View Full Version : Zone VI 4x5 questions

6-Mar-2011, 18:57
(I added a photo link at the end of this long post)


I borrowed a Zone VI 4x5 from a friend who calls it 'too heavy' since back surgery & hasn't used it much since.

He's probably going to sell it and I was going to show another local guy who laments having sold all his LF gear, but I had a couple questions on a few things about it. My friend could probably SHOW me, but talking to him on the phone when I have it in my hands and he doesn't, wasn't very productive. I have taken a bunch of pictures of it. I'm trying upload them elsewhere and not clutter the server here with too many images.

It's definitely more confusing to open & close than my simple Crown Graphic.

I'm also trying to ID the vintage from its physical characteristics. The owner recalls it was likely purchased from Calumet in Illinois which sounds like possibly the last phase of production.

I emailed Richard Ritter, but have been advised in response to the original pre-edited post it's better to call him. There was no manual but between the responses here and PM's received, I should be in good shape. I hadn't called him because I had not yet posted pictures and thought calling with a bunch of questions and descriptions would only be helpful if I could wave my hands around at the same time and have him not see that either!

I do have one quirky question about the alignment of the bed(s) and base but that is probably best addressed in conversation.
What is the proper sequence for opening and closing it?

It was a pretty stressful experience the first time for me, and the brass dimpled closure latch appears to expect pretty precise reassembly to actually hold it closed (front and rear standards and movements need to be returned to some 'standard' location?).

Feel free to correct my misused terminology in descriptions of the following...

There are I believe (going from memory) 4 larger knurled brass knobs involved with two different moving mechanisms in the base. It seems that two are locking (friction) knobs and the other two are fixed on shafts coupled to I assume one or two racks & pinions or similar devices.

One knob moves the front standard and extends the bellows.

The other knob does something similar I can't really describe accurately...possibly moving the rear standard separately from the 'base' that has the tripod mount.

What purpose is served by two 'racks'? More range than a single one alone can provide?

It's features:
I have read about the various vintages and suppliers of 4x5 cameras for Zone VI, and some details of note I picked up were that it has the brass plate with script engraving indicating it's made in Vermont. It has the gold-plated lacquered hardware I mistook for brass before becoming enlightened. It also has the anodized aluminum 'tilt bail' back. All three of these features supposedly narrow it down significantly.

My experience recognizing woods is failing me. I understand the Vermont-made camera was available in mahogany but for a while there were Cherry & Walnut limited production versions before Calumet discontinued them.

What's confusing to me is that all the mahogany I ever worked with (1970's, probably Central American) was much darker and more orange than what I saw in decades later. I heard rumors about 'no more real mahogany', and only luan or Phillipine Mahogany but that stuff looked nothing like mahogany to me. I suppose there are many varieties.

The camera wood grain could pass for walnut, but the color is too light in my opinion...almost like butternut in some areas, or an unstained cherry. I can't remember if cherry is one of the rare woods that lightens rather than darkens with age.

I was never into staining woods so the finished traditional colors in the 'cabinetmaking' world are much diifferent than personal prefernce in a high school wood shop.

Thanks for humoring me.


Holland MI

Mark Sampson
6-Mar-2011, 19:21
Your camera sounds like mine, which I bought new in 1992. The light-colored wood is mahogany as far as I know; cherry and walnut Z-VIs are quite unusual and they're quite obviously those woods. To open the camera, have it on a tripod. Undo the L-shaped latch. Loosen the two knobs that cover the long arms on the side and raise the rear standard, then lock it in position. Raise the front standard and pivot roughly into position. Tighten the four knobs to hold the standard in place. Slide the lensboard holder open and insert a lens- don't forget to close the slide lock. As you stand behind the camera, the two knobs on the right side extend the front and back focusing tracks. Having two is how you get 18" of bellows extension. The corresponding knobs on the left side are their locks. The two vertical knobs on the bottom of the front standard control both shifts and swings. Likewise the two knobs semi-hidden beneath the rear standard. Open the lens, point it at a subject, focus, adjust until happy.
Seems complex at first but you'll get used to it quickly enough; the complexity is the price of flexibility. And as they say in the car repair manuals, "installation is the reverse of removal". Mr. Ritter doesn't respond to emails quickly but anyone here will tell you that it's worth the wait.

6-Mar-2011, 20:29
Thanks, Mark.

I edited my initial post to add a link to photos stored in a free website with annoying banner adds. Sorry, but that's where they live for now.

I commented before without having seen the camera or photos recently. Looking at them just now, some of the wood really looks like walnut to me. Walnut sapwood...the really light parts near the bark...can pass for butternut, but I hear are really springy and not dimensionally stable (at least for red oak), so I doubt would be chosen for a camera.


Gem Singer
6-Mar-2011, 20:35
From your description of the type of wood finish and the gold plated hardware, it sounds like you have one of the last series that Zone VI made in Newfane ,VT before selling the business to Calumet.

It is probably not mahogany. Possibly cherry wood finished in a blond color.

After Calumet bought Zone VI, they began to make their own version with black anodized aluminum hardware. They referred to it as the 4x5 Zone VI light-weight field camera.

6-Mar-2011, 20:57
Thanks, Gem.

It's puzzling. I just looked at the photos and there are parts that sure look like clear-coated unstained walnut to me, and who knows what elsewhere. I suppose I should have the s/n when I call Mr Ritter. That may be helpful.

6-Mar-2011, 21:21
PM sent

neil poulsen
6-Mar-2011, 22:14
I remember seeing photos of the Walnut Zone VI camera, and from the strong grain, it looks like what I saw in the photos.

Doremus Scudder
7-Mar-2011, 03:00
There is a video on YouTube showing the opening and closing of exactly the camera you describe.

I own one too, but describing is cumbersome compared to a visual.

Here's the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SIbpaistdog


Doremus Scudder

P.S: you could have found it yourself in a lot less time than it took to formulate your original post :-)

7-Mar-2011, 05:43
If the owner said the camera came from calumet that could be correct. Calumet made the cameras with the gold hardware for about 3 and half years after they bought Zone VI.

Your camera is walnut and is from the last run of cherry and walnut cameras that were made. All cameras made had a clear finish no stains. The cherry and mahogany cameras get darker with age, walnut gets lighter.

Your camera rear rail is out of aliment a common problem on camera made by Calumet. Does the rear focusing work and make a chattering sound like the gears are not meshing right?

Bruce Barlow
7-Mar-2011, 06:18
From the pictures, it looks like mahogany. Walnuts were much darker, cherry had a looser grain structure and were more, well, cherryish.

Yours was made after I left Zone VI. We were working on finding someone to make those diamond-knurled knobs when I left. You wouldn't believe how hard that is to do and keep the tips sharp after tumbling and coating them.

The serial number is on the inside of the tripod mounting hardware. Richard can tell you roughly when it was made based on that. After late 1989, to be sure, unless the knobs have swapped out.

It looks like it hasn't had a huge amount of use. The wood darkens with exposure to sunlight, and "tan lines" can be seen if you move things around.

Front and rear focusing allows longer bellows extension (and the ability to use longer lenses) in a still-compact package. Yours has about 22", whereas my Wista has about 12". That was one of Fred's major design points. Others can comment more expertly on the use of front vs. rear focus for things like closeup work. I'm a portrait and landscape guy.

You can fix your real rail issue by racking the rear focusing rail all the way out (you'll struggle at the end because of the focus stops - they're screws and if you want you can screw them in a little to ease it coming off. Then, gently apply a little pressure to the middle of the back rail as you engage the rails using the rear focus knob. Rack it in and see if bot sides line up. If not, repeat. It may take you three tries to do it properly. Then you'll know it for life, and never have to do it over. It is worth doing to make sure the back is parallel to the front. From the amount I see in the pic, it probably isn't making the focus gearing gnash.

Do yourself a favor and sit with the camera in your lap for 20 minutes and just play with all the movements. Learn them all by feel. Then life will be much nicer in the field.

Alan Curtis
7-Mar-2011, 07:14
You just heard from the two people who probably know the most about Zone VI cameras, Bruce and Richard. If you have the opportunity buy the camera they are great. Bruce's suggestion about spending time playing with the movements is right on, fumble with them in your living room and you won't in the field.
Also, do yourself a favor and buy the CD that Bruce Barlow produced, it has lots of great exercises to make you a more proficient photographer, best few $$ you can spend.

Bruce Barlow
7-Mar-2011, 07:26
I never argue with Richard, unless I want to be proved wrong. Walnut. Fooled me. I use cherry and sometimes maple when I make furniture, so I forget that walnut gets lighter when it tans.

Alan, thanks for the book plug! Wouldn't ever say it myself!!

Louie Powell
7-Mar-2011, 08:45
There should be a serial number engraved on the tripod mount. Knowing the serial number will tell you a lot about the camera. Zone VIs were made by Tachihara, Wista, Wisner, and Zone VI Studios in Newfane, and finally by Calumet.

The earliest Zone VI cameras were made by Tachihara, and later Wista, and were cherry. Starting around 1985, they were made by Wisner in the US, and at that time production shifted to mahogany. Later, during the period when Zone VI was running their own assembly operation, there were a few mad in walnut but they are rather rare - they have serial numbers above 9000. In his article in View Camera, Richard Ritter mentioned that Zone VI made a few in cherry, but I've never seen a serial number listing that differentiated them. But based on the fact that yours has gold-plated hardware, it is certain that it was made in Vermont by Zone VI sometime after 1991 and before Calumet introduced the Zone VI Ultralight (with black hardware) in 2001.

The fact that it has gold plated hardware means that it was made between 1991 and the point when Calumet introduced the Zone VI Lightweight (with black hardware). There were about 1800 cameras made during this period with serial numbers starting north of 3000.

Opening and closing the camera is something that you learn with practice. The instructions that came with the camera were very brief (one page), with one paragraph devoted to how it should be opened:

"When opening and setting up your camera, it is important
to lift the front of the camera out of its “nest” by sliding it
up the front standards as you lift. This will prevent the top
of the front standard from chafing against the bellows material
as you swing the front standard forward to its taking position.
Just grasp both front rise knobs and slide the front up the
slotted arms as you swing it into position."

The closing instructions were similarly brief:

"When not using your camera, it should be folded up into its
“clamshell” closed configuration. In order to fold the camera,
remove the lens and lensboard, slide the locking clips back
into the “closed” position, adjust the focusing rack to where
it is flush with the front of the camera bed and loosen all lock
knobs on all movements. Then, pull the front standard to the
top of the rise/fall slots and flip it down against the bed of the
camera. It should rest just behind the metal plate. Finally, fold
the rear standard down until it comes in contact parallel to the
front standard and clip the hinged metal lock into position."

And like Bruce says - the best way to learn is to fiddle with it for a few minutes - perhaps while watching some inane situation comedy on TV.

There are four knobs - the two knobs on the right side of the camera (viewed from the back) are used to focus the camera, while the two knobs on the left tighten the focusing rack. The front knob moves the front standard, while the rear knob moves the rear standard (duh). In addition to providing for more bellows extension with less rack length, having two focusing racks provides an optical function - focusing on the front standard changes the image framing, while focusing on the rear standard does not. Sometimes that distinction matters - sometimes it doesn't.

7-Mar-2011, 21:13
Thank you all very much for your informative replies!

True, it has not had a lot of use, and I did notice how sharp the knurling is on the knobs...I thought they were kind of uncomfortable on my fingertips! (Whiner... :O)

It had lost one of the 'screw post nuts', the screw remaining in the camera. I asked a machinist friend if he could make a brass replacement, but we have been on different shifts since late summer so I finally looked in a hardware store and got an aluminum one (it's on the bottom anyway, and better than waiting to lose the screw).

Thank you again.


Kevin Crisp
7-Mar-2011, 22:06
Definitely walnut, I had one I got when they introduced them. You will find it much easier to open and close if you rack the front standard out just a smidgen before doing both. They are nice cameras.

Mark Sampson
8-Mar-2011, 12:05
I just checked my camera. It's #2272B. Made of mahogany; ordered in late '91, delivered March '92. Perhaps the 'B' stands for Bruce Barlow?

Gem Singer
8-Mar-2011, 12:21
The pictures of the camera that Murray posted don't look like mahogany to me.

More like un-stained walnut finished with clear lacquer.

We need to know the serial number before being able to make an accurate judgment.

Bruce Barlow
8-Mar-2011, 15:09
I just checked my camera. It's #2272B. Made of mahogany; ordered in late '91, delivered March '92. Perhaps the 'B' stands for Bruce Barlow?

Long after my time...

9-Mar-2011, 05:51
I just checked my camera. It's #2272B. Made of mahogany; ordered in late '91, delivered March '92. Perhaps the 'B' stands for Bruce Barlow?

That camera is from the time we switched the supplier of wood parts.

Alan Curtis
9-Mar-2011, 06:26
Long after my time...

Bruce, unless there was another BB at Zone VI, you and Richard initialed the checklist on my camera #752 in 1988.

Jim Fitzgerald
9-Mar-2011, 07:47
As one who builds with walnut I can agree with Richard. Your camera is Walnut. My Zone VI 4x5 is Mahogany and I used it as my model to build my walnut 11x14. Great cameras.

7-Apr-2011, 19:40
Hello again:

I am not prepared again...the s/n was in the 4xxx range, maybe 4609 or so...next time I open it again I'll check and try to write it down.

I was able to improve the side rail alignment but it was very difficult...it took a bit of of pressure on one side more than the other...I got in down to between 1/64 and 1/32" of difference between left and right and figured that was much better than ~ 1/8" & would leave it alone. I ended up changing my mind and pulling the front and rear standards off to look again, and what I discovered I would like to inquire about...

With the front and rear standards removed, there are two horizontal rails with a double dado, one inside and one outside, parallel to the camera's front-rear axis. I think these may have the focus racks mounted to them. I loosened all the gold screw-post hardware sets, and found that the right side as viewed from the ground glass would loosen when the hardware was loose. The left side, however, is 'stuck' to the 'bed' of the camera, or snugly binding in a shallow space about the same width. I didn't want to force it. It would not loosen lie the right side. I suspect if it should be free like the opposite side, this might explain why the rack alignment was off.

Can someone confirm whether these rails should be free to move until the 'alignment' is established and all the hardware re-tightened? Or is the free-to-move-when-loosened one actually the problematic one?

Thank you

Murray Leshner
Holland MI

7-Apr-2011, 20:22
Can someone confirm whether these rails should be free to move until the 'alignment' is established and all the hardware re-tightened? Or is the free-to-move-when-loosened one actually the problematic one?
On mine both rails move smoothly, although I've not disassembled the camera to investigate that situation. ;)

- Leigh

8-Apr-2011, 14:17
ugh...now to figure out why...

falth j
9-Apr-2011, 09:48
I'm furnishing my best practice suggestions based on my own personal experience and a highly developed and defined workflow...

as they keep saying around here,

nothing beats experience by getting one in your hands and using it.

don't be in a hurry, haste makes waste.

just get one and use it, keep pulling and pushing on it 'til you get it to open.

like opening clams, the damn things tend to be slippery and fall out of your hands, so exercise care.

these things are real buggers to open the first time around, don't give up easily... :confused:

when all else fails use a hammer and screwdriver and bang and pry it open... :mad:

be careful using the screwdriver, lest you puncture that black accordian like stuff.

once you've get it opened use a pair of pliers to loosen and/or tighten all those knobs and things, till you get it just the way you like... :D

you'll know what to look for next time by the time you finish this one off, and are ready to move on and buy the second one for more practice... :rolleyes:

ebay has more, if you don't get the hang of it the first or second camera purchase, persevere and don't become discouraged too easily,

its best to buy the cheep beginner models to practice these skills 'til you get them developed just right.

there are two types of motor coordination skills that need practice, coarse and fine motor development, learn which ones to use correctly and where, otherwise you'll find yourself buying more cameras, over and over.

hopefully, you'll have quickly learned not to buy something so complicated to open, use and close by the second or if you clumsy by the third camera purchase...

certainly by the third time around you'll be getting better, unless you're a slow learner,

if you're at all like me and there is a fourth time, hopefully you'll get one of those kinds that stays open all the time, they're usual attached to something that looks like a piece of iron water pipe or a bar of iron.. and they're cheeper yet than those damn clam-shell thingies...

9-Apr-2011, 09:54

You mentioned that you lost a part.

Could that be inside the camera, jamming the mechanism???

Sounds like a good candidate to me.

- Leigh

10-Apr-2011, 16:03
The missing part was one of the gold-plated 'screw-post' sets. The screw was still in the bed, but the post was long gone. Nothing inside. I ended up putting an aluminum one in. The screws are all gold on top, so you don't see the aluminum one, but looking underneath it's conspicuous enough that it's not a 'secret repair'.

I took both front and rear standards off on a table so the inner/outer-dadoed 'focus' rails and bed were clearly visible and accessible, then loosened all the screw-post sets. That's when I worked on aligning the left and right rails as suggested in an earlier post.

Whatever the left rail is stuck in, or on, at the top of the bed/base assembly, I figure is why the L-R alignment was so difficult...must be close enough but not free to easily align.

It's borrowed, and in beautiful condition otherwise, so I don't to be too aggressive with the stuck rail. the potential buyer I borrowed it to show hasn't made an effort to return my contacts (I take that to be disinterest), so I may just give it back to my friend. It's out of my price range at this time, so I'll just try to re-enthuse him about how nice a camera it is...maybe he can set it up on a tripod indoors and work on still lifes instead of field work.


12-Apr-2011, 14:52
I just talked to Mr. Ritter and got advice on my next action required.

You know, every person I have ever met or dealt with from Vermont has been outstanding nice, friendly and helpful...must be the maple syrup or who knows what...