FOLDING VERSUS NON-FOLDING CAMERAS
Ebony make wooden view cameras in formats from 6x9cm to 8x10 inches. Within these film formats their camera designs can be categorized as being of two distinct types: those that fold and those that do not. A fundamental decision any potential purchaser has to make is whether a folding or non-folding design is better for their needs. This decision will be as significant as the choice of film format.
For the photographer familiar with standard wooden field cameras, a camera design that doesn't fold would seem to be a complete anomaly. Ebony are the only manufacturer of wooden large-format cameras that do not fold. Of course, virtually all monorail camera designs are non-folding, and many of these are relatively light and compact when compressed. However Ebony are, to date, the only manufacturer of wooden cameras that recognizes the merits of both folding and non-folding designs. They offer photographers a choice.
It is important to carefully consider the differences inherent in the two designs. As a rule, the non-folding designs are functionally more specialized. They typically offer less extension than their folding counterparts. When compressed they are slightly bulkier than a folding camera.
Non-folders offer some distinct advantages, however. First, they are quicker to set up. Ebony's non-folding cameras can be compressed with virtually any lens in place with no additional bulk as a result. When you set up, all you have to do is mount the camera on a tripod, level the head, and focus. Two hypothetical photographers, side-by-side, one with an Ebony folder and the other with an Ebony non-folder: the photographer with the non-folder wins the set-up race every time, provided he (she) didn't accidentally leave their tripod in the trunk.
The non-folders do not offer base tilts on the front or rear standards. Base tilts are both a useful feature for the photographer and an inevitable consequence of the folding design. Though each axis of movement in a view camera provides the photographer with another opportunity to manipulate the image, it is also a possible source of alignment error (when the lens and film standard need to be absolutely parallel). The fewer points to adjust during set-up, the fewer mistakes that are likely to be made.
Camera designs that don't fold can incorporate certain features that folding designs cannot. For instance, compare the front rise offered on the 45S or 45SU as compared to the SV45Ti/E or SV45U2. The non-folders offer more rise (and fall) because the front standard doesn't have to nest into the rear frame to facilitate folding.
Also, the non-folders typically have better extreme wide-angle capability than folders. Because the non-folders are designed to compress for pack-up, rather than to fold, the cameras are designed to allow the lens frame and film frame to be squeezed very close together. And because wide-angle capability is a function of minimum extension, the non-folders have a distinct advantage. In fact, some of Ebony's non-folding camera models are specialized wide-angle camera designs that are very useful for applications such as architectural photography.
A brief glance at the specifications for the folding and non-folding designs may belie the inherent wide-angle advantage of the non-folder because both designs are capable of comparable minimum extension. However, the folders achieve minimum extension by utilizing a back base tilt on the front standard combined with a re-alignment of the lens frame with the film plane. This set-up is typically referred to as a "wide-angle configuration" on a field camera. It works, but it's more cumbersome than the standard configuration, because the front standards are now diagonal rather than vertical. Thus any rise and fall on the front standards is of marginal value because the distance between lens and film will not remain constant during the movement, so the photographer must constantly refocus. Indeed, with a folding camera set up in wide-angle configuration, rise and fall are most practically achieved by angling the bed and then re-aligning both the front and rear standards to vertical. With 4x5 format all lenses wider than 90mm would require a folding camera to be set up in wide-angle configuration.
Essentially, we can itemize the respective features of the two camera designs as follows:
So, which camera do I personally use? I use a non-folder - the 45SU. My most common subject matter with the view camera is architecture, so I find the wide-angle capability and the generous lateral movements of this non-folding design to be extremely valuable. Also, much of the photography I do is on a commissioned basis and, as they say, time is money. How many shots I can do in a day or how quickly I can set up to photograph a subject in changing light can be an issue. So, the quick set-up is also a factor in my decision to go with a non-folding design.
I recognize that even though I've chosen the 45SU for my own use, many photographers would not be happy with a camera that does not fold. For some, foldability is an essential feature for a wooden camera. My advice for any photographer seriously thinking about a non-folding design: your personal attitude about the need for a field camera to fold will be fundamental to your final decision. And it has to be said that although the 45SU suits my specific needs perfectly, a folder such as the SV45U2 is more versatile. Just bear in mind, both designs have their merits, which is why both exist. When you are comparing different view cameras remember that you are making an intensely personal choice. You are not choosing the ultimate camera for all photographers. You are choosing the ultimate camera for your photography. If you are uncertain about what you will be photographing, then no amount of analysis or comparison will answer the question: Which camera is best for your needs?
This overview of folding and non-folding camera designs was written for Ebony by Richard Sexton, a professional photographer and author who serves as a professional spokesperson for Ebony in the United States. To learn more about Richard Sexton's work and to view photographs he has taken with an Ebony camera, please visit his web site at http://www.richardsextonstudio.com.