor-SW 90/f8 (355g, 67mm, 235mm, Copal No.0)
Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S 135/f5.6 (215g, 49mm, 208mm, Copal No.0)
Nikkor-M 200/f8 (180g, 52mm, 210mm, Copal No.0)
Nikkor-M 300/f9 (270g, 52mm, 325mm, Copal No.1)


clockwise from top left (weight excl. lensboard; front filter size; image circle; shutter size)
Nikkor-SW 90/f8 (355g, 67mm, 235mm, Copal No.0)
Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S 135/f5.6 (215g, 49mm, 208mm, Copal No.0)
Nikkor-M 200/f8 (180g, 52mm, 210mm, Copal No.0)
Nikkor-M 300/f9 (270g, 52mm, 325mm, Copal No.1)


clockwise from top left (weight excl. lensboard and filter; front filter size; image circle; shutter size)
Nikkor-M 300/f9 (270g, 52mm, 325mm, Copal No.1)
Nikkor-M 200/f8 (180g, 52mm, 210mm, Copal No.0)
Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S 135/f5.6 (215g, 49mm, 208mm, Copal No.0)

Note the shutter on the Rodenstock lens (bottom row) has the fastest shutter speed (1/500th) at the right when viewed from above. Compare this with the Nikkors in the top row which have the fastest shutter speed on the left. Note also the fastest shutter speed of the Copal No.1 shutter on the 300/f9 (top right) of 1/400s compared with 1/500s for the other two lenses.



So, with my 4-lens kit settled, where to from here? Well, I'm not planning any change but if it occurs, it is likely to come at either end of the range:

  • There are occasions when I find 300mm just that little bit too short. I'm therefore tempted by Fuji's compact 450mm/f12.5 lens. The Fuji lens is a small light formulation with a good reputation. The downside is that the bellows on my Technika is a little short for any 450mm lens - I'd need to carry and use some sort of "top-hat" extension board to get the necessary bellows draw, particularly for anything closer than infinity focus. An alternative to the Fuji would be the Nikkor-M 450/f9 (big brother to my 200 and 300 lenses). The Nikkor has the advantage of being brighter (f9 compared with f12.5 for the Fuji) but this comes at a cost: the Fuji lens comes in the much smaller copal-1 shutter whereas the Nikkor-M is in the much larger copal-3. Other considerations for me would be that the Fuji lens also uses the same 52mm filter size as my 200/f8 and 300/f9 (compared with 67mm for the Nikkor-M 450/f9). The biggest challenge is likely to be the difficulty in finding the Fuji for sale either new or used.

  • At the other end of the range, I do occasionally find myself missing something wider than 90mm. As I see it there are two alternatives: the Nikkor-SW 75mm/f4.5 or the Schneider-Kreuznach SSXL 80mm/f4.5. The former is readily available on the used market at a reasonable price. The Schneider lens is much rarer (= more expensive) given it is a much newer design. But it is significantly smaller and lighter than the Nikkor, and boy they sure do look pretty ... It also takes the same 67mm front filter as my 90/f8, but I query whether a difference of just 10mm in focal length from my SW 90/f8 is enough of a difference to justify the move...

But so much for dreaming. There is no doubt I'd be much better off getting out and making photographs with the gear I have instead of obsessing about the gear I dont have...





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