Ebony Professional View Cameras

 

REVIEW: RW45

From the August 2004 issue of Cameramagazine in Australia. The text is reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, Paul Burrows, who is also the editor of Cameramagazine.

Art and Soul

LARGE FORMAT PHOTOGRAPHY requires discipline and dedication, and both these attributes are clearly evident in the design and construction of the Ebony RW45.

It's a 4x5-inch field camera which ingeniously folds up to create an extremely compact and lightweight (well under two kilograms) package yet, unlike many conventional drop-bed designs, it retains a full range of movements and displacements more akin to a monorail design (especially in terms of the rear standard's adjustments).

Ebony cameras are manufactured -- lovingly hand-crafted is actually a more accurate description -- in Japan and there's quite a range of them in all large formats from 6x9cm to 11x14-inch. Not surprisingly, there isn't any stock inventory; if you want one, you place your order and wait while a small team of artisans build it for you. You can opt for mahogany or ebony for the main frame; both being exotic hardwoods selected for their immense strength and resistance to warping. All the metal components are precision machined from solid titanium which is employed because it, too, is exceptionally strong and rigid, but is also much lighter than steel.

To be precise, the RW45 is made from quarter-sawn Honduran mahogany which is aged for over 20 years and finished with a lustrous Japanese lacquer called 'urushi'. The titanium bits -- and there's lots of them, including a huge plate to reinforce the tripod mount -- have a lovely satin finish so, even when fully folded up, the Ebony looks absolutely gorgeous. Few drop-bed field cameras take up quite so little space when folded away for the day.

The Design

The Ebony RW45's base, back and lens standard fold so the camera can be collapsed, and both the camera's back and the lens standard are supported by bearers which resemble an inverted 'V' and allow rotation around all three points.

It's a simple, but ingenious mechanical arrangement which permits tilts around both the centre and base axes, and over the sort of angles that are more normally associated with the monorail design. Centre or axis tilts are unusual on field cameras, but as these adjustments don't change the lens-to-film-plane distance, very little refocusing is required which is a useful convenience. Otherwise, both tilts have much the same effect, controlling sharpness (i.e. depth-of-field) and perspective (with vertical lines).

The standards themselves run up and down slots within each supporting bracket and are locked by turning knurled knobs -- all beautifully fashioned from titanium -- which apply a clamping action. Again, the range of displacement is considerable and, as far as the rear standard is concerned, far beyond anything offered by a conventional drop-bed camera. The front standard's rise is 45 mm, with a 20 mm fall. It swings 20 degrees in either direction, with a centre tilt of 30 degrees forwards or backwards. The base tilt range is 25 degrees forward and 90 degrees backward (although obviously you wouldn't use much past 25 to 30 degrees; this simply allows the camera to be folded up).

The rear standard doesn't have a vertical shift, but swings (up to ten degrees left/right) and has both tilt adjustments (i.e. base and centre). The centre tilt is up to 20 degrees either way while the base tilt is 30 degrees backward, 90 degree forward (again beyond what you'd need in picture-taking terms, but it facilitates collapsing the camera).

Adding to the overall flexibility of the design is the double-draw body which permits a maximum bellows extension of 340 mm (or 410 mm with tilts). The minimum flange distance is 60 mm, and the range of useable focal lengths is from 65mm (which is wide-angle on 4x5-inch) to 500mm. The front standard is extended on twin 'beams' via rack-and-pinion drives and, even at maximum stretch, the RW45 is still exceptionally stable.

The Operation

To the first-time user the Ebony RW45 will appear a little complex as there are a fair few knobs and levers to get to grips with. Let's be honest, any large format camera will be a challenge for the novice, but if you're familiar with the basics then the Ebony shouldn't present too many difficulties. In fact, given the design complexity required to offer so many movements and the capacity to fully collapse, the RW45 is quite straightforward to use and you soon get into the swing of things (no pun intended). All the zero positions have detents or alignment points which is where you should always start from to avoid 'chasing your tail' with set-up.

However, you'll definitely need a bit of practice when it comes to folding up the camera, but it's not that difficult if you follow the right sequence and remember to first zero all movements and slacken off all locks. A latch holds it all together and there's an adjustable leather carry strap for ease of portability. The RW45 accepts a standard Linhof-type 4x5-inch lens boards and has a International Standard back -- complete with fresnel lens -- which can be fitted in either the vertical or horizontal positions. Sliding latches allow a quick changeover and a bail bar is provided to open the groundglass frame and allow easier insertion of the film holder without upsetting the camera's position. An adaptor is available which permits a Graphic Standard rollfilm holder to be fitted (i.e. Horseman, Mamiya, etc).

The Experience

While undoubtedly designed as a serious tool for large format photography, the Ebony RW45 is a real work of art in terms of the craftsmanship. You could easily be forgiven for being reluctant to actually use it, but rather simply have it on display to attract admiring comments. However, the RW45's makers didn't choose high quality materials like titanium and mahogany just for show; the camera is very strongly built indeed and appears very durable too.

In operational terms, it's not the quickest large format camera to use, but then it's not designed for applications where speed is required. No, the Ebony RW45 is best suited to highly contemplative landscape photography, unhurried architecture or quite still life. It's a landscape camera par excellence because there's time to really appreciate the camera's workmanship and sheer beauty... using it in the great outdoors is good for the soul.

In fact, it's in this largely intangible area of the experience that the Ebony RW45 justifies its existence... and expense. Even before you add a lens and a film holder of some sort, the RW45 will set you back AUD3395 (although it's still about the most affordable in the range.) However, no camera that's produced in volumes higher than one at a time can provide the same glorious feel, the stunning looks and the supreme quality of fit, finish and operation. Few cameras are quite so satisfying to use and none are likely to attract the same amount of attention from passersby. It is, quite simply, a thing of beauty which, in concert with a good lens and a good eye, can be used to produce other things of great beauty and technical excellence.