Cheap View Cameras

By Ernest Purdum © 2005 for

Do you have an interest in large format photography but no LF experience? Is your budget limited, so you need to make your dollars go as far as possible? What to buy? There are many cameras on the market which would be frustrating in their limitations. If you weren't frustrated, it might be years before you realized what large format cameras can do for you. If it won't help you learn, it isn't really cheap.

Do you have in mind a camera which will fit in your backpack as you trudge up Mount Huge? Field cameras certainly have advantages, but are usually much more expensive than non-folding cameras of similar capabilities, and are not as good for learning how to use camera movements. My suggestion would be to learn on an inexpensive monorail. If you buy carefully, you can probably sell it at or near your cost later. Even if you can afford to start on a more expensive camera, gaining cheap experience could be a good idea. Try one out for awhile. By that time, you'll have a better idea of what camera characteristics are most valuable to you. Besides, when you do spend megabucks on a new outfit, you'll really appreciate the conveniences.

Monorails go back many years, but only really became somewhat common at about the start of World War II. Two American companies, Kodak and Graflex, introduced 4" X 5" cameras that provided full view camera movements front and rear. They had reasonable ranges of focusing movement and were easy to set up and use. The "Graphic View" was superceded in 1949 by the "Graphic View II". The earlier version is much less often seen today and is less desirable, except perhaps to a collector interested in camera design progress. The View II, if in good condition, is an excellent tool with which to gain experience in the use of view camera techniques. The camera does, however, have some weak points. Specifically, the focusing drives are rather fragile and require very careful adjustment. If they get out of adjustment, damage is likely, and repairs a major problem. The major virtue of the View II is that many of them have "Graflok" backs, a useful feature.

Any View II is an old camera, the newest of them are nearly forty years old. Condition is all important. Having to replace the bellows wouldn't make financial sense unless you got the camera for free. Fortunately, the bellows seem to be quite long-lasting.

The original lens equipment was often a 203mm Ektar or Optar. These are excellent choices for a "first" lens. The View II has a 15 1/2" extension which is adequate to make good use of lenses of up to 250mm or so. Going the other direction, though, the View II is only a fair choice for wide angle work.

Warning. You will sometimes see this or other view cameras for sale with a 127mm or 135mm f4.5 lens. These don't have large enough image circles to allow use of movements. Sadly, the cameras may be on sale because the owners found them totally frustrating.

These cameras have 4" X 4" lensboards. A nice bellows type "compendium" lens shade was available. This is a very worthwhile accessory, but not easily found today.

To sum up, the Graphic View II, particularly if equipped with a Graflok back, would be a fine first view camera if it could be bought on trial or very carefully inspected before purchase. This is perhaps a better item to buy from a dealer than from a private party. I would be inclined to buy one off eBay only with return privileges.

The Kodak contemporary of the Graflex, the Master View 4" X 5", remained only briefly as a Kodak product, after which it was marketed by Calumet as the "CC-400" and by Burke & James as the "Orbit". The latter versions are still frequently available today. Many remain in quite usable condition, despite long years of continuous use.

These cameras had some unusual characteristics. The back was not removable, but instead rotated. Most rollfilm holders cannot be used, but Calumet provided a model that can, and now a similar item under the Cambo name. Burke & James also made one under the Orbit label, but it is less often seen. There are others. Another unusual factor is that the rail is a relatively small diameter solid bar, fitted with friction focusing drives for the front and rear frames and the tripod mounting block as well. These allow the user to release the drive and move the frame or block rapidly just by pushing or pulling. The drives have to be kept clean or they may slip. When the camera is in the vertical position, they may slip anyway.

These cameras were very popular in schools for good reasons. They allow students to practice all of the movements and they are not easily damaged. Silver gray paint was the original finish. Later ones are black, and usually receive a slightly higher price.

A very useful compendium lens shade was available and is a most desirable accessory. Calumet still supplies lensboards and it is worthwhile checking with them for any other support need. You may find that a B&J version takes Graphic style lensboards, however.

Both Calumet and B&J put out modified versions. Calumet both lengthened and shortened the rail in producing the CC-401 and CC-402 versions. The long focus CC-401 is desirable for portraits and product photography, while the wide angle CC-402 is a rather remarkable camera. To make good use of lenses in the 90mm or shorter area, the usual, but rather expensive, means of allowing this to be done conveniently, is to buy a modular camera and equip it with a bag bellows, a short rail and perhaps a recessed lensboard. The CC-402 provides quite a good wide angle capability just as it came from Calumet. The bellows isn't a bag type but it is very flexible. The rail is short, so it doesn't poke you when you are trying to focus. The lensboard isn't recessed, it's set back from the front frame. This is less apt to be a nuisance than the recessed types. (Often, attaching cable releases and/or flash cords to a recessed lensboard can be a problem.) It is a specialist camera, not usable with long lenses at all. The maximum distance from lensboard to groundglass is about seven inches (180mm), so a lens of maybe 5" 125mm is as long as would be feasible.

B&J saw Calumet's 22" long rail of the CC-401 and raised it with their "Long Bellows Orbit Camera" which had a 26" extension. (I have never seen one of these.) They also went a different direction and produced a 5" X 7" version with a wooden removable back. This, of course, provides more versatility. It is a fairly easy job for a woodworker to produce an adapter to a Graflok frame as a reducing back. B&J's own 5" X 7" to 4" X 5" reducing spring backs are fairly common. I am a big advocate of having more than one format available because you get more use of your expensive lenses that way.

A step further away from the original Kodak pattern was the B&J "Saturn 75". This replaced the solid bar monorail with a square tube having two corners vertical. A rack was milled into the lower corner of the tube. As the name implies, this was also a 5" X 7", though often seen with a 4" X 5" reducing back. The focusing knobs were stuck way out to the side on alarmingly skinny rods. On the examples I have seen, however, the rods remained unbent.

Burke & James made two other view cameras unrelated to the Kodak design. One was a monorail, the "Grover". It was made in sizes 4" X 5", 5" X 7" and 8" X 10". The first two sizes were alike except for the size of the back. The extension was 21". The Grover was more expensive than the Orbit, and also more elaborate, to my thinking unnecessarily so. To use tilts, you remove some fasteners. I am absent-minded enough to think this a very good way to lose parts. Like the Graphic View, the tripod mount incorporates a tilting feature and a quick release. This makes set-up much easier. You can also move the mount behind the rear frame so that the two frames can be moved closer together for wide-angle use. Of course, if you do this, you wind up with a foot and a half of rail trying to poke a hole in your breastbone.

B&J also made a versatile view camera which was not a monorail, their "Commercial View". Derived from the almost generic American view cameras which evolved over many years, it was, I think, the last of the type made, and the only one which enabled use of all the movements. Though made of wood, it still is not very well adapted for backpacking. It was made in sizes from 4" X 5" to 8" X 20". Some, but not all, of the 4" X 5"s were actually 5" X 7"s with a smaller back. I know of two disadvantages of these cameras. To gain the full 21" extension, an auxiliary bed was provided. Now, more often than not, it has been lost, along with the knobs which, like those of the Grover, must be removed in order to use rear tilts. The other problem concerns the focusing racks and pinions. When going across one of the joints, it is very common for the pinion on one side to engage before the other, putting the back slightly twisted. If operated without correcting this, the resulting wear quickly puts the camera out of business. (These problems are common to other American flatbed cameras as well.)

It's not exactly a problem, but most people now consider the battleship gray paint on the Commercial View to be ugly. (At the time, it was considered more "modern" than natural wood finish. You had to pay extra to get an AGFA with this "deluxe" finish.) The wood underneath is quite handsome, and several people have refinished them. These cameras have a 5 1/4" square lensboard. A reducing adapter to 4" X 4" was available.

One camera of the same age as those discussed earlier is well worth a much higher price if in good condition. This is the Sinar, the first truly modular camera. The original model is the "Norma". With an appropriate selection of the different bellows, rails, frames, etc. available, a Sinar Norma remains an exceedingly versatile camera.

O. K., which of all these cameras should a beginning large format person buy? I'd say condition is much more important than type. These are old cameras. A bad bellows or a worn-out focusing drive disqualifies any of them, but any of them will enable good practice in the essence of large-format work. Individual features would be more valuable to one person than another.

If you have any interest in macro work, look for the longest extension you can find. The same would be true for portraiture and specialties like food photography. On the other hand, most of these cameras are awkward to use for wide angle work, so if you have much of that in mind, try to get a trial before buying.

From the seller's point of view, including a lens in the auction of a view camera is seldom a good idea. As a buyer, though, you may do well on such a package. In some instances, even if you didn't want the lens, it might be worth buying and re-selling it. Don't try this, though, unless you are fairly familiar with eBay prices. You can get a fair idea of the value of the more common lenses or cameras by searching completed items.

With patience, you could find one of these cameras on eBay for about $125.00 or less, plus shipping. (The CC-402 might be an exception). You could expect the condition to be functionally fine, but perhaps not pretty. eBay buying involves some risk, of course. The same cameras purchased from a dealer would cost more, but appropriately so if you want trial and/or return privileges. There are several other cameras which, if available for not too much more, could be a good choice. These are newer and more handsome, possibly somewhat more convenient, but offer about the same level of capability. Their common factor is a non-removable bellows. Cameras with interchangeable bellows usually sell at a significantly higher price and most are worth it..

There are some cameras which should be avoided, or at least the prospective buyer should be aware of their limitations. Older flat-bed types such as those made by Folmer & Schwing, Gundlach ("Korona" cameras), Seneca and many others, have movements that are usually adequate for landscape work, but don't give a beginner the full opportunity to learn what a view camera can do. The same is true to a lesser degree of B&J's "Watson" cameras and the AGFA or ANSCO view. B&J's "Rembrandt" camera was a specialized portrait instrument.

If your lens is inadequate, it doesn't matter what camera you have, it's useless. The image circle needs to be at least large enough to cover the next larger size - 5" X 7" if you are using 4" x 5".

Even if you intend to eventually move into larger formats, starting with a 4X5, or a 5X7 with a reduction back, is a good idea. While learning what your first camera can do, you should be going through a lot of film. 4x5 film is much less expensive than larger sizes. 120 rollfilm is even more so. Remember, if you buy carefully, you can sell later on at little if any loss. You'll probably find some aspects of these cameras inconvenient, perhaps annoyingly so. If so, that's good. Now you know about some points to look for when choosing your next camera. On the other hand, you might become fond enough of your first camera that you will want to keep it. Particularly if you want to have a field camera later on, retaining the monorail as a complementary supplement would make a lot of sense. With the two types as a team, there are few forms of large format photography that would be out of your reach.

Your first large format camera can introduce you to many fascinating experiences. Choose thoughtfully and enjoy.

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