We cannot be certain, but it is a fair bet that the folks who invented the modern digital cameras, be they DSLR or mirrorless, did not envision that they would be attached to large format view cameras. Can you do it? Yes. Does it work? Yes… I guess. Is it practical and easy? Nope. Should you do it? Maybe. Is it fun? Yes!
I will admit, I’ve never shot large format film. I have friends who shoot large format and it always looked super cool watching them adjust focus on a view camera and compose the scene from an inverted image on a beautiful ground glass (that is, if they weren’t shooting under the hood). As awesome as the process looked, and as stunning as their prints and scans were, I never felt the desire to pursue large format photography.
Then, at a Photo Plus Expo a few years ago, at the Shanghai ShenHao booth, I spotted a (what the heck is that?) 4 x 5 large format camera back with a FUJIFILM X mount on it. Whoa. What would you use that for? You can put an APS-C camera on the back of a 4 x 5 camera? Why? What is the point?
Well, it’s more than a year later and I still haven’t answered all of those questions, but I have had a lot of fun in the meantime. Do you want to join the fun? Here is how I did it…
Gotta Get a Back
The 4 x 5 FUJIFILM X back from ShenHao ended up in my kit before I really had formulated a plan for what to do with it or how to use it.
B&H sells a handful of similar backs as Digital & Film Back Adapters, and there are many more floating around the Internet, of course. Just make sure to match the back to the specific mount your digital camera has (FUJIFILM X in my case), and pay attention to the mounting interface, too—most of the time it will be Graflok, which is more than likely what you want for most 4 x 5 cameras.
Finding a 4 x 5 Camera
This isn’t going to devolve into a dissertation about the types of 4 x 5 film cameras, but I knew I wanted a view camera, and then had to decide between the two basic types: monorail cameras and field cameras. Monorail cameras are the larger, heavier, and clunkier of the two since the field cameras are, as the name implies, designed for photographing out in the field. While field cameras pack up tidier and tend to be more portable, monorail cameras offer more movements and general flexibility for focusing.
Believe it, or not, there are some brand new large format film cameras on the market if you like shiny and new! You will also need to add a lens board and lens. Of course, the used market is where you can find plenty of 4 x 5 large format cameras with life left in them—some with lenses included. The B&H Used Department always has a rotating collection of beauties here.
I decided to go with a new, but relatively inexpensive Standard 4 x 5 3D-printed camera that I assembled myself. It looks great and is super light, especially for a monorail camera. It was fun to build and simple to operate.
Finding a Lens
If you get a used large format camera that comes with a lens, then you are spared the search for a lens and compatible lens board. The lens board is the face of the camera on which the lens mounts and, yes, the lens board needs to be compatible with your camera—they come in different sizes and shapes. An Internet search will tell you what kind of lens board works with your camera; my Standard 4 x 5 uses a common Linhof-style lens board.
For those unfamiliar with large format photography, large format lenses tend to have external shutters, which are mounted on the lens and lens board. The lens itself separates in two and then sandwiches the shutter and lens board to form one unit. It’s also worth pointing out that shutters are available in different sizes, too, so make sure your lens board is sized to your specific shutter type; Copal #0 is a common size for 4 x 5 lenses, but you might occasionally run into Copal #1 or some other unique sizes for older lenses.
Now, to throw a wrench in my process, back when I was lens shopping for my 4 x 5 and APS-C system, I was soaking up the knowledge of the staff at the B&H Used Department. After listening to me describe my mission, one of them said, “You don’t need a large format lens with a shutter because you are using your digital camera’s shutter. You should just get an enlarging lens.”
Enlarging lenses, traditionally used in the darkroom (and sometimes with planetarium projectors), are large format-sized lenses without shutters. Many are available used for a song—especially considering how amazing their optics are. Of course, you can get a traditional large format lens with a shutter and lock it open or set it to bulb for your digital exposures. But if you are looking to save some scratch, an enlarging lens might be the ticket because many large format lenses are expensive.
This is where the project got really interesting, and a bit difficult—the lens search. Because I was able to try different lenses at the B&H Used Department, I determined that I could not compress my 4 x 5 camera’s front and rear standards enough to focus a wide-angle large format lens like a 70mm or 90mm at infinity. Even if I had swapped to a bellows that would allow the frames to get closer, I physically could not get the front and rear frames any closer to each other. As I was planning to attach my APS-C FUJIFILM camera to the Standard 4 x 5, I wanted to shoot as wide as I could—knowing I was dealing with a huge crop factor. The first focal length lens that worked turned out to be approximately 135mm. This focal length is close to the 150mm “normal” field of view for large format, but with my tiny APS-C sensor, it turned my rig into a telephoto large format camera.
With a full-frame or medium format camera on the back, or a different large format camera, you might have wider-angle lens options. Internet searches might help you find other crazy photographers who have “digitized” their large format cameras with (relatively) tiny sensor digital cameras and shared the gear they have used.
For my Standard 4 x 5, I ended up grabbing a beautiful Nikon EL-NIKKOR 135mm f/5.6 lens for well under $100.
Attaching the Lens to the Lens Board
Large format lenses attach to lens boards using retaining rings. My enlarging lens did not come with a ring, so I had the folks at Camera Doctor in New York City (not far from B&H Photo) help solve my mounting challenge. Their solution was to use a silicone glue to affix the lens to my Linhof-style board. A true “Franken-camera” was born:
- 3D printed plastic Standard 4 x 5 camera
- Metal Linhof-style lens board
- Glued-on Nikon enlarging lens
- ShenHao 4 x 5-to-FUJIFILM X back
- FUJIFILM X-T3 camera.
Let’s be honest here. Shooting an APS-C camera on a view camera is the opposite of convenient and easy. It certainly slows the process of photography (sometimes a very good thing) and it is challenging and fun.
The monorail Standard 4 x 5 wasn’t really designed for precision focusing because there are no groves on the monorail to move through with geared knobs that would, if present, adjust the front and rear standards.
Other than the focusing, the process of photographing is pretty straightforward. It’s like using your trusty mirrorless camera on some crazy and cumbersome lens that has to be mounted on a tripod to work.
Why Do This?
“Why climb a mountain? Because it is there.”
Why shoot APS-C on a large format 4 x 5 view camera? Because it can be done!
It’s fun, different, and unique. Plus, you might end up making some really memorable photos with your large format camera and digital “back.” Also, there are a lot of cool 4 x 5s and beautiful enlarging lenses in the world that would love to be put into service again in a good home.
Want to join this craziness? Do you have questions? Let me know in the Comments section, below!