Entry-Level Large Format
Starting Out Without Selling The Kids

When I'm out shooting with my view camera the first question most people ask is, "Is that an antique camera?" The second question is invariably, "How much does one of those cost?" My stock answer to question two is, "It depends." Let's face it, for some folks entry level is a Porsche Boxster while for others it's a secondhand Yugo so, when budgeting for a large format camera, we really need to establish our criteria before we go much further.

In the past I've bought serviceable view cameras, with lens, for as little as $200. My current monorail camera was well under $1000 with a 210mm lens when I bought it two years ago. Admittedly, these were outstanding buys, but similar bargains are to be found. In researching this article I even discovered several new cameras that could be had, lens included, for right around $1000. That is more affordable than most would guess.

This image presented itself while I was testing a Horseman camera that wasn't designed to be used as a field camera. Even studio cameras can be used in the field if you can put up with the bulk and the weight.
Photo © 2004, Joseph A. Dickerson, All Rights Reserved

Have I piqued your interest? Good, then your next decision should be whether to shop new or used. Right now there seems to be a lot of used large format equipment up for grabs. This translates to a buyer's market. Not that you can't get stung--if you're a novice it's only too easy to get the wrong camera for your needs, or one that is no bargain. If you have a friend who is savvy and can help you navigate the online auctions then great, there are bargains to be found. But the advertisers in Shutterbug may provide a less stressful solution. Another good option is to rent an outfit for a few days and immerse yourself in the learning process. Perhaps taking a workshop or community college class where some loaner equipment is available would let you try large format with minimal financial commitment.

Last, but certainly not least, you could consider buying new. Remember that large format lenses are universal, so you may find a bargain camera one place and a bargain lens somewhere else. If you already have a good relationship with a local camera shop, by all means, check them out. You may find just what you're looking for at a bargain price, and get some helpful guidance to boot.

One of my all-time favorite cameras is the Graphic View II. You can find these at camera swap meets for a song. I bought this one, with a serviceable lens, at a garage sale for $75! Believe me, it's really fun to shoot with a piece of art deco sculpture.

Large Format Specs
OK, let's get down to specifics. First, you'll encounter three basic camera types: the Crown or Speed Graphic, the monorail view camera, and field or flat-bed cameras. The classic Speed Graphic, and all its cousins, nephews, and assorted siblings, was manufactured from the early part of the 1900s until the mid-'70s. This means that there are a bizillion of them out there in every condition imaginable. They're rugged, relatively lightweight, easy to operate, and generally cheap.

The monorail camera is probably the most versatile type but they will be bulkier, heavier, and somewhat slower than the Graphic. But you will have a camera that offers considerably more control over your image. Some will even give you entry into a complete system that makes them even more versatile. Calumet/Cambo, Arca Swiss, and Sinar are just some examples of system monorail cameras. Many of these are backward compatible so an older camera can easily be upgraded when required.

If you do mostly scenic photography a field or flat-bed camera is a good choice. These are a compromise between the basic Graphic-style camera and the monorail. They fold flat but still offer adequate movements for most field photography. The last few years have seen the growth of a cottage industry in the design and building of field cameras. The classic Deardorff seems to be the departure point for most of these designs and the materials range from exotic woods, such as ebony or rosewood, to aircraft aluminum, titanium, and even space-age plastics.

A new Osaka/Tachihara camera and a standard lens will cost more than our $1000 budget, but just barely.

The price of many of these handcrafted cameras could thoroughly shatter your budget, but there are some bargains out there if you look closely. A real classic in its own right is the Tachihara. This lightweight little gem is available from several sources, and under a couple of different names, and it offers a lot of features for the money. Another camera worthy of your consideration is the Shen Hao. Like the Tachihara, it's available from several sources but it offers more features, although its teak and stainless steel construction makes it a bit heavier. I used one extensively last summer (see the January 2004 Shutterbug for a complete field test) and I was really impressed.