Using a Monorail in the Field - Horseman LE

By Nick Thornton for the Large Format Page

Monorail or field camera?

This is a common question for anyone starting in large format photography. The usual answer is "monorail for indoor work, field camera outdoors". This is fine in principle but reality is rarely so tidy. Although I would agree that "try it for yourself" is the best advice, new users can face three problems:

This short review aims to provide new users with some practical advice in advance of embarking on a series of trials. While it won't replace a hands-on field trip, it may help to reduce the cost.

Why not use a field camera?

When I started large format photography an amateur with a limited budget I wanted one camera that I could use for everything. Clearly it would have to be a compromise, but what was the least-bad compromise to make?

The relative merits of monorails and field cameras are well documented: field cameras are more portable monorails provide a greater range of movements. Conventional wisdom suggests that field cameras are preferable unless you need extreme movements. However, I believe that monorails offer benefits other than extreme movements to photographers new to large format.

Most monorails provide front and rear standards with identical movements. The symmetry of being able to set up any movement on either standard is far more intuitive than using base tilts to simulate back movements or front and rear swing to simulate shift. This symmetry is also a great help in learning to use the effects of the different movements creatively.

The problems of using a monorail camera in the field are mechanical. Once you get over the inconvenience of getting it to the right place camera is not a limiting factor in creating the photograph. The problems of using a field camera in the studio are photographic. These can be far harder to overcome than simple inconvenience. I'm sure there are many people who take far better studio photographs with field cameras than I ever will with my monorail, but when I'm struggling to set-up a particular indoor shot the flexibility of a monorail means one less constraint to deal with. Knowing that anything you can't achieve is your own limitation and not the camera can be a powerful spur to perseverance.

That said, if you're looking for a large format camera specifically for back-packing long distances then you'll probably want to skip the rest of this article and buy a field camera. If not, the following sections consider some of the practicalities of using a full-size monorail in the field.

The Camera in Question

There are several small light monorails about. In particular, the Arca-Swiss Discovery seems to have been designed with field use in mind. It has a telescopic monorail and weighs only 5 lbs. At the other end of the price spectrum is the Linhof Technicarden. This collapses down to 5 in x 8.5 in x 10 in (L W H) and weighs only 6.6 lbs. However, at a price 2,500 in the UK and with bellows at 250 a time, I wouldn't want to take it into the harsh outdoors even if I could afford one.

The camera I've been using recently is a Horseman LE. This is a 4 x 5 monorail and, unlike the Technicarden and the Discovery, makes few concessions to portability. It has a single piece monorail and like the other models in the Horseman range, L-shaped brackets for the font and rear standards. The rise/fall and shift movements are geared and the whole thing has a feel of robust precision. Without a lens it weighs just under 10 lbs.

For the sake of completeness, these are the specifications:

Monorail length

15.7 in

Rise & Fall

2.4 in front and back

Shift

2.4 in front and back

Tilt

360 degrees front and back

Swing

360 degrees front and back

Lens Board Size

140mm x 140mm

The rise, fall and shift movements are geared and each movement is calibrated with screen printed scales in millimetres. Adjustments are made with large plastic knobs mounted on the L-shaped standards. Each knob has a locking bar mounted concentrically in the end allowing movements to be locked in place. The gearing is very positive with little or no slack when changing direction. The locking bars work well and the action of move and lock soon becomes intuitive.

The front and rear standards have identical movements. This was one of the factors that I liked about the camera from the start. The symmetry of being able to set up any movement on either standard seems inherently logical even for a beginner - and is great for learning to differentiate between the effects of the different movements.

Tilt is controlled by a similar knob to rise and fall, but is not geared. I treat the tilt rather gently and make sure I put even pressure on both sides of the standard as I adjust it. This is probably over cautious, but the lens board holder is only attached to the standard at one side (the standard is L-shape remember) and I'm a little concerned about putting too much off-axis strain on the bracket. Other than this neurosis on my part, the tilt works well and, like the other movements, is clearly calibrated with a positive zero-dentant.

Both standards have small spirit levels attached the emphasis here is small. They are probably no more than 10mm long and 5mm wide. At first I thought they would be of little use. Then I noticed that one was not quite centred when the tilt was in its zero dentant. I adjusted this out thinking it was a significant error only to find that I had actually adjusted the standard by less than one degree on the scale. This suggests, to me at least, that the spirit levels are more effective than might be expected from their size.

The front and rear swing controls work rather differently from the others. They are locked with a large lever that protrudes from the round column holding the standard to the monorail. When the lever is unlocked the standard can be swung freely. The lever seems to lock by pressure that is, the harder you push it the tighter it locks. This is less elegant that the other controls but seems perfectly functional. Both swings have positive zero dentants so positive in fact that on several occasions I've forgotten to use the locking levers.

With one exception, I've been impressed with the standard of construction of the camera. It is robust but still feels like a precision instrument. I looked at both the Wista field camera and the Horseman 45HD before buying the LE. To me (and this is a very subjective view) the Wista didn't have the precision feel I wanted even though it seemed remarkably robust and well engineered. The 45HD had the precision but didn't seem particularly solid (though it may well be robust by virtue of its rubber coating). Although the LE is far larger (being a monorail) it had exactly the balance of solidity and precision I wanted.

The one concern I have is really only cosmetic. The black coating on the standards seems to wear very quickly. It showed scuff marks after the first trip out and I recall seeing several second-hand models that seemed to be in very good condition except for disproportionately worn paint.

There are two other construction points that I particularly like. The registration flats for the ground glass screen show signs of having been machined. This suggests that someone has taken the trouble to adjust the thing instead of trusting to the accuracy of a casting. Finally though I imagine that this is not unique to the LE - the lens board is tremendously solid. It looks like cast alloy and has strengthening fillets across the diagonals. It may not be light but it sure is rigid.

So, the Horseman is well made and flexible but can it be used in the field?

Contributions to Convenience

Three factors contribute to the convenience of getting about with a large format camera kit:

Weight

Of these, weight usually gets the most attention in any comparison of cameras. However, it is often the other two that make most difference to the portability of any practical LF outfit. To illustrate the point, consider the following basic field outfit:

Item

Weight (lbs)

Camera

9.9

Tripod

8.5

Mounted lens

2.5

Film Holders

2

Loupe & cable release

0.3

Focusing cloth

1.6

Bag

1.5

Meter or 35mm camera

2

Notebook etc

1

Total

29.3

So (leaving out sandwiches, maps etc) of a total weight of 29lbs, only 34% is the camera. Using a field camera certainly reduces the weight but this reduction needs to be considered as a percentage of the total weight. The savings achieved by substituting some of the cameras mentioned above are shown in the following table.

Camera

Camera Weight
(lbs)

Total Weight
(lbs)

Percentage Reduction

Horseman LE

9.9

29.3

-

Technicarden

6.6

26

11%

Wista

5.2

24.6

16%

Discovery

5

24.4

17%

Horseman 45HD

4.4

23.8

19%

 

So, with the kit used in this example, even swapping a heavy monorail for the lightest field camera only produces a weight saving of under 20%.

Volume

Most field cameras include some sort of folding mechanism. Some will even fold with a small lens still attached. This reduces the volume of the kit to be carried and is perhaps the biggest benefit of field cameras over monorails. Taking the Wista as an example, when folded the complete camera is only 4 in x 8 in x 7 in.

A monorail, in its operating configuration, is extremely bulky and inconvenient to carry. Fortunately this can be overcome almost as quickly as with a field camera. For example, to pack the Horseman I remove the lens, bellows and back and swing the standards parallel to the monorail. This takes around a minute and reduces the overall dimensions to 3.6 in x 18.25 in x 12.8 in. Still considerably larger than the Wista, but now at least a manageable size. Of course, this still leaves the lens, bellows and back to pack separately. Although it would be feasible to leave the back on, I prefer to pack it separately to provide the ground glass with additional protection.

Providing this protection, without carrying around too much padding, is covered next.

Weight Distribution

Although I've never really taken to rucksack carriers for 35mm kit they do seem to be the best solution for large format. The greater weight of a large format outfit makes weight distribution more important and having to take off a rucksack for each shot seems less of an inconvenience.

I use a standard Berghaus 45 Litre rucksack for carrying the outfit described above. I haven't used many rucksack type camera bags, but this is certainly better constructed and cheaper than the Lowe camera rucksack I bought for my 35mm kit. The only real disadvantage is that there are no internal padded compartments. However, with the camera chassis wrapped in the focusing cloth and the lens, back and bellows in plastic sandwich boxes the final pack is probably lighter and better protected than with standard foam padding.

Being waterproof and grit proof, the sandwich boxes for the lens, bellows and back are a great help outdoors. They provide somewhere clean and dry to put lens caps and film holders once these are taken off the camera. They also seal tightly so that any dust and dirt that gets into the rucksack can't get to the glassware. Finally, with film holders in each of the side pockets and the tripod in the tent-pole loops, the whole pack is well balanced and easy to carry.

Use in the field

The Horseman is a very easy camera to assemble in the field. The bellows drop into deep recesses and the lens board and screen lock in place with the usual slider plates. The whole process from opening the rucksack to completion takes less than five minutes. This is probably one or two minutes longer than it would take with a folding field camera assuming that the lens doesn't stay attached. However, compared to the time it takes me to compose and expose this is fairly negligible.

Actually using the camera in the field makes it all worthwhile. The precision of the gearing means that movements glide into place and stay there without locking. Once the general composition is right each movement can be finally adjusted and locked with the levers built into the end of the knobs.

Although I've not pushed them to the limits I have used more of the movement range than I expected. The ease of adjustment means it's very easy to experiment with particular combinations of movements and this, in itself, has prompted creative compositions that I wouldn't necessarily have thought through first.

Conclusions

Can the Horseman LE be used in the field? Carrying anything that measures 4 in x 18 in x 13 in needs a big rucksack, but once you have this on, the extra few pounds over a field camera makes little difference. Far more significant to portability is the design of the pack you're carrying it in. I'd recommend looking at standard rucksacks first. Using a Beghaus hiking pack and adding some plastic boxes provides an aluminium framed large format carrier with removable, waterproof hard-shell compartments for around 45.

The difference in set-up time between a monorail and a field camera is a small percentage of the total time required for any single shot. Once assembled, the benefits of the monorail become apparent. These are not just the larger range of movements but also the greater symmetry and simplicity of the monorail design.

In conclusion, I'm happy to trade the compactness of a field camera for the flexibility of a monorail despite the increase in weight and volume. So far I haven't taken the outfit more than an hour' s walk from the car but at this range at least, carrying an extra few pounds has been well worthwhile.

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