Ebony SV810U : a review

By Nathan Congdon for the Large Format Page

After thinking about it for some time, the Ebony SV810U was my answer to "What is the best currently-made 8 X 10 camera for field use?" I've been using it extensively for about three months now. This review will discuss why I decided to buy the Ebony, and its advantages and disadvantages, especially vis-a-vis the Wisner Traditional and Expedition 8 X 10, which I have also used. Ebony makes wonderful field cameras in 6 X 9 to 8 X 10 sizes, but very few people in the US seem to buy them, and I could learn very little about them on the web or elsewhere before buying mine. With Badger Graphic and others starting to import these cameras again, there will hopefully be increased interest in them, and this review may help to answer some of your questions. To save your time, the bottom line on Ebony cameras is that they aren't cheap (some more non-cheap than others!) Whether the extra $ is worth it or not may be a matter of opinion, but if you are looking for an inexpensive intro to LF, skip to another review. Final disclaimers: I have no financial interest in Ebony or any other cameras, etc, etc.

First: why an Ebony? A lot of people going to 8 X 10 understandably go with a Deardorff or other used camera, to save $ and because of the venerable photographic tradition associated with 8 X 10. I like the idea of a camera that would last a lifetime, but also liked the notion that I would buy one new and pass it on to my kids and their kids, etc. I'd recently gotten a large insurance settlement from some photo gear that got stolen, and so decided I would get a new camera, and that I wanted the best one I could find to last me for as long as I could possibly muster the strength to carry it around!

A number of great camera manufacturers make new 8 X 10 cameras, but sort of as an after-thought to their 4 X 5. One such camera that I considered very seriously was the Arca Swiss, which I had heard people rave about at 4 X 5. When I looked at the specs for 8 X 10, I was underwhelmed. To keep the camera modular, the same front standard is used for all sizes, resulting in an inadequate front rise of only 40 mm (1.5 inches), and no rear rise or fall (why go with a monorail at all then, with all the attendant incoveniences of carrying it around compared to a field camera?) The standard bellows of 50 cm would be limiting for long lenses. Finally, I travel overseas with my 8 X 10 a lot, and I wanted something that could fit into a regulation carry-on bag. The Ebony (and most 8 X 10 fields) fit into an f64 BPX pack, which, when you take off the modular side attachments, can fit right into the "don't be a bin hog" box by the departure gate (the only bag I know of that will, and can fit an 8 X 10). I couldn't have done this with the Arca Swiss. Sounds like a great camera in many other respects.

Among the standard manufacturers of new wood fields, the best known in the States is probably Wisner, and I have had the chance to use both the Traditional and Expedition at 8 X 10. Comparing them to the Ebony, I think that they simply are not as sturdily-made or well-designed (not to say that they aren't great cameras). I found them less rigid at long extensions, less smooth to focus, and more jerky to load with a film-holder. Design advantages of the Ebony over Wisner: the shortest lens you can focus on the Expedition 8 X 10 without tilting the front standard back is 210. If you want to use a 150 mm lens (for example), you have to tilt the front standard all the way back, and then use axis tilt to put the lensboard upright. This leaves you absolutely no possibility for front rise, even with a WA bellows. It's also awkward. This is fixed with the Pocket Expedition, but I have found that a very difficult camera to set up and break down. The Ebony, by contrast, allows you to bring the front and rear standards close enough to focus a 120 at infinity easily, and by tilting you could focus a 90 (which I've done to get a circular image on a sheet of 8 X 10 film). No difficult maneuvering to accomplish this. At the other end, you can rack the bellows out to nearly 1000 mm, just as long as a Wisner, and I have easily used a 600 mm lens for close shots, even out doors, with sufficient rigidity for long shots even in mild wind (any more, and you'll get shake with whatever you're using).

Other advantages of the Ebony over Wisner: separate lock for front rise/fall and front axis tilt. Thus, you can tilt the lensboard with a heavy lens without it falling down, or carry out a rise or fall while your tilt stays locked. This is not readily done on the Wisner. Finally, the spirit-level on the Wisner is designed so that you cannot look at both the vertical and horizontal level simultaneously, which makes using a ballhead (which I like and use exclusively) very difficult. The simple solution to this is to put both levels on top of the camera next to each other. Problem: on a lot of 8 X 10 cameras, the top will be above where you can see it readily. Ebony solution: mount a small mirror that covers the spirit levels when closed and flips up to a variable angle so that you can see them at whatever height you are. Seems like a small thing, but it makes the use of a ballhead very simple, and it's a nice, elegant design. Also, there is a spirit level on the front standard, which I really miss on other field cameras. It's helpful to see that you really do have the standards parallel, especially when aiming the camera up and bringing the standards perpendicular to the ground to get more front rise.

Other features about the Ebony: the general fit and finish is great, just a much more solid feel than other wood fields I've looked at. This alone is worth the extra price to me. All the metal is titanium for lightness and strength, and the wood is mahogany (default for the 5 X 7 and 8 X 10) or Ebony (heavier, less prone to scratching, very cool to look at.) The bellows are very light, made of real leather, and barely need a latch (though one is provided) to prevent bellows sag. Movements: front rise (80 mm), front fall (40 mm), front axial and base tilt, front swing and shift (50 mm). Rear: rise (80 mm), with asymmetric swing and tilt. What's "asymmetric" swing and tilt? Many of the Ebony cameras have a terrific feature called the U-back, which is available on the 8 X 10 for a hefty surcharge, and which I got and have loved. I've failed every time I've tried to explain this, but will try again. I you have base tilt, you have to refocus the camera after tilting because the axis of the tilt is totally off the screen. If you have axial tilt, the axis of tilt runs right through the center of the lensboard (front) or center of the GG (rear). This means that an object you bring into perfect focus at the center of your GG will stay in focus no matter how much you tilt the rear, because the distance from the lens does not change (it's on the axis of tilt). But, what you really want to do is to bring objects above the center (eg, foreground) and below the center (eg background) of the GG both into focus. Focus on foreground, then apply tilt to bring background into focus, and your foreground is slightly out of focus again: objects above the center of the GG move slightly in relation to the lens when you tilt, and so focus changes. So now re-focus, tilt again, etc, etc. It's an iterative process which can drive you crazy.

What Ebony and others (Sinar, most notably) have done is to create an asymmetric tilt and swing (the "U-back"), where the axis of tilt is below the center of the GG (and axis of swing to the left of the GG). Now, focus on a background object directly on the axis of tilt (7 cm below the center of the GG in my camera). Tilt so that you bring a chosen object in the foreground (eg, above the center) into perfect focus. Now the background object remains in perfect focus, because it was along the axis of tilt, and thus did not change its distance from the lens. Voila! Perfect focus from top to bottom in one move. Sounds complicated, but is incredibly easy and really makes for a practical difference in pleasure of use. I will use swings and tilts quickly and confidently now in portraiture (to get my wife's pregnant belly and face both in focus), which I never would take the time to do before, for fear the model would die of old age. Swings, by the way, are also asymmetric and work on the analagous principal. Bring left side into focus along the axis, swing until right side is in focus, and you're done. Only problem is in architecture or other applications where you don't want the distortion of rear movements, but I've found this not to be a problem in (my) real-life applications. Finally, doing your swings and tilts at the rear is a lot quicker and more practical if you are shooting 8 X 10 than trying to reach around to the front of the camera, unless you have arms like an ape! (If I've confused you about asymmetric tilt, try looking at the Sinar web site for their explanation).

What else...Ebony will make anything you want. If you want rear shift, they will add it on (for a cost in $ and weight, not worth it to me.) They will make you an 11 X 14 and above as special order (hope your inheritance came in!) They have a raft of different models in 4 X 5, all well-explained on their web site ebonycamera.com, which vary from every movement that a monorail can do and more, but heavy, to quite simple and light, some for wide-angle applications, many with U-backs (yes!!), some without, some mahogany, some ebony, some folding, some very light but non-folding. The SV810U is about 11 lb, same as a Wisner 8 X 10 Expedition, and folds up smaller than the Expedition.

These are great cameras, and I do feel that I have bought the camera for a lifetime (and hopefully more, for someone else). I would absolutely buy this camera again above all other 8 X 10s that I've heard about or seen, as it can do everything in terms of movements, handle the shortest and longest lenses, is as rigid and well made as any wood camera I know of, and offers the asymmetric tils and swings. Also, gorgeous to look at. Problems with mine: came with a crumby (and expensive!) Fresnel, which I am replacing. Front shift and rear swing are a little sticky (largely fixed by application of lubricant which Ebony sent me). Also, not as rigid as a metal camera (at least my metal 4 X 5), but certainly seems rigid enough to me for any practical applications.

A I said, Ebony has a good web site. Their customer service is prompt (< 24 hour response by email, and items which I have asked for, like the lubricant, were provided within days from Japan at no cost). For further questions, Jeff at Badger Graphics is very knowledgable, and they carry the whole line, at good prices which depend on the exchange rate of the Yen. Other places are also starting to stock them. I'm happy to answer any questions I can (at ncongdon@jhmi.edu), and you can always come out for a shoot if you're in the Baltimore area.

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