Photography / Hands-on Review

Classic Cameras: Exploring the Heights with the Linhof Technorama 612 PC

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Sometimes, there are those cameras in life that are overwhelmingly alluring, yet make you simultaneously scratch your head. For me, the Linhof Technorama 612 PC has always been one of these cameras, on my bucket list of cameras to own someday, but I cannot explain why. I'm not much of a practitioner or a fan, per se, of panoramic photos and I'm also not especially partial to wide-angle lenses. I tend to work in 6 x 7 and 4 x 5 ratios, and prefer normal to portrait focal lengths—the Linhof 612 is just the opposite of these. Even though this mythical camera contradicts my own preferences, its simplicity and precision have been two attributes that always make me think, "Maybe I can shoot wide-angle panoramas."

Echoing this personal contradiction, when offered the opportunity to work with the Technorama 612, I chose to photograph one of the most naturally vertically tumultuous areas of New York City: the neighborhoods of Washington Heights and Inwood. These are some of the hilliest neighborhoods, the northernmost on Manhattan Island, and proved to be a unique challenge for photographing in wide panorama. The tension between the undulating terrain and the rigid cinematic perspective of the camera felt similar to my own battle of working with a format and perspective that challenged my own ingrained sensibilities, even though the desire was there to make it work.

An Introduction to the Technorama 612

Before delving into my use of the Technorama 612, it's important to understand why this camera system is so special, and the sort of quirks you must overcome with such a particular tool. Looking at it as a camera system, the Technorama can be broken into three essential components: the body, the selection of mounted lenses, and the dedicated viewfinders. Each component complements the other, and each features an incredibly simple design. The body is a rugged metal box that simply holds the film in registration, advances the film between frames, and counts the frames. Two accessory shoes are on the top plate—one for the auxiliary viewfinders and another for a flash or other accessory—and a second tripod mount is also featured on top for using the camera upside-down (more on this later).

Arguably the most complex aspect of the Technorama system is the lens, which still features a simple, mechanical design. Differing from most roll format cameras, the Technorama uses lenses designed for large format cameras, and these lenses are set in dedicated helical mounts for focusing. These helical mounts have a long focus throw and are imprinted with focusing distances and depth-of-field ranges for hyperfocal focusing. This focusing mechanism is one of the most important tools of the Technorama—since you do not look through the lens, nor have any way of visually checking your focus prior to shooting, the focusing scale is used with each shot you take, and more often than not you are hyperfocal focusing to get a better “hit-rate” of shots in perfect focus.

Another distinction, which is truly beneficial for architectural subjects: each of the lenses is mounted into a lens panel with a fixed 8mm of rise (also called vertical shift) that helps to reduce vertical convergence by lessening the need to tilt the camera upward, and also promotes shooting with a 1/3 foreground and 2/3 sky composition. Since this shift is permanent, Linhof incorporated the incredibly simple yet ingenious idea of integrating a second tripod mount on the top plate of the camera to facilitate pointing the camera downward, such as when photographing atop a hill, to permit making corrected imagery with 2/3 foreground and 1/3 sky.

Finally, the last component, and my favorite aspect of the Technorama system, is the optical viewfinder. This shoe-mount finder is bright and clear, and considering the wide 6 x 12 format, is relatively easy to use when surveying the 2:1-ratio image. Working in concert with the fixed 8mm of shift of the lens, a spirit level is also built into the side of the viewfinder, and is reflected so that it is visible in the finder. This lets you check the pitch at which you are photographing, and can help confirm whether or not the vertical lines in your scene will converge or not.

Looking west from the top of Gorman Park

Planning to Shoot with the Technorama 612

With the technical details on my mind, I worked on choosing a location in New York City that could be highlighted in a unique way—I decided to photograph a location that could, perhaps, challenge this camera's strengths. Inwood and Washington Heights are the northernmost neighborhoods on the island of Manhattan; they are surrounded by the Hudson and Harlem Rivers to the north, west, and east, and bordered by Harlem on the south. Distinct from most other neighborhoods in Manhattan, these two are visually characterized by hilly and turbulent natural geography that is ripe with outcroppings of Manhattan schist and abundance of parks and woods. The inherent challenge of photographing an undulating area with a wide format camera was a positive consequence of the unique format. With such a broad aspect ratio, I felt compelled to make stronger compositional decisions and had to crop out typically important subjects, which led to more dynamic imagery. The format also aids in accentuating the degree of how steep angles are, as well as highlighting the expanse of a scene when photographed from above or below the horizon.

The Cloisters

Working with the Technorama 612

With my location set, I packed up the Linhof Technorama 612, a light meter, tripod with geared head, and a cable release, and took the A train to the penultimate stop on the line—Dyckman Street. Exiting at Dyckman and Broadway, I was instantly greeted with a distinct change of scenery. The Cloisters—the Medieval European branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—dominates the landscape as it towers at the peak of Fort Tryon Park, just outside the subway. Making my way up the hill to the museum, I adopted a workflow I would continue to use over the next few days with this camera: I carried the viewfinder in my hand and used it to size up nearly any subject of interest, while the camera and tripod stayed packed in my bag. Compared to raising an entire camera to your eye, simply pointing a viewfinder at a subject was refreshing and felt decisively non-committal. I felt freer to simply explore the range of subjects around me and test out potential compositions with this panoramic format. A new range of subjects jumped out at me that I would typically write off with more squarish formats, such as an image of the Fort Tryon Cottage where I was able to show the cottage itself along with its precipitous placement above the Hudson River. Making my way farther south, the drama of the Fort Tryon Park and Cloisters carries over into the adjacent Hudson Heights neighborhood. From here, I made my way east a bit to the area around the George Washington Bridge Bus Station, and then continued farther east to the edge of the Harlem River, and the Harlem River Park, and then northward along Amsterdam Avenue.

At the southern end of Fort Tryon Park, Fort Tryon Cottage is precipitously placed in the landscape above the Hudson River.

Broken pew outside George Washington Bridge Bus Station

All the way while exploring Washington Heights and Inwood, I switched between handheld shooting and working from a tripod. The Technorama is flexible in the ways you can shoot with it, which is perhaps the key differentiator and what separates this camera from a view camera or an SLR. Shooting handheld was surprisingly intuitive and natural, especially considering the stature of the camera. And what keeps you moving slowly, in a good way, while shooting handheld is the fact that you have to look at and set the focus ring prior to each shot, manually cock the shutter, and set the shutter speed and aperture while looking at it from the top or front of the camera. These few extra steps make each shot feel a bit more important than usual. It felt natural to take the extra 30 seconds or so to get everything right prior to making a final composition and releasing the shutter.

Alleyway between buildings on Fairway Avenue

Cat eating outside of an apartment building on West 188th Street

When working with a tripod, a surprising amount of precision is also afforded, mainly due to the parallax-corrected viewfinder with impressively accurate frame lines. At first I was a bit skeptical working with this system because of my lack of familiarity; I thought it was mildly humorous that a camera without TTL viewing capabilities or focusing capabilities could be classified as a "technical camera." The more accustomed I grew to shooting this way, however, it was liberating to be able to pay more attention to the scene and use my intuition and knowledge to set focus and composition. Working with a tripod made it slightly easier to make use of the built-in shift, as well as ensure level horizons and plumb verticals. One the other hand, I gravitated toward shooting handheld as often as possible to keep a bit of spontaneity in my work, yet still retain the rigidity in composition this camera seemed to force upon me. 

At the dramatic intersection of Fairview Avenue and Wadsworth Terrace

Using the 6 x 12 format to highlight the incline of West 193rd Street

At the end of my session with the Technorama, I spent the last few hours of the day wandering through Inwood Hill Park, focusing on the unkempt wilderness that visually contrasts the rest of the neighborhood, but in many ways echoes the same adaptive infrastructure of Inwood and Washington Heights. With geometry at the back of my mind, for a change, shooting in the woods gave me even more freedom to use the camera in the same manner I would almost any other camera with the key exception of using the 2:1 aspect ratio. Wavy trees and long limbs could be accentuated with the panoramic format, and the wide-angle perspective toys with one's sense of scale when seeing an image of trees on the ground taken from just above, compared to a fallen tree measuring upwards of 30 feet in length.

The camera’s panoramic format accentuates the wavy branches and long limbs of a fallen tree near the eastern edge of Inwood Hill Park.

The wide-angle perspective toys with one’s sense of scale when viewing these cut limbs on the ground.

The more I kept working with the camera, the more I grew attached to using it, and the more intuitive the whole process became. The first roll I ran through the Technorama 612 PC was peppered with mistakes: I forgot to set my focus, I forgot to cock the shutter prior to every shot, and I forgot to advance the film between frames. The second roll had fewer mistakes, and by the third, fourth, fifth, and subsequent rolls, it felt completely natural to work with the 612 as if it were my own camera. Its quirks are noticeable, but one could argue they serve a purpose and are a necessity. Compared to nearly any other camera I've ever used, the Linhof Technorama 612 is about as plain a camera system as possible—and that's exactly how it's supposed to be. It is clearly not meant to be used in most situations, but the specialist traits it does cater to, it does with precision.

Icicles clinging onto an outcropping of Manhattan schist

Overlooking Broadway from the Alpine Garden, in Fort Tryon Park

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A quick P.S. for Lasse Jansson: Some years ago, as my local lab couldn't do color 4x5 and needed a week for 120, I started processing my own color negative film. I didn't use a Jobo tank or fancy thermal control, I just put the tanks in a sink full of hot water (measured with a cheap digital thermometer) and used a kit of C-41 chemicals. The results were better than I expected and I've done my own C-41 ever since. Of course B&H has everything you need.

That's a good point- it is definitely possible to process your own C-41 at home, and the process is not much more difficult than regular black & white processing. As long as you have the means to keep a water bath, the C-41 process is short enough that it isn't too difficult to maintain the high temperatures required. 

Thank you for the opportunity to look at my old neighborhood through panoramic eyes. Your idea of using the wide format to emphasize the ups and downs of Washington Heights gave me, literally, a new perspective. For what it's worth, Staten Island is even hillier, with a few views that suggest using a pano camera in portrait mode for the sort of composition seen so often in Chinese painting, though I imagine the fixed 8-degree tilt could make that orientation difficult.

While it's not panoramic, the Rolleiflex SL66 attracted me years ago with its up-to-8-degree forward tilt and close-focus capabilities. Unlike the Linhof camera, the tilt is optional and adjustable, and as it's an SLR one has an idea of how the tilt will affect near and far focus. (I wonder if two of them mounted side-by-side would make a good improvised Technorama!)

Thanks for your comments, Michael. You're right that a handful of areas in Staten Island are really hilly and wooded, but those areas also tend to feel a bit more rural or secluded than Washington Heights and Inwood in my opinion. I like that the northern areas of Manhattan mix that feeling of being in the city and being somewhere completely different at the same time.

In regard to shooting vertically with this Linhof, it's completely possible because the fixed movement is actually shift, not tilt. You won't benefit from the pre-shift if working vertically, but it won't affect your images negatively or make shooting any more difficult. The Rollei SL66 and the Technorama are two pretty different, but equally compelling, beasts. The tilt and bellows of the SL66 system made it great for close-up work, product shots, and landscape work, too. The Technorama, on the other hand, is pretty much confined to the wide-angle and distant subject arenas. Interestingly, the Technorama 617 accepts a separate shift adapter to let you set the amount of rise and fall with any lens in that system.

I think mounting two SL66s side-by-side sounds more like a recipe for shooting stereo pairs rather than producing panoramas, which would certainly be an interesting technique to explore if you have the chance to.

You're quite right about the secluded feel of parts of Staten Island. I've photographed deer from my office window. In Inwood my bedroom was a few feet from the trees of Inwood Hill Park but I walked out the front door into the city. There are so many gradations of urban and rural in New York...

Thanks for clarifying the behavior of the Linhof. The built-in shift is a very clever design decision. Your pictures of buildings show that the result is quite "natural." I wish the SL66 had that. Maybe a tilt-shift lens tilted up to match the downward tilt would do it. Your pictures show the Linhof can make a completely linear photograph -- and is capable of great results.

Great stuff. Please tell us about the film and processing. Thanks pimm

Thanks, Pimm. All of these shots were taken on Ilford Delta 400 (EI 320) and processed in Ilford DD-X as normal. The scans were made on an Imacon Flextight 646.

Thanks for letting us see your beautiful shots. I use the Hasselblad 500C/M and the Sinar Norma 4x5, and sometimes the old Szabad 4x5 made in Sweden when I want to do the right thing. Nikon D3 when I´m in a hurry. The bad thing with the large format photography is that the cost is going up all the time and the laboratorys are going down. Black and wite I process myself but color has to be done at a lab so.....

Thanks for your comment, Lasse. You're right, large format photography certainly isn't cheap, but on the other hand it's not an area seeing constant technological improvements, so there is little need to upgrade equipment. Similar to you, I keep a handful of film cameras around for the majority of my shooting but still keep a digital for "just in case" times.

I have to think that the fun of this "...rugged metal box that simply holds the film" is for most tempered by the fact that it is going to cost $13,000.00 for the first snapshot.

It's true that many of these large or larger format cameras command higher prices due to the precision and craftsmanship that goes into building them, as well as the lower demand and inability to mass produce many of the components. As simple as it is, the Technorama felt like one of the most perfectly put-together cameras I've ever used. Each piece fit exactly where it should and everything worked as it should. That being said, the good thing about large format items is that they are not exactly "cutting edge", and typically can be found on the used market for a bit less.

I enjoy reading these classic camera series. I want to graduate from 35mm to medium format photography. My first 35mm camera was the Canon A-1, which I still use. I 've got to convince my wife to buy me the Mamya 645 and RZ67.

Thanks for the comment, Ralph.

If you're looking to shoot both 645 x 6 x 7, and don't mind the larger body size of the RZ, it's good to know that you can get separate film backs for shooting 645, 6 x 6, and 6 x 7 for the RZ; sort of like having three cameras in one.

Great photos Bjorn.

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