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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.

There is one of those loaded headlines! That is sure to ruffle some feathers in fact. Well at least until you read a bit more into this post. The title of this article poses a question and the answer in a single word is:

NO

I think the 50mm prime lens is as viable and useful today as it has ever been before. When I got started in SLR photography way back in the Carter Administration the 50mm lens was the lens nearly everyone bought to go with their SLR camera. Back in 1977 I borrowed my friend Andy’s family SLR whilst lending him my custom skateboard. It was a Mamiya 500 DTL with a 50mm F/2 lens. I had a blast with that camera making pictures for quite some time until Andy’s mom wanted the camera back. I took back my skate board and decided it was time to start saving for my own SLR.

Mark, Old Town Photo 1984 Canon A-1 with FD 50/1.8 settings unknown, scanned from Kodachrome 64

Well my $2.25 per hour job sweeping the floors in a cabinet shop provided the opportunity to save some money. It took the better part of a whole year, but finally I had about $300 to throw at a camera. I went into the Camera shop thinking about buying a Nikon FM with a Nikon 50mm F/2 lens. The Nikon was a bit more expensive, and knowing what I know now, it was a better built machine than most of the cameras in the $300 range. I really wanted a camera and so I had to decide between a Canon AE-1 and a Minolta XG-1 as that FM was just too expensive. It was like $375 at the time I think. I went with the AE-1 and so began a long relationship with Canon. Looking back I should have bought the AT-1 which was all manual and worked much better as a native manual camera than the clunky AE-1 manual exposure mode. The camera at $299.95 came with Canon’s rather mediocre FD 50mm f/1.8. I say mediocre because that lens was not sharp at all on the edges wide open. Beyond that however it was solid.

It took me a while to get my second lens which was a cheapy brand 135/2.8 followed by my first wide angle a 28/2.8 from Tokina. In the mean time, I made many pictures with that AE-1 and the 50mm lens. 50’s are just so versatile. It is quite often the fastest lens most people own. It doubles as a shortish portrait lens that can still pull off a well composed landscape shot. In the modern era of auto-focus sometime in the mid to late 1990s the notion of a camera body with a kit 50mm began to wane and cheap kit zooms with 35-80mm ranges began taking over. These lenses were often slow, like 3.5 at 35mm and 4.5 at 80mm. Some were even slower than that. This was still the film era, a max aperture of 4.5 with ISO 200 film was a bit limited.

EOS-R 50/1.4 USM 1600 ISO 1/60th sec @ F/1.4

Those 35-80mm kit lenses started a whole new generation of mediocrity. People just framed the image by zooming, got sloppy with composition, failed to pay attention to the background and struggled to ever isolate the subject from a busy background. I sometimes think the 35-80mm kit lens nearly destroyed film photography.

You see, when you have a single focal length, you have to think about your subject, its placement in the frame, your position, their position, etc. When you start thinking about these things you start noticing other things like the bright green garbage dumpster directly behind the subject that is sharp enough to show some grimy detail. Now you can pop open that 50mm lens to that deliciously wide F/1.8 aperture and presto the background is gone! The prime 50mm makes you think about your shot, because you have to. Don’t get me wrong, the 35-80 lenses which eventually blossomed into some quality lenses with better ranges, like 28-105 provided camera buyers with some focal length flexibility. But at what cost? In the digital era even a pro grade series of lenses from most manufacturers came along with “standard” ranges like the Canon 24-105 L, which I own and it is a solid lens and faster lenses like the 28-70/2.8 L.

My friend’s granddaughters, EOS R EF 50/1.2 L 400 ISO 125th sec @ F/1.4 with studio flash

The basic cheap 50mm how ever is almost certainly faster than any zoom lens you will ever own. Canon recently released the world’s fastest standard zoom lens the RF 28-70mm F2.0 that costs a massive $3,000, yet Canon’s $129 “nifty 50” is faster at F/1.8! The slowest and cheapest 50mm is faster than the world’s fastest zoom! That 28-70/2.0 is an engineering marvel BTW.

Beginners often don’t realize the benefit of a wide aperture beyond taking an available light shot in dark conditions. But it is much more than that. Modern digital cameras don’t “need” lens speed as much since ISO 1600 looks good on almost any modern DSLR or mirrorless camera. The wide opening allows you the freedom to choose how your background behaves. Primes such as a 50mm can teach you how to compose an image, where to place objects in a scene, and most importantly for new photographers, it helps you pay attention to the details. You quickly notice the differences between physically moving closer to your subject and moving back away and how the background and foreground are independently rendered in perspective.

For any new photographer I would definitely recommend a 50mm lens, At one time a couple years ago I owned a dozen and a half different fifties and I still own about a half a dozen today. To any advanced photographer that doesn’t own one, go ahead and get one, even if it is the cheap 1.8 version which is an excellent lens be it Canon or Nikon. 50mm lenses are a compact, fast, and surprisingly versatile prime.

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