View Full Version : phillips compact ii: worth it?

13-May-2010, 01:05
there's an unused phillips compact ii on ebay! a very desirable camera by all accounts, combining light weight and rigidity thanks to an ingenious design. contemporary photographers like alec soth and edward burtynsky are known to use them. during the last production run in 2006, they sold for $2920. this auction will end at $3500-5500 (i've been tracking prices for several years), probably even more.

i could still get it with some financial acrobatics, but i've never seen or handled one. the most common complaints are the short bellows draw, the odd method of rear swing, and the combined movements on the front standard. on the other hand, it has that front focus knob on the back of the camera.

if this camera was still being made today, and the economy was not so bad, would you still buy one if it cost $3500-5500? at the upper limit, it competes with things like the arca swiss f-classic, ebony rw810 and sv810, lotus rapid field, and gandolfi traditional. on the lower limit, there's the canham jmc810 and traditional, gandolfi variant, ritter, and chamonix. there are also a number of 8x10 cameras in the 2k price range: argentum explorator, wehman, tachihara, and shen hao. that's just if we're talking new.

my primary concern is ease of use, since we are mostly talking about field cameras. i know a sinar p, linhof, or toyo is going to wipe the floor with any field camera. i'd like to avoid finicky cameras, though. mike johnston said he "can't find a nice thing to say about the DLC," which isn't the same as the jmc810, but it still has the same gestalt. the phillips sounds like it might be finicky. do any owners find that to be true?

this camera only goes for sale once in a blue moon; i'd hate to kick myself in the butt later on for passing it up. on the other hand, it wouldn't be so nice if i should have gotten something else. :D

Steve Barber
13-May-2010, 03:04
If you are going to spend that much for a camera, you should have good reasons for why it is worth that much to you. Those reasons should be compelling enough that you will not have doubts about the purchase after the fact, never mind before.

Walter Calahan
13-May-2010, 04:05
Gear is just gear. If it doesn't support your creative vision the gear is worthless no matter how much it costs.

I met Mr. Phillips once. Wonderful man who believes in giving photographers his very best. The compact II in the correct hands is a fabulous camera.

13-May-2010, 04:38
I tried to buy an 8x10 Explorer from Dick Phillips' last run of 8x10 cameras. Most of them were going to Asia and he had trouble with one order, so I was next on the waiting list. Eventually the order got sorted out and I never got my Explorer. Dick suggested I buy a Chamonix. :) The camera was expensive. but extremely lightweight and beautifully made. I would have bought a new Compact II in a second because I figure I could have used it, enjoyed it, and as long as I took care of it--sold it for at least what I paid.

There's no formula for buying a camera, so if you can get a reasonable deal--why not buy it? You've done a lot of research, so you know what they're worth.

John T
13-May-2010, 07:33
I've had my Compact II (old style) since 2004 after trying out most of the other cameras on the market and would consider it worth the prices that you estimate. Unlike some people, I've never had an issue with the somewhat quirky setup procedure, and appreciate the rigidity it provides.

I'm not sure what you call "finicky". I did not like the Canham because of the complexity of the front locking mechanism-I would consider that finicky, but the Phillips is pretty straight forward. The Phillips' front rise and tilt are the same locking knobs, but that is similar to some other field cameras, the fact that you have to screw in the front standard into one of a series of holes, based on the focal length of the lens and the approximate focusing distance took a little time to learn, but now it is second nature. (One caveat here: I generally use 4 lenses on the camera. If I used 8 or 9-or more-like some of you, this might take longer to get used to.)

In my mind, the Phillips has been simplified to the point of pure function in the field. It doesn't have bells and whistles, it doesn't have all the super-precise controls of a good studio camera, but it is rugged and useful.

If you can afford it, I would consider buying it, but, as with all cameras, take some time and really get to know it by shooting with it for awhile before taking it on a long photo-trek. One nice thing about these cameras is that if you need to, you probably can sell it for close to what you paid for it. I bought mine used and they are now selling for double what I paid for mine.

Brian Ellis
13-May-2010, 09:22
If you want the cult status, cachet, and investment potential of a Phillips, and if money isn't a major consideration, I'd get it. Otherwise I'd do as Dick Phillips suggests and buy a Chamonix. But since you mention going through financial acrobatics to buy it, I'm guessing that money is of some concern. And considering the state of the film business these days I wouldn't be so sure that you can always sell it for what you paid for it.

But apart from practicalities, it sounds like you really really want that camera since you've been following prices for a long time. Sometimes an itch like that just has to be scratched. If that's the case, go for it. One thing I can say from experience with lusting for very expensive objects - when you pass on them because of money, a year later the money you supposedly saved will be gone and you'll have no idea where it went. And you'll still lust over the object.

Kirk Gittings
13-May-2010, 09:39
I have a 4x5 Phillips which I love for many of the reasons John mentioned above, BUT I don't think for a minute that it is worth like 3X the cost of a Chamonix.

13-May-2010, 09:55
while the arca swiss f-field and gandolfi traditional are also very "itchy" cameras in the $5-6k range, the phillips is definitely the top contender in the $3-4k range. i guess that's why i feel it will go for around the upper limit. if it wasn't for the urgency of this auction, buying one of these cameras would just be a matter of saving money for a while longer. i'm already halfway there, i just hope another one goes up for sale. i can always fall back on an arca swiss or gandolfi.

thinking of alternatives, someone has a slightly used explorer for sale in the classifieds. the non-rotating back and price are somewhat discouraging, though. the chamonix looks like a mix of the phillips and the canham traditional. i'm gaga over the former, but not so interested in the latter...

Drew Wiley
13-May-2010, 10:14
I've had numerous conversations with Dick Phillips over the years. I bought one of his
very first 8X10's, made several improvements on it, and then discussed these with him.
A really nice guy. Later he put a variety of such ideas together in the II model. I love
the camera and still use it every week. But I paid $800 for it! Unless you are rich, just
buy the knockoff - the Chamonix. For 5K I could set up the jigs to make my own
analogous 8x10's. The trick to it was the custom plywood Dick used, which was a
sandwich of epoxy impregnated cherrywood and fiberglass. Some people complained
about the esthetics of this, so on the next model he painted everything black. The
hardware was CNC-cut aircraft aluminum, though on mine I have substituted stainless
steel or titanium at a few key stress points. If I was spending thousands outright, I
would probably opt for an Ebony 8x10 with the longer bellows draw and titanium right
from the start, but what I love about the Phillips is how fast it sets up, how stable it
is in the wind, and frankly, the lack of a superfluous doodads. It's nice and simple, and has proven durable. My favorite camera these days.

Oren Grad
13-May-2010, 10:28
I really, really like my Compact II. But it does have a distinctive design, that may or may not suit you. If it requires "financial acrobatics" to buy it, I honestly wouldn't recommend it. If money is a concern and you think you would like to try a Phillips-style camera, buy a Chamonix or even an FCL-type Shen Hao, which also appears to have some similarities.

I'd try to get away from thinking in terms of one camera "blowing away" another, or being the "top contender" on some absolute scale. IMO it just doesn't work that way. There are many different camera designs. Each one, without exception, has both strengths and limitations. It's really a matter of finding the one whose design tradeoffs are the most comfortable, or least uncomfortable, fit to your tastes and intended uses. The ones you seem to be weighing most directly as alternatives, the ARCA SWISS F-line Field and the Gandolfi Traditional, are radically different designs compared to each other and to the Phillips. Each is likely to suit a different user.

Also, IMO it's really hard to figure out which is the right camera for you just by reading about them, even including getting advice on discussion boards like this. I've figured out what I like only by trying different cameras for myself over the years.

Again, my view is that if money is an issue, and you don't already have the hands-on experience to know for yourself what you think of the camera, it's not wise to "go for broke". Buy something less expensive, gain some experience with it, and if it turns out to be not quite right, you'll have a much better understanding of where you need to go from there.

19-May-2010, 20:51
i drove down to samy's this afternoon to look at their 8x10 cameras. they have one deardorff in what would be bargain condition at keh, and one new canham traditional. i liked how the dearforff handled, but of course it was heavy and it would be hard to find one in good condition. i vaguely remember that it costs $2500 to have one professionally restored, but i'm probably wrong.

despite mike johnston's opinion, i didn't really like how the canham traditional handled, especially the levers for extending the front bed. they're on the inner side of the rail and all the way in the back. i also didn't like the t-knobs for front rise and tilt. they don't align themselves to give each other room. the swing/shift mechanism is brilliant, though.

today's real find was the mqc57. true, the rear standard flexes when you nudge it with a finger, but it was not finicky at all. the bed was also completely rigid when fully extended. the jmc810 has support struts on the rear standard like the traditional, so i'm guessing it doesn't flex like the mqc57. if the phillips compact ii goes for over $4000, i think the jmc810 would do the trick!

Joe Forks
20-May-2010, 07:05
Just in case you didn't see it, there's a 7x17 in the classifieds right now, with holders, lens, tripod, film, etc. for that kind of money. I know I'm not you, but if I were......
No affiliation with the seller BTW.

20-May-2010, 08:03
If you are in the market for a Phillips-style 8x10, Don't forget the Shen Hao FCL810. It is a little heavier than the Chamonix and Phillips, but it also has base tilt on the front standard the the other two don't have.

Rick Moore
20-May-2010, 13:58
One of the main reasons there is less flex in the rear standard of the JMC810 than in the MQC57 or DLC45 is that the JMC810 rear standard has no swing or shift, only tilt.

20-May-2010, 19:10
i think it's the lack of support struts that allows the back to flex more on the mqc57 (and dlc45). the swing/shift mechanism itself is really solid.

21-May-2010, 16:28

tried and lost.

can't really complain. that's damned expensive.