Archive for February, 2020

The American Linhof

Back in the day when I used to shoot a lot of 4×5 film I had a studio mono-rail setup and a Linhof Technika IV. I loved that Technika, it was so damn well made and the controls were all precision and smooth to operate. The later model Technika’s only real downfall was the hefty weight. That camera was stout and by stout I mean you could kill a bear with it. That translated into a sore back when carrying in the field which is what I did with it most of the time. It was easily twice as heavy as most field 4×5 cameras and three times as heavy as something lightweight like a Tachihara.

The title of this article is the “American” Linhof and since Linhof is German, clearly this needs to shift gears. And so it shall. Recently I picked up a Busch Pressman 4×5 camera at Blue Moon Camera in Portland, OR. The Pressman is a metal press 4×5 camera that is similar to a Linhof Technika III. It is notably lighter than the Technika IV and similar in weight to the Technika III. Like the Linhofs, the Pressman was designed for press style photography and was offered with a rangefinder as well as a variety of optional hand grips. As a 4×5 view camera it offers some handy field style front movements including tilt, rise, and shift. The camera has excellent quality and feels as well made as a Technika III but not as refined as the later Technika IV and V.

I’ve equipped mine with a modern-ish Schneider Symmar Convertible 135mm F/5.6. This particular lens can be used sans one of the lens groups to become a 235mm F/12. It isn’t very good as a 235 though. It is an excellent lens when used in the standard 135/5.6 configuration. By coincidence it is mounted in a Linhof shutter.

For photographers looking for something a little more simple than a wood field camera and perhaps a bit more sturdy, these Pressman cameras and early Linhof Technika models like the III are a solid choice. These press cameras however lack the full range of movements that a true field camera has. Notably on the front there is no swing and there are zero movements for the rear of the camera. Later Technika models such as the IV, V, and Master offered front swing and some rear movements. Linhof continued to refine the Technika series cameras long after the large format press cameras were out of use in the mainstream.

The primary reason I like this Busch Pressman camera is the price. Technika III cameras in good shape tend to fetch north of $500 without a lens, Technika IV models are even more expensive. I bought my Busch Pressman D at Blue Moon Camera for less than $200 and it is in great condition. It does not have the rangefinder, but I am fine with that. I have a Graflex Press 23 with a rangefinder, and 6×9 roll film back that is smaller and easier to use hand held anyway. I’m using the Pressman as a field camera. To get something this well made for $200 is wonderful. The camera is far from perfect but it works so well, feels so good, and performs like a champion. One of the features that is really nice is the revolving back. You can quickly switch from vertical to horizontal by rotating the back of the camera. This is a great feature and one that is lacking on many press cameras of this era including most of the Graflex Speed Graphic and Crown Graphic models.

These make great starter view cameras because the learning curve on large format is much higher than 35mm or digital cameras. Everything is manual and often there are many steps just to trip the shutter. Learning about how the various camera movements affect the image is something that takes time to master. These press style cameras have fewer movements to learn and one can learn on these and then decide whether to advance to a full featured field camera like a Wista Field or later model Linhof Technikas, among others.

It is important to remember that shooting 4×5 is pretty expensive. The gear itself has become much more affordable than it was 25 years ago, but the cost per shot is really high. Photographers are well advised to take their time, think about the shot, the composition, the lighting, all of it. The cost is not only in dollars but time. One must manually load the film sheets one at a time in total darkness, paying attention to the direction of the dark slide (unexposed/exposed indicator). There is typically a few steps to prepping for the shot. The shutter must be locked open to focus the image on the ground glass. After sharp focus and all movements and such are completed, shutter must be closed. Film holders are loaded one at a time into the camera for exposure. Shutter must be manually cocked. Dark slide comes out, exposure is made. Once again when returning the dark slide after a shot making certain to indicate it as “exposed.” There is a great deal of time invested into making a single exposure with a view camera even for an experience view camera operator. The rewards are images that tend to be amazing.

The Busch Pressman is a great starter press 4×5 that I think is better built and better made than the Crown and Speed Graphic models in the same price range. Often they can be found with lenses such as the Wollensak 135/4.5 Raptor, Zeiss Tessar 135/4.5, Kodak Ektar 127/4.7. All of these are good lenses but lack coverage so be advised you may find the edge of the image circle with a sharp rise movement. The 135/5.6 Schneider I have mounted here has enough coverage to handle anything this camera’s movements can provide. Those older press lenses do have some nice character and since they don’t have allot of resale value, you may want to just keep it for portraits even if you upgrade to a proper view camera lens. I have a Super Angulon 90mm lens that I like but on this press camera the bellows gets a bit tight for any significant movements, that will be a problem on press cameras that is less so on a “real” field camera that has a skinny rear standard. Where these heavier and more stout press cameras excel is with longer focal lengths like a 235 or even 270mm. The rail is more solid and the camera locks down better than a lightweight wood field camera that can be a bit wobbly with longer lenses. The Pressman can draw close to 300mm of bellows so a 270mm is doable. I would still recommend a true tele lens design for small field type cameras. These lenses such as the Schneider Tele-Xenar or Tele-Arton 270mm or 360mm F/5.5 draw less bellows than their focal length which keeps the camera more stable and provides for better close focusing. True telephoto lenses however do not have the same coverage as their counterparts. The Tele-Xenar 270/5.5 is a lens I used to own. It has a 178mm image circle and only 158mm of bellows draw at infinity focus. The image circle is a bit tight for 4×5. That said the Xenar series still offers enough image circle to make full use of the press camera’s limited movements, other than a dramatic rise movement.

You can find cameras like these at classic camera stores such as Blue Moon in Portland, OR and Seawood Photo in San Rafael, CA or at camera shows like the PhotoFair coming up on February 22nd in Newark, CA. or the Western Photographic Historical Society show in Tuscon, AZ,  on March 1st, or the Puget Sound Photographic Collectors Society show in Kent, WA on April 12th.

I haven’t taken this camera out in the field yet but I did take a few “test” images with the camera and the Schneider 135/5.6 lens. The shots below were take in my house just to see how the camera and lens performed. Both shots made with the Busch Pressman 4×5 with Schneider 135/5.6 at f/8, on Ilford HP-5 Plus (400 ISO). The shot of the Kodak Signet Camera was without any camera movements but it was taken at very near 1:1 reproduction ratio with more than 250mm of bellows draw. The Scotch Whisky bottles implemented a small rise movement to eliminate the cabinet they were placed on. These images were digitized by photographing the 4×5 negatives on a light box with a copy stand using my Canon EOS-R with the RF 35mm/F1.8 lens: 1/90th sec @ f/4 ISO 100.

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