For landscape or architectural photography which 4x5 inch large format camera is best for digital photography with a scan back? Comparisons of Sinar X, Linhof Technikardan, and Wisner 4x5 large format cameras in digital photography.

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Which 4x5 inch large format camera is best for professional studio use with a digital scanning back?

As our experience in large format digital photography increases we are always looking for ways to improve our equipment. At last we have access to a 4x5 camera from Sinar and can now review our initial impression of the Rolls Royce of professional studio cameras.

Since most of our photography is in distant locations we previously used a Linhof Technikardan and Wisner. Both of these 4x5 cameras fold up nicely. For architectural photography both are good since they can be transported easily. The Linhof has survived years of tough use all over Latin America. The Wisner has held up equally flawlessly in photography throughout Guatemala.

But for studio photography with a heavy scanning back the Linhof was too weak to handle the weight. Perhaps the newer model of the Linhof might have been better as even Linhof recognized the deficiencies of the moderate imprecision of the earlier model when they came out with a sturdier version. But we have only Linhof that was available in 1995. It wobbles and sags as a result of its L-shaped design.

All the wooden cameras are attractive looking but are made with movements based on cameras of the 19th century. These are perfectly okay for architecture, landscape, and even portraiture. But the sliding movements with turning lockings suffer the following problems:

1) either no zero decent or a sloppily defined zero point There is no dial, no register, not much to tell you when you are at the zero point for that movement.

2) the back is impressively solid on the Wisner and actually holds the weight of the scan back better than the Linhof and indeed better than other costly 4x5 studio cameras. But the tilting movement of portable cameras at the back has a poorly designed zero position that is difficult to release and almost impossible to use for precise movements. If you are trying to rock the back to focus on a beveled angle the system fails to function in any systematic manner. You waste considerable time attempting to get the back in the precise angle that you want it.

3) the front of these portable cameras is the worst part of their century-old design. The front cannot be kept precisely level since each side moves independently of the other. When you tighten one side it may, or may not, sag relative to the other side. If you are trying to be parallel to your subject this system is totally inadequate.

4) tilting or moving the front section is easier to get started than the back, but you never really know where you are relative to the true vertical. Nothing is available to tell you what angle you are at.

Summary: the Wisner is well made and has its place in professional 4x5 photography, namely on expedition, outside, for any subject that is far away. But if you are doing studio photography and especially macro photography, then be sure to actually try out this camera before you attempt to use it. If you are doing scientific photography you need either a Sinar X, Sinar P, Arca Swiss or Cambo Ultima.

Advantages of the Sinar X: the following comments are based on several years experience with the Linhof, including a Linhof 8x10 studio camera, as well as 2 years experience with the Wisner. I preferred the Wisner over the Linhof when using a heavy digital scan back, but used the Linhof with wide-angle panorama photography because the particular Wisner camera I had lacked a wide angle infrared bellows. You need an infrared proof bellows for a scan back.

large format digitla camera
Large format digital camera

The Sinar X is much quicker to use than either the Linhof or Wisner for the simple reason that all the common controls on the Sinar are open all the time. You never have to unscrew anything to unlock a movement. With most cameras when you untighten the movement that part of the camera collapses with a thud, or at least sags. With the Sinar everything is simultaneously fully tightened and yet fully open to be moved anytime you need. The brakes are always on, yet you can move, tilt, anything without releasing any brake pedal.

The only movement on the Sinar that requires releasing a lever is the main horizontal pole on which the camera rests. These levers are as loose and imprecise as on any other camera. Turning the camera on the axis of the main horizontal pole is the most imprecise of all. Fortunately you almost never need to use any of the releases along the main optical bench. The forward and backward movements are easy and you have the other main precision movements in any event.

All the main movements, the ones you will need the most, have a zero point clearly marked. Although on the Sinar X there is no physical zero dents this Swiss-made system is sufficiently precise that all the zero points are easy to find even if there is no click-stop at that point. The Sinar P has additional features but for our museum photography we found the Sinar X was just fine. Unfortunately the particular camera that we received for evaluation was a demo unit that evidently had many years of use. This resulted in considerable inner wear of the gears. When we did an evaluation of the Cambo Ultima, they sent a brand new camera so it was in perfect condition. I would guess that a brand new Sinar X would also be in good condition, but the used and severely worn example was the only one I have held in my hands, so that's what our review covers. Now that we have opened a new photo studio at Bowling Green State University we are considering giving Sinar another chance to have their handsome equipment evaluated, but this time we prefer to start off with a factory-fresh model, not a demo unit. If we progress to this point we will update this review. In the meantime Calumet has sent us a second Cambo, a Cambo Wide. It appears to be as well constructed as the Cambo Ultima.

In summary, once you have used a Sinar camera it is doubtful that anything other than an Arca-Swiss or Cambo Ultima would be comfortable. Most of the other 4x5 cameras have so many turn-screws and controls that you can go crazy trying to move parts of the camera. If you are under stress while photographing you need the most stress-free camera available. I would label the Sinar the most stress-free large format camera I have ever used.

If you are paid by the hour you will earn much more if you have a camera that is easy to use. With most other 4x5 cameras you waste too much time lining things up and getting various camera parts parallel or otherwise at the appropriate angle.

In short, I found the Sinar X well worth its purchase price. After all, the other lesser 4x5 cameras are not exactly free either. So, rather than looking at the cost of a Sinar X, look at the cost of mental wear and tear if you don't have a Sinar but are stuck using some other cheaper 4x5 camera.

Over the last thirty years a small research institute, FLAAR, has developed a remarkable photo archive of over 40,000 images of ancient Maya art and architecture. In the process of doing all this photography, FLAAR has also become a leader in working out what is the best equipment for museum photography (art and artifacts) as well as for architectural photography. The FLAAR Photo Archive also encompasses photography of Maya temples and pyramids as well as nature photography of tropical Belize, Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras.

After you scan, how and where do you store all your digital images? How has the Digital Imaging Technology Center solved this dilemma? Perhaps our experience in digital image storage can help you with an easy way to store digitized slides and digital photographs.

This storage comes in three convenient sizes to suit your needs.

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