The Deardorff 8x10 Field Camera

By David R. Munson for the Large Format Page

I first became involved in large format in 1997 when I built a Bender 4x5 from the kit as an entry into the format. It served me well but wanted to move on before long. Since then, either through owning or borrowing I've had the pleasure (and occasional displeasure) of using about a dozen different large format cameras. I bought my Deardorff 8x10 in the spring of 2000 and have been quite fond of the thing ever since. I've refinished all the wood and replaced the bellows and the handle, and at this point it's about as nice a camera as I've ever had occasion to use, let alone own. I've used it for everything from landscape to architecture to portraiture.

The Deardorff 8x10 is more or less the archetypal wooden field camera. Manufactured in Chicago, it comes in two flavors - with and without front swing. From what I understand they were made without front swing up until about 1950, and with front swing from then on until the eventual demise of the company in the 1980s. For the sake of reference, mine was probably made around 1940 and later sent back to the factory for the addition of front swing. Anyhow, in the back you have swing and tilt. Up front you have rise, fall, swing, and tilt. One interesting feature is that, in addition to the regular kind of rise up front, you have rise directly built into the lens panel. That is, the part of the front standard on which the lensboard mounts will move up and down a bit independently of the rest of the standard. This is handy for when you want to use some rise and don't want to risk messing up your tilt or when you're already at maximum rise for the front standard and still need more rise. The Deardorff does not have shift, front or rear. Some may find this limiting, but after working with this camera for four years I have not found it to be a problem. If I find I need some shift, I can fudge it easily enough by creating the necessary displacement through a combination of front and rear swing.

Size-wise, the Deardorff 8x10 packs up about as compactly as any other 8x10 field camera. Mine weighs in at 12 pounds. It isn't light, it isn't heavy. I figure it weighs about what I would expect an 8x10 field camera to weigh. It is made of mahogany with nickel-plated brass hardware. Not the lightest materials in the world, but durable.

Practical Use in the Field
All the features in the world don't mean a thing if the camera is a pain to actually use, so this is where everything either comes together or doesn't. I find this camera to be a pleasure to use in just about every circumstance, though it certainly isn't perfect. With stiff old bellows, getting enough rise for architectural shots with a wide lens is not a pleasant experience. One I would recommend that you avoid if possible.

Depending on the age and condition of your Deardorff, things may get a little wobbly at longer extensions. Refurbishing mine tightened things up a good deal, but I'm still looking for ways to brace it for more stable use with longer lenses. Still, unless your camera is on the verge of falling apart, the less-than-completely-rigid state of things shouldn't keep you from making sharp images.

Some may find the lack of shift to be an issue. Others won't. As stated before, I don't find this to be a problem in practical use.

The Deardorff is capable of handling a fairly wide range of focal lengths. On the long end, I have used mine with a 24" Artar without problems. On the short end, I have mounted a 90mm Super Angulon XL (which very nearly covers the format). You can get it to focus at infinity without a problem (see pictures below for min focus setup), though with the bellows so compressed your movements are pretty much limited to the built-in rise on the lensboard panel. Some 8x10s have more extension, others do better with really wide lenses, but the Deardorff should provide a versatile platform for most lenses.

Overall, my impression of using the Deardorff 8x10 in the field is overwhelmingly positive. Operation is smooth and intuitive, the camera is rugged and reliable, and to add a completely subjective element it just feels right. In the end, there are really only two things that ever bug me about this camera. First, some of the knobs are on the small side and can be frustrating with cold or gloved hands in the winter, or when something gets over-tightened. The little oblong nuts for the front rise/tilt are probably about the worst. Someday I'll figure out a decent replacement for some of these things. Anyhow, the second thing is the combination of control for both front rise and tilt in the aforementioned oblong little nuts. If you get your tilt just right and decide you want a little rise, you can pretty much count on having to re-do your tilt. That said, the setup isn't all bad in that it is easy to adjust your tilt without having to loosen anything - just grab the lensboard and tilt to desired position.

Other thoughts on the Deardorff 8x10
At this point, you cannot buy a Deardorff new. All Deardorffs are used. Some are collector pieces in absolute mint condition, but these tend to cost an arm and a leg, so if your main intention is to shoot with the camera it is likely in your best financial interest to look for something a bit less than pristine. When I first got my camera, it was usable but rough. It had obviously seen a lot (and I do mean a lot) of use. The handle was long-gone. The bellows had already been replaced once and were extraordinarily stiff (probably due in part to all the tape on the inside covering pinholes). The finish on the wood had seen much better days, the wood itself had some gouges and dents, and the hardware was worn and in a few places a little bent/dented as well.

The initial restoration took about three weeks of careful work in the evenings after school and track practice. I completely disassembled the camera, making sure I took note of how all the hardware and wood fit together to avoid any reassembly drama. I used paint stripper and razor blades to carefully remove the existing finish from all but the front standard (where the original finish was still in perfect condition - didn't see much reason to fix what didn't need fixing). After this, the wood was cleaned, sanded smooth where it was rough, and refinished with about four coats of tung oil. Once everything was dry, the wood was given a once-over with very fine steel wool. On to the metal parts. All of the metal was cleaned and smoothed with steel wool where it had corroded and pitted. Bent or distorted parts were put back into shape, and eventually everything was given a couple coats of clear protectant. The disassembly was uneventful and the camera looked much, much better. A while later my mother was kind enough to put a new handle on the camera for me. I was tempted to put on a new leather handle, but I figured a handle sewn from nylon webbing would be much more durable in the long run, even if purists wold say it clashed with the rest of the camera.

About two years ago I put a new set of bellows on the camera. I ordered them from Camera Bellows in the UK (handled through Lee Filters). I told them what I needed, and they already had the dimensions on hand. A few weeks and about $240 later, the mailman brought a box with my new bellows in it. It was rather cathartic to take a utility knife to the old bellows and cut them off the frames, I must admit. The new bellows were installed with the help of contact cement and 1/4" staples from a small staple gun. I highly recommend this company for replacement bellows. They are supple and flexible and, unlike the bellows they replaced, never cause problems when making photographs.

Overall, I have to say that restoring the camera was enjoyable and yielded something I hope to shoot with for the rest of my life. Depending on the condition of the camera you pick up, you may or may not have to do any restoration work. If you get something that does need work but aren't comfortable doing the work yourself, there are options for having others work on the camera for you.

Some reference shots of my camera in a number of positions. The last two shots show a homemade groundglass protector in use. The lens is a shutter-mounted 240mm Process Nikkor.

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