Shen Hao HZX45-IIA. A solid little brick of a camera that
works as well as it looks. The cluster of knobs on the
rear takes a little getting used to, but after a couple
of days with the camera I grabbed the right one almost
I don't recall just
how many times I've gone through this, but it's more than
a few. After much soul-searching, speculation, and fretting I decide
I'm going to give up large format photography forever. It always
seems like such a good idea at the time. But, as you have probably guessed,
I've changed my mind--again. Innocently enough, I picked
up a used view camera from a friend who was retiring and once again
became infected by the large format bug.
The whole process got me to wondering just how much has changed since
I did my last field camera roundup for Shutterbug many moons ago. The
folks at the magazine agreed that you might be interested as well, so
Toyo 45CF. One derisive comment I read on the Internet was
that the 45CF is plasticy. Well, yeah it's supposed
to be, but so is Lance Armstong's time trial bike.
That's what makes 'em both so light.
While large format photography probably can't match the excitement
that digital photography generates there is a definite resurgence of interest.
This renewed appeal is shared by amateur and professional photographers
and seemingly encompasses the entire photographic spectrum, from commercial
photography to fine art. Many, like myself, work with a hybrid system,
shooting images on film and then scanning the negatives or transparencies
and tweaking them in the digital darkroom. Still others prefer a more
purist approach and do all their work in the wet lab. Some of the more
dedicated are even utilizing "alternative" processes such
as platinum or palladium printing. Whatever the process employed, the
view camera, with its nearly transcendental approach, is the main tool
utilized to capture the images.
North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon. The Shen Hao
with a 210mm lens. The generous movements of the Shen Hao
made shots like this
easy to accomplish.
Photos © 2003, Joseph A. Dickerson, All Rights Reserved
I was also curious to see
what was new in equipment and if things had improved since the Dark Ages
when I started out. While the studio/advertising/commercial photographer
has always had a good selection of cameras, lenses, and accessories to
choose from, the nature/scenic photographer's choices have been
more limited. Unless of course, you don't mind a camera that weighs
only slightly less than a mid-sized SUV, and costs nearly as much.
I wanted to see what was available for those who, like me, shoot mostly
scenics, travel, and historic architecture and prefer not to take out
a second mortgage to buy yet another camera. I, somewhat arbitrarily,
chose a monetary ceiling of $1000 for the camera body, which seems like
a nice round number. You could add a lens, light meter, film holders,
etc. and keep the investment under $2000. A little investigation quickly
proved that the under-$1000 category was easily met. Lots of cameras offered
the desired features, but buying one of the cheap was a bit more difficult.
Difficult, but happily, not impossible.
Flower field, Lompoc, California. Front tilts on the Toyo
are axis tilts. This requires less refocusing as the lensboard
Some Large Format
The first camera I (re)discovered was one that I had plenty of experience
with, the Tachihara/Osaka 4x5 field camera. I had one of these years ago
and was delighted that it was still available. It's a wonderful
camera, offers huge value for the asking price (well under our $1000 budget)
and is very lightweight. (See the chart for complete specs.) As I continued
my quest, I discovered two cameras that I had no prior experience with
but that seemed to fit our criteria, the Shen Hao HZX45-IIA and the Toyo
45CF. I had already planned a photo trip to the Pacific Northwest to shoot
waterfalls and lighthouses so I arranged loaner cameras through the generosity
of Badger Graphic Sales, Inc. (Shen Hao) and Mamiya America Corporation
(Toyo), loaded up the van and headed north.
Hill building, Port Townsend, Washington. The Toyo proved
up to the task for shooting historic architecture. Although
the specs may seem a bit limited the camera was capable
of everything I tried to shoot with it.
Fit And Finish
The two cameras are a bit different in concept, design, and materials
but my first impression of each was very positive. The Shen Hao is beautifully
finished teak with black-painted hardware resulting in a very rich looking,
albeit somewhat heavy, camera. The Toyo, on the other hand, is carbon
fiber (hence the CF designation) and polycarbonate with metal parts where
required. The carbon fiber/plastic construction isn't as aesthetically
exciting as the teak but the result is a camera that weighs less than
Both feel quite solid and I'm convinced that either camera, given
reasonable care, is capable of a very long service life. The control layout
of both is intuitive and easy to work with.
Unfolding/opening the Toyo was a bit tricky until I remembered to rack
the focusing rail back into the camera before trying to pull the front
standard forward. From then on there was no drama whatsoever. I used both
extensively throughout the trip and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
In fact, I had zero problems and would recommend either camera without
reservation. That's not to say they're absolutely perfect,
but everything worked exactly as it was designed to do.
Before I left home I figured that one of the cameras would assert itself
as my favorite and the other would become an also-ran. Well, I found so
much to like about both (and so little to dislike) that I still can't
say for certain which I prefer. I do have to confess that I really like
the look and warm feel of the teak on the Shen Hao. On my trip I visited
with two family members who are accomplished woodworkers and they were
both in awe of the fit and finish of the joinery work.
Wilson Lighthouse, Port Townsend, Washington. A cold and
windy sunrise and I really appreciated the large knobs on
the Shen Hao that were easily gripped even wearing polypro
The Shen Hao also has the
advantages of a slightly longer bellows and the option of changing to
a bag bellows for really short lenses. I did try my 65mm lens with the
bag bellows and the camera body interfered with the front rise somewhat,
but I think a recessed lensboard would probably solve the problem.
The Toyo lacks a wide angle bellows option altogether, although I used
a 90mm lens with some movements. Again, a recessed lensboard would have
increased the useable movements with this lens considerably. Both cameras
could easily handle a 300mm lens and had no problem supporting the weight
of this lens. In fact, I even tried a 400mm telephoto lens and neither
camera felt as though stability was sacrificed. To me, this is pretty
impressive for cameras designed to be field cameras.
south from Ecola State Park, Oregon. Here front tilts brought
the whole scene into sharp focus. The base tilts on the
Shen Hao take a bit of getting used to but with practice
they are nearly as quick as axis tilts.
One feature of the Toyo that
I really appreciated was its ability to fold with a compact lens in place.
I tried this with two different lenses, a Fujinon 135mm and a Caltar 150mm
IIe compact, both of which are mounted in number 0 shutters. This translated
to a minute or two saved every time I set the camera up, more if you factor
in the time it always seems to take me to find the darn lens caps. Incidentally,
the same lenses would fold into the Shen Hao if I first reversed the lensboard.
If I Had To Choose
As previously stated, I would be very hard put to choose one of these
cameras over the other. For the scenics, lighthouses, and waterfalls I
shot this summer both offered adequate movements, ease of handling, and
enough bellows draw to make the shots happen. For photographers who rely
heavily on shorter lenses with lots of movements the nod would probably
go to the Shen Hao. The Shen Hao wide angle (bag) bellows is very inexpensive
and switching over takes only a minute or so. However, if you backpack
substantial distances or overnight and need to carry food and shelter
as well as photo gear, the Toyo might make you a happier camper.
North Falls, Silver Falls State Park, Oregon. Both cameras
came with Graflok backs greatly enhancing their versatility.
I shot a lot with a Horseman 6x12cm rollfilm back and I
really like the 2:1 aspect ratio of this panorama format.
(Toyo with 135mm lens.)
Both cameras come with a Graflok
or international back as standard issue. I shot with a Polaroid 545 film
holder, a Calumet 6x7cm rollfilm back, a Horseman 6x12cm holder, and Fuji
Quickload sheet film without a hitch. Both focusing panels include markings
for 6x7cm and 6x9cm roll film on the standard 4x5 ground glass. I was
delighted to find that the Shen Hao also has corner markings for the 6x12cm
format as well.
Front movements for the Toyo (no rear movements are possible) are adequate,
easy to use, and lock solidly. However, the front standard positioning
as well as the front shift and swings are all locked by a common lever.
This can make setting the movements a little fussier. The Shen Hao uses
separate levers for the front standard positioning and the swings and
tilts. Shen Hao indicates that you can increase the bellows extension
by disengaging the base tilts and leaning the camera front forward. To
be completely honest, I didn't feel that the front axis tilts alone
would support the weight of most of the lenses I had with me, but I suppose
it's workable in a pinch.
Some of the accessories Badger Graphic Sales, Inc. lists for the Shen
Hao are lensboards (standard and recessed), a folding hood, bag bellows,
monocular viewfinder, and a very interesting multi-format rollfilm back
all offered at very reasonable prices. The Toyo will accept a vast array
of accessories offered for other Toyo field and monorail cameras.