Review of the Toyo VX125

By Stewart Ethier for the Large Format Page

What / How much ?

I've had this camera for only a month, but I thought I'd write up my first impressions, since there have been several requests for information about it on the web. The Toyo VX125 is a hybrid studio-field 4 x 5, a modular monorail camera made of duralumin (metal alloy) that folds up to about 5 x 9 x 12 inches and weighs only 6 pounds. It is distributed in the USA by Mamiya America Corporation (MAC) and is sold for $5995. I never considered buying such an expensive camera until a recent trip to Tokyo where I found it selling (new) for about $2900(*) at Yodobashi Camera west of Shinjuku station. At this price the camera is competitive with the Linhof Technikarden ($3295 at B&H), its chief rival.

(*) [To be precise, the street price was 348,000 yen. The dollar has been hovering around 120 yen for the past several months; yesterday (11/13/97) it was up to 125.4 yen, bringing the price of the camera down below $2800. The 5 percent consumption tax was waived, apparently because I'm a foreigner. The 5 percent rebate for regular customers paying with cash was not given, because I paid by credit card. There will be an import duty at US Customs, perhaps as much as $250, probably less. (I'm still in Tokyo.) Check out the website Buying a camera in Japan.

You may want to read the excellent review of the VX125 by Roger Hicks in the March 1996 issue of Shutterbug. He concludes a detailed comparison of the VX125 and the Technikarden by saying, "On location, especially for architecture, I think the Toyo has the edge; in the studio, especially for still life, it is the Linhof. The contest between these two superb cameras is so close that I cannot really say which I would buy ... it's rather like choosing between a Ferrari and a Lamborghini ..." Maybe a better analogy would have been choosing between a Lexus and a Mercedes. I've never worked with a Technikarden, but after reading the Shutterbug review, the choice for me was easy, since I am much more interested in architectural and location photography than in still-life or studio photography.

How it works

I'll begin by describing the movements in more detail than can be found at MAC's Toyo website. The specs for the front and rear standards are identical.

rise: 70mm, geared with knobs on both sides, locked with outer collar
on right-side knob, no detents, scale in 1mm increments.

fall: none, rear rise has the same effect as front fall.

shift: 40mm + 30mm, geared with horizontal knob under standard, no
lock (friction suffices), no detents, scale in 1mm increments.

base tilt: 25 + 25 degrees, not geared, locked with knob on left side
opposite focussing knobs, detents at 0 and +/- 25 degrees, scale in 5
degree increments.  (MAC's Toyo website lists the base tilt as 40
degrees.  That's incorrect, it's 50 degrees.)

axis tilt:  none.

swing:  25 + 25 degrees, not geared, locked with lever below  
detents at 0 and +/- 25 degrees, scale in 10 degree increments.

The most remarkable thing about the VX125 is that the bellows is so flexible that the full 70mm of front rise is possible with a 90mm lens, and even with a wider lens. In particular, a bag bellows, though available, is unnecessary. However, there are some limitations dictated by lens choice. My 90/8 lens (235 image circle) allows only about 50mm of front rise with a vertical composition, 55mm with a horizontal, before it starts to run out of coverage. My 135/5.6 (200) lens allows even less, about 30mm and 35mm. For my 210/5.6 (285) and 300/8.5 (380) lenses, the full 70mm of front rise is no problem, and even greater rise is possible by tilting the monorail and standards simultaneously, though the bellows limits the extent to which this can be done with the 300. Front tilt and swing are somewhat restricted with a wide angle lens if the rear standard is left in vertical position. I can get only 11 degrees of front tilt(*) and 21 degrees of front swing (with a bit of rear shift to avoid vignetting) with the 90. For this reason I might use a recessed lensboard if I were to get a 65mm lens, even though it's supposedly not necessary.

(*) [Digression: How much front tilt is needed? A typical application is to tilt the front standard forward far enough that, with the rear standard vertical, the plane of focus is the ground in front of you. Thus, the film plane and the lensboard plane should intersect at ground level. Clearly, the angle theta of front tilt needed to accomplish this will depend on the focal length f of the lens and the height h of the lens above ground. Specifically, theta is the arctangent of f/h. So, for example, if you have 11 degrees of front tilt with a 90mm lens, you can focus on the ground in front of you with the rear standard vertical, provided the lens is at least 18.2 inches above ground. In summary, the 11 degrees is quite adequate.]

Focussing is easier to accomplish than it is to explain. First, you must choose one of three possible extensions of the monorail, depending on the lens you plan to use. In addition, you must decide whether to attach the 30mm extension tubes to the ends of the monorail; these are necessary if you want to use a 300mm lens. Then, by unscrewing a pair of knobs at the bottom of the camera, you can slide the blocks to which the standards are attached to the approximately correct position for the lens being used, and finally, you can bring the image into focus by adjusting the fine focussing knobs (+/- 15mm on front and rear standards) and locking them. Eventually, it will become automatic, as you learn what the optimal extension for each of your lenses is.

The back is revolving and works in intermediate positions without vignetting. The fresnel lens has a 10mm grid and is very evenly illuminated. The base tilts are yaw free. Dual spirit levels are on both standards. Maximum bellows extension is 327mm, so the maximum usable focal length is 300mm (or 400mm telephoto); but the Nikkor M 300/9 focusses only to 3.08 meters and the Fujinon T 400/8 telephoto only to 3.03 meters, according to the manual. Minimum focal length, according to Toyo's USA website, is 58mm with a flat lensboard, 45mm with a recessed lensboard. Folded size is 125mm (hence the name of the camera) x 226mm x 302mm, but the 125mm depth applies only to the monorail---the rest of the camera is considerably more slender. In fact it's really quite amazing how slim the VX125 is when compacted. Weight is 2.7 kg (5.9 pounds) according to Toyo's Japanese literature, 5.5 pounds according to MAC.

In the field

How easy is it to use on location? First, it's extremely quick to set up, except when the extension tubes are needed, which take just under a minute to attach. The bellows doesn't usually need to be adjusted when making extreme movements, as a bag bellows I once worked with did, but when folding up the camera, the distortions in the (pleated) bellows need to be smoothed out, which is quickly done. One reason the geared rise is useful is that one is not even aware of the stress to which the bellows is subjected. All the geared movements, rise, shift, and fine focus, on both standards, are very smooth, the rubber-covered knobs are easy to grip, and four of the six locking knobs, for tilt and fine focus, have arrows and the word "lock" to indicate which direction to turn them for locking. (Clockwise, but standing behind the camera it's possible to get confused.) The detents are not as heavy as on the Toyo 45AII, so that small swings and tilts are possible. The spirit levels are very accurate, so that rarely is an adjustment needed after they show that the standards are level. The revolving back works effortlessly. The fresnel lens is adequately bright and easy to focus, and the grid lines are non-obtrusive. The camera seems very rigid, though I haven't used it in windy conditions. In short, everything works the way it's supposed to.

Some might feel constrained by the 300mm limit on lenses. However, this problem, if indeed it is one, can be mitigated to some extent by buying a 750mm long bellows, long extension rail (three 250mm sections, or 250mm + 250mm + 150mm), and mounting block. These accessories are not terribly expensive relative to the price of the camera (list price 104,000 yen in Japan) and would make it superb for studio work. The weights of these items are not listed in the Toyo catalogue, so I don't know if they would be practical for field use.

One essential accessory is a lensboard adaptor, because the Toyo standard 158mm lensboards are inconveniently large for location work. I already had a Toyo 45AII, so I needed the Toyo 110mm to Toyo 158mm adaptor. This wasn't stocked by Yodobashi Camera, which seemed to have everything else, including the Linhof to Toyo adaptor. So I went to Toyo's Tokyo office and picked one up.

I'm still in Japan, and when travelling I usually bring a Gitzo 226 tripod with an Arca-Swiss ballhead with quick-release, simply because it fits into a suitcase so easily. This tripod is usable with the VX125 but is frankly rather marginal. This is not because of the weight of the camera (in fact, an RZ67 with prism, back, and lens, for which the Gitzo is fine, weighs more than a VX125 with lens and filmholder), but rather concerns the ability to insert filmholders without moving the camera. When I get back home I will want to use a heavier Bogen tripod with a pan-tilt head.

The camera comes with a removable Saunders quick-release mechanism. It states right on it that the weight limit for this quick-release is 6.5 pounds, which is about what the VX125 weighs with a lens. But I suspect that the 6.5-pound figure allows for the possibility of tilting the camera 90 degrees on its side as one would occasionally need to do with a Pentax 67 but rarely with the VX125 (only if one needs axis tilts); in other words, one probably shouldn't be concerned about the weight limit. My only problem with the quick-release was that it comes only with a 1/8 inch tripod socket. The manual says that a 3/16 inch adaptor is available, though it isn't listed in the Toyo catalogue. Instead I got an Arca universal plate with a 1/8 inch screw, to which I attached the Saunders base. I actually prefer the Saunders quick-release, because it just snaps in and out with no knobs to turn. However, unlike the Bogen quick-release system, there's no lock to prevent accidental opening, so one should be careful.

Alternative versions

For their premium price, MAC includes an ABS carrying case and a bail arm according to the their Toyo website, and of course a USA warranty. The case looks elegant, but it wouldn't be very useful for me because a second case would be needed for lenses and filmholders, etc., and then I'd need two hands for the cases and a third for the tripod. Instead I put everything but the tripod into a Tenba PBL backpack, which almost seems designed for this camera. It is possible to close up the VX125 with a lens attached, provided the rear element of the lens is not too long, but I prefer to remove the lens and put the camera in a plastic bag (to keep dust out), so that for my next shot I won't have to both remove a lens and attach one. Another possibility would be to attach a blank lensboard when storing the camera. The bail arm feature would make it easier to insert filmholders without moving the camera, but this will not be a problem with a serious tripod.

Recently, Toyo introduced the VX125B in Japan, a black version of the green VX125. It has the same list price (450,000 yen), but the street price was 10 percent higher, probably just because it's newer. I had a slight preference for the black one, but not enough to pay $280 extra for it, so I got the standard green model. It is a rather subdued shade of green, and the VX125 is certainly less conspicuous than a Wisner with its red bellows. The color has grown on me since I bought the camera, and I might now choose it even if there were no price difference. I like the way it's described at Toyo's Japanese website: "A new color that looks natural even in the field." MAC calls it "jade green."

In addition, the VX125R was introduced, a cheaper version (365,000 yen list price) of the VX125B that lacks the geared rise and has a non-telescoping 125mm monorail. I don't think this model is worth considering---you'd be sacrificing two of the camera's best features.


In summary, there is really nothing to dislike about the Toyo VX125, provided you're willing to accept the 300mm limit on non-telephoto lenses, and assuming you can justify the price. And there is a great deal to like about it: the geared movements, the revolving back, the precision of a studio camera, the ease with which it sets up and collapses, its ability with wide-angle lenses, and its relative compactness and light weight for a camera with its features. I hereby propose a toast to the anonymous engineers in Osaka who designed this camera, which is a marvel of mechanical engineering. Kampai!

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