Ebony Professional View Cameras

 

REVIEW: EBONY 45SU by Richard Sexton

-By way of introduction, I'm an architectural/interiors photographer and author of photographically illustrated books. I’ve been photographing professionally with view cameras for over 20 years. During this time I’ve photographed for numerous U. S. and European magazines, and a substantial list of architecture and design firms, corporations, and advertising agencies. This year (2000) Ebony asked me to serve as a professional spokesperson for their view cameras in the United States. I’m honored that this fine camera company entrusted me with this duty. I hope that my feedback might help other photographers who are interested in Ebony cameras. If you have thoughts or questions about Ebony cameras that you would like to direct to me, a working professional who uses one, Badger Graphic Sales, an authorized reseller of Ebony in the United States, will gladly give you my phone, fax, or e-mail address. I’ll give you my honest opinion about Ebony and, for the record, I have no financial stake in Ebony or anyone’s purchase of an Ebony camera. Much of what I can share with you about my experiences with Ebony and the reasons why I personally chose Ebony over all other view cameras is detailed in this personal statement. Please read this first then contact me for further details. For many of you, my personal statement alone may be sufficient feedback. Many of the features and attributes of Ebony’s cameras are addressed herein.

I use an Ebony 45SU, which I feel is ideally suited to the type of view camera photography I do. I shoot 6x6cm, 6x9cm, 6x12cm, and 4x5 formats all with the 45SU. Typically, I shoot with wide-angle lenses. I use Schneider 47mm, 65mm, and 90mm Super-Angulons, a 120mm Super-Symmar, a 210mm Symmar, and a 355mm G-Claron. I also use 80mm and 135mm El-Nikkor enlarging lenses mounted in a Copal 1 shutter for close-up and copy work. Over the last 20 plus years I’ve used a variety of view cameras. I started with 6x9cm and 4x5 Galvin cameras--lightweight aluminum monorail cameras made by a photographer-machinist from Sacramento, CA. This was pretty basic equipment with the kinds of limitations that basic camera systems impose. I ultimately needed something better, so I got a Sinar F. The Sinar offered extensive features and modularity, but was bulky and utilized a lot of plastic components. I purchased a Deardorff 4x5 Special as a second camera, based largely on the storied camera tradition associated with the company, while I continued to use the Sinar as my primary camera. Because of its limitations in architectural photography I used the Deardorff predominantly for landscapes and still lifes. I loved the versatility of the Sinar, but had an equal admiration for the compactness, tradition, and lavish materials of the Deardorff. I wished that the attributes of the two cameras could be magically combined. I got tired of switching lenses and accessories back and forth and decided to get a single 4 x 5 camera system that was compact and equipped with the features architectural photography required. I ultimately chose a custom-configured Arca-Swiss camera with a collapsible 40cm rail, a flex bellows, a compact 6x9cm lens standard combined with a 4x5 film standard. I used this camera quite successfully for 10 years until I discovered the 45SU, which I felt was better for my needs. I have long thought that the ultimate camera design for architectural photography, and large format location photography in general, should be based on a modern adaptation of the classic, flatbed field and technical cameras. I believe the Ebony 45SU is that camera. It combines an extensive range of movements and much of the modularity of a monorail design with the compactness, weight, and portability of a traditional field camera.

The 45SU is a non-folding 4 x 5 view camera. It’s a simple, compact design resulting in a camera weighing less than 6 pounds. Though it doesn’t fold, the 45SU compresses, with a lens mounted, into a neat package that’s only slightly bulkier than a 4 x 5 folding camera. I know that for most photographers a wooden, flatbed camera design that doesn’t fold is like a car with no reverse gear, but a serious inspection of the 45SU will change most attitudes about the folding imperative. Because the camera doesn’t have to fold, it has fewer components, it’s quicker to set up, and has more vertical movement on the front standard. The bed of the 45SU is only 120mm in length and a short bed is essential for a non-folding camera to be packable. I think the advantages of a non-folding camera have never been pursued largely because it would seem that adequate extension could not be achieved with the shortened bed that such a design would require. The 45SU achieves 365mm of total extension from a 120mm bed with the help of an ingenious all-titanium sliding extension on the front standard. Ebony offers other non-folding camera designs in a variety of formats, with attributes similar to the 45SU.

There are two essential features that a view camera must have to fulfill my needs--a Graflock (international) back and an interchangeable bellows. The Graflock back easily accommodates roll film and Quikload holders. An interchangeable bellows allows unrestricted camera movements with wide-angle lenses, thus utilizing their full coverage. Both these features are available on the 45SU and most other Ebony 4 x 5 view cameras. In addition to the Graflock back and interchangeable bellows, Ebony 4 x 5 cameras all utilize a compact, commonly available lens board--the Linhof Technika 96x99mm board which has been in production for over a half-century. It is readily available used, comes in a recessed version, and in generic versions that are available new for reasonable prices. Nikon is a manufacturer of this type of lensboard, along with other view camera makers. For the foreseeable future this compact, lightweight lens board will continue to be widely available at reasonable prices.

The asymmetrical swings and tilts on the rear standard are a compelling feature of the 45SU. This feature, to my knowledge, was first offered on Sinar P cameras. Asymmetrical movements mean that swings and tilts pivot off-axis or asymetrically relative to the film plane. They allow the intended effect of the movement to be readily observed on the focusing screen with minimal refocusing.

The liberal lateral movements of the 45SU are a feature I find extremely useful. Generous rise and fall on the front standard coupled with a generous amount of rise on the rear standard facilitate architectural photography without having to angle the camera bed. The impressive rise/fall movements are complemented by 40mm of shift on the front standard and 50mm on the rear. This translates to a total of ± 90mm of horizontal movement and ± 70mm of vertical movement—enough to take advantage of the covering power of modern wide-angle lenses. The only possible drawback of the 45SU for some photographers is its maximum extension—365mm. This can be increased, of course, with extension tubes. But if you use long lenses frequently, or primarily, then some of Ebony’s other models might be a better choice.

Though I use the wide-angle bellows for the great majority of my photographs, the universal bellows is an adequate bellows for most photographers. This hybrid bellows begins as a flex bellows at the lens standard with a conventional accordion bellows behind. The universal bellows has adequate length to utilize the full camera extension, but when compressed offers much more movement than a standard bellows. The universal bellows does not offer movement equaling the covering power of a lens such as the 90mm Super-Angulon. But it accommodates most of the lens’ coverage, which is probably adequate for photographers who only occasionally use a wide-angle lens.

Another nice feature of the Ebony is its focusing screen. Ebony uses a single fresnel lens etched with a 10mm grid that both forms the lens image and distributes brightness to the corners of the frame. Behind the fresnel is a clear glass protective plate. Many camera manufacturers use a ground glass to form the image in conjunction with a fresnel lens that serves to increase illumination at the edges. The use of a ground glass contributes to greater transmission loss (less brightness) than clear glass. There is a downside to Ebony’s brighter image—the hot spot inherent with all wide-angle lenses is intensified. To solve this, Ebony offers an optional wide-angle fresnel. Used in conjunction with the standard fresnel, the wide-angle fresnel spreads light to the corners of the image and lessens the perceived intensity of the hot spot.

Attributes that all Ebony cameras share are their extraordinary workmanship coupled with materials that are as aesthetically pleasing as they are durable. Titanium with its beautiful natural finish is light, strong, and resistant to corrosion. Ebony wood is a dense hardwood long revered for its rich dark color. Some Ebony cameras are offered in mahogany that, like ebony, is a hardwood known for its dimensional stability and that has a long history as a wood of choice for camera manufacturing. Personally, I think wood tends to be viewed erroneously as a handsome, but archaic, material for camera making. This prejudice overlooks the fact that wood offers a superb strength-to-weight ratio. And wood wears better than metal. Most metal view cameras come in a painted finish and when you nick the finish, you live with it. When you nick a wooden camera you can touch it up with shoe polish. Actually, I’m told that for those Ebony cameras that are made of ebony, the finish is linseed oil and the wood is essentially the same color all the way through. If you nick the wood, just touch it up with linseed oil. But, beyond the issue of wear, wood has plastic properties that are better than metal for certain camera design needs. Wood as a material is hard enough to last, but soft enough to give when it needs to—like when you lock in the focus position on a wooden rail extension. It’s a tight, positive lock that releases with ease. As a building material, wood has been around for centuries, but just talk to an acoustic guitar maker or an engineer of acoustic loudspeakers and they will tell you how for their purposes the intrinsic properties of wood have not been surpassed by newer materials. To an extent, the same goes for view cameras.

The Ebony 45SU is not an inexpensive camera. Even the least expensive Ebony camera models are substantial investments. Nonetheless, I consider the Ebony 45SU a very pragmatic choice of camera. It is built of expensive materials, but there is nothing "gold-plated" or "diamond studded" about its design. Ebony cameras are strictly about functionality, durability, and precision. When you consider the aggregate cost of lenses, light meters, filters, film holders, tripods, and all the accessories necessary for quality large format photography, the relative cost of an Ebony camera is quite reasonable and very competitive; not just to the total cost of the endeavor, but competitive with other finely crafted, fully-featured view cameras.

My closing observation on the Ebony 45SU camera is this one: The more experience I have had with the camera the more I have come to recognize the logic and ingenuity of its design. It began to sink in with me that this camera is obviously designed by a photographer rather than a camera engineer. For me, and the kind of view camera photography that I do, the 45SU is the camera to end all arguments.

Richard Sexton is an architectural/interiors photographer and writer whose editorial clients include Abitare, Preservation, Smithsonian, and Southern Accents magazines. His corporate clients include MTV, Peerless Lighting, Seaside Community Development, and Smith & Hawken. He is the author of six photographically illustrated books, most recently among them, Vestiges of Grandeur; Parallel Utopias; and New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence, all published by Chronicle Books, San Francisco. To see more of his work visit his web site:
http://www.richardsextonstudio.com