By Paul Owen © 2005 for largeformatphotography.info
Along with the majority of large format photographers, I have spent a great deal of time scouring the internet looking for a focus cloth that does one simple thing - work!
As a complete fool with needle and thread, making one was not an option!
I'd tried different types of "horse blankets" but found that despite various materials used in their construction, they all suffered from more than one "problem" for me personally.
Firstly if you want anything decent then you need to be prepared to carry something large and (surprisingly) heavy. The major drawback I came across was that unless the material was large enough to wrap completely around the camera AND had Velcro strips to secure it, then it was often difficult to compose the image on the ground glass as a large amount of light "bounced" off the floor and did a merry dance on the screen!
I thought I had found a "good" cloth in the Harrison-made "Classic" cloth. Plenty big enough, mandatory Velcro strips, weatherproof, light-tight and ...heavy! But it had to be (or so I thought) to get the combination of size and light proofing! So I persevered with it.
I then came across the Ebony focus cloth. Rubberised silk, emblazoned with the "Ebony" logo, weatherproof, very (very) lightweight, mandatory Velcro strips ... by Jove I think I found it ... the "holy grail" of focus cloths! However, a few outings revealed that it needed improving. I convinced my wife to assist with converting the Ebony cloth into an Ebony tube! Elasticated drawstring sewn into one end, Velcro strips and there I had it - nothing to this sewing lark!
I quite happily used my Ebony-hybrid and it still serves me well. However, recent threads on this forum mentioned a new addition to the list of contenders. "Quietworks" was now producing a focus jacket!! I had to take a look at this!
I found their web site and was quite amazed at the ingenuity of this design. It seemed to do everything - and doubled up as a rather nifty silver rain jacket too ... for me not the camera!
Around this time I began tentative enquiries on another matter - trying to establish free large format workshop-type gatherings here in the UK. Surprisingly the response was overwhelming and a hastily arranged first meeting took place in the Lake District of England. As is usual when a group of photographers get together, there is the customary discussions about equipment - more so with large format users!
It was clear that a great many of us had yet to find an ideal focus cloth. I must add that on previous F32 workshops that I assisted on I saw some amazing sights - from Dracula-impersonators (one cloth trailed behind its user who wore it tied around his shoulders like the Count himself) to those who had sewn together a couple of black t-shirts for a double-thickness "tube" (with short sleeves!).
Their owners seemed happy enough - but I thought that this may have been simply due to the fact that there wasn't anything commercially available that was much better!
But, despite the fact that they "worked" for their owners (especially the t-shirt) they looked, well, ridiculous! I'm sorry but I for one find that I become something of a novelty act when the "old wooden camera" comes out! Disappear under a cloak or t-shirt and the Weirdo-factor is multiplied by a bout 10. One reason the Ebony "tube" worked for me - it was fairly discreet!
Anyway, back to the plot.
After the Lake District gathering and when it became clear that this was to become a regular meeting - I decided to give Keith at Quietworks a call (well an email actually). The result - demo 5x4 "Original" and 10x8 "Hybrid" blackjackets in the post from the good old US of A to me here in dear old 'Blighty, for our group to try out and report back!
First impression? Lightweight. In fact, super-lightweight! These things weighed next to nothing - what it actually weighs (to me) is not important - what is important is how easy it is to stuff in a pack and that it doesn't add to the bulk or weight of the (already heavy) backpack! But for those who count the ounces the 5x4 weighs in at 8 ounces and the 10x8 weighs a mere 23 ounces!
How do they fare? Well the next workshop is scheduled for October 15-16, 2005, but I couldn't wait that long to try them out! So a quick dash one Saturday morning found me on a deserted beach in sunny South Wales.
Camera and tripod set up, it was time to try them both out. The 5x4 version was tried first. Problem! The fit around the camera back was very tight - a struggle to actually get it around the frame. The Ebony 45SU I was using does have a large rear frame and this was obviously the cause of the problem! However, a bit of jiggling and with the neck of the cloth around the bellows of the camera it was time to try it out.
WOW! It actually worked! Nice and dark but the real boon was the fact that I could rummage around to my hearts content with my arms in the sleeves and it STAYED dark! There was so much room inside that I was able to move my head way back from the screen to get the "big picture" with room to spare. I have done this in the past with other cloths and ended up catching the camera and tripod as I dragged it backwards!
Another problem! The design of my camera means that the frame is raised above the bed by a good inch when in the neutral position. Result - a shaft of light across the bed of the camera and into the jacket. Certainly nowhere near as distracting as the blanket-type cloth but easily solved by the use of my free hand simply stuffing some of the material under the frame!! DARKNESS!
Second impression? I REALLY like this!
Onto the 10x8 version. It's BIG!
I tried it with the Ebony and found that it was swamped by the jacket. Not surprised really as it's designed for 10x8 cameras! But once back at home I fitted it to a 10x8 Deardorff and it was a perfect fit!
Likewise, at home I also tried the 5x4 Original on a Cambo Wide - beautiful fit!
What else is there to mention?
Nothing really apart from the fact that, at last, there seems to be a focus cloth that does what it's supposed to do - create a darkened environment in which we can experience the beauty of the scene on a ground glass screen.
From a user point of view the Black Jackets fit the bill and they are also surprisingly cheap for such a well-made and functional product. They are roomy, dark and have none of the claustrophobia I found with the regular tube-type cloths I had tried.
"What exactly makes this focus cloth so different from the competition? I hear you ask! Well, for me its greatest benefit is the fact that at last, here is a focus cloth that does the job we want. Unlike the blanket type cloth the BlackJacket doesn't suffer from those annoying light-leaks that make focusing tricky - it really does provide the right environment for working with a ground glass screen. Another plus is that it doesn't wrap itself around you with every gust of wind a problem inherent with the blanket-type cloth - in fact I reckon EVERY LF user must have struggled in this situation at some time or another.
Also, unlike the blanket-type cloth (with the exception of the Ebony), the BlackJacket is extremely lightweight, waterproof and very compact. Being able to stuff it into a pocket or space in your pack is a real boon - no more trying to fold a focus cloth in windy/wet conditions!
The design of the BlackJacket shares similarities with the tube-type cloths but with a few real advantages over this design. For one, it is incredibly roomy inside and being able to access the screen and camera controls through the sleeves is, for me, a very natural way of working. I also found that regular tube-type cloths were claustrophobic - shoving my head down a tunnel was never my idea of fun but the added space inside this cloth is very beneficial.
One benefit that photographers in much warmer climates will appreciate is the nature of the material used by Keith in his designs. The "Original" version is waterproof and very light but the "Hybrid" version, depsite being a bit heavier is actually made using a breathable fabric. Whilst this will be of little benefit in the UK I'm sure it will be much appreciated in warmer countries.
However, Keith has not forgotten us living in wetter climes, and his web-site clearly shows the benefit that actually wearing the BlackJacket can have in sudden downpours!
In short, the design of this cloth combines the advantages of the blanket and tube-types rolled into one and I for one hope that "Quietworks" sell plenty of them! This company is continually making steps at improving and developing their line of products. At the moment Keith is developing BlackJackets for ULF photographers using a variety of formats and is obviously customer-driven.
All in all I found it to be a well-made and very useful product and in my opinion a necessity rather than an accessory - although I doubt if I would be seen "wearing" it - well not in public anyway!"
I can heartily recommend either of these. The 5x4 version will fit most field cameras but it may be worth checking out the 5x7 version as this will offer slightly more room to fit large rear frames.
I'm looking forward to October when I can share this revelation with fellow LF'ers as we do battle with the Northumberland Coast!