Review of Shen Hao PTB 617

January 09, 2014  •  5 Comments

Shen Hao PTB 617(c) Badger Graphic Sales

I've had my Shen Hao PTB 617 for about a year. It's a view camera specifically designed for taking panoramic 6x17 images with 120 also known as medium format roll film. There really isn't much out on the web about this unusual camera so I thought I would write up my thoughts about it and where and when it might fit into a photographer's arsenal. It's one of my favorites: small, versatile and able to take stunning images.

Specs
Price: $1699.99 from Badger Graphics
Image Format: 6x17 on 120 roll film (actual image size is 168mm x 55mm)
Bellows draw: 65mm - 310mm
Front: Rise 40mm, Fall 14mm, Shift ±38mm, Swing ±45°, Tilt ±25°
Rear Swing ±40°, Tilt ±30°
Weight: 1.5kg
Dimensions: 145 x 240 x 90mm
Instruction book: amusing Chinglish (Chinese English) but mostly comprehensible

Camera Set-Up:
The design is very similar to the many current wooden field cameras based off of a Phillips design. It starts with a flat base plate, a folding rear and front standard and a worm-screw focus gear on top of the base plate. Since the overall depth of the base plate is so small (145 mm) there are only two holes to screw the front standard into on the focusing worm screw mechanism. Simple, but not very flexible in reality, since for most focal lengths that means you have to move the rear standard forward or backward to get the correct bellows distance. Fortunately the rear standard has letters (A, B, C etc) carved into each side which will make mounting lenses easier overtime if you remember previous settings.

The front standard has a wide degree of movements, none of which are particularly "precise" since there are no real presets for zero positions. Shift is simple to achieve with two screws loosening / tightening and a scale on one standard in mm. Tilt is hard to do since it is constrained by a groove in the standard and has to be pushed out - this appears to be based on an Ebony design - and not very easy to use. Swing is simple.

The rear standard is hinged to the plate so there is no rise or fall movement, only Swing and Tilt. Again setting zero positions isn't the easiest especially if you have to move the standard back or forth to get the right bellows distance but the letters in the track help.

Mounting a lens is simple - two semi-circle latches turn to hold the plate in. However, you may need to adjust the tension on these plates by turning the screw that holds them in place a half turn one way or the other. Mine were too tight. Also a small piece of metal that holds the lens board in place at the base of the front standard will not permit boards that have no notches on the bottom - some more simple lensboards will like those from Chamonix will not fit. A simple work around is to unscrew this metal plate and reverse it with the two metal curved parts facing out rather than inwards. Build quality of the view camera is adequate to good but not excellent - the Chamonix is superior in this regard as would be any of the non-Chinese makers of 4x5 cameras.

Roll-film back:
A specific Shen Hao roll film back (NSH-617) comes with the view camera. It is a work of art - lightweight and simple in the extreme. One part houses the film spools and the tension plate, the other part is a cover with a dark slide. Insert the film in left side with the film coming from behind (the opposite of usual), run it across the dark slide and spool into the take up reel on the right side, twist the take up reel once around and put the cover back on. Next open the small red glass window on the back and wind the film to the number "3" position. Close the window. Future shots will at the 6, 9, and 12 positions. Film comes out sharp and evenly spaced with plenty of room between exposures and at the beginning and end of the roll. When you have shot you last of the four exposures keep winding a few more turns after you feel the tension go slack.

Focusing / Mounting Roll-Film back / Taking Exposure:
Once the bellows are the right extension, focusing is as simple as twisting a single worm screw. I opted for an optional Fresnel on the ground glass and this set-up is very bright with an f5.6 lens in the daytime, and only a little harder to see with a wide angle f8. Once the image is in focus you simply twist two latches up to drop the ground glass screen down on hinges to make way for the 6 x 17 custom roll film back. The roll-back has two slots on the bottom which hook into corresponding teeth on the view camera and two grooves at the top for the latches. The fit is snug - you will need to gently push the roll film back into the hole to get a seal and allow a latch. Select you f stop and shutter speed, cock your shutter, remove the nice metal dark slide and take your exposure. The only difference compared with a regular view camera is that since this is roll film you more easily forget whether you have wound on the film and / or removed the dark slide - but sticking with a regular routine / checklist will help avoid missing and double exposures. The camera is sturdy in the wind - I've used a 90mm to 400mm telephoto lens on it with no issues - and it's light enough that a small to mid-sized ball head and light-weight tripod will suffice.

So what are the pros and cons of this camera versus some of the alternatives? I've laid them out as best I can figure below. While I haven't used all the camera options described, I have a fair amount of experience will 4x5, 4x5 roll film backs, and Medium Format cameras of the 6x6 - 6x17 variety.

4x5 view camera with 6x17 back vs. Shen Hao PTB 617

Pros (versus PTB 617)

  • Cheaper (if you already have a 4x5!) - approx $500
  • Not another camera to own
  • Less overall weight than two cameras, but heavier than just carrying the PTB 617


Cons (versus PTB 617)

  • Pain to mount ground glass, focus, unmount, and then mount roll film back
  • Vignetting at longer focal lengths (around 180mm or more)
  • May have issues focusing very short focal lengths due to bellows compression
  • Heavy unit that sticks out back of 4x5 - not very stable on light field cameras


Summary: Best option when you are on a budget, already own a sturdy 4x5 view camera and where you only want to shoot 6 x 17 occasionally and only with 90-180mm focal lengths.

5x7 view camera (with or without roll film back)

Pros (versus PTB 617)

  • Cheaper - a used 5x7 can be cheaper if you simply use 5x7 film and subsequently crop your image but you are limited to B&W film. Or about the same price with the Canham 6x17 Roll Film Back since it is rare on the used market and costs $1,195 new.

Cons (versus PTB 617)

  • Heavier - especially with the roll film back
  • Mounting Canham roll film back easier than mounting a 6x17 back on a 4x5 but certainly not easier than PTB 617

Summary: Best option when you really want to buy or already own a 5x7 camera and don't mind shooting B&W (that is if you don't go for a roll film back)

Dedicated 6x17 Medium Format camera (like Fotoman 617, Gaoersi 617 shift, Fuji G617/GX 617 etc)

Pros (versus PTB 617)

  • Faster set-up
  • More robust physically
  • Allows landscape and portrait orientation
  • Hyper focal focusing - no need for ground glass
  • Can take extreme wide angle lenses (<65mm)


Cons (versus PTB 617)

  • More expensive - each lens has to have a helical mount and costs grow even with a cheaper body
  • Can't share lenses easily with your 4x5 or 5x7
  • Heavier - especially if you have more than one lens
  • Bulky - cones start to look ridiculous at longer than 90mm focal length
  • Focusing between exposures on ground glass usually not possible
  • Lack of movements - but some of these cameras have limited shift capability which to be honest is much more important for roll-film than tilt / swing etc.

Summary: Best option when you want simplicity and robustness - i.e. one lens, little or no movements (shift only), a wide angle (90mm or less), like to use hyper focal focusing rather than a ground glass, and may encounter extreme weather conditions.

So why would you get the Shen Hao PTB 617? I would say if you are comfortable using a view camera, want the view camera movements and significant shift, already own a number of Large Format lenses with good coverage, want to use focal lengths in excess of 180mm, and are not contemplating climbing Mt Everest you would do well to get it. In the long run, as sheet film, especially non B&W sheet film, becomes more expensive and limited in range, this kind of "roll-film-centeric" view camera may increase in popularity.

Here is a video explaining the camera from the Canadian dealer for Shen Hao:

 


Comments

Angus Parker Photography
I've used the Fujinon T 400mm f8 on this view camera. The bellows draw is only 260mm for this telephoto design. Some people don't think the lens is that sharp but given the max bellows draw is 310mm beggars can't be choosers! Plus you are using the middle sweet spot at least in the center of your 6x17 frame. See lens data here: http://www.thalmann.com/largeformat/ls-ts.htm I'm sure the Nikon T 360mm f8 is a better lens and almost as long. Read up on it here: http://thalmann.com/largeformat/future.htm
Steve A. Kleinheider(non-registered)
Nice review! I just bought the Shen-Hao PTB 617...received it yesterday. I'll be heading out this weekend to give it a go. I bought two (2) used Fujinon lenses so far: 90mm SWD and the 150mm W. Have you tried out any telephoto lenses yet?
Randy Moe(non-registered)
Well, I bought the used Fotoman 617 on LFF today. Can't wait to play with it and burn up all my old roll film. I can't walk very far anymore and a new park opens right outside my front door in the Spring, so I look for forward to using it close to home as P&S. Glad this one popped up as I was considering 7x17 Banquet or Chamonix 4x10, but this is cheaper, more portable and as noted I have 6x17 carriers for my enlarger. Got them out tonight.
Angus Parker Photography
Thanks for your kind words Randy - there are certainly lots of options. The important thing is you get the equipment and get shooting!
Randy Moe(non-registered)
Nice review.

It helped me think about my options. I may go with a dedicated 6x17 as I want hyperfocal handheld shooting. I already have all the enlarger parts I need for 6x17.

So I will be getting one in 2015.

Thanks Angus!
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