View Full Version : advantages of monorail over field camera

13-Mar-2005, 08:58

Before you tell me about how large, bulky and heavy a 4x5 monorail is, please note: I am large, bulky and heavy and I am quite versatile.

Are there any significant advantages, for a fine art photographer mainly concerned with landscapes, cityscapes and environmental portraiture, to owning a monorail camera as opposed to a field camera? I do not care for studio portraits; I find a blank, neutral background to be sterile and unnatural. I particularly like the images of Karsch, Liebovitz and especially Sally Mann. In my view, they are not typical portrait photographers; the backgrounds in their portraits tend to interact with and augment the human element in their respective images.

I like this.

I don't want to limit the range of control to which I might avail myself. Carrying 30 lbs of equipment is not big deal to me, as long as I can fit it into my car.

Have I answered my own question here, or is there something else I should consider?

Thanks to all who are inclined to reply.

13-Mar-2005, 09:14
Neither landscape or portraits are big movement users.

The big advantage to big bulky monorails is they tend to be cheap used. Most people won't go to the trouble to haul them around so they can sell for less then a field camera. BTW both my monorails have less movements then my field camera. Better to compare camera to camera then camera type to camera type.

Herb Cunningham
13-Mar-2005, 09:17
Being large and bulky myself, I thought that weight does not matter. Trust me it does if you are going any distance. The big weight is usuallly in what kinds of lenses you have. A 600mm Nikkor weighs almost 4 lbs, and a 450 Nikon sw weighs 2.5 lbs. Add a bunch of holders and you quickly outweigh just about any camera, save a really big studio 8x10. Bigger cameras require bigger tripods.

All that having been said, the advantages of a field vs monorail are usually 1. quick setup.

2. simple adjustments, which can also be a disadvantage. Something like an Ebony RW, limited movements, usually plenty for field landscapes, very light, strong, not as many movements as:

practically any monorail.

My personal favorite, Arca Swiss. Very rigid, huge number of movement, endless adapters, about 6 lbs. Not a problem with a lens board adapter. It is a monorail. I have a4x5 AND an 8x10, it weighs somewhere around 11 lbs.

Kerry has a thread on the Toho 4x5 monorail

I have a Toyo G 8x10 which I will probably be selling before long. It weighs 18 or 19 lbs, but has the most movements anyone would ever need. It is a wonderful studio camera, lots of geared movements, utter precision in adjustments.

So the answer, as I said in a previous thread, there is no answer. Get a cheap version of whichever and try it out.

That is the only good answer.

Michael S. Briggs
13-Mar-2005, 10:03
For the type of photography that you describe, I don't see much advantage to a monorail. A monorail will be more precise and rigid, e.g., the standards may be more accurately parallel. But the comparison depends on specific cameras: a well made field camera is sufficiently precise and rigid, while a lightweight or poorly designed one may have standards that aren't exactly parallel. A studio monorail will tend to have geared movements, which are convenient, but in field use the convenience doesn't seem worth the weight. Some monorails have larger direct movements such as front rise than many field cameras, but for the work that you intend, you are unlikely to exceed the available movements of field cameras. Additionally, you can always obtain additional front rise indirectly, by titling the camera upwards, then bringing the standards back to plumb.

Monorails will tend to have measuring scales on all the movements, while many field cameras, particularly wooden ones, lack scales. But most photographers setup movements by observing the ground glass rather than using the scales. The most useful scale is a measurement of the focusing position -- this scale can be used to determine the best focus position and the aperture needed to achieve the desired dof using the focus spread method described in articles on the home page of this site. But some field cameras have a focusing scale, and a ruler scale can be easily added to others.

There are also some cameras that bridge the field / monorail categories, such as the Linhof Technikardan and some Arca-Swiss models. The Technikardan has a collapsing monorail and standards that rotate to make the camera more compact for carrying. It has geared focusing and is more precise than most field cameras and more rigid than many. It has scales on all movements.

13-Mar-2005, 10:26
Partly it is a matter of personality; whichever you prefer using is better for you.

Theoretically, flat bed cameras are easier to haul around and set up, but once set up, a monorail is easier to take the actual picture. Those thoughts led me to buy some monorails, but once I owned a top quality field camera, with extensive bellows range and movements, the monorails took up their current residence in the closet. It turns out that the precision work of composing, framing, focussing, and movements, isn't exactly rapid with either model, so the convenience of a monorail buys little. But the repetitive, boring, exasperating, bothersome, grunt work of stowing, carrying, removing, mounting, and setting up the camera is all cost and no benefit. So even though I believed that monorails were better for me, I found out in the field that I preferred working with a flat bed. With two exceptions.

1. For high-rise architecture, or any situation where maximum rise and fall are required, a monorail is the way to go.

2. The Ebony non-folders attempt to be the best of both worlds, and look like they probably succeed pretty well at it. In particular the 45SU does so and also has quite a bit of bellows range. Out of my price range, though.

One final consideration is base vs. center tilt. I bring this up because out in the field I also discovered though I intellectually preferred center tilt, for me base tilt is easier to work with. In general terms, flat bed cameras pretty much always have base tilt, since it is needed for folding the thing up; often they also have center tilt in the front. Monorails are less consisent in design, but nearly all have only one or the other, and I would guess that more than half are center tilt. If you know which you prefer, make sure the model you select has it (duh). If you are less than sure, having both available, while not a requirement, would be handy.

Scott Fleming
13-Mar-2005, 10:30
Allow me to put in a word for the Toyo VX 125. Although I think Arca makes the best monorail cameras for field use the VX is a close second and can be found used for half the price. Arca is at such a premium that the used prices are inflated and now are generally outdated. The VX is as light or lighter, has a telescoping rail so you can just squeeze it flat and stow it. Very quick, perhaps the quickest of them all, to set up. It has a bellows that can be all but tied in a knot and then snap back to it's folds without creases. There is a review on the front page here.

But then you wanted to know about the differences between monorails and field cameras. In a word, simplicity. Field cameras are over-engineered. All that tricky folding, sliding, extensions and knobs. You have to be constantly checking and rechecking yourself to make sure you haven't forgot to loosen this or tighten that. They often have two different extensions. The front and the back. You have to use different setups for different lenses. In one other word, versitility. More function for the weight in a field monorail. At wide angle settings the lens is not backed into a box.

Bruce Watson
13-Mar-2005, 10:45
Think about the Toho FC-45X (http://www.thalmann.covem/largeformat/toho.htm). It's a field monorail, one of the lightest, most rigid, and most versatile 4x5 cameras out there. I've been using one for years, and have been highly pleased with it - IMHO, the best of both worlds.

Note that it's not as versatile as a studio monorail. It has a practical limit of 75mm lenses on the short side because it doesn't have a replaceable bellows. But I haven't found the bellows to be a limiting factor in my use of an 80mm SS-XL. And it's rigid enough to let you use a 360 or even 450mm lens with an extender board.

I think you'd find it an excellent camera for mixed landscape and portrait use.

Bruce Watson
13-Mar-2005, 10:47
Blech. That's Toho FC-45X (http://www.thalmann.com/largeformat/toho.htm).

David Richhart
13-Mar-2005, 10:52
Percy... except for doing table-top style product photography, it is amazing how little camera movements are used. Usually a little front rise and some tilt to help focus a landscape. Or a little swing , rise, and shift to keep things parallel for architecture. Most any view camera will have enough movement for all but the most extreme shots.

Gem Singer
13-Mar-2005, 10:55
Hi Percy,

In the early 1980's, I decided that I was going to concentrate all of my photographic efforts on doing fine art, landscapes, cityscapes, and environmental portrature (sound familiar?). I proceeded to purchase an inexpensive Calumet monorail camera, a few lenses, and the necessary accessories. While hiking in the Oregon Cascades with my newly acquired outfit, it dawned on me that a monorail camera was not the proper instrument to be using for that type of rugged outdoor photography. Soon afterward, I purchased a Calumet wooden folding flatbed field camera, and, since that time, have never owned another monorail camera (although I have owned several other field cameras).

It is true that some monorail cameras can be folded similar to flatbed field cameras, so that they can be easily transported. Some folding flatbed field cameras have as much, or more, movement capabilities as most monorails. However, I suggest that you select the type of camera you will be purchasing based on where it will be used the most. You may find that you need a lightweight flatbed for field work and a heavier weight, bulkier monorail to use in the studio. Over the years, most photographers have come to that same realization.

Eric Fredine
13-Mar-2005, 10:58
I haven't used a monorail, but I can confirm that the Ebony 45SU referenced above is indeed a very flexible camera with generous movements. I use it without any fuss with lenses from 58 to 300mm. There is virtually no set-up time. It is relatively heavy for a field camera.

Emmanuel BIGLER
13-Mar-2005, 11:13
There is one aspect of the question not addressed here is the fact that many wooden flatbeds used by professionnals and serious amateurs nowadays are modern and improved re-creations of an old kind of camera. My understanding, if you look back to the 1950's and 1960's is that professionals in the studio used monorails, hand-held 4x5" press cameras gradually vanished in the sixties not so long before the Rollei TLR ceased to be #1 for hand-held press photography. So many cheap used monorails of this era do not benefit of modern improvements induced by competition between modern LF cameras aiming at new users of the XXI-st century.

Once the workhorse of any professional photographer at a time when 4x5" was th minimum size for a professinal quality image, 4x5" cameras have changed to being (at least this is my feeling as an amateur) a connoisseur's tool for fine art and pleasure. So the choice of materials and style of the camera is extremely important beyond pure geometrical specs expressed in pounds, grams, inches, millimetres and degrees of tilt.

So I would say : any modern 4"x5" camera of recent design, since the manufacturer is still on business and since the competition is hard even if LF equipment appears now as a niche marker, proves that the model is good and has some appeal to a minimum number of customers. New 4x5" models have been introduced in the last few years which is amazing and proves that there is still room for newer styles of cameras or newer technical improvements.

If we compare two top-class modern 4"x5" cameras of totally opposite spirit, on one hand the Ebony wooden field and on the other hand recent Arca Swiss 'field' monorails, we get a similar (outch !) price and similar weights. Being on a budget, used monorails are cheaper and more robust that entry-level wooden field cameras... but their weight and overall size make them less attractive for field use.
So you have the choice of the camera style and how your hands and eyes feel with the controls. The best being : try to put the hands on some models you'd be interested in before making a decision.

I second the idea that if movements are needed, the monorail is best because movement controls are simple and logical with few limitations in wide angle photography. Monorails with identical front and rear standards offer a kind of redundancy in possibilities of movements that you do not find in flatbeds, but do you need such flexibility ?

tor kviljo
13-Mar-2005, 11:22
Depending a lot on how much movement you will need. I am a fan of monorails, and using Sinar & having collected bits & pieces over the years, I can more or less put together a camera for the occation, and I can decide in last moment if I want to bring the 5"x7" back instead of the 4"x5" back - the rest of the outfit being the same. The Sinar F can be folded together (both standards tilted 90 degrees & resting on the rail) for compacktness & fast set-up. Substitute front standard for much more stable Norma front standard, and you have a light but very rigid monorail which stays locked also when you have to use a little force to push in the cassette. Try that with the more flimsier wooden field cameras. The older Norma is also very compact when slid of rail, but requires a little more time to set up - but still under a minute: a fraction of the thime you probably will use for a LF shot. Having a system-monorail as Sinar or Arca Swiss, You can add geared standards later on - having the oportunity to use your standard field camera/lenses with added stability & precision of geared movements when shooting in "see-you!" distance from the car. As mentioned earlier - monorails are now more & less obsolete in most studios = nice prices on used, while field cameras are as expensive as ever.

But - if you need an even easier backpackable & undestructable camera with precise & ample movements (but not so readily applied as on a Sinar): a Technika V or 2000 (or a tech III late model which is nearly like a tech IV which is nearly like a tech V - so possible to save money....) would also do a good job....

Andre Noble
13-Mar-2005, 11:55
If you plan to use a lot of wide angle and or telephoto lenses, you need some kind of compact monorail such as the Arca Swiss F Metric series, or for the Linhof Tecknikardan 45S.

If you plan to use primarily from 90mm to 240mm lenses, look at the Wista and Toyo field cameras.

Dave Moeller
13-Mar-2005, 12:24
I own both monorails and field cameras in 4x5 and 8x10, and am large and strong enough that any size or weight difference between them is meaningless to me. However, I find a field camera faster to set up in the field, more convenient to place in a backpack, and more able to withstand rough transport (as the bellows are protected very well by the body of the camera when it's in the pack).

Given modern, good quality cameras, the only advantage a monorail has is in more extensive movements than most field cameras. I believe that a good Ebony, or even a Shen-Hao, will give you more movements than you need for any of the work you listed. The extreme movements I can get on a newer Cambo monorail aren't of any use to me in the field, although they are more convenient for table-top work. I've done landscape, cityscape, and macro work in the field with a modern field camera and have never stressed the movements on the camera. I've also done table-top work with a field camera, but it's not as convenient as a monorail. When I tried the monorail in the field, I found the set up/tear down process to be inconvenient at best.

Since you're not concerned with the size and weight of the camera, you can pick a field camera with more movements than someone who is concerned with the few extra pounds that such movements cost. Packing a field camera into a backpack is very easy...just fold it up and go. With a monorail you either have to find a pack that will take the camera with the standards still on the rail (this setup wastes space in the pack unless you're very careful in designing your pack setup) or you'll be taking the standards off of, and putting them back onto, the rail when you tear down and set up. With a well made field camera, you just pop it onto the tripod and open it up. A poorly constructed field camera may have alignment problems with the standards, but my 4x5 Shen-Hao requires no extra attention to get the standards into neutral position as I set up the camera.

If I appear biased towards field cameras for work outside of the studio, it's because I am biased. I've shot enough with both types of cameras in many situations, and the field camera just works better for me in the field.

Leonard Evens
13-Mar-2005, 13:13
Although in principle monorail and field cameras have basically different designs, there is in fact quite a lot of variation in how these cameras work. You really have to look at each particular camera and examine which features it has and whether or not they suffice for what you want to do. And, of course, prices vary rather significantly, so that may be a factor also.

I have a Toho (not Toyo) FC-45X. It is basically a monorail, but it is about as light as you can get, and it comes apart easily for tranport. Badger Graphics sells it for about $1100 and they also sell a Chinese clone of it under their own name for less. It does take a trifle longer to set up than most "field" cameras, but not inordinately so. I use mine for landscapes and architecture, and so far it has fit my needs very well. See Kerry Thalmann's review at www.thalmann.com/largeformat/toho.htm

13-Mar-2005, 14:00
Thanks to all for your informative and useful replies. Guess I'll be looking for a field camera. I live in an area (Michigan) where "field cameras" are 35mm point and shoots that were dropped in the local park. Handling various models is, unfortunately, not an option at this time. (heavy sigh).

Dave Moeller
13-Mar-2005, 14:05

The Toho seems to be the one monorail that people love for landscape work. Had I known about it a while back, I'd have probably tried one out. Kerry Thalmann speaks very highly of it on his site, and I imagine that it's probably the one monorail that I'd consider using in place of my current setup for field work. Not so much based on the speed of setup (which is probably a wash when compared to a field camera) but based on how easily it stores for transportation (where it's worlds ahead of any other monorail that I'm aware of).

Having said that, I have heard rumblings on line about the Toho clone that Badger sells (or at least used to sell...they're not listing anything on their site right now with their own brand name on it in LF cameras). Apparently the quality leaves a lot to be desired. By all accounts, the real Toho is a very well crafted piece of equipment.

Be well.

Ben Calwell
13-Mar-2005, 15:14
If working close to the car, I think a monorail is actually easier to get up and running than a folding field camera. You just whip it out of the case on up on the tripod (the lens is usally already attached) and you're ready to shoot after racking the bellows out. And monorail cases are usually big enough to hold all the necessary gear. An added advantage is that the case is probably sturdy enough to stand on when the camera is elevated.

Ellen Stoune Duralia
13-Mar-2005, 18:05
The purchase of a very large backpack will enable me to haul my Horseman LE around. I'm excited to try it in the field even though I know it will take a few minutes to set up and the gear will be heavy. I'm guessing I'll be able to skip my free weight routine on days I take it out! I've put the full pack on here at the house (much to the amusement of my husband) to get a feel for it so I figure if my small 5'2" frame can handle it, you big, burly guys shouldn't have a problem. Of course, I'm not going to be trekking for miles and miles either.

Good luck and have fun :-)

Isaac Crawford
13-Mar-2005, 19:40
I too have a Horseman LE. Monorails are more flexible in more ways than just the movements. I have fitted my LE with a Sinar shutter so I can use funky, old lenses in barrel for minimal cost. In addition, I can change between the 5x7 and 4x5 formats very easily. Having said that, my Gandolfi 5x7 traditional is about half the weight of the 4x5 LE and that leads to me using it more often outside. I will say this though, once you get used to geared movements, it's tough to go to a friction system. There have been many times that I have forgotten to lock down some movement on the LE until I was putting the camera away. The thing is solid enough that it hasn't mattered, the shots came out just as sharp. So my answer is abviously to get both! Why decide?:-)


Ellis Vener
13-Mar-2005, 19:59
<I.I find a blank, neutral background to be sterile and unnatural. I particularly like the images of Karsch, Liebovitz and especially Sally Mann. In my view, they are not typical portrait photographers; the backgrounds in their portraits tend to interact with and augment the human element in their respective images.</I>

But that has nothing to do with camera movements or even camera format and everything to do with the way they think. You might also want to start looking up the work of Dan Winters , Gregory Heisler, & Arnold Newman.

Brian Ellis
13-Mar-2005, 22:14
Back in the bad old days there used to be a pretty clear distinction between field cameras and monorails. Field camera meant wood, light weight, short bellows, limited movements, kind of flimsy and not very precise. Monorail meant metal, heavy, long bellows, lots of movements, sturdy, and precise. Then manufacturers like Wisner, Canham, et al came along and started making field cameras with long bellows and extensive movements that were also reasonably sturdy, precise, and also heavy. Some (e.g. Canham, Walker, and probably others that don't come immediately to mind) even abandoned wood. Then others (e.g. Linhof, Toyo, Horseman) made hybrid studio/field cameras. So today there isn't quite the distincition between monorail and field that there used to be, the lines have become blurred.

Either would probably work for the things you want to do. I'd opt for a field camera because of the convenience of carrying it around and setting it up. You can find plenty of field cameras that will have everything you need for the work you want to do.

Edward (Halifax,NS)
14-Mar-2005, 05:58
The big advantage that I find is Axis Tilts. Some of the more expensive folding field cameras have Axis Tilts but most have Base Tilts.

Greg Miller
14-Mar-2005, 10:49
I recently switched from a folding field (Horseman FA) to an Arca Swiss F-Line Field monorail. Here are some of my considerations for doing so:

1) The folding field required non-intuitive mechanics for achieving many movements. The monorail is very intuitive & logical (my background is in computer systems)
2) The folding field had limited range on botht he short and long focal lengths. The monorail is much more versatile
3) The A/S field is as light as many folding fields.
4) The A/S field is just as fast to set up as my foilding field.

Other than the extra $ for the A/S I have found no reasons to regret switching to a monorail.

14-Mar-2005, 12:26
The bellows length thing is very camera related. Take the Shen Hao 5x7 with the 4x5 reducing back on it. If a person really wanted it would have a fairly wide bellows range. With a recessed board I think it's 60mm at it's tightest. Or almost 600mm at the longest. You sure won't get much/any movements with a lens at the shortest point. But then how much coverage do lenses that short have?

14-Mar-2005, 13:10
Your Super Graphic already has about all the (front) lens movements that you will ever use. The only advantage you would get from most of the current 4x5 cameras (both field and monorail) is some back movements which aren't often needed for the kind of work you propose. Unless you just want a new camera (which is a whole different ballgame), I'd just stick with the Super Graphic. (P.S. Technikas only weigh about a pound more, and Ebonys a pound less than your Super.)

15-Mar-2005, 04:00
What is this super graphic? I ain't got no stinkin' graphic!

But, seriously, I think you have me confused with another. By super graphic, do you
mean something in the speed graphic/crown graphic line? I know where I can pick up a couple of those
for about $500 total, including lenses. Would that be a good choice?

Thanks for your indulgence.

15-Mar-2005, 10:07
Sorry, Percy. Should have been posted to another thread. I don't kow how it got here. Senior moment, perhaps?

15-Mar-2005, 14:53

Bill, no need to apologize. The more the merrier, I say. Thanks for joining in.

Lars Åke Vinberg
17-Mar-2005, 00:00
I have been traveling and hiking with a Toyo 810G for five months now. To pack it in a backpack I got a Toyo short extension rail (150 mm/6"), long enough for both standards but no more. This allows for the camera to lie flat in my Supertrekker backpack (which weighs in at about 25 kgs). Unpacking means attaching one more rail while the camera is still in the pack and extending the front standard. This method should work well for a 4x5 too.

I think there are some very fine 4x5 field cameras. For 8x10, however, the bed extension design just is not stable enough, especially with longer lenses. The same can of course be said when using very long extension with a 4x5.