The Shen Hao 6x17 Roll Film Back and Ground Glass Viewer - A User's Review

By Paul Owen © 2005 for

I have spent the last few years using 5x4 format film - and I've been very happy with the results. The contemplative approach to this type of photography suits the type of person I am. However, I've always had a secret yearning! I've always been fascinated by panoramic formats. There is something very pleasing about the "letter- box" format, probably something to do with the fact that it is similar to the field of view of human vision. I quite often find myself cropping full frame 5x4 down to 6x12cms and even 4x12cms. I've also used Horseman 6x12 roll film backs when space/weight has been at a premium. But I've always wanted to try the "mother of all panoramics" - 6x17cms! However a major problem for me has been the prohibitive costs of these cameras - even used examples are out of my budget.

You can imagine my surprise when I realised a few months ago that the Chinese DAYI 6x17 roll film back was being made available to owners of cameras with a graflock back (ME!). A very interesting review on it by Kerry Thalman in View Camera prompted further interest! Second problem - where do you get one of these roll film backs in the UK? Answer - I didn't know!

Then a few weeks ago I posted on this forum asking what sort of service UK buyers had when dealing with companies outside of Europe - the intention was to find a US dealer and buy a DAYI from them. I was reminded that Robert White sold Shen Hao cameras and that he may also have access to these roll film backs! Within the hour I had spoken with Robert and bought a 6x17 film back! The following morning a large box arrived from Robert containing the roll film back and ground glass viewer!

I've used the film back for a couple of weeks now and thought that some of you may be interested in my initial findings.

The first point of interest is that the film back I have is not the DAYI version reviewed by Kerry. I have the Art Panorama 6x17 back made by Shen Hao. From reading and re-reading Kerry's review I have listed the differences between the two.

Although visually both look the same from the outside there are differences.The Art Pan has one covered window on the film back that allows you to wind the film to the correct position for either 6x17 or 6x12 formats. The DAYI has individual windows for these formats as well as the 6x9 format.

The Art Pan also has a knob above both film chambers - one to allow a roll of film to be locked in place, the other to advance the film.

Apart from these "cosmetic" differences they are similar pieces of equipment ... a major difference is seen when the back is opened. The DAYI version has a film pressure plate that is composed of two plates lying next to each other - the Art Pan has a single film pressure plate. Now this may make no difference at all to film flatness, but I would have imagined that a continuous plate was better at ensuring film flatness than two smaller plates? It would be interesting to see.

So far so good, but aesthetically this film back is a dog! It is heavy and once you combine it and the viewer they take up a fair sized chunk of space and certainly add to the (already) weighty backpack! It certainly wouldn't win any beauty awards either! It has been described as "industrial" in its build/quality of finish, so I certainly wasn't expecting a Linhof-style finish. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I opened the box and the whole set up has a reassuring finish that makes me confident that if all else fails I could always use it as a doorstop or to knock in nails !

A quick disassemble and it is obvious that the whole construction is very simple - this is not a bad thing! Once you open the back you can clearly see that there is absolutely very little that can go wrong! The reason being that there is actually very little of anything inside.

If I am honest I did have some reservations about the light-tightness of this back and the issue of advancing the film by looking through a little red window! But films returned from the lab have put an end to these worries - what we have here is a very basic but proven method of advancing the film and what's more there are no issues regarding frame spacing either.

The dark slide fits (again) in a reassuringly snug fashion - and my only gripe here is that it could do with a "proper" handle (as seen on the Horseman film backs) - as it is the dark slide is simply curled to allow you to grip onto it - still I suppose it helps keep the cost down.

Loading film is simplicity itself! The back opens by flexing to end plates that in turn lock into two pins on the casing of the back. Once removed you have access to the (large) film gate. With the film back on a flat surface, (with the film chambers face up) it is simply a case of pulling the knob on top of the casing and dropping a roll of film into the right hand chamber. The knob is released and keeps the roll in position. The paper leader is pulled across the gate and fed into an empty spool in the left hand chamber. Whilst ensuring the leader is "square" the film advance knob is wound on until the start arrow appears on the paper at the left hand end.

Now the back cover is replaced and locked into position, the film counter window uncovered and the film wound on whilst looking at the numbers passing across! Easy! The back plate is marked with the correct frame number sequence for both 6x17 and 6x12 formats too.

That's about it as far as the operation is concerned. There are no film flatness issues with my sample - the film advance has a reassuring friction that makes it clear that the film is being kept flat.

One interesting point is the size of the image itself. Every roll film format I have used has rounded up the actual size of the image to get its format "name", so 6x6 was actually more like 56mmx56mm, 6x12 was around the 56mmx110mm mark on the Horseman and from what I can gather the Fuji/Linhof 6x17 cameras offer an image size of 56mmx168mm - you get the picture? So why then does this 6x17 film back give "longer" images? An image 178mm long to be exact!

Not only is this film back cheaper than any alternative ... we get a whole centimetre more for our money too!

The ground glass bellows viewer is also worth a mention here. This frame clips into place using the graflock tabs on the camera and holds a ground glass that is marked out for the usual 6x12/6x9 formats. A bellows is attached that extends by pulling the outer edge of the frame along a small "monorail". It locks firmly into position and provides adequate shading for the image to be viewed on the screen. However, I have found that in most circumstances a dark cloth is also handy ( I use a very lightweight Ebony offering that adds little in the way of weight to the outfit).

Once the image is composed and focussed (either by eye or with a loupe as this version differs from the DAYI viewer in that it does not have a built in magnifier - something I personally prefer as I like to see the whole screen from a distance before "louping" when and if necessary!) - the viewer is simply unclipped, placed somewhere safe, and the film back attached. Lens settings adjusted, shutter cocked, dark slide pulled and bingo!

Four frames later the roll is wound on and the back cover removed and you're ready to load again! Does all of this sound too good to be true? Well there is a trade-off! The actual mechanics of this back have meant that it is really only suitable for a small range of focal length lenses - if you want to utilise the whole image area.

In his review of the DAYI back, Kerry reckons on being able to use the 80XL on his Arca Swiss and possibly even a 72mm - I can't get anywhere near this short with the Art Panorama! I would imagine that you would need a camera with "extreme" wide angle capabilities (in order that the front and rear standards can be brought very close together) if you wanted to use a 72mm. I can focus a 90mm mounted on a flat panel, on infinity by using bag bellows (on the Ebony 45SU). But forget any hope of employing camera movements! However, the same lens on a recessed panel gives me that all important "extra" that means that I can now shift/tilt /swing within reason. The 110XL is ideally suited for use with this back. If I could have a single lens to use with this film back it would be this one. A 150mm - no problem! A 210mm Sironar S - VERY slight vignetting but nothing horrendous and still providing an image area longer than 6x12.

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