View Full Version : Advice on focal length and lens for 4x5 environmental portraits

30-Jan-2013, 12:54

Being new to this forum and to large format photography, I would very much appreciate advice from anyone who has experience shooting 4x5 portraits.

Here are my questions:
What focal length (longer than normal or 150mm) would give me a comfortable working distance for environmental 4x5 portraits? And could you recommend a specific lens (that might sell for around $500) in that focal length?

Here is some background:
I have a Super Speed Graphic, which came equipped with the original Rodenstock 135mm f/4.5 lens (and thankfully, a working, super speedy shutter! (and just who shoots at 1/1000 anyway?!)). It’s a very nice lens, and its gentle wide angle works well for the environmental, black and white portraits I’ve been doing. But I am thinking of getting a second lens with a longer focal length in order to capture more tightly framed heads and faces at a comfortable distance and to draw background details closer to the lens.

Here are my assumptions:
1. I will be working in unfamiliar interior spaces (people’s homes) that could be spatially tight.
2. In addition to headshots and head/shoulder shots, I may want to have the ability to capture waist-up shots or fuller body shots and show some of the environment within these limited spaces.
3. I would like a lens in the 180mm to 240mm FL range. The SSG’s 315mm bellows may not allow for enough working room to focus a lens much longer than the 240mm on people in close quarters. According to some (possibly incorrect) calculations, the working distance (closest plain of focus) of a 240mm lens using 315mm of bellows extension would be:

1/f = 1/w + 1/E
1/240 = 1/w + 1/315
1/w = 1/240 - 1/315
w = 1/(1/240 - 1/315)
w = 1/(0.0041666667 - 0.0031746)
w = 1/0.0009921 = 1086 mm = 42.7 in = 3.56 ft


w = E*f / (E - f)
w = 315 * 240 / (315 - 240)
w = 75600 / 75 = 1008 mm = 39.7 in = 3.3 ft

4. I’m not really interested in a tele-design lens, since it seems like they cast smaller images circles, which would impair front standard movements—and I like those movements!
5. Even though the SSG is somewhat of a sturdy camera, my tripod isn’t the heftiest (though I could upgrade, if I had to), and consequently I would need a lighter-weight lens, something in a Copal #0 or #1 shutter or equivalent.
6. I really like the idea of an older lens that has character (like the Heliar, Skopar, Dagor, Ektar, and Raptar) and maybe isn’t optically perfect, but I also would need the lens to be set in a reliable shutter, which may imply the need for a modern lens and shutter combo.
7. I would like a lens that is on the softer side of sharp (as is appropriate for portraits), but not a soft-focus lens.
8. I would like a lens that performs well wide open in addition to being stopped down—I like the selective focus.
9. I’m shooting Ilford Delta 100, using gel sheets to increase contrast, so maximum aperture could be a significant deciding factor.
10. The lens may serve other purposes in addition to portraits, such as landscape/cityscape and tabletop photography.

Now you may say that the answer to my problem is to just get a lens and put it through its paces and see how it works for me, and I am willing to do that, if absolutely necessary. But any advance advice would be greatly appreciated!

To get an idea of the kinds of photos I take, you may like to visit my Flickr page: http://flic.kr/s/aHsjCZSZKB

Many thanks,


jose angel
30-Jan-2013, 16:33
1. Ok.
2. Ok.
3. Your calculations are right, with 315mm of extension and a 240mm lens, your subject will be quite close. Too much close for a portrait, not enough magnification for a tight head portrait. This lens will allow you to shoot a 3/4 or half body portrait at a reasonable and/or conventional portrait distance.
4. When shooting portraits, I hardly use movements on my camera. If you want movements, you certainly need higher image circles.
5. Right, longer lenses use #3 shutters, at least fast ones. Not only a good tripod is advisable, but a camera (front standard) capable of such size and load. It`s common to see 270mm telephotos on press cameras as the longest lens.
6. Right, but think that mechanical shutters can be adjusted, or at least, you can use "real" instead of "nominal" speeds if needed. Sometimes we cannot have it all; the special "character", the best shape, a brand new shutter, small, etc. If you know what you want, and you have the money, S.K. Grimes will be your friend.
7. You are so picky... "softer side of sharpness"... Is it the same as "sharpest side of softness"... ? :) If you`re not extremely meticulous with your technique, and/or if your gear are not steady enough (tripod, camera) , you`ll easily get that results. I understand that soft focus lenses could not be the right ones.
8. Everybody like dream lenses. Sadly, they doesn`t exist, but we can get used to some non-perfect ones.
9. So there is a problem if you want a long lens, they use to have big shutters and need longer bellows... if not, they use to have smaller image circles. You already know this.
10. Same as #8. Thanks God almost every lens I have used are reasonable for most applications, specially in 4x5".

Actually, I don`t know what to say. Maybe I`d add a 270mm telephoto for portraiture, Tele-Arton type. They are reasonably fast, compact, #1 shutters, not a huge image circle but enough for 4x5, not clinically sharp... and go shooting. You can also try a "normal" 210 to know if it works for you (sorry). Also, think that 4x5" can be cropped, and you can use a roll film adapter. When I want longer reachs, sometimes a 6x9 roll film back is way more than enough.
If you know you want a longer lens, you should (maybe) go first for another camera, like a DLC Canham or a monorail. With the DLC, I can use a 420mm for head shots.

Alan Gales
30-Jan-2013, 17:49
I own a Crown Graphic with the Schneider Xenar 135mm lens which I bought for the purpose of outdoor portrait photography. I added a Caltar ll-E 210 f/6.8 multicoated lens in a Copal 1 shutter for when I wanted a closer portrait. It's actually a rebadged Rodenstock Geronar. It's sharp but not clinically sharp and makes a good portrait lens. You can probably buy a real nice example used for $150.00 to $200.00. As an added bonus the 210 lens will fold up into my Crown Graphic just like my 135 lens.

1-Feb-2013, 14:55
I use a Heliar 180 in copal #3 shutter for most editorial/environmental portraits. Unfotunately, in the copal its maximum aperture is f/5.6 instead of f/4.5. On the other hand, I can trip strobes, so...

If I need a wider lens I switch to a 135 Xenotar f/3.5. Pretty awesome lens. I don't know if mine has something weird with the glass, but, foreground objects look fine, but background objects have a sort of matte painting effect - like old Hollywood painted backdrops. The background has a flat, painted look to it. I like it.

Leonard Evens
1-Feb-2013, 15:10
Large format may not be the best format for typical head and shoulders portraits because the depth of field is limited at apertures you might end up using. If you stop down enough to get more depth of field, you typically need relatively long exposure times, thus, creating problems with subject motion. This tends to be less of a problem with medium or 35 mm format. Of course, if you use flash, then you can avoid long exposures, but then you have to have lighting equipment and know how to use it.

But, in addition, you generally want relatively long focal lengths for such portraiture to avoid exaggerating noses and other facial features. The general rule of thumb seems to be you need twice the normal focal length, which for 4 x 5 ends up being 300 mm.

Because of this, most large format portrait photography shows a full figure within a typical environment for the subject, where you can use shorter focal lengths and you can get far enough back that depth of field is not so much an issue.

I got myself a 300 mm lens, which is still a bit short for the purpose, but I can do a reasonable job with it. For environmental portraiture, I can use my 150 mm lens.

3-Feb-2013, 20:14
Hey all -- Just wanted to say a big THANK YOU to the four of you for your advice and suggestions -- you've helped me wade through the plethora of decisions and options that are out there. I haven't nailed a decision yet, but I did find a couple of interesting lenses at a local camera store -- a 215mm f/6.3 Ilex Caltar which seems to have a functioning shutter, though it is missing its rear lens cell. I bought it in hopes that someone on this or some other forum might have the rear cell and be willing to part with it for a modest sum. Anyone?

The other lens I found and purchased is a Carl Zeiss Jena 135mm f/4.5 in what seems to be a working Compur shutter. The serial number on the lens dates the lens to 1938, an interesting historical moment in Germany -- stuff like that really fascinates me. I was able to modify the CZJ lens' board to fit my Super Speed Graphic, not perfectly, but workable. And if I cannot find someone who's willing to part with their Caltar 215mm lens cell(s), then I'll just have to return the partial lens to the camera store and keep on searching for my long 4x5 lens.

Thanks again,


3-Feb-2013, 20:28
203mm Kodak Ektar is a great lens for that, and their prices are reasonable.

Brian C. Miller
4-Feb-2013, 00:09
a 215mm f/6.3 Ilex Caltar which seems to have a functioning shutter, though it is missing its rear lens cell.

Very soon you will have access to the For Sale forum. Place a "WTB" for the missing cell. It's possible that someone might have something, like a complete lens with a bad front cell.