The Shanghai Shenhao, a hands-on preview

by Geoffrey Chen for the Large Format Page. February 16, 2001

I met with Perry (Shen Hao's international sales rep) and played with his camera today. Wow, it's so small and beautiful! I'm still excited and don't know where to start my reporting. The model I played with was a Shen Hao HZX-2A, their most advanced and most expensive model (still under $500). Here's little background about the camera factory. Shen Hao is basically a one-man operation, pretty much like Mr. Canham. Camera parts are made by his contractors and assistants, Mr. Chang does his final assembly and tests. Seagull sales team helps selling his products. Mr. Chang only maintains a small inventory. In other words, his production level is depending on order volumes. He also does modifications on his models upon customer request. Shockingly, he never heard of Wisner, Canham, Ebony, Lotus, Deardorff, and Gandolfi, but he is familiar with Linhof, Toyo, and Wista. He does not speak English.

The wood is teak (other hard wood materials available on request) and all metal parts (except focusing track gears) are made of stainless steel. The standard bellows is synthetic, the bag bellows is probably leather. I have seen many wooden cameras, new and old, and I think I can safely say that the wood work and coating finish work are superb! The metal parts are finely brushed, and the finish is not up to par by my standards, as compared to Linhof. All washers for controls are made of Teflon. The dimension of this camera is 6.5"x6.5"x4", and the weight is 4.8 lbs. Perry would like to thank Mr. Andrea Milano for his comments and suggestions. Mr. Chang has paid special attention on camera finish this time.

Let me start from the back. The back frame is not revolving type, but does rotate. It has a Grafloc type back, the ground glass is not very bright, but exchangeable. The back can be easily removed off the frame in seconds, and one can mount roll film holders. Mr. Chang offers a 6x12 roll film holder (it works smoothly, but does not look pretty though). The folding focusing hood can be attached to the back in a snap, and can be swung out of the way when someone needs to kiss the ground glass, just like the way Ebony backs do. With the wooden back in place, Polaroid sheet film holder and Fuji Quickloader can NOT be used. One can only use a regular sheet film holder or a Polaroid pack film holder. The spring controlled tension is perfect. The back standard has the following movements: rise 46 mm, symmetrical swing 20 degree left and 20 degree right, shift 42 mm left and 41 mm right (with marked scale). Base tilt forward 90 degree, and backward 30 degree. Center tilt 10 degree each direction. The back standard can not be moved backward ( I wish it could), but can be moved forward as clearly indicated in John's four scans. None of these movements are geared, but all controls and lockings are very positive, which reminds me my Gandolfi Variant L3. The back swing is controlled by two levers conveniently located under the back frame, whereas the shift is controlled by only one lever at a hard to reach place. Once all knobs and levers are tightened, the whole back standard is VERY solid. I wish Mr. Chang had put some bubble levels on the back standard and on the back frame.

The camera bed is made from one piece of teak. Both and 3/8 threads are there. The bellows is not as flexible as ones from Lotus or Canham, but still works well. One can use a 58 mm lens on a flat lens board with this bellows, but don't expect any movements. On the long end, the bellows can be extended to about 375 mm with movements. In contrast, the bag bellows is very soft, excellent for wide angle lens work, and can be extended to about 210 mm.

For the front standard, the focusing mechanism is surprisingly smooth, and can be easily compared with Lotus' silk smooth. The focusing track can only go forward. But the front standard can be set backward by releasing two "brakes" at the two corners (like Wista) and then simply pushing it backward. There is a pair of internal tracks which allows one to slide the front standard up and down without causing any center tilt. The front movements include rise 37 mm, fall 32 mm, swing 17 degree each direction, no shift, base tilt forward 90 degree, backward 40 degree, center tilt limited by the bellows. The center tilt zero indentation is a bit too strong. The front standard accepts Linhof Technika 4x5 type lens board (mounting hole off center), and the fit is very precise. A Toyo clone adjustable lens hood (quite bulky and heavy) is offered, and it can be securely attached onto the front standard.

Seagull offers two lenses for this camera: 150 mm f5.6 (6 elements in 4 groups) in Copal 0 shutter and 180 mm f5.6 (4 elements in 3 groups) in Copal 1 shutter. The 150 mm lens is plasmat type with IC = 175 mm, and the 180 mm lens is Tessar type with IC= 190 mm. Both lenses are single coated, accept 52 mm filters, cost $420 each (not good value).

Answers to FAQ

1. Where can I buy this camera? Are there any US importers? If you are in Europe, please contact Mr. Andrea Milano. If you are in US or else where, your best bet is to contact Seagull at seagull@camerachina.com and address attention to Perry Wong. He is the associate director of Seagull's international marketing group. Consider language difficulties, write your message as simple as possible. If you have questions regarding their Shen Hao catalog, I'd be glad to assist you. A few translation errors have contributed to quite some confusion.

Currently, there is no official US importer to represent any Shen Hao products. Some New York dealers are interested in those products, but have concerns over potential legal issues and upsetting some US camera makers. One Atlanta man is more serious about importing Shen Hao cameras, and wants to sell them between $1000 - $1500 in US. "They sure beat those Ikea furnitures", he joked. He's working with his lawyer(s) to check out those claimed potential patent issues.

2. Are you a Seagull salesperson, and trying to sell us some shit? No, Sir! I'm not affiliated with Seagull in any way, nor with Shen Hao. I do not take any promotion fees or commission from them, either, by writing my first impression report and posting it on this forum. True, some products made in China are not very good as you have seen in the US market. But the market demands some "not very good products" being made for those poor people like me. I bet you paid over $100 for your very good Nike basketball shoes, even though Nike paid less than $3 a pair to the shoe factory in China. You idiot!!! FYI: there is a upper class shop in New York city. They only sell products made in China at Saks Fifth Avenue prices. They have been in business for almost 20 years. Come and See.

3. Have you used those Seagull lenses? Any good? No. I have not used them. The prices are too high. Seagull might have paid 150% import taxes on those Copal shutters, thus they can not reduce their lens prices. Their barrel lenses are very cheap. So You'd better hold on to your Schnikofujistocks.

4. Would you personally buy a Shen Hao camera? Yes, I will buy TWO. But I will not do mail order. I want them custom made for me with front shift on 4x5, and rear shift on 8x10, all metal parts made of stainless steel and finishes up to my standards. If my schedule permits, I will go to the Shen Hao factory, and spend a week with Mr. Chang in terms of spec, material selection, and finish requirements.

5. Any warranty policy of Shen Hao products? Shen Hao is thinking of offering life time warranty to original owners of their cameras. No definitive date is set.

In conclusion

Ok, I think I have covered pretty much I can remember and in my notes. Here's what I like and what needs improvement, in descending order. Likes: Great price, superb wood work, small size, excellent overall build quality, smooth movements, light weight. One thing I did not mention before is that, when you open the camera, both front and back standards "spring" into their zero indentation positions. Cool! Future improvements: add bubble levels to the back frame and both front and back standards, incorporate a longer bellows, add a revolving back, add front shift, and lower the price even more :-)

If I had to rate this camera, I would say this is a Minolta if you think Linhof is Leica. Certainly I would not have any problems recommending this camera to anyone who wants to use a 4x5 camera. If you look at the performance/cost ratio, I don't know whether any cameras I've known so far can beat it!

More info

View or add comments


DB45TEK@AOL.COM