The Silvestri SLV: a review

By Paul Owen © 2001 for the Large Format Page

Silvestri seem to be a bit of an enigma on the large format scene. This is probably due to the fact that they are not regular large format cameras per se. By this I mean that although they are view cameras in as much as they are used by composing the scene on a ground glass, they do not have a plethora of movements found in the majority of large format cameras. In fact, they are limited when it comes to the movement available, but as a wide angle camera they do their intended job admirably.

It is probably fair then to consider these cameras in a class of their own. They are all wide-angle shift cameras and for all intents and purposes these cameras are the tool of the architectural photographer and, at a push, the landscape photographer. As most architectural shooters will tell you, the necessary movements for shots of buildings are front rise and fall and occasionally lateral shift. As yet I have yet to have found a need for tilt when shooting buildings, although there are probably occasions when it would be of use. The same can be said of landscape shots; the movements available are sufficient.

You have probably guessed that the movements open to you when using these cameras are therefore limited to front rise/fall and lateral shift! By now a great many large format photographers are probably shaking their heads and asking the question, what about front tilt for control over depth of field? Well, the beauty of this system is that it is intended for use with wide angle lenses and as such, you can control depth of field with lens aperture alone ( this is particularly evident when using the more extreme wide angle lenses ).

But before I digress further, a look at the camera itself, in particular the SLV. The SLV was the original Silvestri wide angle camera and has been superseded by the T30. Despite this fact the SLV is available as used examples and in fact, there are few differences between the SLV and the newer T30.

I have heard the Silvestri cameras described as "pancakes", by this I think that it is means that the camera body itself is rather flat! The body is, in fact, very thin, but a real feat of precision engineering. The cameras are designed and hand-built in Italy and I have also heard them described as "sexy", although I'm not sure exactly what is meant by this! But they are very beautiful to look at and without a lens attached it is difficult to tell exactly what it is you have before you.

The body is all metal and comes supplied in a black satin finish. There is no plastic in sight and the only non-metal part is the rubber grip on the shift wheel! The best way to describe the body is that it is a frame to which you attach a lens and a film holder. The front face of the frame is fitted with a bayonet mount for the lens and the shift wheel. A clearly marked scale runs alongside this wheel and indicates the degree of shift employed up to a maximum of 25mm on the SLV and 30mm on the T30. There are tripod mounting holes on the base of the frame in _ and _ fitting. Silvestri supply an accessory in the form of tripod adapters which mount to the camera and allow a quick release attachment to the Manfrotto/Bogen tripod heads that use the rectangular 200PL plate.

The top "plate" of the frame is fitted with an accessory cold shoe for mounting the optional shift viewfinder. This device is again precision engineered and allows quick framing without having to resort to the ground glass. It also allows the effect of the shift employed on the camera to be seen in the finder. This is accomplished by transferring the amount of shift from the scale on the front frame to a scale on the finder. Metal masks are also available for different lens/film format combinations.

Unusually there is also a tripod hole on the top plate. This allows the camera to be inverted should you need to use front fall rather than shift, simple but ingenious. In practice this is very quick and easy to do, especially with the tripod adapters. The adapters are supplied in pairs, one for the base plate and another for the top. Leaving the top one attached and turning the camera upside down is simplicity itself. The body is also fitted with two levels, one on the side and one at the rear.

Lenses for the Silvestri come in two types, depending on focal length. The SLV will utilise lenses from 47mm up to 180mm (the T30 will also cope with the 35mm Rodenstock). Lenses between 47 and 100mm are equipped with a helical focus mount, just like 35mm lenses and these in turn are fitted with very accurate focus/depth of field scales. For regular landscape and architecture work the optimum lens aperture is f22 and best results combine this aperture with focus set on infinity. The only negative side to these mounts are the cost. They do "bump up" the regular price of a lens by about 600 (UK pounds). Lenses in this focal length range will also require extension rings to be fitted to the camera, thankfully they are not too expensive!

Lenses between 100mm and 180mm are used mounted to a panel that in turn is fitted to a bellows. This allows close focussing of these lenses. The bellows unit is also useful for attaching enlarger lenses to the camera to allow high quality macro photography.

All the lenses used by the SLV are made by Schneider and are of superb quality. I personally use the 47mm (non XL) but have also owned the 100mm Apo Symmar.

The rear of the frame is the attachment point for the revolving back. A smaller frame locks onto place onto the back and allows an unlimited degree of revolution. This smaller frame is fitted with sliding graflok-type tabs that secure the ground glass screen and also the roll film back. This frame is fitted with two levels. The screen supplied with the camera is fitted within a well-machined metal mount and also comes with a protector to prevent any mishaps. A small wheel locks the protector in place and also the focussing bellows. This accessory is a must have! Made from the softest leather imaginable and fitted with a magnifier, it allows accurate focussing right into the corners of the screen and it even smells good too!

The standard rear frame will handle all formats from 645 to 6x9. Horseman roll film holders in 6x7 and 6x9 will fit as will those holders intended for the Mamiya RB67. A dedicated Polaroid back is also available. However, the camera can also handle 6x12 as well as 5x4 and backs are offered as an optional extra to allow use of regular sheet film holders and Polaroid backs. Regular Horseman viewing accessories can also be used.

In use the camera handles as it looks, i.e. with quality. Every movement is effortless and smooth. The lenses fit snugly onto the bayonet mount and the back revolves silently. To utilise the shift mechanism you simply rotate the wheel on the front of the frame and as it's self-locking that's all there is to it! To utilise front fall you simply mount the camera upside down and to use shift you simply mount the camera at an angle of 45 degrees and use the revolving back! Silvestri supply a table of shift limits with the camera that indicates maximum amount of movement for a given lens/format combination.

The image is composed on the screen and as with any view camera the it appears upside down and back to front. Silvestri do offer an optional reflex viewer that remedies this or you can revert to the shift viewfinder. Once composed and focussed, a roll film back is fitted and the exposure made. Simple.

The real beauty of this camera lies in the fact that you can make it as simple or as complicated as you want. For field use I leave it with the 47mm lens, the ground glass screen and tripod adapters attached ready to mount on the tripod. This set-up takes up little space and creates an outfit that is ready to use out of the bag. If I didn't enjoy using the ground glass as much as I do, then the addition of the shift viewfinder would make it even quicker!

The quality and precision of a wide-angle camera is of paramount importance. The camera MUST be parallel and this one is!

As I stated earlier, the SLV has been replaced by the T30 and this review should give a good general idea of what this newer model is capable of. Silvestri have an excellent web site which gives good detail on all the cameras available as well as newer models designed for digital applications.

The SLV falls into the same category as the Cambo Wide and the Horseman 69/612. Both have their merits, however, today the SLV would still be my camera of choice.

If you are in the market for a no-nonsense, roll film camera for wide-angle applications then the Silvestri must be somewhere near the top of your list of "possibles".

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