Toyo TV23G and Galvin 2x3: a comparative review

by Jeffrey Goggin 2001, for the Large Format Page.

I recently purchased a clean, used Toyo TV23G. Since these cameras aren’t seen very often or particularly well known, I contacted Q.-Tuan Luong and offered to pass along some additional information about it. When I mentioned that I also own a Galvin 2x3, a lightweight monorail camera that is frequently used by photographers in the field, he suggested that I compare the two – a studio monorail v. a field monorail. Although I'm not a professional photographer and have been shooting with a view camera for only a few years and not decades, I nevertheless agreed to write up my thoughts about each of these cameras. The opinions expressed here are just that – my opinions -- and I accept that others with different tastes and preferences than mine may or may not agree with them.

The 2x3/6x9 format

Thanks to today’s fine-grain films and computer designed-and-ground lenses, 2x3/6x9 view cameras are no longer viewed as the compromise format between 4x5 image size and 35mm portability, as was the case 20 or 30 years ago. For conventional prints up to 16"x20", the benefit of starting with a 4x5 original instead of 2x3 is minimal. There are differences, of course, but they’re subtle and if the originals are scanned and printed digitally, an increasingly common practice these days, then they’re more subtle still.

It appears the trend toward using digital backs for studio and catalog work is also helping to revive interest in the 2x3 format. There’s no need to use a bulky 4x5 when the tiny size of most CCD and CMOS sensors means that a 2x3 is more than large enough. By the same token, with a 2x3, you don’t need to invest in a handful of extreme wideangle lenses to compensate for the focal-length multiplication factors dictated by most of the currently available digital backs. In addition, many modern 2x3 cameras offer a much greater range of movements, relative to the format, than the typical 4x5 or 8x10 camera and many studio and architectural photographers find this makes their jobs just that little bit easier.

Of course, the real reason (or at least, what I suspect is the real reason) that most photographers choose the 2x3/6x9 format over something larger is because it’s much cheaper and easier to shoot with rollfilm than it is with sheetfilm. In my case, a roll of color transparency film yields between 8 and 12 images, depending upon the format chosen, for a total cost of roughly $8.50, including 24-hour processing by the local pro lab. Compare this to the approximately $5 per image it costs to shoot a 4x5 and $10 per image for an 8x10, and it’s obvious that while rollfilm may be slightly more costly than sheetfilm on a per sq./in. basis, it's definitely much cheaper per image.

Availability and prices

For a start, neither one of these cameras is particularly thick on the ground. Although Galvin 2x3s haven’t been made for years – I believe mine dates from the mid-‘70s – they are quite a bit more common than the 23G and you shouldn’t have too much difficulty finding a clean used one for sale. The Toyo’s a different story, however. According to Mamiya America, Toyo's U.S. importer, the 23G was always a special-order item and according to email I received from the manufacturer in Japan – that’s the Sakai Special Camera Mfg. Co. Ltd., in case you’re curious – it's been out of production for "12-13 years." The Japanese Toyo site claims that production started in 1986 and if the manufacturer’s statement is to be believed, ended sometime during 1987-1988. If this is true, it doesn’t seem unfair to conclude that sales of the 23G weren’t particularly vigorous as the product life cycle of the typical view camera is generally longer – and in some cases, much longer -- than a mere three years. (There is some question about whether these dates are accurate, though, as I have a copy of a price sheet from Mamiya America dated June, 1990 and it lists the 23G as still available by special order. This suggests that production either ran longer than the two or three years Toyo claims or there was a lot of inventory left and the camera was kept in the catalog until they managed to empty their shelves…)

Although used 23Gs do turn up occasionally – I purchased mine from an eBay auction, which is where the seller claims to have purchased it himself roughly six months earlier – prices are all over the place. Here in the U.S., there is a 23G in EX+ condition advertised in Shutterbug at $1495 – presumably, this is top dollar – and after a few minutes of searching the ‘net, I found one in the U.K. for 575, which is approximately $850 using the exchange rate on 2/15/01. (It’s also about what I paid for mine, after subtracting the estimated eBay value of the other items that were included as part of a package deal.) As for the Galvin 2x3 – there was also a 4x5 version but they're quite rare and hard to find these days – they sell privately for $300-500 and dealers will typically ask $500-700 for one. (Note that these amounts are nearly double what they were fetching only a few years ago, so prices have been increasing.) When compared to, say, a Graflex Century Graphic or a Busch Pressman, neither the 23G nor the Galvin is particularly inexpensive. However, when compared to the latest versions of the Linhof M679 or any of the current range of Arca-Swiss or Ebony 6x9s, either one of them is clearly a bargain!

The Toyo TV23G

(38987 bytes) I recently purchased a clean, used Toyo TV23G, a scaled-down 2x3 version of their popular TV45G, itself the predecessor to their current TV45GXII. The 23G shares the same basic 39mm diameter/250mm long monorail that’s used on all of Toyo’s G-series cameras. (Unlike the other G-series cameras, however, the 23G wasn’t available in black, the monorail and most of the standards having been polished to a brilliant chrome-like luster.) It also shares the 54mm long, quick-release tripod mounting block that Toyo uses on its 4x5s as well as various lengths of rail extensions. The rise, shift and fine-focus movements are all geared, with calibrated position indicators, and although the axis tilt and swing movements are not geared, they're likewise calibrated and have positive center detents, which I find helpful in zeroing the camera between shots. The maximum direct rise available on either standard (i.e., without tilting the rail) is a very generous 120mm; in addition, there’s also 35mm of shift available in both directions as well as 30 degrees of tilt and swing. Both of the standards have two-axis bubble levels attached to them and to my surprise, when I checked their accuracy using a neighbor’s laser level, they proved accurate to less than one-quarter of one degree!

(32260 bytes)The standard bellows is 304mm long but it’s interchangeable and Toyo also offered a single-pleated bag bellows (claimed to work for lenses up to 180mm, focusing as close as 15’) along with a 750mm (!) long bellows for longer lenses and/or close-up work. According to the price list mentioned earlier, there were other bag- and standard bellows available that allowed you to combine a 4x5 rear standard with a 2x3 front standard but Toyo must not have sold very many as I’ve never seen any for sale used. The 23G easily accommodates lenses as short as 75mm using the standard bellows and flat lensboard (which, incidentally, is the same board Toyo uses on their 45A series of field cameras) and down to 35-45mm with a bag bellows, recessed board and some minor machine work so that the rear standard can be flipped front-to-back. At present, I believe Toyo only sells 12.5mm and 25mm recessed boards but I have seen used 45mm recessed boards for sale, both on eBay and at a local dealer. Toyo claims lenses as long as 240mm work fine with the standard bellows and rail combination but as the longest lens I’ve used on it to date is just 210mm, I can’t verify this firsthand.

The 23G’s back is the standard small "Graflock" type, which means you have to remove the ground-glass assembly in order to attach most popular rollfilm backs to it. Although the ground-glass frame does have a bail-type mechanism similar in function to the Galvin’s, it opens up just wide enough to accept a Horseman Exposure 69 meter (look for my review elsewhere on this site) or Graflex 2x3 film holder and no further. Rumor has it that it will also accommodate Toyo’s own 6x7 or 6x9 rollfilm backs but I haven’t verified this myself. Likewise, I’ve also heard that both a Linhof Rapid Rollex or Sinar Zoom back will slide under the ground-glass but I haven’t been able to verify this for myself, either. The ground-glass itself is marked with a 1cm grid and Toyo has mounted its "Super-Brite" Fresnel lens in front of it (i.e., between it and the lens), which I find effective with both wideangle and telephoto lenses. Unlike with the 45G and larger Toyo cameras, however, the back does not revolve, which means it must be rotated manually from horizontal to vertical. Personally, I don’t consider this a major shortcoming, though, since it’s also true of many other view cameras, including the Galvin.

Toyo, unlike Galvin, also offered a number of accessories for the 23G, ranging from a folding focus hood to a sliding back assembly that allowed you to shuttle between a ground-glass and a rollfilm back without removing either one from the camera. They also offered a custom-fitted aluminum flight case for carrying the whole outfit around. Unfortunately, these items are all long out of production and while they might be available as N.O.S. on some unlucky dealer’s shelves, the odds are that you’ll have to track them down on the secondhand market if you really have a hankering for something. (If you don’t mind shopping around, you can also mix-and-match accessories designed for other cameras as well … for example, the flexible in-line viewer and Polaroid back (Passportrait) intended for Cambo’s 2x3 also fit the 23G perfectly.)

The Galvin 2x3

Galvin2x31.jpg (35283 bytes)The Galvin, on the other hand, is as simple as a view camera can get. Nothing about its design or operation is calibrated or precise, let alone the movements. According to the manufacturer’s brochure, the front standard has ¾" of rise and ½" of fall available but when measured from the manufacturer’s designated rest position, mine has only .65" of rise and just .4" of fall. Likewise, mine has only .6" of shift available in each direction and not the ¾" claimed by the brochure. On the other hand, the front and rear standards have slightly more (axis) tilt and swing available than the 30 degrees Galvin claimed for them. Unfortunately, the rear standard has no direct rise/fall or shift available and while you can always work around this, it does make the camera slightly less easy to use for architectural work or for that matter, any situation that requries a perspective shift. The bellows is permanently glued to the cast-aluminum frames, the outer surfaces of which are beveled slightly, thus making it difficult to use a level to determine when the back is vertical. This can be a major annoyance for architectural work, especially interiors. The rest of the camera is made from 3/32" and 1/8" thick aluminum strips that are cut, bent and folded to the correct shapes and then painted flat black.

The monorail is ½" in diameter and made in two pieces: One 5" long and made from solid aluminum and the other 9" long and made from aluminum tube. I understand that early versions of the camera came with just the single 9" rail – I’ve never seen one in person so I don’t know if this is hollow or solid -- whereas later versions also came with the 5" extension. For most shooting, you’ll probably need just the 9" rail but the 5" extension is handy with long lenses or for closeup work. The standard bellows is 9" long but the manufacturer’s brochure lists a 14" bellows available as an option and this is what my camera appears to have as I can extend it fully to the ends of the rails. Although my camera came with just a plain ground-glass, I understand that at least a few Galvins came with a factory installed Fresnel lens as well.

The Galvin will accommodate most 65mm lenses on the standard flat board but a recessed board is preferred, as the stiffness of the bellows will limit the range of movements available otherwise. (The last time I checked, boards, both flat and recessed, were still available from Jim Galvin; he’ll also modify a Polaroid 405 back to work on these cameras for $75.) At the other end of the spectrum, I regularly use a 210mm lens on mine and suspect the bellows will extend far enough to accommodate a 240mm lens (with minimal movements, of course, as it’ll be stretched quite tightly by then, I’m sure).

The standards are mounted to the rail with cast-aluminum Dutchman-style clamps that slide back-and-forth on thin Teflon shims and fine-focusing is done at the rear standard via a reasonably smooth rack-and-pinion arrangement. (Note: As the Teflon shims wear over time, the standards will start to wobble, which is a common complaint among Galvin owners. I believe Jim Galvin can provide spares but if not, it isn’t that difficult to replace them on your own. I successfully did so using plastic I purchased from a local supply house so this isn’t necessarily a fatal flaw if you find a good deal on an otherwise decent camera.)

Galvin2x32.jpg (39030 bytes)Overall, the best features of the Galvin are its light weight – mine weighs only 2 pounds, 12.7 ounces! – its small size (it reduces down to 7-3/4" x 7-1/4" x 3-1/4") and its unique (and patented) bail-type mechanism that will open wide enough to accept any number of rollfilm backs without you first having to remove the ground-glass from the camera. Its worst features are the somewhat flimsy construction, the wobbly standards caused by worn Teflon shims, and poor quality-control during manufacturer, as you’ll have to compensate for each camera’s irregularities when setting up your shots. (For instance, of the two I own, one has a tripod mounting block that isn’t perfectly square – it causes the camera to tilt slightly off to one side – and the other has a ground-glass assembly that's a bit crooked, which resulted in several shots with sloping horizons until I added an additional reference line with a felt-tip pen.)

How do they perform ?

Operationally, the Toyo is a pure joy to use … compared to the Galvin, with its crude, sliding adjustments and flimsy (but not necessarily delicate) construction, the 23G’s finely geared movements and ultra-rigid construction are a real treat. I especially like not having to use indirect movements to get enough rise and fall. I also like the center detent on the tilt adjustments, as too often I forget to zero the camera after each shot and can do this by feel without coming out from under the darkcloth, which is most definitely not the case with the Galvin.

Changing lenses and bellows takes only a few seconds using the conventional sliding clamps and while I like the way the rollfilm backs are firmly locked down, I do miss the Galvin’s unique bail mechanism, especially in the field where my hands are often full with meters, filters and darkslides. Of course, where there’s a will, there’s an inheritance – err, way – and since the 23G’s back is made of metal, modifying it to operate in the same manner as the Galvin’s back does shouldn’t be too difficult for a competent machinist. Needless to say, I’ll be investigating this shortly.

Of course, nothing’s perfect. For a start, the 23G is very heavy – 8.6 pounds according to the manufacturer but more like 9.2 pounds according to my scale -- and its design is not yaw-free. For architectural shooting, I find this to be mildly inconvenient but it isn't a problem for landscapes and frankly, since I can count the number of still lifes I’ve shot over the years on one hand with fingers to spare, it’s a non-issue for me. (The Galvin isn’t a yaw-free design, either, but since the odds of my ever using it inside a studio are remote, this is even less of an issue.) For back country shooting, the Toyo definitely isn’t as easy to carry as the Galvin since it’s quite a bit bulkier as well as being heavier. Should you ever wish to carry it inside a backpack instead of on a tripod, you’ll probably find it easiest to remove the bellows from the standards and the standards from the monorail, and carry it around in knocked-down form since accommodating the standard 250mm long rail isn't easy. (To help with this, I purchased a used 500mm rail for an earlier model Toyo 4x5 for $50 – although it's also 39mm in diameter, it’s satin finished, not polished, and noticeably lighter – then cut off a 150mm long piece to use for transporting the camera and when shooting with wide-angle lenses. This shortens the overall depth of the camera from 233mm to just 165mm and thereby makes it easier to transport in the field. Still, at 305mm high and 291mm wide, the 23G is not exactly what I would call a "compact" design.

I’m also not wild about the limited coverage of the 23G’s ground-glass, either. It’s held in place by a thin metal frame that itself is held in place by four tiny screws. The trouble is, this metal frame obscures a fairly sizable amount of area and for somebody (like me!) who composes their images full-frame, it’s a real PITA to not actually see the full frame. On the positive side, though, my 41-year old eyes find the Fresnel lens quite useful, as I mentioned previously, and unlike many 45G users, I haven’t noticed any "hot-spots" using a variety of lenses ranging in length from 58mm to 210mm.

The Galvin, compared to the 23G, is more of a switchblade than a scalpel. It folds up quite compactly and gets the job done albeit perhaps a bit less elegantly. To get a significant amount of rise or fall, you must resort to indirect movements and tilt the rail up or down then adjust the front and rear standards back to vertical; likewise, if you need more than just a little bit of shift, you’ll have to do the same using the swing adjustments. The solid aluminum knobs are knurled but fairly small and if you have large fingers and hands, as I do, it can be quite difficult to adjust the shift knob that’s located just above the focusing knob on the rear standard. I finally got so tired of dealing with this, I removed it altogether and now rely upon the second knob, located on the other side of the standard, to do the work of both. So far, I haven’t had any problems with this setup and it even saves several grams of weight to boot, something that’s always appreciated by backpackers and out-of-shape photographers.

Changing lens boards on the Galvin is a snap, as all you have to do is rotate the two hooked levers out of the way and lift it out; when the new board’s firmly in place, you rotate the levers back to their original position. It’s simple, neat and utterly functional. Likewise, to insert a filmholder or rollfilm back, you just lift the edge of the ground-glass assembly and slide it underneath until it clicks in place. No fumbling around with the back in one hand and ground-glass in the other, as often happens with the 23G on a bad day. To rotate the back from horizontal to vertical, you simply rotate another pair of hooked levers, remove the complete ground-glass assembly, rotate it 90 degrees and reinsert it, then rotate the two hooked levers back into place. If this takes you even 10 seconds to accomplish, then you’re having a bad day.

While I understand the design rationale behind Galvin’s use of a fairly large lensboard – 5.1" square – I find them to be just too large to pack comfortably. I know other cameras use larger boards still but given the type of lenses that are likely to be used on this camera, a 5.1" square board strikes me as overkill. Although the 23G’s lensboard is only 5/8" smaller at 110mm square, it seems much smaller and I find them easier to stow in my field bag. In fact, I'm seriously considering adapting my Galvin to use them as well as it would not only make the camera easier to carry in the field, it would prevent me from having to dismount and remount the lenses every time I switch between them.

In my opinion, the Galvin’s most serious shortcoming is that it sometimes requires several cycles of loosen knob/adjust/tighten knob until you’re able to get the camera setup exactly the way you want it. All too often, the process of tightening a knob also causes it to change position slightly, throwing everything out of whack … in time, you learn to compensate for these unwanted movements but calculating the exact amount of preload needed is difficult and anyway, it tends to vary from day-to-day. It can become quite frustrating, even exasperating, to keep over- or undershooting your mark, especially when the light or weather is changing rapidly and you're in a hurry to get the shot.

Also, thanks to its lightweight construction and the force necessary to lift the ground-glass and slide a back under it, the camera tends to vibrate for a while afterwards. Whereas the 23G is ready to shoot just as soon as the back can be attached, the Galvin needs 5 or10 seconds to settle down first. This lack of rigidity is especially frustrating if you're using lever-wind backs since you can easily knock your shot out of alignment by winding the film too aggressively. Although most people will prefer to use newer, lever-wind backs, the older, knob-wind style backs are actually much better in this respect since winding the knob requires less effort and thus reduces the chance of accidentally recomposing your image. (On some lever-wind backs – I refer specifically to those made by Graflex/Singer – the lever is long enough to catch on the arm of the bail mechanism and thus requires you to use two hands: one to steady the camera and the other to advance the film. Of course, you can sidestep the problem by trimming a small amount -- say, 1/8"-1/4" -- from the end of the levers but using two hands remains the preferred method considering the amount of lever rotation that’s required to pull the film forward 90mm to the next frame.)


So, with all the pros and cons tallied up, where does this leave us? In an ideal world, you would own both cameras, of course … either that or an Arca-Swiss F-Line Metric, if you can afford one (unfortunately, I can’t). In my opinion, for landscapes, in the hands of a patient photographer, the Galvin is probably the best choice; for everything else -- well, everything that doesn’t require carrying it very far! -- I give the 23G the nod. And if you’re the sort of photographer who shoots landscapes working from the backseat of your car – shame on you! – then I think the 23G is probably the best overall choice, period.

It’s truly a shame that Toyo saw fit to discontinue production more than a decade ago but perhaps they’ll rethink their decision now that more affordable (cough, choke, gag) medium-format digital backs have begun to reach the market. Despite the slight weight penalty that would no doubt accompany it, I'd love to have a 23GXII, with yaw-free movements, satiny black finish and soft rubber knobs. Better still would be a 2x3 version of their high-tech VX125, especially as I believe Toyo’s engineers could, with some effort, pare its weight to less than five pounds. Now that would be a camera to covet – my credit card is ready and waiting, Toyo! -- but until then, the 23G will serve my purposes quite nicely, thank you.

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