Per the earlier thread here, http://www.largeformatphotography.in...ad.php?t=19052 , I mentioned I’d report back my findings after comparing these two cameras.
To clarify my purpose, I wanted a wooden camera primarily as a back-up to my Arca F-line Metric, but also wanted to have a ‘fun’ camera to use. I felt the nostalgia and selection from wooden folders would fill these requirements. Next, one should bear in mind when reading this that in addition to shooting film I use a Betterlight scanning back. The Betterlight head is about the size and weight of an older Polaroid metal 545 holder and my typical field scan-times range from 35 seconds to nearly three minutes. Because of this, the camera I use needs to be reasonably rigid. There are two types of rigidity that are important. The first is normal lateral rigidity that holds the standards parallel to each other and the second is torsional rigidity which prevents the rear standard from twisting sideways relative to the front standard when the heavy Betterlight is in the back. Lack of either will prevent me from gleaning the maximum imaging potential from the Betterlight back. From prior experience I can tell you that the Ikeda/Nagoaka/Osaka style wooden cameras won’t cut it on the torsional front; they are simply too flimsy. This narrowed the field initially to higher quality wooden cameras such as the Ebony and Canham, however having heard positive things regarding rigidity and build quality from a few users, I decided the relatively inexpensive Shen Hao might be worth a look too. (FTR, I also looked at a Wisner ‘Pocket Expedition’ in a local store and was appalled at its lack of rigidity – it is so loose even after locking everything down that it rattles if gently shaken!)
In addition to rigidity, I wanted a relatively lightweight and compact folder suitable for longer hikes or trips, though weight was the least critical consideration since lightweight and rigidity are generally at competing ends of the choice spectrum. When size was taken into consideration, I quickly eliminated the Canham wood 4x5 due to it being a 5x7 camera with a 4x5 back – as such it is roughly 70mm taller (nearly 3 inches) and 90mm wider (3.75 inches) than the Shen Hao or Ebony SV 45Te, though its weight is in the same class as the Ebony. (The Shen is about ¾ pound lighter.)
Finally, in choosing a suitable camera, one needs to consider the range of focals used. My stable consists of 55mm through 300mm lenses with my most used lens being my 120, followed next by the 65 and 210. My Arca can accommodate 55mm through 450mm on flat boards with the standard bellows. Ideally, the wooden camera I choose would be able to handle this same range, or at least be able to handle the 65 without a bag bellows or recessed board.
With that groundwork laid, I’ll get on with my impressions of the two cameras.
The Ebony. Without repeating other reviews, the Ebony is very well built and is easy and intuitive to use. Its dark ebony wood with black bellows and dull silver titanium hardware combine to make the ebony a very attractive camera. The Ebony model I am evaluating is the 45 SV Te. The overall design is very well planned out and makes the camera a pleasure to use. It is the most rigid wooden camera I have used at the 300mm extension point and beyond. That said it is still not as rigid as my Arca, though I never really expected to find a wooden camera that would be that rigid. As a plus, it will focus 55mm through 450mm lenses on flat boards using its standard bellows, just like my Arca. Lastly, the groundglass is perfectly parallel to the film plane. This is easy to confirm with my Betterlight back and test target, and is a very welcome finding in any camera. The quality of the woodwork is first class and the fit and finish of the metalwork is exceptional and probably one of the main reasons this wooden folder is as rigid as it is.
Now for some Ebony nits. To get a lens shorter than 90 to focus on a flat board, you need to contort the front standard rearward by using a combination of rear base tilt, forward axis tilt and rise. This gyration takes time and makes achieving precise parallelism of the standards left somewhat to chance – not an ideal situation for me since I use the 65 a fair amount of the time. FWIW, when using a 450 or longer lens, the converse tilts are required – rear axis and forward base – to get the added extension needed to achieve focus. However the parallelism issue is not nearly as problematic with long lenses, so I see no significant disadvantage here. I would also point out that the Ebony gets a tad wobbly, but still useable, when extended for the 450. Again, not really an issue for me as the longest lens I typically use is a 300.
Enter the Shen Hao. IMO there is so little conclusive information about this camera, I think it deserves a bit of additional commentary. First off, it is not what I expected and is NOT another piece-of-junk wooden 4x5 folder! (Come on, let’s be honest – How many of you felt like me, that this Chinese wanna-be wood folder would be anything more than another crap wooden 4x5?) Frankly I am surprised at the build quality. The woodwork is excellent and as good if not superior to the Ebony – and I used to be a woodworker, so that is saying something. The metalwork is also of surprisingly high quality, well machined in gloss-black finished aluminum. It is certainly better than the Nagoaka/Ikeda/Osaka class, though not nearly as refined as the Ebony’s beautifully machined titanium fixtures. I’d place it about on par with the Wista/Tachihara cameras I’ve seen, though the Shen has rear shift and its woodwork is superior. All knobs are where they should be, easy to access and backed by Teflon washers for very smooth operation. Focus is also quite smooth. Both the rear and front base-tilt standard bars are spring-loaded and snap solidly into their zero positions – a real nice touch for a cheap camera. It is made of a walnut-stained hardwood that appears to be teak (or tigerwood) and combines nicely with the black bellows and gloss-black hardware. The rear axial swing and shift are accomplished with hardware that appears to be copied directly from the Ebony. It has similar rear axial tilt and rise to the Ebony, though both sets of knobs need to be loosened to impart rise, where on the Ebony they are fully independent. The rear standard of the Shen can be slid forward in a track and the front standard can be slid rearward in a special track allowing the rear and front standards to be positioned close enough at the center of the base to use a 55 on a flat board and NOT have to drop the front bed – a very clever feature, especially if like me you use wider lenses very often. Add the optional bag bellows ($99) and you have a very viable wideangle 4x5! Since both standards are in their normal tracks, they remain parallel unless you specifically add tilt or swing and thus avoids the parallelism issue the Ebony has with short lenses. Score a big point for the under-dog. An unanticipated surprise was that the Shen's GG was also in perfect alignment with the film plane!
Now for some Shen Hao nits. First off, it has a maximum bellows extension of 360mm – and to get there, you have to use the same forward-base/rear-axis tilt and rise combo the Ebony uses for 450mm lenses. Next, when the front section is fully extended, there is too little support between it and the rear base and the camera is just plain wobbly. To use the 300, I would impart the base/axis tilts for the added extension, and then move the front section back into the rear the couple inches gained. This makes the camera rigid enough for regular use of a compact 300 at near infinity, though in reality I would say this camera is probably usefully limited to 240mm lenses if you plan on including on closer foreground elements in your image. The bullseye bubble level on the rear standard is small and difficult to see in direct light. IMO it is only useful for coarse leveling, so for critical work plan on bringing a separate level. There is NO level at all on the front standard – something I use a lot on my Arca to confirm zero – so another ding. The only front movements are rise/fall, swing and base tilt. Axial front tilt is only the coarse rearward adjustment available to gain added extension. The minor plus of this arrangement is that front rise/fall rides in a slotted track and remains true. The spring on the back is a rather flimsy single-leaf, unfortunately quite similar to the aforementioned Nagoaka and only time will tell how well it holds up – and weak spring-backs are not a good thing with the Betterlight scanning back. Lastly, the focus can shift slightly when you lock it tight, so a touch-up is required.
So which will I choose? Since the purpose of the camera was primarily as a back-up and ‘for fun’ camera, it won’t see a lot of use and the Shen Hao has a lot to offer for its $500 cost. If however it was going to be my main camera or I planned on using it often I would choose the Ebony. It is overall the better camera, being more flexible and having a wider range of movements. The Shen easily accommodates my most commonly used focal lengths and is easier to use with short lenses. Add that for the price of the Ebony by itself, I could buy the Shen Hao 4x5, add the optional bag bellows AND buy a Shen Hao 8x10 AND still have over $300 left in my wallet for film, the Shen becomes a relative bargain! This causes me to really question the ‘value’ of the Ebony… The Shen operates smoothly and solidly and at its price the Shen becomes almost a disposable view camera – something to consider if trekking into uncertain environments.