One of the great advantages of large format photography is that you are not tied to a particular lens mount when choosing you lenses. Almost any lens can be fitted to almost any camera. If you are just starting in the world of large format photography this can be confusing. Especially as lenses come in different shutters and every focal length has different positives and negatives in a way that a 35mm system wouldn’t.
In this article we are going to be focused on ‘modern’ wide lenses that come with shutters. By this I mean lenses that fit in lens boards with either copal 0, 1 or 3 shutter holes cut in them. That covers the vast majority of lenses made since the 1950’s. What I am going to try and do is make broad points about each class of lens, as the different brands are actually pretty similar. In the great scheme of things Fuji, Nikon, Schneider or Rodenstock lenses tend to be very similar at any particular focal length.
For the purposes of this article I am assuming that my readers are fairly experienced photographers who know broadly what lenses they’ll need. But perhaps don’t know about the differences in ease of use that different focal lengths present in large format.
A note on focal length conversion
For the purposes of this article I am using the normal x3 conversion factor when converting focal lengths to their 35mm equivalent. In reality it is a little more tricky than that because of the change in aspect ratio. Some articles use a x0.27 conversion factor but that assumes the whole sheet of 4×5 is the image area. In reality the usable area of a 4×5 sheet is more like 90mm x 120mm which would make a standard lens exactly 150mm, the same calculation on a 35mm frame gives you approximately 43mm. So I am going to use a conversion of x0.3. In reality of course, convention and convenience have as much to do with focal length choice as anything else. So I have rounded up or down to the nearest commonly available lens in the other format.
Wide Angle Lenses
For this guide we’ll consider lenses with focal lengths of 105mm or less as wide angles. As a general rule of thumb the wider the lens the trickier it will be to use.
- It will cast a smaller image circle (so more limited movements)
- Cast a dimmer image on the ground glass,
- Be more likely to need a recessed lens board (fiddly) if it will fit at all.
- You might also have to drop the bed of the camera to stop it appearing in your shots.
- With very wide lenses the standards need to be perfectly parallel to prevent soft edges from alignment issues.
Before you buy a wide angle lens check your camera’s minimum bellows extension. A lot of 4×5 camera’s standards won’t move close enough to be able to focus wider lenses at infinity with a flat board. As a rule the distance between the two standards should be the same as the focal length of the lens or less. If you can’t focus the lens with a flat board, recessed lens boards are available that solve the problem. However this does make the lens more fiddly to use. Personally, I don’t like using recessed boards and would rather have a camera designed to use very wide lenses if I was doing a lot of this kind of work.
Due to the way they are designed, all 4×5 large format wide angle lenses vignette to a greater or lesser degree. The wider the lens the more they vignette. To correct this most manufactures sold centre graduated filters that matched each lens. You may or may not need one of these filters depending on your applications. If you are shooting black and white or colour negative chances are you won’t need one for general photography. You can probably adjust images in photoshop if you feel they need it. However if you shoot slide film you might no be so lucky. If you do need one they can be expensive and difficult to find. I have seen centre filters up for sale for the same price as the lens itself!
- Traditionally pretty much as wide as it gets in large format lenses. There are some wider lenses like the Schneider Super Angulon 47mm XL but they are rare and expensive.
- 65mm is roughly equivalent to a 20mm lens in full frame.
- Most lenses come in a #0 shutter so maximum shutter speed is 1/500 second.
- Most 65mm don’t have a very large image circle so movements are very limited. So they might not be as easy to use for architecture as you might think.
- Because the light from the lens hits the ground glass at an acute angle, the image on the glass can be quite dim and difficult to see.
- Easier to use than a 65mm, with a larger image circle.
- Will also work with more cameras than a 65mm.
- Focal length equivalent to approximately 24mm on full frame.
- Also comes in a Copal #0 shutter so has a 1/500 shutter speed
- Basically everything that applies to a 65mm applies to a 75mm but to a lesser degree. So they are somewhat easier to use, have slightly brighter viewing, and slightly more coverage and less vignetting than a 65mm.
- I have a 75mm and like it, but wouldn’t describe it as an easy lens to use.
- Movements on my 5.6 Super Angulon are still quite limited. About 1cm in each direction. Expect to pay more for more movements from more modern and exotic lenses. If I use screw in filters, they will vignette the image circle slightly, further reducing movements.
- Most commonly available in f5.6 and f8 versions. F5.6 have more coverage and brighter viewing. F8 lenses are lighter and cheaper. Nikon and Rodenstock 75mm’s are F4.5 and F6.8 but the same differences apply across their versions
- The most popular wide angle lens for large format equivalent to about a 28mm in full frame.
- Most lenses have a big enough image circle to cover 5×7″ so there are plenty of movements for 4×5.
- Viewing is brighter and the lens is in general much easier to use than its wider siblings.
- If you are new to large format and want a wide lens this is probably the best focal length for you to buy unless you are sure you need wider.
- It will fit on the majority of cameras, is the most widely available, and is the easiest to use.
- Also most commonly available as F5.6 or F8 lenses. F4.5 90mm lenses are also available but are large and heavy and the Rodenstocks even come in the bigger Copal 1 shutter.
100 and 105mm Lenses
BEWARE!! 105mm and 100mm lenses in copal shutters are usually standard lenses for 6x9cm medium format view cameras. THEY WILL NOT COVER a 4×5 piece of film. There are a few 100mm lenses that will cover 4×5, but they are few and far between. Most likely you will find a 105mm lurking on ebay or at a dealer for a bargain price, waiting for an unsuspecting buyer. Don’t fall into this trap.
Older F8 lenses with #00 Shutters
Some older lenses come in a smaller #00 shutter. They work fine IF you can find a 00 lens board for your camera or get one cut. For most photographers it isn’t worth the hassle.
If you are looking for a wide angle lens and you are shooting things like landscapes where you can always take a step or two back then a 90mm lens is almost certainly your best bet. They are the easiest to use and most plentiful. If you need something wider for interiors or something like that then you’ll have to go wider and accept the limitations inherent in those lenses, unless you pay big money for something like a Schneider Super Angulon XL (if you can find one).
Although large format lenses are similar in terms of performance they do differ in the details. To make things more complicated many makers may revise their lenses without changing their names. Schneider produced 75mm Super Angulons for around 50 years.
An easy way to spot the age of lenses is to look at the shutter. Newer shutters are all black. Older ones tend to have chrome elements. Some manufacturers’ serial numbers are available on line so you can date a lens accurately. Personally I always try to buy the most modern version of a lens I can afford.
If you see a cheap lens do your research. Large format lenses are often sold by people who have limited knowledge of this type of photography, so there is always a chance you can profit from someone else’s ignorance. However it is just as likely that you might get a lens made from different lens cells form two damaged copies or someone has transplanted a shutter from a cheaper lens to repair a premium one without transferring any necessary spacers.
A lot of people selling large format lenses know frighteningly little about them, even dealers. I bought a 90mm from a well known dealer and they ‘forgot’ to mention it was in a #00 shutter instead of the more usual #0 shutter. It was almost impossible to fit to any camera unless you went on a wild goose chase for a #00 board.
If you are not sure, always buy from a reputable and knowledgeable dealer!