advice for beginners on a first lens

Discussion in 'Large Format' started by ken_schroeder, Mar 6, 2003.

  1. Learning 4x5 photography is no more difficult than many other
    activities we do daily. however, there are some discouraging
    pitfalls, and a well chosen first lens will help avoid some of them.

    A first lens really should be new or in very close to new condition.
    A used lens should be modern enough to come mounted in its original
    Copal shutter. Copal shutters are the industry standard for
    reliability. As a beginner, you will have enough on your mind
    without having to worry about shutter trouble. If not an ideal lens,
    very few of today's lenses will not be at least good lenses. A well
    chosen lens will be part of your longterm gear. In general, the
    quality of the major manufacturers is all quite high. I would be
    leary of purchasing a lens which is missing a cap. Careful
    photographers are very fastidious about keeping caps on their
    lenses. Purchasing a spare set of caps to be carried with the camera
    is a very cheap insurance against lens damage.

    I began 4x5 in 1981 with a Schneider Symmar S 210 lens. It is still
    my most used lens. I recommend the 210 as the first lens. I have
    also seen very convincing arguments for the 180. I think either
    would be an excellent lens for learning 4x5. I recommend choosing a
    lens with f5.6 maximum opening. The extra brightness will help in
    becoming accostumed to the groundglass. The image magnification on
    the groundglass is larger than wider lenses, making focusing much
    easier. These lenses all have generous image circles allowing plenty
    of movements with no problems. These lenses are not exorbitantly
    priced new, and there are a plethora of very good used lenses
    available in this length. You will not outgrow this lens. Look at
    the work of master photographers like John Sexton. Many of his
    images are made with a 210. The 210 requires neither bag bellows nor
    really long bellows. It is a very versatile lens.

    My last thought is to begin with only one lens. There is a learning
    curve with 4x5. Simplification will help. Put all thoughts of more
    lenses, filters, etc out of your mind. Learn to use your camera and
    one lens very intently. The season will soon arrive for extra lenses
    and filters. The skill earned during this one lens apprenticeship
    will stand by you well.
  2. Ken, I agree with what you've written. In particular I think it's a good idea to make your first lens a 'normal' lens, something in the 150-210 range that won't require either bag bellows or an extension back.

    My personal choice would be an APO Sironar S 150/5.6. It's small, light, relatively cheap, has good coverage and is pin sharp. The only drawback of course is that you will inevitably compare succesive lenses to it (perhaps unfavourably).

  3. With fine grain film and a sharp lens, each lens can function nicely as a lens that is around 20% longer, by cropping a little. Hence, my 150 is also a 180 on demand. My 240 is also a 300 on demand. And my 400 is also a 500 on demain. Shh - don't tell anyone in sales !
    So, it depends on how you see and shoot. If your images tend to be seen and made with wide lenses, then your first lens should be wide: you can always crop a little to make a wide lens, less wide. (A 120 can become a 150, for example) If you see things as details, then perhaps your first lens should be normal or slightly long: you can always crop a little to make the lens even "longer".
    Of course, if you make only contact prints, none of this applies.
  4. qdb


    I like my 150mm Symmar-S f5.6. Very sharp. Nice angle of view. I tend to visualise most LF pictures for this perspective.

    I have just replaced my Super Angulon 90mm F8 with a used Nikkor 90mm F5.6 SW to get the extra illumination. I found the F8 90mm impossible to focus accurately without a loup. If I was buying from scratch again, I'd look at the used market, and buy the faster (F5.6 or f4.5 for the wider stuff) multi-coated lenses in good condition in preference to slower new lenses, as this makes the whole process of photography more enjoyable and rewarding.

  5. Ken, I agree. I find in my own LF journey that keeping things as simple as possible helps the learning curve, but theres also the economic factor. LF is expensive and used gear is the only viable option for many of us. In 8x10, my vote goes for the Commercial Ektar, either 12" or 14". In 4x5, a good economical starter lens would be any of the single coated Wollensak or Kodak press lenses with coverage for movements and a reliable shutter(....supermatic, rapax, alphax, compur) like the 135 WF and 203 Ektars, 162 Velostigmat etc... Cheers!
  6. While I agree with the one-lens approach, Ken, I would argue that the first lens should be of a focal length that conforms to how the individual "sees" the world, and the first view camera should be chosen to accommodate that lens and the other working factors (e.g. studio, outdoors, etc.) Most of us, for example, tend to see the world at a particular focal length. That might be slightly wide, normal, or slightly long, or perhaps an extreme. Selecting a first lens that conforms to that view keeps the initial LF experience consistent with the individual's view, and thus increases the level of satisfaction.
    For those who haven't figured out what their natural focal length is, walking around with a framing aid, similar to the one shown below, for a week or so can help. The knots are tied at various standard focal lengths, and are held to the cheek to determine composition and focal length choice. The opening is the size of the image area for the chosen format - 4x5 in this case. Keeping a score card for focal lengths chosen for each imaginary image made with the framing aid will suggest a focal length that the user finds natural most of the time.
  7. Hi,
    I am a beginner in 4x5 photography. In fact, I am so "new" that I haven't figured out how to use my camera. I purchased a used Linhof Kardan 45S with a Schnieder Symmar 180mm/315mm lens (interchangeable).
    I guess, the 180mm range would fall within what Ken is suggesting for a beginner. Could anyone recommend an excellent starter manual or book for the use of a 4x5 camera? I understand the tilts and shifts
    at a beginner's level and I need to figure out how to correctly use the film packs and so on.
  8. Raid... for a beginners book I would recommend.,, 'LARGE-FORMAT CAMERA PRACTICE' by Joseph Foldes. <p>
    It's not a large, fancy, or expensive book, but it does an excellent job of explaining camera movements and lens selection in terms you can easily understand. <p>
    Do a search at and I am sure you can buy a good used copy for under $10.00. Don't let the cheap price scare you, the book's 128 pages will tell you (in words and pictures) exactly what you need to know.
  9. Raid, Take a look at Steve Simmon's Using the View Camera.-----Cheers!
  10. These postings suggest that a long "training wheel" period is necessary to produce decent images with a view camera, and that having one lens hastens the learning process. I'm not so sure, with the excpetion of maybe starting with a 300mm lens on 4x5 where the basics of movements and DOF are obvioulsy apparent. While I'll agree there is a learning curve, the answer to the "what first lens?" question should be as many as you can afford or carry (within reason of course). Life is short and I suspect most of can't get out 24/7 to take pix. So having the right lens for the job is critical. For most of us, one lens just ain't gonna cut it.

    A lot depends on how you "see" or what you shoot. If you are a wide angle person, then don't get a 210 as a first lens, unless you want to pass up a lot of the shots appealing to your vision. If you see in telephoto vision, than don't start with a 110XL, get a 210-300 first.

  11. I've been re-thinking my comments about a first lens for 8x10. Right now, a G-Claron, either a 240,270, or 305 is probably a better choice in a copal 1 shutter. They are nominally more than examples of Commercial Ektars, but you get a modern shutter, which would help with the learning curve since the old Universals usually march to the beat of a different drummer. With the newer copal, theres one less idiosynchrosy to learn,
  12. First lens: Something you can afford, in good condition, and it covers the format.

    All my camera gear is used. My Graflex Super Graphic came with a 135mm lens. It works just fine. I'll have to use Techpan to see finer detail in the negative.

    The most important piece of gear is the Polaroid back. Instant feedback, instant negatives, instant prints, holds Readyload and Quickload packets, and its just a real champion workhorse.

    The reason I discount the focal length of a lens is because a photographer, who is determined, will work with what he has to produce something excellent. The equipment really doesn't matter! Seriously, it doesn't. It just has to be there and function reliably. If the equipment is reliable, then everything else is up to the photographer.
  13. Interesting responses. Good case for the 150. Actually my 150 was my second lens. I would classify it with the 135. Both useful lenses. Light and compact. Not hard on the budget, and easy to use. especially nice if one is using a 120 back. I will stick with my original recommendation for the 210 or 180. I still believe the larger image size is easier to use for someone starting out in 4x5.

    I would be the last person to be critical of a person trying to get by on a tight budget with a Graphic. Be aware these fine old troopers, while quite capable of good work in experienced hands, are not the easiest cameras for a beginner.

    I do not feel the "most used" lens should necessarily be the first lens. While life is finite and of unknown length, I do not agree with the "training wheels" connotation of learning. I have read many questions and responses on this forum of beginners who can't focus wide angle lenses, and even a recent posting of a photographer with a broken wrist from a fall carrying the wrong gear for the field. No violinist thinks he can really play a concerto in six months. Are the practice hours wasted? Photography has endured the George Eastman "you snap the picture; we'll do the rest" curse. A beginner to 4x5 has many skills to learn. I believe the learning process is shortened by simplification. The skills learned from using one lens are easily transferred to other lenses, once they are learned.

    I added my second lens within about a year of starting 4x5.

    I thank everyone for the thoughtful responses.
  14. I started out with an APO Sironar S 135/5.6. My logic was that I used a 35mm as normal on my 35mm and found it just a tad too short for normal, but found a 50mm lens too long. The 135mm was right in between. I found that when using this lens, more times than not I'd just plunk my tripod down and look on the GG and there it was just how I visualized it. I waited until I felt like I needed another lens before I purchased a second one. I had thought that, for sure I'd want something pretty wide, but much to my surprise I ended up wishing for something a bit longer. So my second purchase was a Fuji 240 A that fit the bill very nicely. The moral of the story is, I think it's better to start out using one lens and find out where you need to go from there.
  15. My thoughts are these:

    When someone asks us , "what lens should I get for my first REAL camera...Nikon, Canon, Minolta...I , along with many of you I'd guess, might suggest they avoid the typical 28-80 zoom. Rather, they ought to consider a quality single focal length lens, normal or close to it. Use that lens and let it teach you about photography. I emphatically subscribe to this viewpoint.

    OTOH, most of those asking for LF advise are experienced photographers. They have decided to fulfill their photographic vision with the ultimate instrument.

    For those folks, I say "Jump on it!" If you can get three lenses (And since you are about 40 years old you probably can) get the comparable three lens set up you like for 35mm. You do not want to wait "a few years" to round out your lens choices. Nor should you.

    If you can buy only two --- still a fine option---get a somewhat wide and somewhat tele.

    I won't specify mm numbers! ;-) If you want to go LF you know what you're doing.

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