Going Digital with a 4×5

The 4X5 Camera
The opening post “A new place, A new start” was a shot of the Horseman 450 / PhaseOne Digital camera at a pretty good flex in the standard bellows that I own and use. It has a Nikkor 360/500mm convertible Lens (500 rear element installed) hanging off the front with the H-20 digital back and Hassy chimney focusing hood hanging off the back.
Not the lightest setup, but shooting from the roadside or going a few yards into the bush with it is not the beast you would think it to be. I routinely carry a Nikkor 500mm attached to a DSLR body with tripod when photographing bears. The Digi-4×5 is just a parts beast requiring lots of parts to make it work, not much difference in weight between this and the DSLR / 500mm combo. The 4×5 can be a logistics nightmare due to it needing to be tethered to a capture device (laptop in this case), battery and cables.
This will be the first of the digital adventures I will share, it’s creation and it’s use in field and studio.

A short description of parts is in order; Horseman 450 monorail L frame Large format camera was chosen for its durability and abundance of parts. There are as many brands as one can imagine out there, some better some much worse. When I bought mine I was shooting film, both 4×5 chromes and roll film with backs for 6×7, 6×9 and 6×12. These backs fit the back of the Horseman and provide much flexibility and when scanned can give files that surpass most top end DSLR.
Ok, We have covered briefly the Horseman 4×5 Body.

Lens Selection; I have several large format lenses (I chose to use mostly Nikkor brand), Lenses and digital backs are a problem just like crop sensor DSLR’s in that you do not enjoy the full view the lens has, but a central portion only. This like crop sensor DSLR’s makes wide coverage angle difficult to obtain.  Yes there are current new designs but those remain far out of my reach as they require a much more specialized body and equates again to mega dollars which is out of my budget. The used market is a virtual cornucopia of Large format lenses and bodies. We will visit more on Lenses selections later in this Blog, for now it will suffice to say that the wider you go the more Dough you’ll throw.
The used market is flooded with many models all for pennies on the dollars and can be found for a few hundred dollars complete with lens.
There are again as many adapters as there are types of digital backs, Currently I use a sliding back adapter that fits the standard “universal Graflock” style 4×5 back which is used by many different camera types. It seems each Digital back manufacturer has their own propriety configuration, I chose to find the ones that used the older Hasselblad V style mount as these were easier to locate 4×5 to Digital back adapters.
Digital Backs
I was astounded by the prices I found, most far outside my price range, so the search began. It took some time but I found an outfit on the East coast that had Demo and used digital backs for sale, again, most of them will cost the equivalent of a top end DSLR or a good used car. So be aware, recent models and prices have shown a downward trend in the market and the Medium format Manufactures are trying to compete with the top end DSLR manufactures and prices for initial ready to shoot kits are below 10K, given this trend the market will open up further for the shooter wanting more then just a DSLR.
I happened to find a great price on an early model back, the PhaseOne H-20 16 megapixel back, this back required it to be tethered to a computer to capture pictures. Connectivity is by Firewire and this required finding a laptop that had a firewire connection or could be adapted to firewire. I found this to be a challenge as most current laptops do not come with a firewire port or if they do they do not have a full sized port. The back also requires that the firewire port provide power to the back and no laptop I found provided power to the back, this brought another challenge. I found a battery pack that would be both portable and last long enough for field use.
Other Parts
Making it all work, we now have the Digital back attached to a special Adapter to the camera, connecting the camera to the Laptop we have 2 firewire cables (they have to be the right type 6 pin not 4 pin) which has a small DC powered hub (providing 12vdc to the digital back) in between digital back and laptop, also in the computer we have a firewire adapter card. Lastly we need a way to tell the digital back when we fire the lens so we have a cable from the flash port on the lens shutter to the port on the digital back and lastly a shutter cable to the shutter to fire the contraption. Oh that cable that goes between the shutter and Digital back has a button to press to wake up the digital back, otherwise you have to cock and fire the shutter twice in fairly rapid succession.
Have you become discouraged yet? sounds a bit complex doesn’t it, is it really worth it? and I haven’t even mentioned setting up the camera, tripod and composing the shot, waiting for the light at the right moment to fire the shutter, this ain’t your mom’s point n shoot!

Hmmmm . . . has Tim gone round the bend on this?

Well since I was a Large Format enthusiast already (and considered having gone round that bend anyway) I find the setup, composing and waiting for that cloud . . light beam . . . ripples to settle . . . just part of the routine to capture a picture. This is just the capture phase, we’ve not even discussed post or stitching of multiple shots for panoramas.

As a footnote: Recently Nikon and the other manufacturers have released DSLR’s with high Megapixel counts and I also shoot with a 16MP Nikon currently. Prices have dropped dramatically but there is more to it then just pixel count. I would be foolish to make claims or comparisons between a medium format digital back and a DSLR as both are as different as night and day. There is so much of a difference that I will not discuss it here, as that is not the goal of this blog, but rather the how and why I choose to massage my old film gear to get just a bit more mileage out of them. Hopefully you the reader will enjoy and maybe choose to join in on using old gear to make new pictures digitally, it is possible.

So that’s how I started my trek down the digital path with my 4×5 camera, later I added the digital back to my Hasselblad 501c, and my older Mamiya RB67 (I made the adapter for this one) both topics of later posts.

Well there you have it, my opening salvo for this blog. Please let me know if it’s really of interest to anyone out there. I will post a few pictures from this setup in the coming weeks complete with BTS showing setup and conditions. Until then thanks for reading and following the blog.


3 thoughts on “Going Digital with a 4×5

  1. Hi Tim,
    I’m a fellow MF shooter with a complete RB67 setup. In my spare time I’ve been looking at the options and possibilities for shooting the RB in digital format. Your posts about adapting MF and older view cameras to digital is purely fascinating. I don’t have the dough right now to pick up a Phase-One back, but I’m thinking I can take a Sony NEX-3 and mount it to the back of my RB.

    I’m really interested in how you fabricated the adapter for your RB. Do you have any tips, pics or resources that could point me in the right direction?

    Thanks Time,

    Wayne Dahlberg
    Provo, Utah


    • Hi Wayne
      I based my adapter on a few parts from both the RB system, a “P – Adapter”, which adapted the Polaroid pack, a “V – series adapter from Kapture Group from their 4×5 Sliding back to fit the Phase-One digital back”, and a passel of shims which was eventually glued together to form a slip in holder for the Kapture Group adapter. So where am I going with this, well
      You need to know the following for both cameras
      1. “Rear Flange focal distance”, RFFD
      2. for the RB it is 112mm and the RZ is 105mm
      You should not have much trouble using the Sony NEX-3 as you can fine tune focus using live view, the measurements above refer to the distance between the rear of the lens to the surface of the film plane (digital sensor), don’t forget to take into account the NEX’s RFFD and it’s internal IR filter which covers the sensor. The NEX-3 has a “APS-C-sized CMOS (23.4×15.6mm)” so basically you’ll be using less then 1/4 of the image circle, wide angle coverage will not be available to you.
      I would probably follow this idea of adapting the NEX to the RB or RZ camera body, get a Mamiya P-adapter or modify a cut-film holder, and a lens adapter from a vendor like Fotodiox and mate that to the P-adapter (you will have to figure out spacing so you can focus @ infinity), if you get within a Millimeter you can use the live view to tweak exact focus, which would mean you would shoot for a bit of Front focus @ infinity @ the lenses widest aperture which will allow you to reach focus throughout the cameras range. If using the RB’s focus screen then you need to adjust your custom mounted NEX to get a WYSIWYG when focusing.
      – Method two, Using a Large Format Camera like the Horseman 450,
      1. strip an old RB body of its lens mount, attach that to a Large format lens board, this does not allow cocking the RB lens shutter, that’s a complex addition for another idea but expensive.
      2. take a second lens board and attach a NEX to Brand-X lens mount to it and use all those lenses like tilt shift lenses.
      You are mostly limited by sensor size but it should be interesting. Let me know how you fair with your adaption project, Phase One in only one brand Digital back, I have seen the H-10 going for well under a grand, I would not pay more then 1800 for an H-20, I have seen the Mamiya Z-22 backs going for low prices and a few other brands going for under 2K now. Remember the back is but one cost, adapters, additional support equipment can add greatly to costs.
      I hope I have not thoroughly confused you with this response. Modding film cameras or in this case adding a digital camera to a film camera is always fun.
      Wish you luck
      Tim Scott

    • Hey Wayne
      Sorry for not getting right back to this comment, been busy and distracted. As to fabbing a back for your NEX-3, The biggest problem I see you having with this will be the (RFF) Rear Flange focus distance of the RB/Rz, this is where the film plane would be and where your sensor in the NEX will need to be in order to get infinity focus and for the camera to focus through out it’s range. Might I suggest the following.
      – using the Lens with shutter locked open or buying bronica lenses, kiev lenses (they have no shutters).
      – get and old (ugly) body of the type camera you wish to use or an extension tube and remove the lens mount (body side), and mount this ti a metal plate.
      – you can make a sliding box in box body (use black foam core to make a temp body), on the rear of this you temp tape your NEX, and in live view mode slide the two boxes in and out to find (RFF) point for focus with the lens set to infinity. I would use Blue painters tape to hold the camera to the body you made.
      – once you find the RFF you can build a fixed wooden body and have fun shooting with your NEX, realize your crop factor will be huge so you wont get much on the wide side due to that.
      – you can extrapolate from there how to make other cameras using various lenses, even making your own lenses from magnifiers or old reading glasses and so on using your NEX as the digital back for some fun and wild pix.
      Hmmm Wayne, thanks, this gives me more subject matter for another Blog idea . . a HOW-TO build a cardboard camera body for Mirrorless camera bodies like the NEX.
      Hope this will spark the ol juices on your end, have fun and if you start taking pix I’d love a link back to view your efforts.

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