Large format cameras have been used by some of the most well-known photographers to capture their famous images. Ansel Adams is a name that is familiar to most people, and he used large format photography to create some of his most celebrated pieces. In order to reach the caliber of such a master, one needs to learn how to effectively use this unique camera. Knowledge of the best large format digital cameras is also essential to this level of success as a photographer.
An important point needs to be made before jumping into this topic. A large format camera is quite different from the simple point-and-shoot models that are so familiar today. In fact, a large format camera generally consists of three main parts: the lens, the camera body, and the digital or film back.
The lens makes it possible to obtain incredibly rich and high-resolution pictures. It is not uncommon to find lenses with a greater-than-50-megapixels rating. The camera body allows for minute adjustments, so you can create unique depth, sharpness and perspective in your photographs. The back is the medium that records the image, whether it be by film or digital platform. This article will primarily discuss the camera itself and highlight only large format cameras that designed to function with a digital back.
How We Chose Our Ratings
There are not a lot of options in the large format camera world. A handful of manufactures produce a limited number of camera models. In reviewing the models, each camera was ranked for ease of use, shift and tilt abilities and controls.
Time was also taken to consider the honest customer testimonials and reviews available. Most of these cameras involve a considerable investment, so the list of customer reviews is often a bit limited. Finally, brand reputation was added as a ranking factor.
Top 5 Best Large Format Digital Cameras
- Arca-Swiss F-Classic 4×5 View Camera | 5 Stars
The Arca-Swiss F-Classic 4×5 View Camera is a professional tool that produces the highest quality images and is easily transported. The included 380mm bellows are fully accommodated on the 30cm basic bench rail. The bellows comfortably adjust to each camera position with no impediments. Bench extensions and longer bellows can be added to this system. Customize the camera for your personality with the fully modular system.
One of the best features is the ability to pack the camera by folding it flat for transporting. The camera can be easily attached to a tripod by sliding the monorail directly into place. Both rear and front standards can be adjusted with precise controls. Ungeared movements that are friction based make fine-tuning quick and simple.
This model features lateral shift at 50mm and rise at 100mm on each standard. Vertical swing has an unlimited range, making it easy to quickly remove the bellows before packing the camera. In addition to digital backs, the F-Classic also works well with up to 6×12 film backs and is usable with #1 shutters in recessed boards. This camera is manufactured in France.
- Cambo Ultima 45D 4 x 5″ View Camera | 5 Stars
Precise geared controls set the Cambo Ultima 45D apart from other large format digital camera models. Dedicated to capturing digital images, this model has the capability to connect with various digital back plates. Comfortable both in the field or in the studio, the camera’s aluminum alloy construction makes it durable and versatile. Easily accommodate lenses as wide as 47mm with the removable wide-angle bag bellows and 11.8-inch long monorail.
The front and rear standards both offer camera movements for adjusting rise, swing, shift and tilt. Set up is relatively quick with swing and tilt movements on a yaw-free variable axis. Efficiency is further improved with dual-range focusing controls. Zero-position detents and a symmetrical design combine for a fast working and intuitive design. Quickly check where your field of focus begins and ends with the field scale in the rear standard.
Safety locks are present on both the front and rear standards to protect lenses and digital backs and prevent the unit from opening accidently. Spirt levels on both standards make it possible to maintain plumb verticals and level horizons. Sliding backs for ground glass focusing, direct adapter plates for focusing with live view and multi-step backs are all optional accessories.
- Arca-Swiss M-Monolith 4×5 View Camera | 5 Stars
For a finely geared and calibrated studio-view camera, the Arca-Swiss M-Monolith stands out amongst its contemporaries. Both the front and rear standards feature fine-tuned geared control. The 380mm bellows are easily accommodated by the telescoping 40cm bench rail, which can be extended with bench extensions and longer bellows. Free from hinderance, all camera positions that are within the monorail’s range can be accessed with the included 380mm conical bellows.
Perspective and depth are completely in your control with the 50mm of geared shift and 70mm of geared rise on both standards. An additional 50mm of ungeared lateral shift makes the total lateral displacement available 100mm.
Quickly attach this camera to any tripod with the monorail that slides easily into an Arca-type quick-release clamp. An Arca-Swiss C1 Cube tripod head is recommended. The M-Monolith is ideally suited for use with digital lenses and backs. The lens can rotate around its optical axis by means of the unique Orbix geared front tilt control that is center based. Camera movements are optimized to be controlled with your left hand while leaving your right hand free to control focus.
- Cambo 45 REPRO-D 4×5 Monorail Camera | 4 Stars
The Cambo 45 REPRO-D has been specially designed for reproduction and archival photography. Both standards are free for readjusting focus because of the individual monorail clamps. Each clamp makes 35mm of movement possible. The included C-6 15.75-inch bellows fully adjust to various focal lengths on the 16.5-inch monorail without any image compromise.
Parallelism is easier to ensure because there are no perspective control movements on either standard. Leveling and positioning are achieved with ease due to the built-in spirit level control on both the front and rear standard.
This model seamlessly accepts Cambo standard lens boards and 4×5 digital and film backs because interface was a key element to the original design. Optional accessories such as adapter and ground glass backs help to make this seamless connection.
- Arca-Swiss F-Metric C 4×5 Field Camera | 4 Stars
Easily accessed and calibrated function carriers make the Arca-Swiss F-Metric C a leading field camera. Lightweight and compact, this model features a universal rail that makes the use of 110mm flat boards with 75-300mm lenses possible. The included 380mm conical bellows are interference-free and comfortable in any camera position within the monorail’s range. Removing the bellows is quick and easy with the unlimited vertical swing movement.
Phenomenal geared rise of up to 100mm on both the front and rear standards offers more control than similar cameras. Fine-tune each shot with 30mm of geared lateral shift per standard and a total shift of 80mm. There is no backlash from the geared lateral and rise shift movements.
Any tripod with an Arca-type quick-release clamp can be quickly connected to the included extension bracket that the monorail slides directly into. Lighter and smaller than other Arca models, the F-Metric C is designed to be a true field camera. The camera packs flat for easy transport while consuming little room.
A large format camera is a worthy investment for any professional photographer. Considerably more complex than small and medium-format cameras, they require a bit of a learning curve if you are just venturing out into large format production. Large format is also time consuming because the precise controls need to be properly set to capture each shot.
The first decision you will want to make is where you will use the camera. Field cameras are specially designed for field use, hence the name. View cameras are best suited to studio use, though improved design now makes some view cameras capable of field use. Some time should be spent on deciding what aspect of large format photography is most important to you. Each model has its own strengths and weaknesses in terms of tilt, rise, swing and shift settings.
The type of photos to be taken is another factor to consider. For scenic and landscape photos, the lightweight and fold-up design of field cameras is usually best. Portraits and studio pictures are ideally captured with a monorail camera. Architectural, reproduction and archive photography all have their own requirements, so be sure research your medium carefully.
Finally, digital backs are often a significant investment. Not all backs will work with all cameras. Since the digital back is usually costlier than the camera itself, take the time to research digital backs and their individual features before making a camera purchase.
Large format photography produces the highest quality and most stunning photographs. No other camera format can match the resolution and detail possible with large format. It is truly an art form, and like all art forms, it requires considerable practice to become truly proficient. The time investment is well worth it when you finally develop the striking prints you have been shooting for.