Culling the lens herd

November 28, 2017  •  5 Comments

Large Format Lens CollectionA Lens CollectionA portion of Johan Biilmann's lenses I suspect that more than a few people reading this blog have a severe case of gear accumulation syndrome or GAS for short. I have to confess to a fairly acute case myself - my Excel spreadsheet of my lens “collection” has 32 rows. It got me thinking as to how I should go about "cull the herd" - a favourite phrase in our community. So first I reasoned with myself why I should even bother doing it. Then I wondered what criteria should I use. Here are my musing. Leave a comment if you have an approach that worked for you. I'd love to hear it.

Why bother reducing your lens collection

1. What happens when/if you die?

If you head over to the Large Format Photography Forum you’ll find a post on the ages of the forum’s members. Let’s just say that average age of large format enthusiasts isn't getting any younger. I'd count as a youngun at almost 50 years of age. So if you don't have a LF loving family member to inherit your lenses, chances are they they will be got rid of at ridiculously low prices or even, heaven forbid, thrown away. This seems such a waste for lenses that are not made any more and will probably hold their value or even increase in price in the years to come. 

2. Are you lenses getting the work-out they need?

Now I'm no expert in LF shutters but my guess is that the older shutter (Ilex, Alphax, Betax, Studio etc) probably don't take well to enforced idleness. Also if you live in a damp climate you may be growing mold that you are unaware about. So maybe you lenses are wasting away without your knowledge.

3. Is lens choice stifling your creativity?

It seems counterintuitive but having more lenses may act as a block to unleashing your creativity. Many aficionados believe that it is the limitations of LF that lends itself to producing great, or at least good, art. You are forced to pare down to the basics, to work within the confines of slow speed film, slow set-up, low numbers of exposures, specific focal lengths etc etc. The very narrowing of the range of possibilities helps you find your sweet spot and steers you away from gadgets and artifice. I'm sure you have heard people advise "start with only one lens". Perhaps we should also say to old timers "stick with only four lenses"?

4. Who else could be using those lenses?

Now its not as if all lenses are unusual or rare. You can buy a very good modern, multi-coated 4x5 lens for a few hundred dollars or less. But the rarer lenses, that are older soft focus, or super-wide, or super long, or have ULF coverage could be being used instead of gathering dust on your shelf. By owning and not sharing or selling a rare "heritage lens" you are depriving someone else the opportunity. This seems a shame, and sort of goes against the ethos of many in the community.

5. What could you do with the money?

Have I sold you yet? How about unlocking some cash? I would hate to tell my wife how much money is tied up in my lenses. That cash could be put to use going to a remote location you always wanted to photograph, buying some expensive film you always wanted to try, or setting up your own darkroom. The possibilities are endless.

So how should I go about "culling the herd"?

1. Think formats

I shoot 6x17 MF on a view camera, 4x5, 8x10, 11x14 and 14x17. I'm the first to admit that this is a bit crazy and a few of these cameras have been gathering dust lately while I'm away on an extended sabbatical. So perhaps you have a format that you haven’t been using for a while. Do you really need the lenses for that format? Are the too long / too heavy / too low in coverage to be useful in other formats? How many 8x10 lenses work practically on a 4x5 anyway?

2. Think focal lengths

Within a given format I bet that you have one or two favorite lenses simply because they hit that sweet focal length spot. For me that is 110mm and 180mm in 4x5, and 210mm and 360mm in 8x10. Then there are plenty of others that never get in the bag, or are brought along "just in case" but never or very rarely get used. For me that is anything shorter than 110mm or anything longer than 300mm in 4x5. So in reality I could very easily make do with a three lens set for 4x5 that includes 110mm/5.6, 180mm/9, and 300mm/9. But instead I have 12!

3. Think speed and character

Now I can hear some people saying, I need fast lenses for portrait work, or I work in dark forests, or I need soft focus lenses with particular characteristics. That may well be true but perhaps that's one or two lenses not a cohort! For me I don't do portraits in 4x5 so I really have no excuses. Could you get rid of some of your stranger, little used lenses? I know you keep them because you are convinced that when you retire with the body of a 20 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger you will carry those four 6lb lenses up a mountain range to get the perfect shot.... but really?

4. Think filter ring size

I'm a great believer in narrowing down to a few filter ring sizes to reduce the number of filters you need, or even to help me to remember not to forget that damn 58mm adapter for the Lee filter system (that I do every time). Also I hate, step-up rings - because that means I have to buy another lens cap, and the ring invariably gets attached to my filters and not my lens when I unscrew everything, and it just looks ugly. Call me pedantic. So perhaps while you are "culling the herd" you can get away from the 40.5mm, 58mm, and so on non-standard filters ring sizes in favor of 52mm, 67mm, or 77mm?

5. Letting go

Some lenses truly are special. For example, I reckon I'll be buried with my Fujinon 360/10 or one of my Port-Land lenses. But the truth is there are few lenses that would be really hard to replace down the road, especially at the same price you sold them for. I would be very suspicious of using the "special lens card" multiple times. Perhaps I'd allow myself one or two lens in this category. Learn to let go!


Finally, if you can't cull the herd at least take the first step to recover. Recognize you have a problem and don't make it any worse. For me that means for every lens I buy I have to sell at least one!

Photo credit: Johan Biilmann

How to put a barrel lens in a shutter

February 15, 2017  •  4 Comments

Shutters Options for Barrel LensesVarious Shutter Options for Barrel LensesLeft to Right: (1) Cut & Mount of 35" RDA in Compound #5, (2) Sinar Copal Shutter, (3) Packard Shutter

Many desirable lenses for large format, and especially ultra large format, never came with shutters or their shutters are so old they don't function. So how can you use them? Well there are a bunch of different options that vary in terms of price and efficiency:

Option 0. Don't buy the barrel!

Many barrel lenses seem very enticing but when you add in the cost of adapting them to a shutter (usually around $400 or more) then they aren't quite such a bargain. In fact, often for a few hundred more you could get a more modern lens that might be coated, apochromatic so you can use them with color film, and shuttered. Think hard about why you want to have that barrel, what are its properties that you couldn't find with a cheaper alternative.

Option 1. No shutter - no problem

You don't need a shutter if you have slow film (like paper or wet plate) or a small aperture. Just pop a lens cap or hat over the front element and make sure to reinsert the dark slide into you film holder. Of course this might not work in very bright light, or with a wide open aperture. Photography did just fine for decades without mechanical shutters!

Cost: Free

Best when: You have a slow lens or slow paper. When you don't need to use a flash, when the subject is stationary.

Option 2. No shutter - actually you're wrong there is one

Some lenses post-WWII were designed to fit a standard shutter size and thread pitch. It may be as simple as screwing in the lens elements to an older standard shutter like an Compound or Ilex or even a Copal. The key is finding a well functioning shutter preferably with the right aperture scale. But don't worry if you can't get the same aperture scale - SK Grimes and others can make them for you.

Cost: $50-$350 depending on the shutter. Many shutters are easier to buy with damaged lens elements that you can discard. $30 for custom aperture scales from SK Grimes.

Best when: Your lens elements simple screw into a standard shutter and are designed to sandwich a shutter.

Option 3. No shutter - cut and mount it in

This tends to be the most expensive option. First you need to source the right shutter to fit your barrel. Some shutters might constrain your maximum aperture size so you can loose a stop or two. It's really a trade off between max shutter speed, accuracy/age, and max aperture - looking at the largest sized shutters, the modern Copal 3 shutter is quite a bit smaller than the older Ilex 5 and even smaller than the older and much rarer Compound 5. SK Grimes has a list of commonly mounted barrels and what is their suggested shutter and whether that shutter will result in a loss of maximum aperture.

Cost: Total $400-$700: Shutter purchase $50-$350, Lens to Shutter mounting $300, Lensboard to Shutter mounting $30, Custom Aperture Scale $30, Lensboard $5-$40.

Best when: You have a barrel that isn't huge, when you need great accuracy and faster shutter speeds, or are using artificial strobe lighting, and when the barrel has elements that can be sandwiched around a barrel or front mounted on the shutter. You may want to give up your iris (if you have one) or keep it. Old irises tend to have more leaves and give better bokeh than modern shutters.

Option 4. No shutter - get one Copal Sinar Shutter for all your barrels!

The Sinar Copal shutter fits Sinar cameras (and some others that use the Sinar standard). The shutter sits between the camera front standard and a barrel lens which must be mounted entirely on the front side of the board. The great news is if you are planning to have a whole bunch of barrel lenses you can simply mount them on a Sinar board and then use the same shutter for all of them. Downside is the maximum shutter speed in 1/60 (which actually if quite fast compared to most of the other options).

Cost: Total: $400-$550 for the first lens, $30-$100 for each subsequent one: Sinar Copal shutter approximately $300-$400 used, Lensboard to Barrel mounting $30-$60, Flange if you don't have one around $50, Sinar style lensboard $5-$40 (if you want a genuine one).

Best when: You have multiple barrels to mount, and the barrels can all be mounted on the front of the lensboard.

Option 5. No shutter and huge lens - front mount a Packard

If you have an especially large barrel lens no Copal, Ilex or Compound shutter will work. You need a Packard shutter. They are still made today and are very simple pneumatic affairs that typically give you a max shutter speed of 1/25 sec. Usually they are mounted on the front of the barrel, and you can have filter threads made to sit between the lens and the shutter. Sometimes with older view cameras a Packard shutter is part of the front standard and works sort of like a Sinar Copal shutter. There are a number of similar simple mechanical shutters from defunct manufacturers like the ILEXPO but I'd stick with the Packard given the company is still in operation and a fair number of used ones come up for sale.

Cost: Varies: Packard shutters start with an opening of 1.5" all the way up to 9" and are priced from $150 to $1400 depending on features. I would suggest going for the regular No. 6 version with the "instantaneous" option included. Then you have to figure a way to attach it to the lens or fit it behind the front standard. Which can be as cheap as some cardboard tubing and tape, to a machined metal and rubber custom fitted option from SK Grimes.

Best when: You have a giant special barrel to shutter which will fit no other shutter, when that lens has a really nice iris that you want to keep, and when the barrel cannot be cut (e.g. Apo-Germinar 750mm f9) or the lens is very special and you don't want to cut it. The shutter works really well for longer exposures in "B" and "T" as well as the approximate 1/25 instant option.

Other considerations:

Filter rings: Barrel lenses, especially the older ones, don't always come with filter threads in the front element. If you are keen on using filters you may want to have a slip on filter ring custom made or some other fancy machining done. Try to keep to a "standard" filter size like 52mm, 67mm, 77mm, 95mm, 105mm, 122mm etc. Using step-up rings is a messy compromise best avoided.

Lens caps: Many barrel lenses had leather or some other style of lens caps. Often these are missing. Far better to find one from Schneider (they make about every size imaginable) or have one custom made during the shuttering process.

Some more resources:

Reinhold Schable's fast meniscus lenses for sale with shuttering options

14x17 ULF Lens Recommendations (some ideas from me on ULF lens options, many of which are barrel lens)

The Compound 5: a big shutter for big barrel lenses (a post by me on the biggest baddest shutter on the block)

Dan Fromm's list of large format lens resources that includes information on Apo-Artars, Apo-Nikkors, Apo-Ronars and G-Clarons etc.

Allen Rumme's extensive list of process lenses


Photo credits from top of post: Cut & Mount of 35" RDA by Angus Parker, Sinar Copal Shutter with barrel by Peter de Smidt, Front Mount Packard Shutter by Reinhold Schable

How to avoid Fix Exhaustion

January 24, 2017  •  5 Comments

Recently I purchased some test strips to see how much dissolved silver was in the fix that I use for film developing and what was it's pH. The results shocked me. I had been using fix that had 2-3 times the recommended limits and certainly have not be fixing my film to archival standards for probably six months or more. So that got me to thinking how should I change my work flow so that I don't get into the same situation down the road. Besides testing the fix which is expensive and a pain, the simple answer is just to count the surface area of the film you are processing. The fix that I use is TF-4 Archival Fix from the Photographer's Formulary. You can also get it from Freestyle and B&H (store pick up only). What I like about TF-4 is that it is a non-hardening fixer which makes it excellent for prints that are to be toned or retouched. Moreover, it works great for stain developers like Pyrocat-HD. I use a Jobo to process my film so that pretty much means that I reuse a full liter of stock solution TF-4 (1+3) regardless of which format I'm processing. I develop 120, 4x5, 8x10, 11x14 and 14x17 formats so you can image keeping track of all this for the fix would be a nightmare. So I came up with a nifty laminated sheet where I just check off equivalent surface areas. I simple rule of thumb is that 1 roll of 35mm with 36 exposures, has roughly the same surface areas as 1 roll of 120mm Medium Format film, which has roughly the same surface areas as 1 sheet of 8x10 sheet film. 4x5 sheet film is a 1/4 of a sheet of 8x10, 11x14 roughly two times the surface area and 14x17 roughly three times. So if you keep track in equivalents you will exhaust your fix after 20 uses (or equivalents) of 1 litre of TF-4 stock solution (1+3). To be on the safe side I made it 19 for some margin of error (thinner or thicker negatives will affect the fix) although I imagine things would average out of that much film.

You can download a PDF of my sheet here.

Click here for PDF












Some other good rules to follow from a discussion on the Large Format Photography Forum:

  • Use separate batches of fix for film and prints. Permissible silver levels are higher for film than prints.
  • Use the Clip-test for film fix to determine exhaustion. When the clearing time reaches 2x that of fresh fix, discard the fixer.
  • Keeping track of throughput as per the manufacturers specifications.
  • Use a two-bath fixing for fiber base prints. If you use test strips, test the first bath and discard when dissolved silver reaches 1.5-2g/liter. Add to this tests for residual silver and hypo to confirm your workflow.

Book Review: Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II

January 23, 2017  •  2 Comments

Un-American by Richard Cahan & Michael Williams

Every once in a while a great photography book piques my interest, usually because I learn something about the medium and technique, sometimes because I get to simply enjoy the beauty of the images, and more rarely because I learn something about the people and time when the images were taken. This book has undeniably beautiful, if tragic, images but more importantly it speaks to a shameful period in U.S. history where mass hysteria against the "other" led to internment of legal residents and American citizens in incarceration camps. Unfortunately today history appears to be repeating itself and the "other" in this case, Muslims and Mexicans, are being targeted - so this book is even more timely in its message of tolerance and the need to be ever vigilant against hatred and bigotry.

In 1942, more than 109,000 Japanese Americans, including 70,000 US citizens, were sent to incarceration centers, most for the duration of the war. In a quirk of fate, the same U.S. Government that was committing this crime, was paying to document it, with a team of famous photographers including Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Clem Albers, Francis Stewart, Tom Parker, Charles Mace, and Hikaru Carl Iwasaki. Nearly 7,000 images in all, most 8x10 large format but some medium format, are now stored in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, and the Library of Congress in Wsahington, DC.

On February, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This order authorized the Secretary of War to prescribe certain areas as military zones, clearing the way for the deportation of Japanese Americans, German-Americans and Italian-Americans to internment camps.

On March 24, 1942 the "Civilian Exclusion Order No. 1" and others like it, were issued which gave Japanese Americans living on the West Coast just six days to settle their affairs and bring only what they could carry for transportation to one of 10 incarceration camps in remote parts of Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. Businesses and equipment were sold for pennies on the dollar, since white buyers knew the Japanese Americans had little choice but to accept their offers. Entire neighborhoods were simply erased and replaced as very few ever returned to their former homes.

The U.S. government allowed white farmers fleeing the Dust Bowl to work farms "abandoned" by Japanese Americans. After the war, many former owners just gave up their farms to these interlopers not having the stomach to try to regain their title. The Japanese Americans living in Terminal Island near a naval base, an airstrip and the Port of Los Angeles were given particularly harsh treatment. They were told to leave in 48 hours, their houses were condemned and bulldozed, and their fishing boats requisitioned as patrol vessels.

The camps had several things in common: guard towers, barbed wire fences, and armed soldiers. All but four of the 15 confinement sites had previously been racetracks or fairgrounds. The stables and livestock areas were cleaned out and hastily converted to living quarters for families of up to six. In addition, crews built standard 120-by-20 foot barracks. These went up in less than an hour, were made with shoddy construction per government order with green lumber that would shrink and leave gaps in the walls. Thin tarpaper didn't keep the wind out and insulation wasn't added until much later. The barracks were designed for soldiers in combat zones - hardly suitable housing for women, children and the elderly.

In many camps, the U.S. Government took advantage of literally captive labor and hired Japanese Americans incarcerated at the camps to make camouflage nets for the War Department. Pay was one tenth the going rate outside on the free market. Workers complained about the poor food, dust, fumes and long hours. Eventually, the factories were closed after resistance from many of the workers walking off the job.

Trying to recruit volunteers for the army, the US Government forced those incarcerated to answer a questionnaire to determine their loyalty. Questions 27: "Are you willing to serve in the armed forces on combat duty?" and Question 28: "Will you swear unqualified allegiance to the United States and forswear allegiance to the Japanese emperor?" were particularly problematic for many. Some second generation (Nisei) Japanese Americans thought it was inappropriate to ask such questions of U.S. citizens. 12,000 either refused to answer the questions or wrote "No". They became known as the "no-nos" and were sent to the now renamed higher security Tule Lake Segregation Center. To make room for the new arrivals, "loyal" inmates were set away to other camps. 34,500 of the "loyal" inmates were able to leave in 1943 and 1944 when they could prove they had a job or means of support in a community that was not antagonistic towards Japanese. At the end of the war, about 3,000 first generation (Issei) Japanese and 5,600 second generation (Nisei) inmates requested to be sent to Japan. In the end, 1300 people were deported.

The 170 images in the book show bewildered and tired Japanese Americans children, parents, and grandparents, assembling with their few belongings, camp life where inmates try to live as normal a life as possible given the circumstances, and some rare moments of genuine resistance. All in all, it's a portrait of dignified people behaving extraordinarily placidly in the face of a clearly illegal action to strip the rights under the US Constitution. In fact, so many rights were violated it would take too long to go into depth but you can read more here. In 1988 the U.S. government issued a formal apology to all former internees and paid $20,000 to each surviving internee. The text accompanying the images provides specific and general context to the images. While most of the images can stand on their own, the stories behind them really brings home the experience of the inmates and the impact on their lives. It wasn't just the inmates who were affected, many of the photographers also suffered physically because of what they saw and documented.

An interesting side story is how U.S. Census data was used to round up Japanese Americans. Although the Census Bureau was barred by law from providing specific information that could be linked to an individual, this protection was temporarily repealed under The Second War Powers Act of 1942. As Scientific American reported in 2007: "Despite decades of denials, government records confirm that the U.S. Census Bureau provided the U.S. Secret Service with names and addresses of Japanese-Americans during World War II." Might history be repeated with talk of a registry of Muslim Americans? I found it chilling to read one particular passage of the book which I will quote in full:

"You are kidding yourself if you think the same thing won't happen again," Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told a group of law students in 2014. He warned that camps similar to those opened in World War II might be built again. The government was wrong to force US Citizens into detention centers based on only suspicion, Scalia said, but he pointed to Roman philosopher Cicero, who cautioned: "In times of war, the laws fall silent."

Of course this being America, Scalia's words were used to support the entirely false proposition that President Obama was setting up FEMA Concentration Camps to intern or possible even murder loyal patriotic U.S. citizens!

On happier note, after the formal apologies and reparations by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 and President George H.W. Bush in 1992, the Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II was dedicated on the Washington Mall on November 9, 2000. Inscribed on its base are the words of Daniel K. Inouye, US Congressman, US Senator and Captain of 442nd Regional Combat Team:

"The lessons learned must remain as a grave reminder of what we must not allow to happen again to any group."


You can buy the book from Amazon for $30. Worth every penny.


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