Tom Westbrook

The Arca-Swiss F-line Field Camera

 

Arca Swiss Field camera

The F-Line Field 'Classic' camera with 72mm SA-XL lens
 
 
Note: The following review only describes the new version of the Arca Swiss F-Line Field camera with the 141mm rear standard. See here for the older article on the "Classic" 171mm rear version.

 

 

New Arca "Field" version has landed!

15-Aug-2005: The 30cm bellows (see 28-Jul-2005 entry below) arrived today and its a beauty! Similar to the old conical leather bellows for the 171mm rear standard, it will accomidate all my lenses from the 55mm APO-Grandagon to my 300mm Nikor M lens focussed down to about 2 meters.

Now that I have all the parts I can post some details. The weight of the entire camera without lens or lensboard is 2615g (±5g), or a pretty modest 220g difference from the 171mm model. That doesn't seem like much, but every little helps. Looks like the max bellows draw of the 30cm is about 365mm. The camera folded up is more compact--by 30mm in height and ditto for width--and fits in my bag with a bit more room. A couple of interesting details: 1) the bellows can be installed in any orientation (the alignment dot is gone), 2) the catch on the rear standard has been converted to the little wheel (like in the front standard) in place of the thumb catch in the old version. There is also flocking here and there on the rear standard that wasn't there before.

Like I said above the 30cm bellows accomodates a wide range of lenses. My 55mm APO-Grandagon works fine, but the movements are somewhat stiff--not a big deal since that lens has a small image circle. The 72mm Super Angulon XL works fine. It's a bit less stiff than the 55mm. Both lenses are mounted in flat lens boards.

I'll write up a new full review of the 'new' camera and post it before too long.

I truly appreciate the rapid response of all involved to recover from the long bellows issue: Diane Graham-Henry of Arca Swiss USA, Arca Swiss in France, and Jeff at Badger Graphic.

28-Jul-2005: I received the conversion kit (part #022345) for my "Field" camera for the new 140mm rear standard. It's a beauty! Unfortunately, it was shipped with the long 50cm bellows and not the standard 30cm bellows. The factory will be sending me the 30cm bellows soon (hopefully before they go off on August vacation). One detail I can share now is that the new 140mm rear frame with GG & fresnel weighs 722g, as opposed to the old frame/GG/fresnel at 1042g. I'm guessing the new standard bellows will weigh a bit more than the old 24cm unit, but probably not more than about 100g, so the net weight savings isn't huge, but 200g-300g. The front standard centers 30mm lower than previously (due to the new center of the smaller rear standard: 171-141=30), so there's more direct rise available--should make you architecture types happier. The GG and fresnel is the same size as the previous version.

The new 50cm bellows is interesting. It has much wider pleats than before, but weighs about the same (252g). It seems to extend a bit further and is far less stiff. It does appear to sag a bit more, but from my initial experiments with my Nikon M 300/f9 not enough sag to interfere with the image. A prop might be in order, though.

Here are a couple of photos.


141mm (left) and 171mm (right) rear frames.


The new 50cm bellows (for 141mm rear frame) with yard stick. Compare to the old version.

More complete news later when the other bellows arrives.

28-Feb-2005: I heard from Diane Graham-Henry (US distributor) today that there is a format conversion set available, which might be of interest to owners of the previous version of the 'Field'. The part number is 022345. She said the price is $1,432, but also mentioned that there is a price increase planned for the near future. The format conversion set includes the rear format frame (new 140mm size), the film holder/ground glass/fresnel and new bellows--all of which should allow older F-Line to morph into the new one at half the price. The new bellows fits the existing 6x9 front standard (the front standard did not change in the updated version).

19-Jan-2005: More on the currently shipping F-Line Field with 140mm rear standard: http://www.largeformatphotography.info/forum/showthread.php?t=12136. It looks like the same thing, just with a scaled down rear standard. I've decided to wait to see if Arca will offer a standard conversion kit for current owners.

6-Dec-2004: Exciting news! Arca Swiss announced an updated version of the 4x5 "Field" view camera at Photokina 2004. The new version saves about 3/4 lb. and features a smaller rear standard at 140mm rather than the 171mm. This change necessitated a different bellows, but one that is longer than the Classic "Field" camera (but you'll need recessed lens boards for super-wide lenses). Otherwise I think the rest of the camera is the same. See this thread on the Large Format Forum on this topic. See photos of the new camera here. Price has not been announced as of this writing. One side-effect is that we may see more of the Classic version on Ebay. I haven't seen the new version on any vendor's web site, yet, but I'd guess we will by early 2005.

 

NOTE: what follows is the review of the older (discontinued) version of the "Field" camera. The new review will be posted here once all the parts arrive.

 

Introduction

When I was searching for my first large format camera back in early 2002, I found it very difficult to find any info about this camera—which I fell in love with when reading Jack Dykinga's book Large Format Nature Photography I wanted to post as much info as I could here to help others judge whether it might be a good camera for them. Note: I am in no way affiliated with Arca-Swiss or any of its agents or dealers. 

If you have info to add to, or contradict, what I have here that you think might be useful to others, feel free to it to me and I'll review & post it if it's appropriate.

Quick updates will be added to the Notes page, so be sure to take a look there, too.

Availability

This camera is only available for sale in the USA, a fact not often mentioned. You will not find it advertised by Robert White or other overseas retailers, although it could be assembled from parts, but that would be more expensive. You can get the other F-line cameras anywhere, though. I believe most US retailers will ship internationally—see their web sites for more information.

Parts List

The parts list on the B+H site is partially incorrect. Arca-Swiss kindly supplied me with the following list of parts the camera is built from, including the part numbers. This is the correct list which matches the camera I received:

  • 1 monorail: 30cm collapsible, incl. extension bracket 8.5cm (044130)
  • 2 function carriers F -classic, front and rear (052000 and 052001)
  • 1 format frame F -classic 6x9 front (061000)
  • 1 format frame F -classic 4x5 rear (062001)
  • 1 conical 24cm wide angle bellows, leather, 6x9/4x5 (071030)
  • 1 film and ground glass holder including Fresnel lens (080007)

See the Arca-Swiss catalog [external link] to see all the available parts and accessories and how they relate to each other.

Weight

I weighed my camera with an fairly accurate Soehnle digital kitchen scale with & without lenses:

Weights grams Lbs.
Camera with all parts as shipped (w/o lens or lens board) 2835 6.25
Camera w/150mm APO Sironar-S + lens board 3145 6.9
Camera w/110mm Super Symmar XL + lens board 3325 7.3
Camera w/72mm Super Angulon XL + lens board 3450 7.6

* In this range the Soehnle scale is accurate to the nearest 5g. The weight in lbs. is a conversion.


Measurements

Here are some measurements that might be useful to know:

Min folded size w/o ext. bracket 1 13"x8.5"x6.5"
Rail breaks at 154mm
Rail length 30cm
Rail useful length 2 27cm
Leather wide angle Bellows max extension ~260mm
Leather wide angle Bellows min extension w/flat lens board (with front & rear function carriers touching) ~50mm

1 You can make it more compact by simply removing the standards from the rail. That would give you a package about 11"x8.5"x4.5" (not counting the rail, which you can store separately). The '~' means 'approximately'.
2 This is measured from ground glass to center of front standard with the standards fully separated. This indicates the max bellows extension with the supplied 30cm rail. This means that the configuration of the standards will eat about 3cm of whatever rail you're using.


Movements

The Field camera is capable of a full array of movements as shown in the table. The only real limitation I've come up against is the limited rise/fall of the front standard. This can be easily compensated for by the use of indirect rise or fall, which is done by tilting the whole camera up or down and adjusting both front and rear standard so they are vertical again.

Front
  Tilt ±30°
  Swing ±45°
  Shift ±40mm*
  Rise 30mm
  Fall 30mm
Rear
  Tilt ±30°
  Swing ±45°
  Shift ±50mm*
  Rise 100mm
  Fall (rear has no fall if everything is centered) 0

*The figures for shift for both front and rear reflect the markings on the standards. The total possible shift for the front is about ±60mm and the rear is about ±90mm. This is because the standards can slide freely along a groove in the carrier. You can completely remove either front or rear standard by just sliding them out of the carrier.

I do not know why B+H has the front rise/fall figures at 25mm/35mm. That appears off-center to me, thus not with the camera zeroed.

The amount of swing for both front and rear standards is limited only by the bellows and the proximity of the other standard with short focals. 


Bellows

The 30cm leather wide-angle bellows is standard equipment on the Field camera. The useable lenses with a flat lens board are about 55mm-300mm. You can use a 300mm with this bellows (you will need the extension rail), but only if you're focused at infinity—there's no room for extension for anything closer.

I find the leather bellows a bit stiff with the 72mm lens if I have to use much rise/fall/shift. I am a bit surprised at that, having read others' comments as to the bellows' flexibility, so perhaps I need to apply a treatment. I will ask Arca about it & let you know. 

12/11/2002 : Update on that last comment: The bellows actually becomes more flexible with use. I still think applying a treatment to the outside sparingly is a good idea, especially if you might get rained on. I picked up some Lexol yesterday at the local tack & saddle store and applied a couple of coats to my bellows. Initially, it seems to restore a bit of luster to the finish & removes loose die particles from the bellows. Don't apply stuff to the interior of the bellows—that's cloth & treating it will only attract dust and sand particles and cause crap to flake off on your film & rear lens element. I don't think I'll apply it again any time soon, it seems to last quit a long time.

12/09/2003 : One year later, and I'll have to recommend that users avoid Lexol on their bellows. After application it remains a little tacky (as in sticky) for a few months and tends to attract dirt. If you want to apply it anyway you can probably avoid the tackiness thing with some good buffing, though this would be hard to do. If you want just some water resistance, there are preparations that don't leave a sticky residue. See your local leather goods dealer for options.

So far, the leather bellows functions well with all the lenses I have used with it. I have run into the occasional situation where I had to pull out the bellows when using extreme movements with the 72mm SA-XL lens to prevent vignetting, but it wasn't a huge inconvenience and only when using extreme rise. If you think you'll regularly be using large shifts or rises/falls, you may want to consider the synthetic bellows as a replacement. In that case, you'll probably want the regular 4x5 F-Line (with the 4x5 front standard) instead of this Field model.

Lenses & Lens Boards

The widest lens I own is the 72mm Super-Angulon XL (approx. the same as a 20mm in 35mm format). I have it in a flat lens board and works fine with that. The 72mm is a big lens (100m front outside diameter). It fit's fine, but the rear element is a close fit for the 6x9 front standard and requires a little care when installing.

I am considering getting the Rodenstock APO-Grandagon 55mm/4.5 lens, since I occasionally wish for a lens that is a bit wider than the 72mm. I have rented the Schneider Super-Angulon XL 58mm and liked it. The Rodenstock gets slightly better reviews (the ones I've seen, anyway). Given the smaller image circle of these super-wide lenses, bellows flexibility won't really be an issue and either the leather or synthetic will work fine.

Photos

I have detailed photos of the camera along with notes on the photos page, since that is another area where info is lacking. This might also help those looking at other F-line cameras, too, since the format frames are similar. One source for other photos is Jack Dykinga's book Large Format Nature Photography. He has several of the A-S Field cameras (beware: most are custom modified models), but they are not really complete (and were not intended to be). It was his book that made me fall hopelessly in love with this camera in the first place.

Other Observations

  • If you only use wide to medium long lenses (up to about 300mm-400mm), this camera is a great choice. The longest bellows is the 50cm, so you will not be using really long lenses with this camera (unless you buy an extra center standard, more rail & double up the bellows = $$$). The regular F-Compact and the extra WA bellows comes to about the same price as the Field. But if you want the smaller lens boards, you would have to buy one of the board adapters, which puts it at a higher cost, but not much more.

  • Being a backpacker of many years, I am sensitive to those who are looking for a camera of minimum weight. The A-S Field is not the lightest camera you could buy. Its not horribly heavy either. I haven't been packing any long distances with it yet, but it is lighter than the Mamiya RB-67 gear I used to pack into the outback (for up to 2 week trips). When looking for a camera, I decided that the extra 2 lbs or so the Field weighs (over a light wood field camera) would not be significant for me. This is especially true being a recent convert to the ultra-light backpacking movement. Of course, I'm only a convert so I can carry more photo gear with me!

  • Look through the Arca-Swiss catalog [external link] and get a feel for what parts are available and how they fit together. If you have any questions, e-mail Arca-Swiss. They will answer, but may require a few days to get back to you. Jeff at Badger Graphic was always helpful. The other dealers on the net & elsewhere are probably good, too, but I haven't dealt with them.

  • The B+H web site is probably the easiest place to go for specifications on Arca-Swiss cameras & accessories, but their accuracy is a bit spotty—double check before buying anything. In addition to the two discrepancies mentioned above, their photo of the camera shows it incorrectly assembled (the front function carrier is put on backwards & the rail is backwards). This 'error' actually points to another nifty feature: you can assemble it with the knobs reversed, if you want to (although, that would make the shift controls a bit hard to use, since they would be facing inside).

  • All my comments are the comments of an LF newbie. This is my first LF camera. I'm looking to you more experienced folks to correct my errors. Just e-mail me with your corrections or suggestions.

  • For the 110mm lens boards, I suggest getting cable releases with the shortest end (i.e., the threaded end) you can find. I got those cheap 20" Kalt ones and I have to be careful how the lens is oriented on the board so that the shaft on the end of the release doesn't get in the way of the format frame when putting a lens on the camera. The shortest nibs I've seen are the Linhof releases, but there could be others. (Actually, the cheap Kalt releases work fine, you just have to orient them correctly when mounting your lens on a board.)

  • The standards, when locked down, are pretty much immovable. You have to pull pretty hard directly on them to get them to budge. The swings are a bit easier to move when locked, but are still quite secure.

  • The camera holds any of the movements extremely well, much better than I usually expect it to. Even small movements near the zero detent never move once set, even with the locks released (though not so true for swings). Just this morning I had to apply a very small amount (< 2 degrees) of tilt and the camera held it even with the lock fully loosened and in close proximity to the detent. It still amazes me that it does not just slide back to zero like I always expect it to. The only improvement I would make to any of the movements is to the shift, which is a bit difficult to use, since you have to pinch the clamp thing and slide the frame to where you want it. The sliding isn't very smooth, and there is no detent for shift on front or rear standards, so you have to eyeball it to zero it with the markings. It's a minor thing to me since I don't use the shift that  much. Expect shift for the rear standard to move a little if you pack your camera on its side.

Praise & Complaints

  • Due to the viscous lubricant in some of the parts, the movement control & focusing knobs get hard to move as the temperature drops. Also, the goop thickens up enough in the cold that it is hard to feel the zero detents.

  • The zero detents work wonderfully except the rear standard on my camera has a slight wiggle in tilt at its 'zero' point. There are levels all over the camera, so its not a big problem, but I expected better. Note: The last trip to Precision Camera Works for a CLA helped with this issue.

  • Other than that (so far), I find nothing to complain about with this camera. It's light enough, strong and plenty rigid for just about any use I could think of for it. The zero detents work marvelously. Parts fit very well. There is just a feel of good engineering and workmanship about this camera. As I found out in a mishap soon after getting the camera, the camera is very tough and difficult to do serious damage to.

  • It would be nice if fewer turns of the screw-down knob were required to assemble the folding rail. It takes way too much time to tighten it down (seconds can stretch into eternity when you are about miss a great shot).

Contacts

Arca Swiss International SARL
29 Quartier de l'Europe
Espace Valentin
FR-25048 Besançon
Phone +33-381 85 40 60
Fax +33-381 85 40 69

E-mail (they seem to read both of these addresses, so either should work):
arca-swiss@swissonline.ch or arca-swiss@wanadoo.fr
Arca Swiss do not have a web site.

US Distributor

Arca-Swiss USA
Rod Klukas, US representative
PO Box 28450
Tempe, AZ 85285
Phone: (480) 755-3364
Cell: (480) 206-4770
Skype: rod.klukas
email: rod.klukas@arca-swiss.com

US Service & Repair

Arca-Swiss Authorized Service
Precision Camera Works
8047 Washington Street
Niles, IL 60714
(847) 430-8088
Web: http://www.precisioncameraworks.com
E-mail: help@precisioncameraworks.com

See their site for some good information on Arca-Swiss cameras and a very nice page on care of Arca-Swiss monoball heads.

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