Lenses for 4x5 cameras - landscape

by John Sparks and Kerry Thalmann for the Large Format Page

Here are listed the favorite lenses picked by two experienced landscape photographers. Note how similar their choices are !

John Sparks' pick

With current lenses from Nikon, Schneider, Rodenstock and Fuji there is very little difference between the performance of similar lenses. The variation between samples of the same lense may well be greater than the difference between similar lenses from different manufacturers. With that said, there are a few differences that exist because some particular lenses are only made by one or two manufacturers. What I would choose for the above focal lengths for landscape work where weight and size of the lenses is generally more important than max coverage or other criteria would be as follows:

90mm - 	Nikkor SW f/8, this is lens has the most coverage of any f/8 90mm.
	The f/8 is important because it keeps the size/weight of the lens

120mm   Schneider Super Symmar f/5.6.  Again this is the smallest 120mm
	lens that has enough coverage for moderate movements.  It is
	much smaller and lighter than the true wide angles like the
	Super Angulon or the Nikkor SW.  Those are only really
	appropriate for studio work or architecture or larger formats
	where the larger coverage is really important or the size/weight
	doesn't matter.

	Alternately, I might choose a Rodenstock 135mm Sironar-S.  This
	isn't all that different in angle of view from a 120, but is
	even smaller than the Super Symmar and probably eliminates the
	need for having both 120mm and 150mm.  The Sironar-S is because
	it has the largest coverage of any current 135mm and all the
	current 135mm's are a bit short on coverage.

150mm   Any one of Nikkor-W, Fuji-NWS, Schneider Apo-Symmar or
	Rodenstock Sironar-N or -S.  These don't vary much in size or
	weight and the performance is all pretty much the same.  I might
	choose the Sironar-S again because a little more coverage at
	this focal length might help and it doesn't cost too much in
	size or dollars.  Rodenstock says that the Sironar-S lenses are
	the sharpest ones they sell and are at least the equal if not
	better than anything else out there (though the differences will
	be pretty small compared to the others in this list expecially
	at the f/22 & f/32 I usually use with 4x5 for landscapes).
	However, any of the lenses listed will be the sharpest lens you
	own (unless you get a 135mm version and a 120mm Super Symmar
	would be a pretty close call).  For the same basic design,
	shorter lenses will always be slightly sharper than longer
	lenses and 135mm/150mm is the shortest "normal" lens design
	usable on 4x5.  Wide angle lenses trade off sharpness for more
	coverage so will be slightly less sharp than longer lenses.

210mm   Same list as for 150mm except I probably wouldn't choose the
	Sironar-S here because it starts to make a real difference in
	size and weight and any of these 210mm's will have plenty of
	coverage.  I'd probably choose which ever of these weighs the
	least (I think it's the Nikkor), but it won't make much

	As an alternative, I might choose a 210mm Schneider G-Claron or
	200mm Nikkor M instead.  These are light, tiny lenses that
	probably have enough coverage for 4x5 landscapes.  The Nikkor is
	smaller and may be slightly sharper and contrastier because it's
	multicoated and optimized for distant subjects (the G-Claron is
	single coated and designed for use at 1:1).  The G-Claron does
	have more coverage which might be useful.  I'd chose one of these
	if I planned on backpacking with the camera and probably one of
	the others if I rarely carried the camera more than a couple of 

300mm	The best choice here is the Nikkor M.  It is very sharp, optimized
	for distant subjects, plenty of coverage for most uses and quite
	small.  I might choose a G-Claron if I planned to switch to 8x10
	at some point because of its greater coverage, but I'm using a 
	Nikkor M 300mm on 8x10 now with little trouble.  Any other 300mm
	is way too huge and heavy for almost all 4x5 needs.

Kerry Thalmann's Future Classics

Basically, what I was wondering is: which of the large format lenses in current, or recent, production are destined to become highly sought after classics decades after they are no longer being made. We all know about the Dagors. Which are still highly prized (especially those with serial numbers higher than 770xxx, Gold Dot Dagors and Wide Angle Dagors). The Red Dot Artars are also very highly regarded and always in demand in the longer focal lengths. Kodak is well represented with the Commercial and Wide Field Ektars. And the Voigtlander APO Lanthar commands ridiculously high prices (this one, frankly baffles me). There are more, but these are representative of the lenses that are currently highly prized classics.

What makes a classic? Well, in many cases these older lenses offer something not found in the current product lines from the few remaining large format lens manufacturers. Some offer large coverage in a small package (Dagors and Wide Field Ektars). Others offer outstanding performance at a much lower cost than their modern counterparts (Commercial Ektars). And some come in focal lengths not available in the current crop of large format optics (long focal length Artars). The real key, is that they fill a need, and are highly suited to specific applications (ultra large and banquet formats where large coverage and/or long focal lengths are needed, or field photography where small size and weight are important factors).

With that in mind, what current lenses do you think are destined to be future classics? To get the ball rolling, I'll toss out a few from my current stable of lenses. I currently shoot landscapes in 4x5 and 6x17 formats using color transparency film. Obviously, someone who shoots 12x20 black and white will have a different opinion, so it would help if you would state your format and media of choice along with a brief summary of the reasoning behind your choices. Perhaps if we can all agree on a few of these future classics we can hoard a few away to finance the college educations of our grandchildren or great grandchildren.

90mm f8 Nikkor SW
The lightest of all modern (Biogon derivative) multi-coated 90mm wide
angle lenses.  It is an excellent performer, with great coatings (NIC).
It's relatively compact size and lightweight (lighter than the 90mm
Super Angulon and 90mm f6.8 Grandagon-N) making it a favorite for 4x5
field photography.  It also has substantially greater coverage (235mm)
than the other compact (slow) modern 90mm wide angles.

120mm f5.6 Schneider Super Symmar HM
Another lens I feel is destined to be a classic for 4x5 field
photographers.  It is really the only modern lens in the desirable 120mm
focal length that is best suited for this application (the 120mm APO
Symmar is lacking in coverage at 179mm, the 115mm Grandagon-N, 120mm
Nikkor SW and 120mm Super Angulon are really 5x7 wide angles and
therefore much larger and heavier).  It is not a tiny lens, but it
weighs about 1/2 the 115mm Grandagon-N.  This one could be shoved aside
by the new 110mm Super Symmar XL (which again is more of a 5x7 wide
angle, but small enough to be favored by 4x5 shooters as well).  BTW,
personally, I love this lens for 6x17cm and it is currently mounted on
my home made 6x17 point and shoot.

150mm f5.6 Rodenstock APO Sironar-S
This is a wonderful little lens.  Compact, lightweight and more coverage
(231mm) than the other 150mm 4x5 lenses (I consider the larger 150mm APO
Sironar-W and 150mm Super Symmar HM to be overkill for 4x5 landscapes
and better suited for the 5x7 format in that application).  It uses ED
glass and is incredibly sharp all the way to edges, and even at large
stops (I have found it to be incredibly sharp even wide open, and have
read at least one test report that showed it to achieve maximum LPM at
f5.6 - which is where it should be sharpest in theory, but in practice
is rarely true).  I don't know what it is about this lens, but images
made with it just scream SHARP! and have an incredible sense of
"depth".  I've used a lot 4x5 "normal" lenses, both modern and classic,
and this one beats them all IMHO.  Out of all the lenses I own, this is
the last one I would ever part with (you'll have to pry it from my cold,
dead hands).

300mm f9 Nikkor M
Another tiny gem of a lens.  Small, sharp, contrasty.  What else could
you ask for in a long focal length field lens for 4x5.  Variation of the
classic Tessar design, but with modern multi-coatings and a modern Copal

360mm f8/500mm f11 Nikkor T-ED
Two great long focal lengths in one and a half lenses.  ED glass, true
telephoto design.  Extremely sharp for a telephoto (as good or better
than most "standard designs for distant subjects).  360mm focal length
useable with short bellows (~12") field cameras.  500mm length useable
with about 16" of bellows.  720mm option also available if you want a
really long 4x5 lens and have a long bellows monorail or field camera
(Wisner or Canham).  This baby is already in hot demand on the used
market.  Imagine what it will be like when they haven't been made for 20
or 30 years.

That's my short list. Since I don't have my 110mm XL yet, I'll leave others to comment on that one. Also, I did not nominate anything in my favorite focal length, 210mm. I use a 210mm Nikkor W and love it, but I'm not really sure if it offers any advantages over the current 210mm offerings from Schneider or Rodenstock. I also didn't nominate any of the ultra wide Super Angulon XL series. I'm amazed by their tremendous image circles and coverage angles, but as a field photographer specializing in landscapes the coverage seems overkill and the huge size (and very huge price tag and huger still filter sizes) are big turn-offs. Perhaps someone who does 4x5 architectural work will offer s dissenting opinion.

So, let's hear from everyone else. I'd like to hear from other 4x5 shooters to learn their favorites and find out what they think of my choices. I'd also like to hear from the 8x10 shooters, and especially the ultra large and banquet shooters. They are the ones who, out of necessity and practicality, seem to rely most heavily on using classic optics. What do they think will happen 50 - 100 years down the road when it is even harder to find those long focal length Dagors? Let me know what you think.

More information

Kerry has a new updated list with photos.

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