View Full Version : Favored Focal Lengths

9-Dec-2008, 13:20
Well, I've got the stuff I need for developing 4x5, I've got enough things for sale on ebay to raise a little money...there's a real danger of my doing something large format in the near future.
Here's the thing I'm wondering at the moment.
I know I'm going to want wide angle...something maybe 65 or 75mm. I shoot a lot of wide landscapes and am looking forward to shooting them large.
Here is the sort of thing I do in wide (21mm on 35mm film).

At times though, I like to shoot a more compressed landscape and that's something that's got me a bit concerned. This shot was with an 85mm lens on a Canon crop dslr. That's about 135mm in 35mm terms and what...about 500mm on 4x5?
Is this something I just have to learn to live without?


I'm not a big fan of "normal" focal lengths, prefering to go wide or go long. Since long doesn't seem to be a practical goal with large format, I wonder if I shouldn't just plan my kit around wide and be done with it.

Bruce Watson
9-Dec-2008, 13:40
I wasn't a big fan of "normal" lenses either when I was shooting 35mm film cameras. I owned just two lenses, a 35mm and a 105mm. Did a lot of composing with my feet with my camera up to my eye.

LF isn't like that. You can't in general compose with your feet. What I learned to do (and what most all LFers learn to do) is to walk the scene looking at it with my eyes, not my camera. Once I find the spot that gives me the perspective I want, I set up my tripod, then the camera. Then I give the scene a good close look and decide what lens I'm going to need.

And about 1/3 of the time, that turns out to be a normal lens. A 150mm in my case, for 5x4. I resisted getting a normal lens for several years. I was wrong, and it cost me a lot of missed opportunities.

Thing is, moving from 35mm to LF is about like moving from trumpet to saxophone. What you know about music (how to read a chart, basic rhythm and harmony, all that) translates pretty well. The instrument specific stuff doesn't really translate at all.

LF is a different instrument compared to smaller formats. Once you climb the learning curves you'll see it. And the view is just excellent from up there! But if you're like me, you'll find that a "normal" lens is a whole lot more useful in LF than it is in smaller formats.

My advice is to not make the mistakes I did. Start with a normal lens. It's much easier to learn focus and movements with a normal lens. Once you've gained some experience you'll start seeing scenes that you like but that you can't capture with the equipment you have. If this happens enough you'll know to start looking for another lens, and you'll have enough experience with using a view camera that you'll have an idea what's important in a lens to you, and that'll help a lot in finding the right lens for what you want.

9-Dec-2008, 13:58
I've been doing large format photography for about a year and can recommend dropping any preconceived notions about focal lengths in LF--or anything else for that matter. I recommend a 150mm or 135mm lens to start with and to figure out where you want to go. Expect to buy and sell some stuff in the process. I hated a "normal" lens in 35mm, but as Bruce mentioned, it's another animal in LF.

9-Dec-2008, 14:08
I come from a 35mm background too. Still do, for that matter. And a little 6x7 for good measure. Here's what happened to me. With little or no planning. Stuff just happened.

I was at a person's house buying a lightmeter. when I asked if he had anything else he said, "What about a Speed Graphic?" A few minutes later I had a decent Speed Graphic and a Kodak Ektar 127mm lens and a box of "stuff" for $100.

At home I discovered a big brass lens in the box of stuff. A Collinear No. 4 7 7/8" f/5.4 mounted on a Graphic board. When the folks here told me about the lens I was excited. A 200mm lens that converts to about 300mm. Way cool! And it makes nice photos too.

Later I did a bit of trading with a friend in Houston and came up with a 105mm Tominon macro lens in a Copal #1 shutter from an old Polaroid copy camera. OK, it's not the greatest wide angle lens ever. But it's small, light, not too slow and cheap! The same friend also gave me the lens cells of a Bausch & Lomb Rapid Rectilinear that screw right into the Kodak shutter from the 127mm Ektar. The R.R. also converts from about 150mm to about 250mm, or 6" to 10".

So, now I have 4 lenses (2 of which are convertable), 3 shutters (focal plane in the Speed Graphic) and I reckon I'm all set.

Last summer I met a Zone VI field camera and a Nikkor 180mm lens that made me take them home. The kit came with 4 lens boards. I was able to mount my other leaf shutters on Zone VI boards. I'm really happy now.

The current crop is: 105mm, 127mm, 150 (250), 180, 200 (300). I have to use the 200mm on the Speed Graphic and the 180mm only lives on the Zone VI. It's all good and the price for all of those wasn't too bad at all!

Some day, if I have some spare cash, I would like to have a nice wide lens and a nice 240mm to 300mm for the field camera. In the meantime, I'm having fun.

EDIT to ADD: The 127mm Ektar is a decent lens, generally cheap in a working shutter, small and makes decent, kinda wide photos. The image circle isn't the largest, actually kinda small, but for landscapes it's fine. You could spend more and do worse.

Good luck!

9-Dec-2008, 14:19
In the beginning, spend money on film. Any lens will get you jump started. Someday you'll know which lens to get next. After you have exposing, developing, etc. down cold.

9-Dec-2008, 14:22
I will echo the suggestions of starting with a "normal" lens...my preference was a 150mm, but 135mm will do (but careful not to run out of movement) or an 180mm will do you fine.

You'll have to get use to the blocky rectangle of the 4x5. Your posted 35mm images certainly take full advantage of the longer proportioned rectangle of 35mm! But it looks like moving to 4x5 will be a good fit with your present imagery!


9-Dec-2008, 14:22
As a newbie (less then a year) I'll also 2nd or 3rd the normal lens on 4x5. I use one a little on the 645 but quite often on LF - maybe 30-40% of the time. Normal for me is a 125mm (a little wide for normal). The rest of the time I split between a 210, 14", and 90mm. Although interestingly enough, my 90mm does not get as much use in LF as it does in MF or digital.

9-Dec-2008, 14:23
I do admire your cactus. It's got depth.

9-Dec-2008, 14:27
Aye! I'm trying to picture the cactus photo in pt/pd from a really big negative.

Eric Leppanen
9-Dec-2008, 14:27
It's almost uncanny how so many of us have had similar experiences. I used to use my 20mm lens a lot when shooting 35mm, and initially bought 58 and 80mm lenses for 4x5 thinking that I'd use the 58 most of the time. Instead, I found the 80 to be plenty wide, and used the 58 so seldom that I ultimately sold it. The aspect ratios of 35mm and 4x5 are so different that lens focal lengths just don't translate well from one format to the other. You just have to try things out yourself, and adjust your lens lineup as required as you gain experience.

BTW, I use my normal lenses more than any other LF focal length these days. I just like the realistic perspective that these lenses provide. I rarely used normal focal lengths when I shot 35mm landscape photography. Go figure.

As for long lens photography in 4x5, it's definitely possible, but there are limitations (and opportunities). LF depth of field is extremely limited versus 35mm, so LF long lens landscape work tends to be of fairly distant subjects or certain near-to-far compositions where front tilt can be used. That being said, I fairly routinely use a 600mm lens with my 4x5 (recently I've purchased a convertible Arca setup where I can use my 8x10 lenses on a 4x5-sized camera, enabling use of a 1200mm lens if desired!), and for those subjects where it works, it works extremely well. You do have to learn a variety of tricks to ensure sharp long lens photos, though; there are a variety of threads here on the LF forum discussing this topic.

Very nice cactus photo, by the way!

Drew Wiley
9-Dec-2008, 14:30
I personally gravitate toward longer focal length lenses for tighter perspective. That's
why my first 4x5 was a Sinar monorail with a 28-inch bellows. My idea of "normal" on
35mm (full-frame) is 85mm, so the equivalent angle of view on the 4x5 is around 250,
alghough my first lens was a 210. I also find a 360 lens to be very useful, and sometimes even use the 450, although generally use this on the 8x10 instead. A camera like the Speed Graphic just doesn't have enough bellows extension for this sort of thing.

Gordon Moat
9-Dec-2008, 14:32
With smaller cameras, my approach has often been to isolate detail, though sometimes to go the other direction of overloading details. So that dictated a short telephoto, and a wide lens. I found that the more normal focal lengths worked more in people situations, or for lower light (since they were faster lenses).

My approach with 4x5 is different. The emphasis is on composition over content, with a more geometric or drawn approach. After trying out many lenses, I have found the I use a 135mm the most on 4x5, closely followed by a 180mm. The choice of the 180mm was more to accommodate a greater range of movements than possible with my 135mm. You really should think in terms of movements with a 4x5, since that is a distinctly more useful advantage over smaller cameras; move beyond the simple idea of the larger capture are relative to smaller cameras. Also, if you crop a 24mm by 36mm part out of a 4x5, the result is the same as from a smaller camera; the relationships of foreground and background objects is maintained, with the main change being greater field of view.


Gordon Moat Photography (http://www.gordonmoat.com)

9-Dec-2008, 14:41
So rare to see so much consensus on anything...
I will almost certainly buy an old crown graphic with a normal lens included, so I'll get the opportunity to follow the advise here.
I'm trying to understand how it can be so much different that I would not want my extra wide field of view. As one of you noted, I take full advantage of the 3:2 format now (I hate to crop narrower.) Going to 4x5 proportions is one of the things I'm afraid I'll have a tough time getting used to.

I guess I'm just going to have to jump in and start playing.

Thanks for the compliments on the cactus photo. It prints nice in all carbon inks on my r1800.

9-Dec-2008, 14:44
I'm very much a noob myself, but would offer this advice: Think about how many lenses you think you might end up with eventually. There are some old threads where people tell what they have, and sometimes tell why. I made a choice that I wanted only 3 lenses, because I want to carry them on my back and because I didn't want to clutter the decision making process too much. From there I decided to go normal, a bit wide and a bit long. Ended up with 90, 150 and 240 and have been happy with that. If I had wanted to go more extreme I could have gone 75 and 300 for the wide and long. If I wanted a 4 lens kit but without extemes I might have gone 90 - 135 - 180 - 240 or 90 - 150 - 210 - 300 or ...

I guess what I am saying that if you have some idea of where you want to end up it might help in deciding on the focal length of your first lens or two.

I will also say that I was a big wide angle fan, but if changing my position a bit can allow me to use either my 90 or 150, I find myself sometimes choosing the 150 just because it is easier to work with. When I first started LF I was trying all sorts of crazy near-far compositions and fooling with lots of movements. Now I try to look for shots that will be easy technically just to make life easier on myself. Lower contrast, reasonable depth, etc.

9-Dec-2008, 14:44
...Thanks for the compliments on the cactus photo. It prints nice in all carbon inks on my r1800.

Maybe LF will break you of that habit! :D :)

Only kidding. :)

Leonard Metcalf
9-Dec-2008, 14:45
At one stage I bought up big on a range of lenses, from 47mm to 450mm and carried them around trying to use them all. On critiquing my own work I soon noticed that the 150mm (135 or 180 depending on which one I had at the time) were on the camera the most. I soon sold the extreme wide angle lenses as I didn't enjoy using them and they didn't suit my style. And telephoto I have is just so heavy.

Now years down the track I regularly go out with one lens and leave the rest at home. The 150 mm with a large image circle is a great starting point as others have already pointed out. As they have also said under the dark cloth is quite a different experience which is hard to compare to 35mm.

Enjoy, Len

9-Dec-2008, 14:54
I'm not a big fan of carrying a large lens selection. Two would be my likely max. Too many choices seems to shift the thought process from composition to gear...that's just me.

Digital output will have to do. No wet darkroom in my future. It's all I can do to get the sink for negatives.

9-Dec-2008, 15:02
If the output looks like what you posted here, who am I to argue?

I'm jelaous. I can't wet print right now and my inkjet output looks like pooh-pooh.

9-Dec-2008, 15:09
If the output looks like what you posted here, who am I to argue?

I'm jelaous. I can't wet print right now and my inkjet output looks like pooh-pooh.

I can proudly say the output is better by far than the screen image.
Going to all carbon 3 black inks was the solution for my relatively inexpensive printer.

Looks and feels great on good paper.

9-Dec-2008, 15:10
Thanks for the tip.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program.

9-Dec-2008, 15:16
Nice image off of Mogollon Rim.

with respect to longer focal lengths - you will need the bellows extension, even with a Nikor 1200T.

Will your camera extend to infinity focus (non-telephoto this will be roughly the focal length of the lens. 1:1 would be 2xfocal length. You can estimate for most scenics your bellows better extend 1.25x focal length and be capable of limited swings and tilts. With Telephoto lenses, the nodal point is not in the center of the lens -- even an axial tilt will require rise/fall to recenter the image.

Frankly I like longer lenses. There is nothing like making a detail image of a small part of grand canyon with a 1200T on an 8x10 (and simialarly 1/4 of the same image for 4x5.).

9-Dec-2008, 15:54
I agree about spending most of your time and money on photographing and printing at this point. However, it's a great buyers' market right now on lenses. If I were to start with two, they would be a 135 or 150 and a 210 or 240. If you can get three, add a 90mm. Four lenses like 90/135/210/300 (or 90/150/240/300) will cover most situations. Used modern multicoated lenses in Copal shutters are going for $200-300 a pop on ebay, and a bit more here on the LF forum and through some of the good used dealers (Midwest Photo, KEH, etc). At those prices there is really no reason to buy old lenses, unless you're wanting a particular look that they might provide (plus a newer lens in newer shutter reduces the chance that you will need a shutter service in the near term). As was already mentioned, buy lenses with some coverage. Many of the 1940s-70s press camera lenses have smaller image circles than similar later lenses.

9-Dec-2008, 17:05
I can only speak for myself-
I started off wide, really quite wide,
but have been steadily getting longer.

What happens then, is that you find yourself having some lenses that might cover a larger format-
so you think to yourself,
hmm, maybe 4x5 is a bit small...

So you find something you like, just a little bigger,
then you're back to the wides again...


9-Dec-2008, 18:55
I can only speak for myself-
I started off wide, really quite wide,
but have been steadily getting longer.

What happens then, is that you find yourself having some lenses that might cover a larger format-
so you think to yourself,
hmm, maybe 4x5 is a bit small...

So you find something you like, just a little bigger,
then you're back to the wides again...


So, skip all this and go to 11x14? :-)

Brian Vuillemenot
9-Dec-2008, 19:33
Like many, I started off with a normal (150 mm) lens and used it almost exclusively for the first two years or so. As time goes on, I'm more and more drawn to extreme focal lenghts on 4X5, using a 58 mm on the wide end and a 450 mm on the long end. I'm even thinking of investing in a 600. Long lenses in 4X5 are great- just get a camera with a lot of bellows extension, or pick up a telephoto lens (or both). You may need a separate camera for your ulra wides, but 4X5 cameras are pretty compact and portable (at least compared with 8X10s).

10-Dec-2008, 15:21
I started with a 135mm and a 210mm. Later I added a 90mm, some later a 300mm. In the meantime I own lenses from 58mm to 750mm, but to tell the truth, the most used are still the lenses I started with ...