Impressions: Cambo wide w/47mm XL - A 4x5 point-and-shoot?

By Simon Gammelin for the Large Format Page.

The Cambo wide is a remarkable camera. It's probably as close to a point-and-shoot 4x5 as anyone can come without going electronic. I bought mine a year ago, used, and I've only used it with the 47mm XL so I can't speak to its performance with other lenses. It's available with several lenses up to 150mm, but I'm not sure it would be as useful with the longer lenses. Because it doesn't have tilts or swings and the movement is always limited to 20mm in one direction (actually, less with a couple of the available lenses; see the Calumet catalog), you'd be wasting a lot of the image circle with longer lenses. Besides, depth of field becomes an issue above 75-90mm or so, necessitating bellows and tilts and such.

The Cambo wide (sold only through Calumet) is a very simple view camera, basically a lens mounted on a square lensboard, which is then attached to a groundglass back. There's no monorail or bed, and the camera doesn't fold up; it looks kind of like a huge homemade rangefinder camera. The lenses are the same German optics that you can buy for about half as much by themselves, but Cambo sells them in a helical mount (since there's no bellows) with distance and depth of field markings like a 35mm or medium-format lens (VERY nice). In other words, rather than focus by moving the front or back standards like on a typical view camera, you simply twist the knurled rubber ring on the lens as you do with a 35mm lens. A year or two ago Calumet started selling the lenses (permanently mounted to the boards) separate from the "body," but you don't save much since the lenses cost about nine times what the body costs; if I bought another lens I'd probably toss in another back for backup. The back has a standard view camera groundglass back (I also got the fresnel); it is always "horizontal" but the camera is so small it's not hard to tilt your tripod head 90 degrees like you're using a 35mm SLR. The lens board has a simple shift capacity, 20mm in either of two directions (left or right, or, if you take off the lensboard and turn it 90 degrees, 20mm rise; you can't do a fall because the camera's base plate protrudes too far). Calumet sells a shoe-mounted accessory finder (ala the Mamiya 7's, for example) but I've never even rented this. I fantasize about street shooting with this camera, so maybe someday I'll cough up the $400 or whatever for the finder, but I like to compose more precisely than a separate finder allows anyway so for now I just use the groundglass, as with a normal view camera. I'll probably buy Calumet's "pyramid" monocular groundglass finder first so I can lose the darkcloth but still compose precisely. I use the 4x5 darkcloth; you basically put almost the whole camera (except lens) inside the cloth.

The camera back weighs 27 oz; the 47mm XL lens, mounted, weighs an additional 30 oz. (that's a bit under 4 lbs. total). With the large handle on the side (grippable even with mittens) the camera is 9 inches wide by 6 inches high by 5 inches deep (the lensboard has "rollbars" on it to protect the lens like the Fuji 617). The handle has a hole in it through which you can thread a cable release for push-button convenience. There are two bubble levels on top of the camera and two cold shoes. Two sliders release the lensboard; it takes 3-4 seconds to rotate it, and you can do it with gloves on.

I had rented the 47mm XL lens and found it to be an amazing optic but I was frustrated when using it on a normal view camera (I tried it on two different monorail cameras, with bag bellows and standards that came close enough together to touch; no recessed board necessary). It was simply very difficult to focus and compose the 47mm anywhere off the center (the corners and edges were completely dark) and I always felt like my standards weren't parallel enough for perfect focus. Bag bellows, too, can be a hassle when your standards are that close together and you're trying to do a big rise or shift. I was tempted to buy the lens for its generous coverage but found the drawbacks of using it on my monorails too annoying. The Cambo wide solves those problems. Its biggest advantages:

1. Perfect parallel alignment of front and back standards, always, without question. 2. Helical focusing allows estimated focusing and, better still, depth of field knowledge; very useful with ultrawide lenses that are hard to focus off axis. 3. Camera is very sturdy and much better in inclement weather than bellows cameras. 4. Handheld shooting is possible, especially with accessory viewfinder. (Needless to say, you can put a rollfilm holder in the back and shoot 6x12, 6x9, etc.) 5. Perhaps best of all, dependability of shifts/rises without even looking. At f22, I know I can count on at least 15mm of shift in any direction and 20mm at f32 (with a 4x5 Readyload holder; 151mm negative diagonal); I don't even need to check the corners. Anyone who has spent time squinting at the dark corners of a groundglass with an ultrawide lens can understand the value of this. There is slight vignetting with a large shift at f16, more at f13.5 or f11, but I can either reduce the shift below 15mm or so (which is what Calumet lists as the lenses' max) or just shoot it anyway and just crop the corners (esp. for tall panoramics). I shoot b&w so I don't use a center filter, but as has been well-documented this lens has significant falloff in the corners and a center filter is probably essential for photographers of color.


1. It's expensive when bought new (sorry, I don't have a current Calumet catalog so I can't say how much) and used ones with the XL lens are rare. 2. You can only shift (or rise) in one direction; you can't go up AND to the right, for instance. 3. No falls unless you mount (or hold) the camera upside down. 4. As noted, no tilts or swings. Again, with the depth of field of a 47mm you may not care; with longer lenses, you probably will.

Also note that 47mm is extremely wide, and anyone who lusts after this lens should spend some serious time with a rental first to see if a 58 or 65 might be more useful in real-world shooting (especially if the lens will not be used on the Cambo wide body). My next widest lens (used on my monorail, not the Cambo wide) is 72mm, and that's plenty wide about 99 percent of the time; I had resolved to only rent when I needed something wider than 72mm, but then I saw the used 47 Cambo wide for an unbelievable price so I sold some other stuff and bought it. But it is awfully wide! Many 35mm shooters figure that if 18 or 20mm is good, 14mm must be better, but of course you can get too much of a good thing and the 47mm is no exception in most circumstances. I use it for landscape shooting and occasional interiors (though it's more a special-effect lens than an architectural photography tool). Portraits are a really bad idea unless you're shooting someone with a tiny nose and huge ears....

Bottom line: The camera/lens combo is a gem, a real keeper. I wish there was more competition so there were more cheap alternatives (like the Grandview) but it's a niche market and it can't be cheap to put those lenses in a helical mount.

View or add comments