After being a medium format shooter for several years I have decided to make the move to a 4x5. I have read hundreds of posts here (I think every one that mentions beginners, Arca or Shen). I have read through Kerry Thalman’s site and Tom Westbrook’s Arca materials too. I have also read a few books (Kodak LF, Hicks+Schultz, and Dykinga). Finally, I have put in several hours under the dark cloth of a friends camera, making a few shots. Now I am finding that when it comes down to it, choices in LF are pretty tough to make-tougher than I thought. My casual observation had pointed toward a Shen Hao HZX45-II. After shooting with a friends Technica, looking at several different monorail models, and doing alot of reading (books and here), I have come to really like the Arca-Swiss Discovery too. That is where I am at now, trying to pick the better camera between these two. Maybe a better way to say it is a better camera for me to work with. I am aware of the size/bulk differences, but think they are not as much of a factor when one considers a full load of gear. I do some hiking, but find myself close enough to the truck during magic hour light that the carrying aspect does not bother me. The real issue is ease of use and control. I will be using the camera outdoors for landscape and the occasional building/cityscape (no studio use at all). I will be getting a Quickload holder and using Velvia as my only film. My lens choices will be a 75mm, 125, and a 210. I'll get the 125 first, but I am planning ahead (I have had a chance to use a 75, 90, 135, 150, 270, and 360- the 75, 125, and 210 meet my needs). I also plan on getting models that take 67mm filters for simplicity and fewer things to carry. If I was to go beyond these three basic lenses it might be a wider, but I do not need anything past about 240 on the long end for the images I like to take.
I want a camera that can be used in the field, works well with wide angle lenses, and can take a Quickload holder. Both seem to meet these needs. I think the cameras are dissimilar enough and that might be what is throwing me. I know that they are both fine tools and both will take a picture. I am probably putting waaay too much thought into this. I have broken down my planned route into fixed costs and model specific costs. The lenses, Quickload holder, film, darkcloth, loupe and a new Gitzo CF tripod (1325) are the same either way. The camera is where there you see the difference. Beside the initial price (quoted from Badger) of $625 for the Shen Hao and $1425 for the Discovery, there are also the difference in accessories. After buying a fresnel or bright screen the Shen goes for around $800. If you want the bag bellows they are pretty cheap at $99. The Arca accessories I might want is the Lens board reducer and maybe the bag bellows, both are over $300.
Some questions I have about the differences between a wood field camera and a monorail:
Will you feel a noticable difference in the controls of the Shen compared to the Arca? On things like focus, and tilt, is it easier, smoother, more accurate with the one camera over the other? I think a concern I have is that the Shen will be very rough, choppy, or imprecise with the focus and tilt. I would expect the Arca to be smooth, accurate, and finely adjustable in a way the wooden field camera is not. Does that make sense? Is it accurate? I read some posts where Arca owners were saying they can make a tilt of 1-2 degrees and the camera will not slip back into the zero detente. I am curious if a wooden camera would behave like that? I have the impression/concern the Arca would be smooth with all movements while you might have to fight with the awkward, uneven or choppy movements of a wooden camera. Is that something you notice in wooden models or are they so close it does not really matter? Stability. Does a wooden camera flex and move when inserting a film holder? Is a wood camera rigid enough? Or do you trade it for compact lightness?
Shen Hao questions: Does Shen have zero détentes for any movements? Does it have a problem keeping the front panel in a neutral position? Arca Questions: Lens board size. I drew out a 110 and a 171 sized square. The 171's are really big, but that might not be a factor with only 2 or 3 lenses. Wide angle usage. I would like to use a 75mm. Sure the bag bellows would work and would work with upto a 210, but it is also $390 more to spend. Maybe a recessed board would be all you need? I think I read one post where someone “just got” back to a 72.
Rail length-is it hard to use the 30cm rail with a wide and all that extra rail sticking out the back? In other words to you poke yourself a lot? The size and packing factor are not a factor. A full kit is still going to be a load. I am however concerned about the ease of use. I know the Arca is a good camera. I am concerned that the Shen is too much of an economy camera and will come up short in real use. I guess I want to be sure I am spending my money in the right way. Does the extra $700-1200 the Arca ends up costing (with possible accessories) get me any more?
Bottom line- setting up in the desert, what is going to be the better camera to work with?
My thanks for whatever comments you can give.