Ebony SW45 : a review

By Paul Owen © 2001 for the Large Format Page

I need to make it clear right from the beginning of this review that I am in no way affiliated or connected to the Ebony Cameras Company! I am simply a very satisfied customer who wishes to give an honest opinion on the camera I use.

My background is similar to a great majority of Large Format photographers in as much as I cut my teeth on 35mm before quickly switching to medium format, in the guise of a twin lens 6x6 Yashicamat. I appreciated early on that there was a need for a larger negative if my photographic ambitions were to be met. I dabbled with roll film cameras for a few years and during this time managed to make sense of the Zone System as a method of controlling my images. I taught myself, through a great deal of trial and error, to develop and print my negatives.

I also began to sell my landscapes and my work was generally well received. I began receiving invitations to speak at camera club meetings and to judge photographic competitions. It was at this time that I realised that a move to a large format camera would help me appreciate the control I could exercise over the final print and further develop my photography.

I use black and white film, the slower the better, and my personal work is entirely landscape and architecture - perfect subjects for large format cameras! I had been using a Silvestri camera (6x9) and found that composing an image on a ground glass screen that was upside down as well as back to front was an enjoyable experience, so I hoped the move to 5x4 would be less traumatic!

I had been buying equipment from Robert White, here in the UK for some years, so I naturally turned to him when it came to the subject of camera choice. He had introduced me to the Silvestri system and I had been very happy with it, so I was quite prepared to accept his advice. I won’t mention any of the other cameras I short listed as they are all more than capable of excellent results but as I don’t use them, I don’t feel qualified to comment on them. But they were representative of a cross- section of quality equipment and none of them were priced at under one thousand UK pounds.

My telephone call to Robert went something like this:

Me: " I need a 5x4 camera for landscapes, I’ve been thinking of a ***** What do you think?"

Robert : " An Ebony, the SW45"

Me : "Never heard of them!"

Robert : " Best you can get!"

Me : " How much?"

Robert : "Are you sitting down?"

Me : " OK! Don’t bother! I’ll have a look at what’s around and ring you back...........but can you send me details of the Ebony, as a matter of interest only!"

I didn’t want to make a mistake when it came to buying a camera, I simply couldn’t afford to! So I spent a great deal of time researching all the cameras that I could find details on. You name one and I probably had the brochure or a report of some kind on it!

I began to wish Robert had never sent me the details of the Ebony! A simple photocopy of an information sheet convinced me and I knew that this was exactly the camera I had been looking for. That is, apart from the price! At almost twice what I had envisaged spending I was in a great deal of torment! I drew up a short list, but decided that I couldn’t justify spending so much on a camera, after all I needed to buy a lens and all the paraphernalia that goes with using a view camera too.

I arranged to visit Robert to see the cameras I had short listed, although in my mind I had already decided on a **** . I looked at all the cameras on my list, and was impressed with all of them. I then made the (financial) mistake of asking if I could just have a look at an Ebony. The rest, as they say, is history.

I left Robert White with an Ebony tucked under my arm, still reeling from the shock of having just spent that amount of money! The three hour drive home was a blur as I tried to justify what I had done, but the shock was short lived. As soon as I got the SW out of its packing, the cost was justified. Only now could I fully appreciate the quality of what I was holding. I’m not the kind of person who gets emotional over inanimate objects, but even the smell of this camera was intoxicating!

Now down to the nitty gritty! What does this camera do, and more importantly, what doesn’t it do.

The first thing that strikes you about the SW, apart from the glorious smell, is the weight, or should I say, the lack of weight of the camera. It really is a true lightweight and weighs in at an unbelievable 1.5kg! But, how stable is it? I was expecting some trade-off in the rigidity department against the fact that the camera was so light and to be honest I was prepared for a bit of "flexibility". There wasn’t any, not even with the bellows fully extended! The locks are so smooth and precise that gentle tightening is all that is required to lock the camera up and once locked there is absolutely no movement or creeping (that was evident on some of the other cameras I looked at).

The real benefit of this design is in the fact that it is non-folding. Nowhere is this more beneficial than in landscape work. Have you ever tried to capture a scene on a regular field camera when the light is fading fast? Certainly not easy. A regular field camera has to be unfolded from its clamshell body before you even think about locking it tight! If Ansel Adams had been using an SW he would have had plenty of time to find his lightmeter when shooting "Moonrise"!! The SW is straightforward in its set up, the front and rear standards simply nest into each other, leaving you without any worries over uprights being not quite parallel.

The bellows are made of the softest, most flexible leather you will find - no need for bag bellows here and are able to accommodate lenses from 35mm (on a recessed board) up to 180mm in length. This range of focal lengths is perfect for most kinds of landscape work, but should you need to use a longer lens, then help is at hand in the shape of either lens cones or the ingenious 452 back extender. This device not only allows lenses up to 400mm telephoto to be used, but also introduces a small amount of tilt and swing on the back standard of the camera, should you ever need it. It also allows closer focussing with the 180mm!

Of course one of the real benefits of using a view camera is in the movements available to the photographer. The movements found on the SW are as follows: front rise (60mm), front fall (25mm), front shift (38mm + 38mm), front swing (45 degrees both directions) and front axis tilt (20 degrees both directions). Rear movement is back rise (50mm).

On the subject of the movements, as yet I have not found the need to use anything other than front rise/fall combined with back rise and front tilt! So don’t be put off by the "lack" of movements on the SW........the ones you need are there!

The lens panels are the compact Linhof type and fit securely into the front standard in time honoured tradition using a sliding tab.

The back of the camera is reversible and the ground glass screen is unbelievably bright and lightly etched with a grid. If, however you regularly use wide angle lenses, then Ebony supply a super bright fresnel screen as an accessory. The screen itself is protected by a stiff plastic rectangular plate that doubles up as a useful lens shade!

The camera is attached to the tripod head via a substantial plate which further adds to the stability of the set up.

I’ve saved the best until last.........the build of the camera. There is something undeniably satisfying about the combination of dark ebony wood and matt-finished titanium. Simply put, all cameras should be made this way.

I’ve racked my brain to think of any faults or flaws that this camera may have, after all there isn’t a perfect camera, is there? Well in my humble opinion the SW comes close to perfection.

I almost forgot, the cost of the camera - surely a down point? Not a chance, worth every penny!

If you are contemplating investing in an Ebony, particularly the SW, please feel free to contact me via my email address: paulowen_2000@yahoo.com

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